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Slacker Fest: Clerks (I, II, & III)
The trilogy that achieved legend yet surrendered to work-humpers
Welcome to Slacker Fest, where we document our research and analysis of mass media’s “slacker” archetype, part of our effort to broaden the genre with a slacker film of our own. Find our master list of entries here. Previous entry: Cheech and Chong’s Up in Smoke
I was originally only going to watch Clerks I, but I’m so glad I went into all three films–there’s a whole world of fascinating virtues and flaws going on here. If nothing else, CI-III serve as a catalog of the slacker genre’s core conventions, all while ultimately ceding to work-humper morality—a tragic flaw that, after you peel away the laughs, makes the trilogy feel somewhat self-loathing (though delivered with superior empathy and humor).
I should warn you, given that CIII was a recent 2022 release: mad spoilers ahead. Let’s dive in!
Release years: 1994, 2006, 2022
Premise: Each film chronicles a day (several for CIII) in the life of two convenience store / fast food clerks as they annoy customers, discuss movies, play hockey on the store roof, and squirm through complicated romantic entanglements.
Auteur: Kevin Smith, himself a convenience store clerk who filmed CI in his off hours with his childhood buddies, spawning a whole “Askewniverse” in the process.
Dante Hicks, the conscientious but easily persuadable slacker
Randall Graves, the more brazen slacker
Jay and Silent Bob, the duo of whimsy parking lot drug dealers
Veronica, Dante’s naggy “voice of reason” girlfriend (CI)
Caitlin, Dante’s competing ex-gf (CI)
Becky (played by Rosario Dawson), the mildly rebellious fast food manager reformed into being Dante’s wife (CII) and “voice of reason” from the afterlife (CIII)
Emma, the more grating “voice of reason” fiancee who Dante cheats on with Becky (CII)
Elias, their born again christian coworker (CII, CIII)
Meet the slackers: Dante and Randall
It feels weird to call Dante a “slacker” because he’s a fairly conscientious worker (“with serious periodic lapses,” a manager may say). But he’s a slacker in his larger inability to “take charge of his life” and lift himself above what the trilogy (and most of society) considers a “low station.”
Randall’s the brazen and (at least on the surface) empowered slacker–the one who proudly proclaims that he enjoys his lot, flicking his thumb at anyone who tries to shame him. Of course, his vulnerable moments betray that he indeed feels bad about himself, which makes him complex and interesting.
(You could say Jay and Silent Bob are also slackers, the variety that’s somewhat enterprising but only in socially unacceptable fields. Unlike Dante and Randall, they’re blissfully oblivious to expectations or judgment. I won’t focus on them because, despite their iconic status because, they’re bit characters in this film.)
Their world: New Jersey (and all the Northeast US-ness that comes with it)
Especially in CI, you vividly sense the overall flavor and attitude of Northeastern Americans–one that, in my estimation, is stress-addicted and work-humping. However, I can’t really say the specific setting played an active role in the story as an anti-slacker force or otherwise. It just casts a shadow over the characters while lurking in the subtext.
I do want to highlight an exception: the moments that feature old high school classmates of Dante and Randall reveling in the clerk’s failures, capturing the very American tradition of wanting to prove yourself to randoms from high school way too long into adulthood. (Extra points for making one of these a traumatized-kid-turned-vengeful-internet-millionaire, prescient of an archetype that torments us today.)
What do our slackers want and what’s in the way? (defining desire vs. opposing force)
Unlike other slackers we’ve covered here, Dante and Randall’s desires (usually expressed only under psychological duress) are conventional. They want good jobs and to “leave a mark.” This is the very tension that drives the trilogy: slackers resisting the label, yet unable to shed it in a tragicomedy of inaction.
What gets most in their way is their own their fear of making decisions and following through. They also have secondary competing drives like friendship, camaraderie, and fun–objectively healthy desires that our slackers nonetheless resent in their down moments. To the trilogy’s credit, the characters never “overcome” any of these “flaws.”
If you want to get really deep, the biggest desire underlying all films, attained by Dante only at death (never truly by Randall) is unconditional self-acceptance independent of one’s achievements or station. I’d venture to say this is a desire we all universally share, which made this story feel especially poignant to me.
How does the film define a “slacker” in broader terms?
Using the trilogy’s own quotes, it defines a slacker as someone who settles for a job where they waste what was once “so much potential.” Someone with lack of initiative, who talks but “never starts their life” because they’re “terrible at making decisions.”
Interestingly, having a low-status job feels more core to the film’s definition of slacker than slacking at the job itself, although the film certainly depicts lots of the latter.
Could anyone other than a White dude pull it off? (or: did they have to do Rosario Dawson so dirty?)
While these films generally lack diverse casting, they go beyond that to unequivocally implying that no, someone who’s not a White dude cannot pull off being a slacker.
First, there’s a glaring (if kinda funny) gag in CI where Dante’s love interest is engaged to an “Asian Design Major,” the inclusion of “Asian” meant to contrast with Dante’s lack of drive because, of course, anyone Asian is surely insanely industrious.
(To 2022 Kevin Smith’s credit, CIII acknowledges what was problematic about the first films and tries to make up for it through self-referential, self-deprecating jokes about CI’s borderline racism and lack of diversity. As far as mea-culpas go, it’s at least charming and entertaining.)
The films also HEAVILY utilize the woman-as-voice-of-reason trope (one that more seasoned critics of the genre have already noted), taking it to tragic extremes with Rosario Dawson’s Becky. You’ll note that Becky is in the same job and engages in the same “extracurriculars” that Dante does. But while the film lets Dante be charming just as he is (though his philandering goes to arguably scummy extremes), it feels the need to make excuses for Becky.
She’s not at this job by choice or character flaw: her dad got sick, so she put aside a presumably more prestigious career track to support him. Her love for promiscuity is justified by a very serious political stance against romantic love and marriage (which she immediately drops as soon as Dante proposes to her ). Finally, the trilogy answers the question of what to do with her in CIII–will she accept Dante’s continued stagnation?–by killing her in the interlude and turning her into a ghostly “voice of reason” who scolds Dante in his visions.
Could Becky have gotten by in the Askewverse if she was brazen about banging lots of dudes and having no ambitions beyond working dead end jobs with her friends, a-la Randall? The masters of that world either didn’t think so or were too scared test the possibility.
Does the film “approve” of slacking? Is it a broader anti-job statement?
No. Clerks casts slackers in an empathetic and charming light, but ultimately buys into dominant culture’s mainstream framing of status and success.
The protagonists voice this in their vulnerable moments (ex. Randall: “I wish I had a life worth fucking saving”) and the films force happy, tidy, endings where they achieve a version of “respectability.” Whether turning them into owners of the store in CII (right after the most bad-ass anti-careerist speech of the trilogy, no less) or granting Randall the prestigious side hustle of making movies into his 90s in CIII, the trilogy didn’t let its clerks find acceptance as employees with nothing else going on.
What does the film see as “the enemy” in broader terms?
The judgment and ostracism that society piles on people who take on “low station” jobs.
While the trilogy never fully accepts these jobs as fine life choices, it reserves its harshest lens for assholes who punch down at those who take them. For all the disrespect that Randall throws at customers, they’re usually throwing a lot more his and Dante’s way. (ex. “that’s why you’re jockeying a register at a fucking convenience store.”)
While this “enemy” isn’t necessarily central to the plot of the movies, it’s always simmering in the background and boils over into the clerks’ psyche in their moments of self-loathing.
Walt Wiltman’s favorite line
Gary Vee’s work-humper take
“I also used to grind away at a store. Big whoop, cry me a river. But you know what I DIDN’T do? Play hockey and diddly-dance on the roof. If I ever left my job, it was to HUSTLE my way away from that dump. And FORGET ABOUT banging my manager in the prep room. Friends and sex? Outta my face with that LOSER SHIT.”
Are there any slacker-like innovations in the technique of the film itself?
Plot / Setting
Mise-en-scéne / Color
Editing / Pacing
Sound / Music
Like Cheech and Chong, these films are lush in non-sequitor skits which give the film a meandering, free-form feel. However, Clerks sticks with discipline to cause-and-effect, setup-payoff plotting structures—it simply leaves space to fit adjacent, non-plot gags and pop culture debates. Also notable: the films fulfill their plot without resolving their protagonists' established flaws (except perhaps in CIII, where they’re barely resolved, and only at death’s door).
Beyond story and character, I enjoyed the inventive blocking of shots that sprung from constantly showing clerks doing non-work activities (reading the paper, playing cards, etc.) at their post.
Side rant: is it so bad if employees play games and read at their jobs? Why the insistence of keeping a “ready” posture even when there’s nothing to do? It reminds me of working at a restaurant where we were often empty (it was terribly run) and I liked to read while waiting for customers. Even though I never failed to dutifully bus tables for whoever came in, there was always at least one narc coworker who complained. It didn’t help that I made the reading extra cozy by helping myself to hot apple cider, but the point stands.
What would I want to keep for our slacker film? What do I want to leave behind or improve?
The main thing I love about these films is the introspection around what the “low status” label means and the inner torment it causes (I especially liked that CIII involves elder slackers reflecting on their life). I’m definitely of the philosophical navel-gazing bent, so I wouldn’t be surprised if our slacker film has a similar element.
Slacker conventions aside, there is a ton to draw from Clerks as a master case in low-budget film techniques:
The economical writing where, like a master short story author, Kevin Smith leaves the biggest events (Dante’s romantic entanglements, Becky’s death) in the backstory while still using them to impact the movie’s structure and rhythm. This, in turns, allows for…
The skillful use of one or two locations. Kevin Smith puts on a clinic for how to give a single location multiple inventive visual treatments to keep things fresh and interesting.
Great dialogue and a wealth of hilarious one-liners carrying the film. Great writing doesn’t cost much.
I’d love to discard the trilogy’s hedging on its support for slackers. What if Clerks had fully embraced being a clerk (not an owner, not a clerk-filmmaker hybrid) as acceptable? What if Randall and Dante had come to sincerely, unabashedly enjoy their lives? Why couldn’t that be OK?
If we’re gonna bother creating a new slacker archetype, I don’t want to then apologize for it by having them find “respectability” as framed by work-humpers. That’s my main pushback against an otherwise excellent entry in the genre’s canon.
Next entry: Boudu Saved From Drowning
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