Beyond the dead and monsters under the bed, perhaps the scariest thing of all is longevity in Hollywood. As someone who lives in this town and knows the struggle of being an actor in a sea of actors, there is nothing more debilitating than the word NO. What they don’t tell you is at NO stage of your career, however successful, will you stop hearing it.
For example, director-writer Kevin Smith, famously known as Silent Bob, has a career stretching twenty-plus years. Smith first introduced himself in his 1994 film Clerks., which Smith wrote, directed, and starred in—a movie he independently funded by selling his entire comic book collection. It grossed over $3 million on a budget of $230,000, which even for the ’90s was amazing.
Clerks. was an instant cult classic and put Smith on the map, with his unique filmmaking style and crass characters. From there, Smith blew up with comedies like Mallrats, Chasing Amy, and the controversial Dogma. These were the films I grew up on and precociously learned from. Kevin Smith has definitely left his mark on cinema, which is why I found it peculiar to hear that he could not get Clerks III funded. The third installation of the very movie that put Smith on the map and would be risk-free for production companies sat stagnant.
Keeping Clerks III on the back burner, Smith switched gears with his 2011 horror film, Red State. Up until that point, Smith made comedies starring the friends that he started the business with—basically everyone in Clerks.. Red State follows a group of teenage boys who receive an online invitation to have sex with an older woman. Powerless to their ever-growing hormones, the boys accept the invitation and set up a meeting place, only to discover it was a trap (duh) by a fundamentalist group who wants to punish all deviants and sinners. The ever creepy Michael Parks portrays the leader of this group, which Smith based on the Westboro Baptist Church loons (just so you understand what we are dealing with here).
Red State, although a horror film, possessed much of the same style featured in Smith’s previous comedies. The protagonists are the worst at being protagonisty. Overall, there are few, if any, redeeming characters in Smith films. You root for them because they make you laugh, but they would be terrible boyfriends. In truth, the correlation between Smith’s characters and his own persona leaves very little to the imagination. Many deem Kevin Smith annoying, potty-mouthed, and even immature, which are characteristics depicted heavily in his Jay and Silent Bob characters. I would argue on Smith’s behalf and say he is intelligent in creating films that can appeal to a stoner demographic at a base level yet still deliver dialogue that can take you on a philosophical ride. The heavy diatribes about the human condition recited by Randall in Clerks. lead you to assume Smith is the wiser. Unlikeable to some, but he understands his brand. No Smith film is complete without a personal cameo, Red State included, with an off-camera line yelled by an inmate (Smith) in the last shot. Smith also produced and distributed this film independently. His desire to tackle religious controversy with the release of Red State echoed Dogma twelve years prior. Both films drew protests.
With one non-comedy under his belt, Smith decided to create another low-budget horror film this year called Tusk. Smith pulled from his own life to create the character Wallace Bryton, a podcaster (check out Smith’s own SModcast), who travels to Manitoba to interview a kid who amputated his own leg while video-blogging. When he reaches Manitoba, Wallace gets word that the kid has killed himself. Wallace, being a self-absorbed buttface (à la Smith protagonist), is upset because he was in Canada without a story for his podcast. (By the way, Canada and/or hockey references are recurring themes in all Smith films.)
At a local Manitoba bar, Wallace comes across a flyer tacked to the wall about an old seafarer with great tales to tell. Intrigued, Wallace calls the number and sets up the interview for that very night. Arriving at the abode of seafarer Howard Howe (the ever-creepy Michael Parks! Again! Do you see the patterns?), Wallace enters to see an old man bound to an electronic wheelchair. Then things begin to get freaky. To be blunt, without ruining the film, Howard Howe is very detached from human beings. His only friend was a walrus he met while stuck at sea, whom he named Mr. Tusk. Howard has an obsession with walruses and thus dismembers his victims to emulate his old friend.
I have to hand it to Michael Parks, who brings this psychopath to life. He is perfectly empty and evil. Wallace, played by Justin Long, embodies the unlikeable protagonist prevalent in all Smith films. This writing approach is interesting because it creates a conflict within the viewer. Heinous crimes are happening against our protagonist; however, throughout Wallace’s transformation, we watch flashbacks to his normal life where he is a douchebag times infinity. He is misogynistic toward his girlfriend, and he cares only about fame, his image, and his podcast. As viewers we are left unsympathetic to Wallace’s current circumstance. This is a common Smith-ism: the notion that human beings are deeply flawed despite their attempts to be decent. We simply cannot help ourselves.
A few lines delivered by Howard Howe sum this up: ‘Are you mourning your humanity? I don’t understand. Who in the hell would want to be human?’
Smith speaks volumes with these lines. Humans have pressure to be better than what they are at the core, animals. The walrus does not pretend to be anything contrary. It is free to be what it is. At least, that is what Smith’s vulgar characters would imply. Personally, I think Tusk is worthy of a watch. It is fine Brechtian cinema. I dragged my mom to see it with me and I think she is ruined now. That is indication of the powerful impact Tusk has had on its viewers. Not everyone felt the same way about the film, unfortunately. Tusk bombed heavily at movie theatres, making only $846,000 on opening week and closing in at just over $1 million now.
But Kevin Smith is not wallowing. He tells comicbook.com:
Everything in my life would suck right now if I hadn’t made that movie. I’m back in movies now. I’ve got three lined up, and this is the f—— grand news. Tusk was the absolute bridge to Clerks III. Because of Tusk, I got my financing for Clerks III. […]
And honestly, that would not have happened. A year and change ago I was trying to f—— desperately get Clerks III made for the 20th anniversary. And that desperation, I must have reeked of it, because I couldn’t f—— find money and s—. But it was Tusk, it was people going, ‘Holy f—! What else do you have?’ And I was like, ‘Clerks III‘, done. So everybody that’s like, ‘He failed, he failed,’ thank you. I failed into Clerks III. So, never trust anybody when they tell you how your story goes, man. You know your story. You write your own story.
Inspiring words to all actors and filmmakers. Kevin Smith, a notable director who was still told ‘no’, whose anticipated sequel might not have been created, stayed strong in his convictions. He writes for himself, regardless of the flack to come. He hires his friends and close-knit group of actors to reoccur in his films, and he does not bow to production companies that want to change his scripts. Everything you do, as long as you are doing something, keeps you sharp and in the game. Finding the will to keep going in this business is an ongoing hurdle, and the NOs may outweigh the YESes, but find people that believe in you, collaborate, and stay creative, even if your ideas are terrible. I am about to make Tusk 2 in my basement. Thanks, Kevin Smith!