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He’s Not Even Supposed to Be Here Today

Against all odds, Kevin Smith succeeded — and that’s why he’s failing

Getty Images
Getty Images

Kevin Smith wandered onto the auditorium stage at Cornell University wearing a black, sleeveless hoodie, a white T-shirt, oversize cargo shorts, and the middle-parted haircut of a ’90s sitcom teen. He was carrying a backpack and a sheepish grin. Young men and women down front waved their arms up and down, mouthing “We’re not worthy!” Two thousand students stood on their feet, howling. “Snoochie boochies!,” the mating call of the stoner dork, echoed from the rafters. Smith observed the adulation, fingered his glasses to get a better look at the adoring crowd, and spoke.

“Are there signs that say ‘APPLAUSE’? ’Cause I don’t think I ever got a reaction like that,” he said. “Reaction like that just makes up for every chick who ever said I have a small dick.”

Elation. Uproarious laughter. Gentle nodding from sheepish Ivy Leaguers. Within minutes, Smith — self-consciously and self-regardingly large — was sweating bullets. But the crowd was enraptured. He was amongst his congregation, prepared to sermonize.

This was exactly 15 years ago next month. It was one of the most revelatory nights of my life — sad! It was also the beginning of the end of Kevin Smith.

That session, dubbed “An Evening with Kevin Smith,” was unlike any college speaking event I had attended. At Cornell, there was stand-up comedy from Jon Stewart the previous spring, paranoiac monologues from Henry Rollins later that fall, and conscious rap from Talib Kweli practically every six weeks — standard “entertain the idealistic kids” fare for local college campuses. But “An Evening with Kevin Smith” was strange — a director with five films to his name and an alter ego that was defined by his lack of speech (the Silent Bob character) showed up and just talked. And talked. And talked. And he didn’t exactly come prepared. By way of an introduction, he spoke for five or 10 minutes about his latest movie — Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back — and then signaled to the two microphones set up in the aisles of the auditorium and encouraged attendees to walk up and ask questions.

The Ringer
The Ringer

Would this work? Was there a mass of people with questions for Kevin Smith? People as interested as I was? Kids who had the winding theme (written by Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner) from Chasing Amy permanently lodged in their frontal lobe because they’d let the title screen of the movie’s DVD run all night and into the next morning for consecutive semesters? There was.

Smith answered their questions for four-and-a-half hours. It was a marathon of riff, a never-ending stream of self-aggrandizing 19-year-olds working terribly hard to impress their hero with deep arcana, bad references to his dialogue, and occasionally insightful questions about filmmaking, process, gossip, criticism, and his buddy Ben Affleck. Smith heckled the hecklers and mocked the too-earnest, but he was mostly warm, smart, fast, and giving. And open. He talked in a way few people from Hollywood have ever talked to strangers. He was unguarded and dishy and incredibly filthy. When a questioner told Smith he’d been fired from his job bussing tables for attending the event, Smith invited him up and called the student’s boss in front of the audience to gently accost her. (He couldn’t get the guy his job back.) To these sheep, their shepherd had arrived.

I cannot overstate how riveting this was. I left the event thinking I’d just left a revealing of movie secrets that cost a piddling $15 to attend. This was before podcasts, before the wellspring of DVD featurettes, and before the abusal of oral histories. Trade secrets were restricted to the trades. Books like The Devil’s Candy or Easy Riders, Raging Bulls were few and far between. A genuine Hollywood director — who dug comic books and Alice in Chains and weed — just sort of hung out with us all night. It was the quintessence of Kevin Smith’s appeal.

This night was the first of many he embarked upon after the release of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. The speaking circuit is lucrative and Smith is as self-possessed as they come. He eventually became a lodestar for the me-ification that so many creative people have seized upon in the past 10 years. Smith seemed to know this even then. For a time, I thought I’d never recapture or revisit the conversation that night. But then, a year later, An Evening with Kevin Smith was released on DVD, collecting the best bits from talks at five colleges, across two DVDs and four hours. The soothing sounds of Dave Pirner’s theme was soon replaced by the very talk about which I rhapsodized to friends for a year. It seems bizarre now that anyone would want to own a DVD of Kevin Smith talking for hours, but Smith understood immersive lifestyle merch before Kanye or Game of Thrones. He understood close-to-touch fan accessibility. He understood his fans, because he was them.

A colleague told me a Smith story recently. In the ’90s, he ordered a book from Smith’s Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash comic book store in Red Bank, New Jersey. When the package arrived a few days later, he found an inscription inside the book:

David and Kevin had never met.

Smith fulfilled a lifelong dream by opening his own comic book shop in his hometown. But more dreams would come true. He was early to the rise of geek culture — he’d been waiting for it. By 2000, he had created the animated TV adaptation of Clerks. But the wholesale commodification of his View Askewniverse had not been fully formulated. He’d published some of his own comic book work, including well-regarded runs on Daredevil and Green Arrow. But the Kevin Smith Brand, the thing all those kids came out for at Bailey Hall, had not yet matured.

In the decade and a half to come, he’d make seven more movies, launch multiple websites, start his own podcast, launch a podcast network (one of the first of its kind), write many more comics, pen columns, publish books, produce films from young filmmakers, and act in 12 movies that he did not direct. He has spoken at Carnegie Hall and photographed his wife for a pictorial in Playboy. He became a viral sensation when he was booted from a Southwest flight and coordinated one of the first social media campaigns against a brand via Twitter, YouTube, and podcast. He wrote a Superman script that was never produced. He produced a TV show on a prestigious basic cable network about his buddies’ exploits working in a comic book store. He self-released a controversial film about gun violence and conservative hate. He directed another about a man who is surgically transformed into a walrus. (Which was inspired by and based on a podcast conversation.) He has ranted about decent comic book movies and raved about abysmal ones. He has appeared on thousands of podcasts and spoken before millions of people. Kevin Smith has done it all, and far too much. Most recently, he cast his 17-year-old daughter in one of his own films, the much-maligned Yoga Hosers, which opens Friday.

“I don’t give a shit about the audience anymore,” Smith said, half-joking, as he introduced the movie at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. He sounded a little like Randal Graves, the acerbic quip machine of his first film, 1994’s Clerks, who famously mewls, “This job would be great if it wasn’t for the fucking customers.”

In the recent documentary De Palma, the famed director of Carrie and Scarface carefully walks through every stage of his career. At one point, reflecting on the frustrations of his later period films, he says, “Directors make their best movies in their 30s, 40s, and 50s.” He looks to the left of the frame and gently exhales. De Palma is 75 now. Smith is 46 now. He hasn’t made a movie of consequence since 2001, when he was 31.

No matter what you think of Smith’s early period, he redefined the way characters talked in many American movies. He was considered a contemporary of Quentin Tarantino and Spike Jonze. He skewered convention with surprising deftness — his Catholic parable teardown Dogma plays better now that it did in 1999, but more than that, it seems downright rebellious compared to most contemporary comedies. He could be scatalogical, sexual, inconsequential, and technically clumsy (or worse), but he seemed eager to work on a grand stage, whether in the depths of sexual identity (Chasing Amy) or even in the cultural muck of sequel parody (Jay and Silent Bob…). The unraveling of his credibility is well known at this point. The failure of Jersey Girl, his effort at a middle class legitimization, essentially shattered his worldview and forced him into a retreat to his old tricks (Clerks II), Apatovian aping (Zack and Miri Make a Porno), studio hack work (Cop Out), political satire (Red State), and horror-comedy (Tusk). Smith had an imperceptible range in his early films, but no filmmaker has ever been able to toggle between all those tones and genres. Yoga Hosers will not improve his reputation. In fact, the reviews have been so savage and gleefully vitriolic, that it sounds like the creaking closing of a casket door. Starring his daughter and wife, as well as Johnny Depp, his daughter, and his ex-girlfriend, Smith is making the cracked home movies of his dreams. Like the two characters who chattered their way through his breakthrough movie, his daughter Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp play convenience store clerks looking for meaning beyond the cash register. It isn’t so much regression for Smith as infantilization. He’s aging 20 years into the past, searching for what made him.

Smith, who has never been mistaken for Ingmar Bergman, etched a place in the culture by dint of his presence not his art. He articulated fan service in a way no one had before him — he was a one-stop shop for intimate gratification. He sent handwritten letters to fans, blogged his heart out, helped design pewter figurines of his best loved characters, gave his friends a platform, and spoke tirelessly to college students. It’s this same impulse to speak to his people that made his movies so inscrutable. Are these inside jokes to his army? It’s unclear. Smith truly believed his home planet could be a fun place to hang. He built a world he never had to leave. And he’s been talking about it relentlessly ever since that night at Cornell. Maybe he just doesn’t have anything left to say.