Full disclosure: I like precisely one and a half Kevin Smith movies. There's the one everyone else hates, the John Hughes homage Mallrats, and the first hour of the one everyone else loves, Chasing Amy, which dries up around the time Ben Affleck dumps Jason Lee for Joey Lauren Adams. There are bits of Dogma worth remembering, but I am more likely to admire its ambition--for daring to ask questions about faith and spirituality and religion at a time when most people believe they have all the answers--than its clumsy execution. Understandably, his cheapie debut, Clerks, is celebrated among the cultists for being crude and naughty; Smith made his rep out of sex jokes and bong hits, which automatically elevates you to iconic status with the virgins and stoners, same dif. Then there's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which is the cinematic equivalent of watching a guy pat himself on the back, and elsewhere, for two hours.
But not liking the art doesn't stop me from loving the artist, who has penned some of my favorite comics in recent years (stints on Daredevil, Green Arrow and a Spider-man mini-series that was never quite completed), loves Gregory MacDonald's Fletch books as much as I (he insists he will still make a Fletch film, after The Green Hornet) and gives great stand-up at audience-participation Q&A's. He's so affable and approachable I wish only that he made better movies. Perhaps the reason I disliked his treacly new Jersey Girl so much was because I wanted to like it so much, despite the presence of Jennifer Lopez and Smith's dear friend Affleck, who is a better People magazine profile than actor.
Smith, the most engaging and sincere and candid and funny filmmaker with whom you would ever want to spend an hour or a day or a week, is someone you very much want to root for, which is why his legions flock daily to his View Askew Web site to shoot shit with other fanatics and talk to the man himself, who apparently spends most of his day answering fan queries from the world's largest mailbag. Few filmmakers give back to their fans as much as Smith does, which is why he fears their response to Jersey Girl, which, for better or worse, is the movie on which he appears to have left the fewest fingerprints, despite its origins as a love letter to his wife, daughter and father, who died last year. Critics have had their say--it has been almost universally panned as "sentimental hokum," "soap-opera bathos" and, in The New York Times, "false and blatantly icky"--and audiences paid a meager $8 mil last weekend, placing it fifth among new openings.
What follows is an excerpt from my conversation with Smith, held the day after he premiered Jersey Girl at the South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin two weeks ago. It took place in a shabby suite at the Four Seasons Hotel; with the fake ferns and dim lighting and drab wallpaper, it looked very much like the set of the old Tomorrow show, down to the cigarette smoke coming from the ultra-light menthols Smith was sucking down. He cracks jokes and screws around, bringing the same spark and wit and charm to a one-on-one conversation as he does to his onstage appearances at comic conventions and film festivals.
It seems that you enjoy the Q&A's almost as much as anything else.
I do enjoy that more than making films. I look at filmmaking as a way to get up onstage and do Q&A's at this point. Because at the beginning it was all about, "I want to make a film." When we made Clerks, it was like, "Let's make it or die." I was close to a teenager at that point--I was 22--so you're full of that kind of youthful passion. Then later on it's just like, "Yeah, I love making movies, but I'd much rather just get up on a stage and answer questions about the making of the movie or shit that happened between the making of the movie."
You're really good at the anecdotes, a great storyteller.
I try. Garrison Keillor with a potty mouth, I've been told. I'm like, "Garrison Keillor?!" You want to hit somebody for calling you that. But the potty mouth kind of makes up for it.
Though he did write that sex column for Salon.
Really? You're lying. [He does a Garrison Keillor impression.] "We were down by Lake Woebegon, and as she cupped my balls and stroked my scrotum I realized..." I can't see it. I just can't see that.
All right. So, Jersey Girl...
Ben and Jen. There are some Jen issues...
It's weird that she's in it, because I didn't notice.
She's barely in it, and in the marketing materials you certainly can't notice. You have to look real hard.
I will say that, like, 22 seconds into the movie I forgot about "Ben and Jen."
I think the highest compliment you can pay is that 22 seconds into the movie you forgot about that. It's been a tough year, honestly, trying to get beyond the fucking backstory that isn't even ours. Most of it has to do with Gigli. First you have to get over that hump of being like, "Oh, they were so terrible in Gigli." And you're like, "Did you see it?" They're like, "No, but I heard." So you're dealing with the Phantom Menace of a movie--if I may bust a Star Wars reference--I had nothing to do with. Then you have to get over their personal life--they didn't get married; they dated and split up and crap like that--before you can bait and switch folks into getting into the theater.
It's weird, because when Jennifer dies, it's the first death on film of someone who's not a villain that people cheer for.
I've been there, dude. I've been at screenings where there have been pockets of "Whoo!" And then other people are like, "Awww," and then all of a sudden they're both out of the movie, and they're fighting, shirts and skins in the audience.
I will say this: I wish there had been more scourging.
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