Kevin Smith and film critics – it’s a carousel that never stops turning. The latest guy to get banned from any future screenings of Kevin Smith movies is Roger Moore – no, not the poofty Bond, but rather an Orlando writer. He did a whole piece about Kevin Smith’s latest DVD release, An Evening With Kevin Smith 2: Evening Harder, in which he slammed Smith’s fans, his films, and even his weight. Smith predictably got his hackles up – he never met a print mention of himself he wouldn’t laminate – and launched a reply on his MySpace blog, which you can read right here.
I don’t care about most of the points made by either side. I don’t disagree with Moore when it comes to Smith’s fanbase, which is essentially Star Wars nerds who like excessive swearing. I tend to avoid people wearing Kevin Smith merchandise and assorted paraphernalia, which is kind of too bad because I once made a pilgrimage to the Quik Stop myself. But I’m on the record with my feelings about hardcore fanbases anyway.
What I did find interesting was this little snippet of Smith’s reply:
But the closing line of advice in his fan-slamming blog really blows my mind: "Quit wasting your time with the folks who don’t need convincing that you’re the bomb. They’ll buy the video, anyway (as cheap as $20)."
Setting aside the cynical notion that keeping in touch with the audience is all about a quick buck (or even a slow buck) for me, what the fuck is this dude saying? I should be reaching for a different audience than the one that’s supported me and my work for a dozen years now? Why? Doesn’t every filmmaker play to their audience? Doesn’t Spielberg play to his audience? Granted, his audience pushes his flicks to 300 million while mine push my flicks to a tenth of that (at best); but, shit – I’m happy there’s one person watching what I do, let alone a few million. And in terms of the folks who dig what we do at View Askew, I’ve met many of you, and you’re all really cool, really wonderful people. Why should I be courting an entirely different audience, as Roger chides? If I’m happy with my audience, what the fuck’s Roger Moore’s problem with that?
Kevin Smith likes to talk about how Richard Linklater’s Slacker was the movie that convinced him that even some schlub from Red Bank could have something to say in a movie. But look at the careers of these two men side by side and you’ll see a filmmaker and a guy who makes movies to continue feeding a merchandise machine. It seems more likely that it was George Lucas’ merch deals that inspired Kevin Smith to get into the film business.
I was recently arguing with some friends about whether or not Linklater has lost it, but the comparative quality of his work aside, his filmography shows a guy who is interested in exploring as many different things in film as possible. His latest movie, Fast Food Nation, may not be a rousing success as cinema, but it’s a ballsy attempt to turn a non-fiction expose about such sexy topics as meat packing and fast food workers into a fairly mainstream film. Earlier this year he filmed Philip K Dick’s A Scanner Darkly as a strangely animated movie that dared to hew closer to Dick’s vision than probably any previous adaptation. He’s played in the very mainstream pool, with mixed results, but he’s also made movies that actually try to be different, that try to tackle diverse subjects and characters in different styles.
Kevin Smith rarely tries anything new, and when he does (barely – Jersey Girl is just a clean version of a Kevin Smith movie, which is to say a talky nerd take on a relationship film) and it doesn’t light the world on fire, he backs away into the same shit he’s been shoveling for some time, with Clerks 2.
I guess there’s nothing wrong with that. A brand builds itself by catering to an audience, and Kevin Smith has built his personal brand by catering to his audience. But… is that what an artist does? The obvious answer to that is, no, of course not. An artist creates works that represents something personal and meaningful, whether or not other people like it, and whether or not it’s what the established base is looking for. Richard Linklater isn’t worrying whether the people who liked Dazed and Confused or School of Rock are going to like Before Sunset, he’s just making the movie he wants to make. And it should be noted that the example Smith uses himself, Steven Spielberg, is a filmmaker who has tried his hand at a number of genres, moods and even technical styles. It isn’t like Steve is punching out ET XIII this Christmas. He’s hardly playing to an audience, and it showed with the box office returns of films like Munich, which came nowhere near War of the Worlds.
So here’s the thing – is Kevin Smith an artist? I think he thinks he is. He certainly spends enough time engaging with critics of his work to give the impression that he believes what he creates is more than just passing bullshit. And the fact that he hasn’t yet done any significant work for hire makes me think that this guy doesn’t just view himself as somebody making the mortgage payments.
Which is all well and good, until you think about what he says about catering to his audience and then look at the films he’s making and realize where he seems to be really putting his energy: his merchandise. Kevin Smith is really an entrepreneur whose main source of notoriety just happens to be film. Donald Trump is a major real estate mogul, but you can’t claim that he’s all that interested in the art of architecture. What that means is that Kevin Smith, movie making guy, is really just making long commercials that serve the interests of Kevin Smith, apparel and collectible salesman.
There’s nothing wrong with that – Smith is serving his consumer base and making himself some money. But it’s not art. It’s just commerce. And Kevin Smith should lay off the people who complain about his movies as film and spend more time engaging in online fights with people who complain about his baseball cap wholesaling policies.