Smith has certainly shifted subject matter over the years: Dogma is an eccentric exploration of his own Catholicism that casts Alanis Morissette as God; Red State is a violent thriller that centers on a fundamentalist preacher who’s a cross between Fred “God Hates Fags” Phelps and David Koresh. But as a filmmaker, he’s grown astonishingly little. It’s hard to think of another director, or even another artist, who’s made so little progress over a comparable span, certainly one who’s consistently been able to secure budgets over $20 million for each new film.
“Indie 2.0,” as Smith framed it, means cutting the studios out of the equation and taking the film directly to its audience, a solution he’s hardly the first to propose. The music industry has been moving in that direction for years, and filmmakers have followed suit, pairing one-off screenings with personal appearances, bundling DVDs with soundtrack LPs and so forth. The only thing unusual about Smith’s announcement was that it came on the heels of his 10th film rather than his first, which is to say that unlike artists who opted out of the system before making significant headway, Smith had actual bridges to burn.
For his core audience, though, it seems Smith can do no wrong. From the beginning, he’s presented himself as an ordinary guy, unpretentious as they come: Some call them movies, some films, but Smith may be the only working director to regularly refer to his output as “flicks.” He’s been interacting with fans online since the beginning, often in the brusque, profane voice you’d expect from his films. (To a viewer who called Red State an incoherent mess, he replied, “I apologize for eschewing traditional three-act structure, but sometime’s that shit’s boring, sir.”) Smith’s movies are just midsized stars in a constellation that includes onstage “Evenings With. ..” and accompanying DVDs (the latest is Too Fat for 40), a podcast network with two dozen regular shows, even an animated series—not to mention nearly 2 million Twitter followers.
That loyal audience is Smith’s not-so-secret weapon, and the reason he was able to leap into a $4 million abyss with Red State. They’ll pay a premium to see Red State, or even to watch him shoot the breeze. Fans in Philadelphia paid $50 a head to watch Smith and co-host Ralph Garman tape an episode of Hollywood Babble-On during which Smith repeatedly joked about his weight and Garman showed off one of the worst William Shatner impressions in recorded history. It wasn’t as uncomfortable an evening as the one I’d spent years ago at an early screening of Chasing Amy, where half the men who stood up to ask questions were tubby, unshaven guys in long coats and baseball caps who could have worked as Smith’s stand-in, but it still had the cloistered feel of a convention—or as Smith might put it, a circle jerk.
Smith’s strategy of raking in the big bucks from his most ardent fans coincided with a period of hostility to the movie press and media in general. Red State wasn’t screened for critics at Sundance, and requests for review tickets on the Red State tour were routinely refused. Last year, he likened negative reviews of Cop Out to “bullying a retarded kid,” and pledged that henceforth, “Any flick I’m ever involved with, I conduct critics screenings thusly: You wanna see it early to review it? Fine: pay like you would if you saw it next week.”
What’s at issue, of course, is not the $10 cost of a movie ticket, but Smith’s ego and a post-hoc self-righteousness that conveniently followed the bottoming-out of his critical stock. Where, you have to ask, was this hostility to critics when they were hailing the freshness of Clerks, or praising Smith’s grab for maturity with Chasing Amy? The “you can’t fire me because I quit” undertone to Smith’s posturing is so transparent it’s almost sad. He’s become the suburban stoner equivalent of Charles Foster Kane, his faculties dulled by the nattering of yes-men and the uncritical embrace of eager acolytes.
By Smith’s own token, his career is almost over. He’s said that his next film, the story of an up-and-coming hockey player called Hit Somebody, will be his last—or rather, his last two, since a few months later he said the story had grown too big to fit in a single film. Of course, there’s no one to hold him to that promise. At least no one he’d listen to.