The big story at Sundance this year was Kevin Smith’s announcement of the dawn of “Indie 2.0”—or at least it was if you ask Kevin Smith. Smith had pledged to follow the world premiere of his movie Red State by “pick[ing] my distributor in the room, auction-style." But instead he used his post-screening press conference to launch into a lengthy monologue about his years in the industry and the rising costs of marketing even the smallest mainstream release. “True independence,” he concluded, “isn’t making a film and selling it to some jackass.” Red State, as promised, went up for auction, but only for a few seconds; Smith’s $20 was the winning, and sole, bid. The only jackass he was interested in selling to was himself.
Smith also used his time at the podium to announce that Red State would be going on tour, playing a series of one-night stands in the leadup to its theatrical release on Oct. 19—17 years after Clerks’ opening day. The tour went as planned, with Smith’s legion of devoted fans turning out in droves, paying upward of a $100 apiece for an early glimpse of the film and of Smith himself, who accompanied Red State at each stop. But the mooted theatrical opening never came to pass. On Oct. 18, a day shy of that Clerks anniversary, Red State went straight to DVD.
Smith’s last decade has been characterized by stagnant box-office returns and a decline in critical favor, culminating with the savage reviews for last year’s Cop Out. A deliberate throwback to the mismatched buddy-cop movies of the 1980s, Cop Out was an anomaly in Smith’s canon, a relatively big-budget production with a name cast including Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan. It was also, more importantly, the only time he’s directed a script he didn’t write. The result was hollow and impersonal, less an homage than a blurry copy.
The most revealing scene in Cop Out comes at the very beginning, when Morgan demands the chance to play bad cop with an uncooperative witness. Evidently unused to being the bad guy, Morgan's character resorts to quoting lines from movies, ripping off Heat and Brian DePalma’s Scarface to the bewilderment of an increasingly agitated suspect. (The sequence does not appear in Mark and Robb Cullen's script, originally titled A Couple of Dicks, and bears all the hallmarks of Smith's familiar obsessions.) It’s not just that the scene is clumsily staged and edited, without the velocity to put across its goofball premise, but that the range of references is so constricted. By the time Morgan moves on to Star Wars (“These aren’t the droids you’re looking for”) and Dirty Dancing (“Nobody puts baby in a corner”), you wonder if Kevin Smith has ever watched a movie made before he was born. The only time he reaches farther back is when Morgan and wiseass burglar Seann William Scott cap a contentious exchange with a nod to the 1952 Warner Bros. cartoon “Rabbit Seasoning."
From the beginning, geek appeal has been central to Smith’s success. The protagonists of Chasing Amy, his most personal and—excepting the maudlin Jersey Girl—his most “serious” film, are the creators of a comic book starring the pot-smoking superheroes Bluntman and Chronic, and during Red State’s Sundance speech, he referred to himself as “a fat, masturbating stoner.” But at least to judge from his movies, Smith is the kind of geek who prefers burrowing into a familiar work rather than obsessively seeking out new ones. Compare Smith’s reliance on masscult totems like the Star Wars movies to the catholic tastes of his fellow Sundance alum Quentin Tarantino, who teases fans with references to obscure spaghetti Westerns and borrows formal strategies from Jean-Luc Godard. Smith’s movies certainly made the world safer for the risqué, style-free comedies of Judd Apatow and the hyper-referential films of Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), but even as his audience has grown, his influence has shrunk. If Smith is an inspiration now, it’s as the unknown who put $25,000d on his credit cards to make Clerks, not as the director of Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Smith once said he wasn’t particularly interested in how his films looked, which is a little like a novelist saying he doesn’t much care for words. Smith’s disdain for the visual is particularly acute in his second film, Mallrats, which is to Fast Times at Ridgemont High as Cop Out is to Lethal Weapon. The movie begins with a pair of static shots lasting several minutes in which Smith simply plants the camera and watches his actors do their thing. Thoroughly flat-footed and painfully inept, it stands as one of the most purely incompetent studio movies ever made. He’s improved recently, but he’s only succeeded in rising to the level of a Hollywood hack.