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.
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.