With the recent release of Kevin Smith’s penultimate film, Red State, Dermot O’Rourke looks back on Smith’s career and examines why he has decided to step down from filmmaking
At the premiere of his final film, Red State, at the Sundance Film Festival in January, Kevin Smith announced that he would retire after the production of his next film, Hit Somebody. What with various directors retiring all the time, it would be easy not to pay his departure much attention, and considering the standard of his more recent works (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Cop Out) it may even be a good thing. However, it cannot be denied that Smith has had a significant impact on contemporary culture throughout his career.
With his retirement about to commence, it is now the perfect time to examine Smith’s body of work and consider what legacy he will leave behind. His retirement does also raise the question: Why is Kevin Smith regarded as one of the most high-profile filmmaker of his generation, when he is retiring having only completed ten feature films?
Kevin Smith exploded onto the scene amidst a renewed independent film movement in the early nineties. Amongst a wealth of great films that included Dazed and Confused and Slacker, his no-budget Clerks was a sensation. The film was a raw portrayal of angst-ridden deadbeats with low job prospects and lower aspirations, who spend their days debating the finer details of sexual politics and Star Wars. His exploration of love, sex and pop culture in Clerks made Kevin Smith a role model for Generation X.
Not coincidently then, Kevin Smith’s subsequent collection of films under his View Askewniverse umbrella mirrored the evolution of Generation X through their maturation process. Films like Chasing Amy and Dogma presented musings on religion, white male sexuality and relationships – all prominent considerations of the apathetic generation. If Clerks was the attitude of the slacker Kevin Smith in his twenties, his final film of the View Askewniverse series, Clerks II, was the attitude of the slacker Kevin Smith in his thirties. It was a transcendent portrait of himself, and Generation X by association, having reached adulthood but ultimately remaining stagnant.
After Clerks II, Smith closed the book on the View Askewniverse and tried to break away from this inertia into a more conventional Hollywood studio filmmaking style. Although he had left his roots in the View Askewniverse behind, his more recent films have still attempted to encapsulate whatever zeitgeist they are born into. However, not only have these post-View Askewniverse films less to say, they say it with less conviction. Zack and Miri Make a Porno wanted to be a Judd Apatow production so badly that it was embarrassing, even using Apatow regulars Seth Rogen (Pineapple Express) and Elizabeth Banks (The 40-Year-Old Virgin) in the lead roles. His next offering, Cop Out, was the first film which he directed that he had not written. Even more bizarre is that he did not collaborate with his regular producer and partner-in-crime Scott Mosier on the project. It was to be expected that both of these films were flops at the box office, and panned by critics, and their consequent failure has provoked multiple irate retorts from Smith.
In recent times Smith has diversified into other mediums, exploiting his own cult of personality. He owns the SModcast network where he records multiple podcasts, he regularly hosts hugely popular Q&A sessions, and has a mammoth following on Twitter. Smith feels comfortable in these outlets as they have allowed him to voice his opinions and pop culture ruminations to those who want to hear what he has to say, without any critical interference.
He has used this large multimedia presence for the promotion of his new film Red State with moderately successful results. He has decided to distribute the film independently (despite an additional theatrical release), with tours and Q&A sessions around North America, specifically marketing it to his followers. But make no mistake; Red State is not a traditional Kevin Smith film. The complete left turn he has made with both the content and distribution of Red State is not only an indication of his insulation from the mainstream film public and their idea of a Kevin Smith production, but also proof that he remains a role model for a generation despite the films he produces.
His decision to retire appears to be borne out of a loss of passion for the filmmaking process and a frustration with the people involved in the film industry (including critics) who do not appreciate him like his fans do. A self-confessed “storyteller, not filmmaker”, his diversification into new media allows him to appeal to the zeitgeist without judgement from external forces and with more immediacy than the medium of film.
Although retiring from filmmaking, Smith is most certainly not retiring from his position as spokesman for a generation. He is merely trading one form of media for another and will continue to have the same, if not more profound, impact on culture through these new outlets.