This afternoon, the Sundance Film Festival will look back at its impressive 1994 slate, which included first-time filmmaker David O. Russell’s Spanking the Monkey and the gripping basketball documentary Hoop Dreams. That year also marked the debut of Kevin Smith by way of his low-budget Gen-X gem Clerks, and this year’s festivalgoers will be treated to a midnight screening tonight in celebration of the movie’s twentieth anniversary. News of Smith’s success out west — he won the festival’s Filmmaker Trophy — spread quickly to his home state of New Jersey, and by the time his film arrived in theaters on October 19, 1994, even unlikely Garden Staters were lining up to see if the local boy had made good. One of those people was Maris Kreizman, a Vulture contributor who also created the popular Tumblr mash-up Slaughterhouse 90210. This is her story.
Until Harvey Keitel’s penis entered the picture, I’d never had any trouble sitting through movies with my parents. The year was 1994 and, at 15, I was already a veteran of family outings to see movies about such devastating topics as the Holocaust (Schindler’s List), AIDS (Philadelphia), and municipal terrorism (Speed). An Oscar-nominated film about an abusive marriage like The Piano? That seemed like a cakewalk compared with ones we’d endured together that focused on genocide, the ravages of disease, and Keanu Reeves riding public transportation. But yeah, cue the graphic sex scenes and Harvey’s wallbanger, and suddenly I didn’t feel quite as mature and precocious as I’d esteemed myself to be.
Months later, just when I felt that I’d finally gotten past the traumatic awkwardness of watching The Piano’s love scenes with my parents sitting on either side of me, my father suggested we go to see a film we’d been reading about in the Asbury Park Press. The filmmaker — a young guy not much older than I was who had grown up a few miles away from me in central New Jersey — had written and directed a super-low-budget movie with a teen-friendly premise: Two dudes goof off at a suburban convenience store and talk about life and movies and stuff. My dad and I decided to check it out, and we headed over to the theater in the neighboring town of Red Bank, just the two of us, in what had all the makings of the perfect father-daughter movie date. Of course, the auteur was Kevin Smith and the film was Clerks. Oops.
Here’s what I remember from my experience of sitting next to my father while watching Clerks: “Blow job, blow job, blow job, mean customer, rollerblade hockey, gay slur, big words, blow job, mean customer, intellectual discussion of The Empire Strikes Back vs. Return of the Jedi, blow job, big words, offscreen sex in the bathroom, fin.” That seems to have been the extent to which my hormone-addled brain was able to process the movie because, while the adventures (or lack thereof) of convenience-store clerk Dante Hicks and video-store clerk Randal didn’t involve even one moment of onscreen nudity, it was unrelentingly, grotesquely filthy. Kevin Smith had achieved the impossible: He’d made me long for the innocent days when I thought the hairiest situation I’d encounter at the movies would involve Harvey Keitel’s penis.
Seeing Clerks with my dad was a particularly mortifying experience because it so phenomenally blended the mundane and the fantastically ridiculous. The stultifying ennui of dead-end jobs in the kind of town Bruce Springsteen sang about one day leaving could only be assuaged by sexual fantasies that grew more and more hyperbolic as time (slowly, so slowly) passed and boredom set in. I suppose I’d seen gross dudes being gross on HBO and in real life — I went to high school with guys like these — but never with my dad, and never with such a casual mixture of vulgarity and incredible vocabulary. Even if the actors in Clerks all seemed to say their lines in a stilted, community-theater-style tenor, they were able to simultaneously sound smart (they used SAT-level words that Beavis and Butt-head wouldn’t even know how to pronounce) and proudly nasty (yes, my dad and I both learned what snowballing is — just Google it).
Thanks in large part to Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino — whose Pulp Fiction was, amazingly, also released in October 1994 — long bullshitting sessions about pop culture would become de rigeur in film, and mega-articulate conversations between young adults would infiltrate television a few years farther on via Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, Freaks and Geeks, and Gilmore Girls. But in 1994, it actually felt groundbreaking to watch intelligent dumbasses expound on culture and suburban legends (e.g., the dude who broke his neck trying to fellate himself), even while making anal rape jokes as parking-lot drug dealer Jay (Jason Mewes) fake-humped Silent Bob (Smith himself) in the background.
In 2014, the tribulations of Dante and Randal feel quaint, but the fun in rewatching the movie is to revel in the nineties-ness of it all. Hey, look, there’s Luke Perry on the cover of a teen magazine in the background at Quick Stop! Glass bottles of Yoo-hoo and Gatorade! Packs of cigarettes for $3! The list of porn-video titles (Cum Gargling Naked Sluts, to name one) that Randal recites into the phone in front of an appalled customer are easy to shrug off in the Internet age but the film felt so hyper-real back then that I don’t think I even questioned the film’s pièce de résistance: Dante’s ex-girlfriend has sex in a darkened employee bathroom with an elderly hemorrhoids sufferer who, spoiler alert, died while he was using the toilet and reading porn mags. What was I going to do, engage with my father in a discussion about whether he thought it would be physically possible or feasible for a woman to do it with a dead guy? No, thanks. “She’s gonna need years of therapy,” says a paramedic as they hauled the ex-girlfriend away to the psych ward — and that’s how I felt, too, at the time.
Twenty years later, although I still cringe at the memory of that painful parent-daughter experience, Clerks feels more like an elaborate male fantasy than a study in realism. Okay, so who wants to go see Wolf of Wall Street now? Dad?