How “Clerks” Remains a Classic in a time of social upheaval

Did you ever wonder why, twenty-two-years after the first Clerks film came out, we’re still talking about it? Or why a lot of us are waiting for even the smallest scrap of news to come out about the eventual release of Clerks 3? Even if it’s now only going to exist as a comic book? I always felt what made the Clerks franchise so endearing is its ability to precisely capture the highs-and-lows of working retail. Dante, played by Brian O’Halloran, represented who we are whil at work in a retail environment, and Randal, played by Jeff Anderson, represented who we wanted to be. In the first film, Randal got to spit on a customer to prove a point, while Dante got into trouble for something he didn’t even do (like selling cigarettes to a little girl.) You might not spit on a customer in 2017, but similar outbursts between employees and customers are all too common. And although by the time the Clerks 3 comic comes out, robots will have put us all out of a job, I have no doubt the themes and sensibility of it will resonate just as well as the first two.

Why? The Clerks films speak truthfully on behalf of people who work in retail. Retail jobs were the first to come back after The Great Recession, and they’ve often been the lone bright spot in our economic recovery. You or someone you know may have worked in retail, but often those who work in the field don’t quite get the opportunity to speak and be heard as much as those in other industries. What makes the Clerks franchise so effective is that regardless of what decade it is, there are certain universal truths to be found in working a low-respect and low-wage job. Having been a Mall Santa, a janitor at SUNY Potsdam’s student union, and a sales clerk at a shoe store in one of the world’s largest outdoor shopping mall, I can personally vouch for this. I have no doubt many of you can as well. And in a country filled with people who are very good at dividing ourselves, that ability found in these films to unite us by speaking those truths can’t be overlooked.

Perhaps more importantly, Clerks isn’t just about the doom and gloom of life in retail. As awful as it can be, if you’ve worked retail long enough, you do often find little things to enjoy. Whether it’s messing with your customers in a way that’s more “Super Troopers” than “American Psycho”, or by just passing as much of the downtime as you can with your friends. If you’ve ever wondered why pro sports are as popular as they are, you don’t need to look much further for than what’s being discussed in the back room of most retail stores on break. Pro sports, like video games and a lot of other things, acts as glue for the store’s community of employees and gives them something in common to talk about.

Dante and Randal may be like fire and ice together, but they’re also best friends, united by their near-perpetual state of arrested development. A state many may find themselves relating to regardless of how old they are when they watch Clerks and Clerks 2 for the first time. Mostly through nostalgia, if you’re Dante and Randal’s age in Clerks 2 when viewing the first movie, and through an eye-opening experience if you’re watching the first Clerks while around the same age as the stars of the film at the time they made it. Realizing upon seeing the film that you’re not alone. That there are others just like you working a job that sucks. I know it’s hard to imagine looking back at working in retail, when you’re Randal and Dante’s age in Clerks 2, wistfully, but there is an occasional nice thought to be had by the complete and total lack of responsibility you might have had at their ages in the first film.

Over the course of both Clerks films, much like we hope to in life, the characters change and grow. Sure Silent Bob still doesn’t say much (there’s a joke in here about Kevin Smith and his numerous podcasts, but I won’t make it because every asshole with a blog does) but we see Dante wallow in the same holding pattern many of us did at his age in the first film, unsure of what direction we want to take our lives. And then again later in Clerks 2 where the bill finally comes due to make those decisions, and Dante finds himself making the wrong ones because of the pressure to do so. His inability to act, and Randal’s inability to take his obnoxiousness down a notch, is created in part by transforming the workplace into an entertaining one. Or at least made to be an entertaining one via things like Donkey Shows and rooftop hockey. All things are exaggerated forms of wish fulfillment, sure. But for the rest of us who may toil away at a gas station convenience store or a Wal-Mart, they’re all things we’ve thought about to make our jobs seem more enjoyable, and in some small way, the world a better place. It can often feel hopeless when you’re stuck in a retail job for a long period of time, but if these two can have endure and enjoy it, then maybe some day we can too.

By showing us the contrast between the arrested state Randal and Dante find themselves in, and the fantastic activity going on around them at work, Kevin Smith perfectly captures the state of paralysis many of us who’ve worked in retail find ourselves in. Sure we can go out and get a “real” job, but we’d be leaving our friends behind, and all the fun that comes with it. Say what you want about all his films after Red State, but within the Clerks franchise Smith demonstrated a skillful ability to show us both the world as awful as it is, and how we wish it to be, and the problems holding those conflicting world views in our head can create. In Randal’s case, he never grew up. In Dante’s, he’s unable to make a decision. Who knows what the future holds for the duo in the third story, but it’s likely that contrast will play a key role in driving the events of the film forward, and making it just as memorable as the last two.

B.J. Mendelson is the author of “Social Media Is Bullshit” from St. Martin’s Press.

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