Kevin Smith and the triumph of commerce over art

Long maligned by critics after his initial successes, the would-be auteur has charted his own path to success by giving his loyal fans more of the same

Do not pity Kevin Smith. Ignore your initial instinct to feel sorry for the writer-director of Yoga Hosers, a film about teenage convenience store workers who fight monstrous talking Aryan sausages bent on world domination, which Rotten Tomatoes critical consensus describes as undisciplined, unfunny, and bereft of evident purpose.

The critical drubbing that accompanies the release of a Kevin Smith film is almost de rigueur now, but there was a time when Smith had something resembling cultural cachet. In 2016, hes a carnival barker for an increasingly small audience. Yoga Hosers will certainly not be challenging any box office records this weekend, but that doesnt seem to be the point. The director who burst on the scene with the borderline transgressive black-and-white cult classic Clerks is less an auteur and more a brand a lesser Chris Hardwick, shilling T-shirts and oversized hockey jerseys.

Is that such a tragic fate, though? The current cinematic landscape is littered with would-be Soderberghs and Spielbergs who burn brightly at the start of their careers and find themselves crashing against the gates of studio after studio. The fate of Josh Trank, who hit big with Chronicle and fell back to earth when he directed the latest Fantastic Four film, is well on its way to a place in Hollywoods pantheon of cautionary tales. Cop Car director Jon Watts was plucked from obscurity by Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures to direct the next Spider-Man reboot.

The shortlist of directors being considered for the Captain Marvel movie is mostly unknowns. These people could either end up blackballing themselves like Trank or hitting the jackpot like Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow. Such is the nature of the modern film industry theres no room for minor successes. But when Kevin Smith went from Jersey wunderkind to Hollywood made man, indie directors could comfortably ply their trade making low-budget pictures designed for niche audiences.

Smiths first studio film, Mallrats, was engineered to appeal to the teen audience the industry craves. Beverly Hills 90210 star Shannon Doherty was recruited to star and the soundtrack was loaded with popular bands of the time such as Bush and Elastica. It was a major departure from Clerks, with its grimy settings and amateur actors. Clerks was closer to a 1970s downtown New York art film than anything resembling a mainstream commercial product. It documented the all-too-real disappointments of lower-middle-class life in a small town. Mallrats, on the other hand, featured Smith as his alter-ego Silent Bob, flying around a set, and a scene where a man eats pretzels covered in human excrement.

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Its called Merch: Kevin Smith and Jason Mewes in Mallrats. Photograph: Moviestore/Rex/Shutterstock

Chasing Amy, a modest film about sexual politics and identity, saved Smith from the scrapheap, but it cemented the cult of personality around him. He had opened comic book shops in New Jersey and Los Angeles called Jay and Silent Bobs Secret Stash. In these stores, he sold not only comics but also merchandise from his films. If you fancied the beanie Jason Mewes wore in Dogma, you could buy it. Want a Clerks action figure? Its there too. What Smith knew, which he probably sussed out from the merchandising success of Spike Lee years earlier, was that the film is less important than the intellectual property and the fanbase that will gladly hand over their money for the right to own a piece of it. To this day, Smith still hucks swag from all his various ventures, many of them unrelated to film-making. He does podcasts, performs standup comedy and stars in reality shows.

After horrible failures such as Jersey Girl and Cop Out, Smith retreated from Hollywood not only because he had to, but because he could. His loyal fans, willing to follow him anywhere he commands, fund his work. He comes from a time when a director could develop as a singular, unique voice that had his or her own audience. Quentin Tarantino is the purest expression of that iconoclastic position he makes Quentin Tarantino movies and thats it, movie business trends be damned.

Kevin Smith also only makes Kevin Smith movies, but unlike Tarantino, mainstream audiences have next to no interest in what he does. Its easy to malign someone like Smith for his seeming lack of interest in the art form. By the time of the well-scraping Clerks II, most of the critics who initial anointed him a darling of the medium had turned on him, relegating him to the cultural scrapheap. But as they were doing that, he was furthering his connection to his fanbase. He doesnt need film critics, and yet they persist in cutting him down. What Smith has done is render himself critic-proof. The wall between him and the naysayers is so tall and so thick that nothing they say can penetrate it.

Smith has promised to retire from film-making and reneged on that promise, defiant to the last. If there is one constant in his career, its a marked lack of interest in servicing anyones taste but his own. In the process, hes made himself a very rich man and a brand with few equals, but thats the greatest wedge between him and the average film critic. His bad movies are almost beside the point. They are merely advertisements for Kevin Smith Incorporated, an ongoing business concern that will exist long after were gone. It is a grand triumph of commerce over art the hucksters dream realized.

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