Film and theatre; two art forms that have a lot of surface level similarities and overlap, but are fundamentally different mediums. Plenty of actors, directors, and writers do work for both the screen and the stage, but often times you can tell where someone got their start. Certain things that work for the stage may not work on screen or vice versa. I myself mostly come from a theatre background, and the training that I have in acting and directing is geared towards staged work. My first time acting on camera was a bit of a learning experience, as I had to go back on several of the things I learned regarding projection, gesture, and what not. Recently I watched Kevin Smith’s Clerks for the first time and in addition to enjoying the film, I was struck by how much it reminded me of seeing a play. It’s still very much a movie working within the rules and methods of the camera, but what Kevin Smith was able to do here was capture that unique live theatre feeling through the film’s setting, pacing, and dialogue.
Aside from a few noteworthy scenes like the hockey game on the roof and visiting the funeral, most of the action throughout the entire film takes place within or around the convenience store where Dante is working. While watching the film I could imagine the stage set up in a proscenium style theater. The counter obviously being center stage where most action would be happening, with a bathroom upstage for the elderly customer to use. Further downstage and to the side would be where Jay and Silent Bob would be loitering around. Any scenes that take place outside the store could be done at the downstage most section of the playing space or very quick and low-key set changes. The film obviously doesn’t feature much in the way of different settings because the budget was so small, but it ends up working to the film’s benefit. You feel like you’re trapped there just like Dante is.
The relatively stagnant setting of the film also plays a large part in the film’s pacing. Smith drew inspiration from Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing for the “day in the life approach”, and it shows. The store is as much a character as Bedford–Stuyvesant is in Do the Right Thing, or as any other named character in this film is. It’s especially relatable for anyone who’s worked a retail job before. The surroundings of your work environment are all you see for hours and days. As you spend time there you notice unique and specific things about the place, giving it character. Dante’s familiarity with his surroundings is apparent and the audience is easily able to his history with the place and fill in the gaps with their own experiences either shopping or working in this kind of store. The characters are defined not just be their relationships to each other, but also to their surroundings.
The film doesn’t move exactly in real time, but it perfectly captures the feeling of a full day at work. Staged work will often take place in real time or very close to real time, at least more so than films usually will. Plays can’t always make huge jumps in time or location, and often will tell contained stories. Of course depending on the script and budget, a play could do anything it wants with time and space, and several have done well to show these changes in creative and transformative ways on stage. “Real time” plays often feature more naturalistic settings and situations, and Clerks fits very comfortably into the theatrical canon of Realism, finding strange bedfellows among the works on Henrik Ibsen and Anton Chekhov, with their hyperrealism and strong focus on characterization.
The dialogue, more than anything else in Clerks, feels the most theatrical. Usually in a play, a character will share their thoughts and feelings out loud, if not to another character than to an audience in the form of a monologue. Now, Clerks doesn’t feature Dante standing alone giving a soliloquy to the audience, but he’s very vocal about his situation and feelings and expresses them to Randal and the other characters in the film. Film critic Peter Travers said of the film, “Smith nails the obsessive verbal wrangling of smart, stalled twentysomethings who can’t figure out how to get their ideas into motion.” The characters have these grand ideas and they express them out loud in a way that feels very theatrical. The old saying still remains to “show, not tell” and while that’s very true in both art forms, sometimes with plays some extra legwork is required to get feelings and emotions across since there isn’t the benefit of a close up to show what the character is thinking.
In a famous scene Dante and Randal discuss The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Dante cites Empire as his favorite of the Star Wars films and Randal starts going off about the fact that many independent contractors were likely killed on the second Death Star because it was still under construction while it was destroyed. The scene reveals a lot about Dante as he equates the downer ending of Empire with the depressing nature of life, and the scene perfectly showcases the relationship between the two. A pair of slackers who would rather take the time of day to discuss trivial matters in movies. The nature of this dialogue, combined with Jeff Anderson’s casual, almost uncaring delivery creates an incredible sense of realism that wouldn’t feel too out of place in an Annie Baker play. One of her plays, The Flick, feels very akin to Clerks in that it’s a low-key story about a few minimum wage workers just trying to navigate their jobs, relationships, and their lives.
Kevin Smith got his start in doing sketch comedy before becoming an independent filmmaker, but his work on Clerks shows a deep understanding of works of theatrical realism, defined by their realistic situations and natural dialogue and characters. Clerks give us a day in the life of disgruntled, low waged retail worker. Time passes realistically, the location is pretty set, and the characters communicate in a natural, if slightly expository way. With a few slight tweaks the story would easily work on stage. In an age where almost any property can get a big musical adaptation, regardless of theatrical nature, I would be fascinated to see a low-key staged production of Clerks. Bringing the story to stage could greatly enhance the sense of realism and provide and even closer and more personal connection to Dante and the store he works in.