Saturday, July 29, 2006

Clerks and Cynicism

I went to see Clerks II over the weekend. I cannot exactly say why, the ninety-degree heat had a lot to do with it, but it does not explain the particular choice. I have never really been a Kevin Smith. Watching the film did allow me to pinpoint exactly what I find so vexing about his films.

Kevin Smith likes to consider himself to be shocking and threatening to conventional sensibilities. In this particular film the transgressive scene has to do with a bachelor party bestiality act, or, as it is referred to in the film, "interspecies erotica." This scene which is more implied than shown has already received a great deal of attention in the press. What is not discussed, and I suppose this is something of a spoiler, is that it is during this scene of debauchery that one of the main characters Dante Hicks declares his love for Becky, played by Rosario Dawson. (In this film Dawson plays as much as an adolescent male fantasy as she did in Sin City: in this film she plays the quintessential "girl who is one of the guys,"someone you can discuss porn with and have sex with) Earlier in the film the Becky character had expressed her criticism of the ideal of romantic love, stating that monogamy contradicts basic human nature. Without getting into the limitations of this particular critique of monogamy, I will just say that it is a criticism of sorts, but more importantly it is a criticism that is promptly overcome by the last scene--in the midst of numerous references to bestiality, masturbation, and homosexuality. This is what I find so bothersome about Kevin Smith films (and much of contemporary raunchy comedy), that no matter how shocking and even crude the film gets it never gets in the way of what remains a basically sentimental Hollywood cliche regarding love. The scatological, subversive, and bawdy humor in no way interferes with the ideal of love. The film is about as transgressive as a bachelor party, in the morning, after the strippers have left and the "adult novelty gifts" have been put away, marriage and the church emerge from the ordeal unscathed.

This reminds me of a passage from Deleuze and Guattari's Anti-Oedipus that I have been thinking about as of late. As Deleuze and Guattari write about our contemporary age:

It is no longer the age of cruelty or the age of terror, but the age of cynicism, accompanied by a strange piety. (The two taken together constitute humanism: cynicism is the physical immanence of the social field, and piety is the maintenance of a spiritualized Urstaat; cynicism is capital as the means of extorting surplus labor, but piety is this same capital as God-capital, whence all the forces of labor seem to emanate.) ( pg. 225)

Now I take this phrase to be more of a provocation than an explanation, but I take its central point to be that contemporary "cynicism" is not a critique of established values, but a distance kept with respect to those values. As Peter Sloterdijk argues the cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological values and the social reality, but still insists on the mask. Which is why Deleuze and Guattari insist that cynicism is inseparable from a kind of piety: the relentless pursuit of profit with an invocation of "values," or, hypersexuality and the ideal of marriage. Cynicism is the coexistence of the highest values and their opposite, without contradiction or tension.

If the citations of Deleuze, Guattari, and Sloterdijk are making this too confusing, The Daily Show makes pretty much the same point.

Now, I am not saying that I hated the film, in fact I rather enjoyed the synchronized dance routine to The Jackson Five's "A B C". I definitely have a thing for synchronized dance routines in films which are not musicals. (This is probably one of the reasons that I love Simple Men so much). I also like its last minute spirited defense of the the "slacker" lifestyle.

1 comment:

Jo Glid said...

I've been thinking a lot today about the original Clerks film, and I hopped over to your blog to see if you'd written anything on it. Most Smith films post-Dogma are awful, but I think Clerks holds up as a very interesting anti-work movie, and although the humor might be too crude for today's audiences, it's less crude than Clerks II. Also unlike Clerks II the focus is less on relationship than on work. Basically what I'm saying is that I think you'd find the original Clerks compelling, and it's a much more watchable film (better music, better jokes, better everything). You've probably seen it, so I won't go into plot details, but what I find compelling is the work-related dilemma it poses. In the first half of the film, Dante and Randall seem to have it made: they're clerks at stores where their bosses are never around, so they can do basically whatever they want, hang out with their friends, etc. But then near the end of the film Randall suddenly becomes ashamed of working so long at a menial labor job, even though you can tell he loves the freedom; Dante similarly likes the freedom, and doesn't understand why Randall is suddenly taken in by the stigma of working at places called "Quik Stops" as though they were supposedly a "quik stop" on the way to a better job and thus a dignified adult life. The film asks: why is it that the jobs that are the most fun, where the bosses barely give a shit, the most stigmatized and denigrated kind of jobs? Perhaps that's a paltry message in an era where great films like Sorry to Bother You call for direct action rather than for the glorification of the slacker lifestyle. But maybe I still think the slacker lifestyle, in its fantastical forms like in the original Clerks, function as anti-work films.

Dante is a clerk at