Generation X is dead — as a subject, that is. The people who purportedly constitute it are still around. They’re young and all that; they’ve got their whole lives ahead of them, God bless ‘em and good luck. But enough already. All the books, articles, dissertations, satires, and wisecracks intended to illuminate what this mass of post-boomers actually represents are old news — and they haven’t added up to a whole lot.
If the sociology that is meant to explain Generation X has been lame, then the entertainment that’s being aggressively marketed to that generation is lamer still. Take, for example, the awful 1994 X-oriented movie Reality Bites, with its user-friendly ensemble of flip cultural stereotypes — one’s a slacker, one’s a player, one’s a trollop, and they all know the words to the Brady Bunch theme song. Unfortunately, Reality’s poor performance at the box office hasn’t stopped other distributors from trying to cash in on the X factor with such twentysomething releases (all recently out on video) as Clerks, S.F.W., Floundering, and Don’t Do It!.
The best of the lot, the refreshing Clerks, refuses to generalize about its young characters — which is part of the reason why people will be looking, and laughing, at this film long after its hapless wage slaves have (presumably) grown up and gotten real jobs. Made for about $27,000 — a budget that will, unfortunately, inspire many less talented filmmakers — Clerks recounts a particularly bad shift for Dante (Brian O’Halloran), a 22-year-old convenience-store employee called in on his day off. Dante knows it’s a nowhere job, but he tries to be conscientious about it, in stark contrast to his best friend, Randal (Jeff Anderson), the ne plus ultra of goofballs, who works at the video store in the same strip mall. Dante has to deal with the requisite customers from hell (the guy searching for the perfect carton of eggs is particularly memorable, though he is hardly the weirdest), his pal’s cockamamy whims, a canceled street hockey game, a funeral, and a romantic entanglement or two before closing shop. Writer-director Kevin Smith assembles enough memorable vignettes to fill two movies and creates a real story line, then wraps it all up on a note that’s ambiguous but not a cop-out.
The key to Clerks’ charm is that Smith obviously doesn’t feel obligated to speak for his generation. He seems content merely to write about characters he knows well. His clerks aren’t constantly arguing about music or spouting arcane ’70s references — they talk about their lives. (The one extended cultural riff is on the Star Wars trilogy, an easy enough allusion, and leads into a truly hysterical discourse on, of all things, the conscience of the independent contractor.) And, yes, their talk is pretty filthy, but that’s verisimilitude for you, and Smith never tries to wrest laughs from vulgarity alone. While the dynamic of the Dante/Randal relationship — the former much too passive, the latter way too cavalier — comes off a little like a creative-writing exercise, Smith’s wit, verve, and imagination elevate the schematic pairing. And though hardly a feast for the eyes (its grainy black and white is low-rent rather than high-style), it’s a feat nonetheless. A-