Wednesday, November 30, 2005

MUIR BOOK WEDNESDAY # 5: An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith

This week, I'm plugging another one of my books (oh, not again!) This time, it's my first project for Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith (2002)

I had a terrific time writing this book, in part because the subject matter is so much fun, in part because the talents I was able to interview for the text were some of the most delightful people I've ever had the good-fortune to talk with. Jason Mewes was an interview I'll never forget, and he even kindly agreed to speak with my wife, Kathryn...who has an eternal, undying crush on him. Jeff Anderson and Brian O'Halloran (Randal and Dante, respectively), were funny, informative and quite kind...and their comments about the Clerks Animated Series had me in stitches. Dwight Ewell (from Chasing Amy) was a delight, Jennifer Schwalbach (Mr. Smith's lovely voice), was candid, wickedly funny and accommodating during a difficult time (a move to California...), and the great John Pierson (author of Spike, Mike, Slackers & Dykes) was informative and thoughtful, and he really helped me put matters into perspective. And so on.

I'll repeat my thesis here: Kevin Smith is to Generation X what Woody Allen is to the Baby Boomers. I realize that some folk have a problem with me making that comparison. Sorry...I speak the truth. This is a director who "gets" our lives, and is able to transfer that understanding to film with acerbic wit, humanity and pathos. Sure, his humor can be outrageous (like Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back) but it can also be brutally truthful, as in the case of Chasing Amy, one of my favorite films.

Anyway, here's what the critics had to say about my book, An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith:

"Muir makes solid points, proving the artistic validity of Kevin Smith's films...As a critic, Muir is acute in his analysis, and as a writer he is easy to read. ASKEW VIEW is a real page turner...how many books of intense film criticism can say that?...[T]he book can be unhesitatingly recommended to all thinking fans of Smith, as well as film fans in general." - Chris Wyatt, Associate Editor, CINESCAPE ONLINE, 11/12/2002.

"This is not a 'movie' book, this is a legitimate film book, written by an accomplished film journalist with numerous other volumes under his belt. Not only does AN ASKEW VIEW contain interviews with the usual cast of characters...it is meticulously researched with copious sources referenced...[An] excellent look at Smith's work. Grade: A." - Jack Abramowitz, COMIC BUYER's GUIDE #1535, 4/18/03.

"Muir's latest offering is a guided tour of the iconic New Jersey filmmaker's cinematic oeuvre...Muir creates a compelling - and somewhat inspirational - portrait of Smith...Muir does an admirable job of capturing in print the appeal of Smith's films, and some of the stories...are both telling and hilarious....Smith's legions of fans...especially those in film school...will enjoy this effort."-PUBLISHER'S WEEKLY, 09/23/02.

"Muir gives Kevin Smith a rip-roaring tribute...Muir makes a good case for the distinctive cinematic voice of a Generation X'er...this is a well-written, engaging, and informative book..."-LIBRARY JOURNAL, 10/05/02.

"An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith by film and television expert John Kenneth Muir is an insightful commentary...this fascinating companion book...is highly recommended reading for students of filmmaking, as well as the legions of Kevin Smith fans."-MIDWEST BOOK REVIEW 12/2002

"This is an excellent book for either diehard fans of the New Jersey filmmaker or anyone who is only a partial fan of his movies. Muir...is able to capture the versatility and genius that is Kevin Smith...If you enjoy his [Smith's] movies and want to know more about them, then pick up this light-hearted book for an interesting read."-EAGLE ONLINE.

"Beginning with the genesis of Smith's ill-fated stint in a Vancouver film school and his initial meeting with future producer Scott Mosier, Muir goes to great length to chronicle Smith's entire body of work in often meticulous detail. Often drawing literary analogy to the likes of Shakespeare, Dante and others, AN ASKEW VIEW not only dissects Smith's films, but gives the works greater context in the realm of film and literature. Muir, an author of other works dealing with the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre director Tobe Hooper, the Doctor Who television series and the horror genre of film, again flexes his pop culture chops on AN ASKEW VIEW...engaging and entertaining."- @Magazine, 2003.

"In the first ever book-length study of the films of Kevin Smith, author John Kenneth Muir thoroughly examines the young director's controversial oeuvre...Fans of this unique auteur will be thrilled with this detailed, behind the scenes look at the cinema of Kevin Smith."-THEATRE BOOKS.

"The commentary from the actors and production staff help bring each chapter to life...The commentary in the book also includes insight from Muir himself who has a vast knowledge of film and has written eleven books prior to Askew View..."-Zack Bridges, THE ENQUIRER-JOURNAL, 06/05/03.


And here's an excerpt from the book's introduction:

"He [Smith] takes his own real life experiences, but just like Janet Maslin wrote in that Clerks review from New Directors," says John Pierson "he spins straw into gold. To me, the essence of him spinning straw into gold is taking actual experience that he knows oh so well, and somehow, both on the comedic side and on the emotional heartfelt side, making it transcendent."

Just like
Chasing Amy.

And that's one reason why, when searching for historical antecedents, it's a no brainer to compare Kevin Smith to Woody Allen. As Pierson considers, "they're both writers first," movie directors second, and both use life experience as a platform to reveal stories about human nature.

Sure, Smith's films routinely reference Superman, Lucas and Spielberg rather than Fassbinder, Bergman, or Wagner, but that's merely a generational quirk. In common, Allen and Smith share a common "style of slightly exaggerated comedy" and the propensity to resort to slapstic antics and crude humor amidst their witty comedic word play. But that's the universality of the human condition too, as Smith has often remarked. "We all have sex, and we all take dumps."

Smith is the Woody Allen for Generation X in the sense that he seems to be the only young writer-director working today who asks the deeper questions about love, religion, and sex in a way that makes audiences laugh. The countless Scooby Doo, Planet of the Apes, The X-Files, Jaws and B.J. and the Bear references in his films are merely touchstones for viewers to understand that, when all is said and done, Smith is one of us and speaks our language. Those TV shows and films represent a shorthand not only to coolness, but a shared heritage growing up in the 1970s. Smith is a director who, impressively, writes A-style personal material yet utilizes allusions to B-style productions as a hook to grab an audience weaned on television.

That's my generation, and Smith is undeniably a role model. Not coincidentally, his films have shadowed the progress of Gen X'ers every step of the way during our maturation process: through our post-college slump and ambivalence (Clerks), our professional blossoming and relationship blues (Chasing Amy) and even or our skeptical but seemingly optimistic stance about religion (Dogma)...

So that's it! And may I add, Snootchie Bootchies! An Askew View: The Films of Kevin Smith is available today!

5 comments:

  1. Anonymous4:37 PM

    I got this book as a birthday present last year, and I thought it was great Some of the stories were very funny.

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  2. up front, i am one of the folks (one might harshly label us "haters") who can't stomach the woody allen/kevin smith analog.
    in general type, yes, but i don't think that can account for stacking smith's accomplishments up against allen's. there have been a lot of allen types following in his footsteps. off the top of my head, i think of albert brooks, whit stillman, and now, with "melvin goes to dinner," bob oedenkirk (formerly known as the "mr. show" genius. even todd solondz dabbled at allen idolatry before blazing his own brave, inspired, brilliant path. none have really equalled allen's idiosyncratic stature.
    you say that both are writers first, directors second. while woody allen was a television writer and stand up before being a director, he clearly made the leap sometime in the seventies to becoming primarily a directorial auteur. kevin smith's direction of his own writing has been consistently clunky, and he's never really gone beyond being a servicable director of his own material.
    as for being a writer first, smith pales next to allen in the writing department. smith's scripts are intermittently amusing slacker farces. his attempts at tackling real themes, like chasing amy and dogma, have been dissapointing, with chasing amy creating a magical lesbian to explicate smith's surface revalations about modern sexuality, thus preventing any need to realistically depict the conundrums of the plot, and dogma having characters speak catholic grade school theological problem spots rather than thinking of any interesting or provocative ways to deal with the issues. for a more interesting, funny, and filmic critique of catholic dogma, catch luis bunuel's "the milky way."
    allen, the writer, was part of the writing staff for sid ceasar's "your show of shows" with mel brooks and carl reiner, a revolutionary stand up in the sixties, and author of such classic comedy books such as "without feathers." smith may be a very good writer for comics, but cannot compete on the comedy front with woody.
    smith is never as funny as allen when he makes pure comedies, such as "take the money and run" "bananas" "sleeper" "love and death" and "zelig." the latter is both a brilliant slapstick and a profound philosophical piece on conformity. also a better mock doc than even the master, chris guest has managed.
    as for allen's more serious masterpieces like annie hall, manhatten, stardust memories, hannah and her sisters, crimes and misdemeanors, and sweet and lowdown, i haven't seen anything by smith approaching this.
    yes, allen's done many lousy movies, particularly in the last decade. and clerks was good, even if retrospectively the awkward directing style seems to have less to do with budget and content than the artistic limitations of the director. still, i say to you, jk muir, that i have seen woody allen, and kevin smith is no woody allen.

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  3. Hey George,

    Thanks for your comment! I think we disagree on Kevin Smith, but that's okay, right? I'm a big admirer of the director (obviously, since I wrote a book). I'm aware he's controversial, but I still think that he's Gen X's answer to Woody Allen. And his career is still young, so we'll what happens next. I agree that Clerks is great, but I also find a lot more value than you do in Chasing Amy, particularly. It may not seem realistic to some (vis-a-vis your comment on the lesbian), but this is a film that speaks to my generation (and a lot of my friends relate to it.) I know folks who have been through a situation like that, or variations of that. Anyway - this is one of those where we probably just should happily agree to disagree. I do appreciate you writing in, however!

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  4. of course we can disagree. i'm perhaps irrationally negative towards kevin smith, but not his fans. like the classic defensive racist, some of my best friends are kevin smith lovers. i've had those chasing amy experiences myself, by the way. i just felt joey lauren adam's character sounded like she was there to be a mouthpiece to kevin smith's insights on that kind of predicament rather than a real character. perhaps i'm just too generation y to really love and relate to smith's stuff.

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  5. Hey George --

    To each his own! I understand how you feel. I've made certain friends and relatives watch all the Kevin Smith films, and it's always funny to see who grooves on the movies and who dislikes 'em. For instance, my mom's favorite Kevin Smith movie is Jersey Girl -- probably his most mainstream -- but mine's Chasing Amy. I know a 21 year old who likes Mallrats best. Amy was a very personal film to me and my wife...so you may be spot on in your analysis: Kevin Smith appreciation may be in some senses a generational thing. Kevin Smith does seeem to inspire a lot of passion either one way or another...

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