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Documenting Kevin Smith

April 26th, 2010

I’m a big Kevin Smith fan, and I have enormous, unabashed love for his first five films (Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma, and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back).  His more recent installments have been a bit shakier – Jersey Girl didn’t work for me (though admittedly I haven’t seen it again since my disappointing first viewing in theatres when it came out), Clerks II and Zach & Miri Make a Porno both had some truly hilarious moments but also some unfortunate left-turns into schmaltz, and I skipped Cop Out (which Mr. Smith directed but didn’t write).

But not only are his early films phenomenal, they also boast some of the very best DVDs ever produced. Over the years Mr. Smith (working with the various studios involved) has released dynamite special editions of his films that are filled-to-overflowing with deleted scenes, gag reels, all sorts of making-of featurettes, and some of the funniest group commentary tracks ever recorded.  I’m telling you, these commentaries are a scream, whether one is listening to the snoring of a passed-out-drunk Jason Mewes on the Clerks commentary (I’m not kidding) or to Ben Affleck’s spot-on impersonation of Denzel Washington in Malcolm X on the Chasing Amy commentary.

As often as I like to pop in one of Mr. Smith’s films to re-watch for the umpteenth time, I also often find myself sitting down to re-watch some of the marvelous special features.The recent blu-ray release of Clerks and Chasing Amy prompted me to check out several of the amazing making-of documentaries found on these discs.

First up was The Snowball Effect, a documentary about the seat-of-the-pants making of Clerks.

(This doc was first released on the Clerks X tenth anniversary DVD.)There are a lot of famous legends about the way Kevin Smith maxed out all of his credit cards to make Clerks with his friends in the convenience store where he worked.This doc covers all of those stories, but also goes a lot deeper into exploring just what prompted young Mr. Smith to decide that he was going to make a movie, and how this dude working in a convenience store went about making his dream a reality.It’s a pretty incredible story, made all the more incredible by this documentary’s in-depth recounting of all of the hurdles, large and small, that Smith (working with a tight group of co-conspirators including the man who would become his long-time producer, Scott Mosier) had to overcome.The documentary includes interviews with pretty much anyone and everyone involved in the making of Clerks, and doesn’t shy away from the juicy stories when all wasn’t quite well amongst Smith & the gang.

The new Clerks blu-ray also includes a never-before-released documentary (though it was made several years ago and has been shown at various film festivals) about the making of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, called Oh What a Lovely Tea Party. (That title is a reference to the punch-line of a crude joke in the film.) This film is comprised entirely of footage that Mr. Smith’s wife, Jennifer Schwalbach, shot on the set of Jay and Silent Bob – footage both of the filmmaking process and of her interviews with the film’s participants.This is an interesting documentary in that there is no narration, and no new talking-head interviews, to give the film a structure.Instead, it creates a you-are-there approach as the viewer is presented with this behind-the-scenes footage of the making of the film.  The doc has a very episodic feel, as we progress chronologically through the making of the film, bouncing every few minutes from the making of one sequence from Jay
and Silent Bo
b to the next.The “fly-on-the-wall” style of the documentary is its best quality, and there were times when it was truly fascinating to sit back and watch this intimate view of Smith & his team at work, having fun and screwing around.But the down-side to this approach is that there wasn’t any sort of momentum built up as the documentary progressed.  It’s just one sequence of behind-the-scenes footage after another, and as a result I started getting a bit bored after about 45 minutes.

Not to be out-done, the new Chasing Amy blu-ray also contains an elaborate new documentary.Tracing Amy (an excellent title that, of course, refers to the famous “you’re a tracer!” joke from the film) is one of the best making-of documentaries that I have ever seen on disc (and I’ve seen a lot of them!).It’s an engrossing, incredibly detailed look at every aspect of the making of this film.I’m pretty familiar with a lot of the stories from the making of Chasing Amy, following the commercial and critical failure of Mallrats, but this doc was filled with new stories and information that I had never heard before.As with The Snowball Effect, Tracing Amy contains exhaustive interviews with an enormous number of the major (and peripheral!) players in the film, both in front of and behind the camera.It’s a hoot – Mr. Smith and many of his team (especially Ben Affleck) are a riot as they re-tell the stories of the making of Chasing Amy.But it’s also really endearing to see how personally invested these people were in the making of that unique film.Tracing Amy is almost as long as the film it’s documenting, but I could have easily watched another hour of footage.

These types of special features are the reason that I love DVDs/blu-rays, and they exemplify the potential of this format.I really love getting all of the nitty-gritty inside scoop behind the trials and tribulations of the making of films that I love.I wish that more DVDs/blu-rays contained making-of documentaries that were put together with as much care and attention as these were.Simply marvelous.

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