Auteurism is a debatable subject. Can a film truly be the work of one person’s vision or will the collaboration of many interject? Throughout the course of this essay I will examine the work of director, actor, writer and Editor Kevin Smith and his place within the auteur theory.
In order to truly debate where Kevin Smith relates within the place of auteur theory, one must first attempt to understand the concept of auteurism. The existence of auteurism is highly debatable and defined in many different ways. Phillips states, ‘an auteur director is one who brings to a film signs of their own individuality […] the auteur is able to function as the main creative force and controlling presence’ (Phillips, 2001: 195). Auteurism is often split into two distinct categories, as noted by Buckland:
The Classical auteur, a skilled craft worker who has mastered – and indeed represents – “the tradition”; and the Romantic auteur: a lone, creative genius who works intuitively and mysteriously outside of all traditions.
Examples of the ‘Classical auteur’ would be Spielberg, Hitchcock or Ford. These are men who worked within the Hollywood system with the full financial backing of studios. These auteurs typically have similar mise-en-scene or recurring narrative themes in their work: for example, Hitchcock often had stories of obsession with a female character – Rear Window (1954), Psycho (1960) and Vertigo (1958) – and Spielberg often tells stories about children feeling isolated – Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Empire of the Sun (1987). Each of the films mentioned were all made within the studio system whilst at the same time, their directors maintaining a certain degree of authorial ownership. On the other hand, the ‘Romantic auteur’ works outside the studio system and are traditionally less concerned with narrative devices and more concerned with their films being viewed as art. The ‘Romantic auteur’ can also be applied to ‘American independents who cater to specialized audiences (such as Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, Richard Linklater and Kevin Smith)’ (Buckland, 2003: 85). As Buckland mentioned, it is here that one could argue that Smith can be categorised as an auteur.
Smith started as a convenience store clerk who wrote a screenplay, self-financed filming and directed Clerks (1994). After becoming a hit on the festival circuit, Smith went on to a further nine (to date) films and has since built up a keen fan base. His films often gross $8-10 Million in the box office – which is by no means a failure, but also caters to a specific audience. Smith records and releases podcasts on a weekly basis, tours where he answers audiences’ questions and is very active on his websites message board. In evidence of this fan base, Smith used all of these components to market Red State instead of using traditional means (such as posters and trailers). Therefore, under Buckland’s definition, Smiths auteurist standing can be argued on the fact he caters to a specific audience regardless of the form or content of his films – this further demonstrates issues with the auteur theory.
Smith’s first film Clerks tells the story of Dante and his co-worker Randal on one day in their occupation. At the time of writing the screenplay, Smith was working at the very store in which his characters are employed in the film. Wood notes that ‘filming took place at night in the Leonardo Quick stop convenience store where Smith worked on a minimum wage. The fact that the shutters remain permanently closed is incorporated into the film as a recurring joke’ (Wood, 2004: 49). This is just one example of Smith incorporating his real life into his films; other examples being: Chasing Amy (1997) is about a man struggling with his girlfriends past, Dogma (1999) is Smith struggling with his religion, Jersey Girl (2004) is a man coming to terms with being a Father and Zach and Miri Make a Porno (2008) essentially tells the story of the filming of Clerks. Each of these reflects attitudes or struggles that Smith himself was going through at the time of their creation. Smith himself has stated that ‘I’m not very creative.’ (Main Feature, An Evening With Kevin Smith, Disc 1: 2002).
There are several parallels to be drawn between Basque filmmaker Julio Médem and Smith. Stone states that ‘Médem certainly functions as a self-conscious construct with autuerist ambitions’ (2007: 7), which can also be applied to Smith. Both filmmakers are themselves the main reference point for each of their films: for example, what is Los amantes del círculo polar (Lovers of the Arctic Circle: 1998) if not all about Médem’s relationship with his sister. On a similar point, what is Dogma if not all about Smith debating his own catholic upbringing. Both filmmakers also represent the role of the writer in their films. In Lucía y el sexo (Sex and Lucia: 2001) the character of Lorenzo is clearly Médem. Médem is quoted in Stone’s book as saying ‘I wanted to feel free like [Lorenzo]’ (2007: 152). In Smith’s Chasing Amy, the character of Holden is clearly Smith. Smith has said that – as previously mentioned – he was insecure about his girlfriends past which is where the inspiration for Chasing Amy came from (Main Feature, An Evening With Kevin Smith, Disc 1: 2002). Also, as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Smith often makes films with regards to his own emotions and feelings, the same can be said for Médem. Stone notes that the ‘absolute key to [the] films by Julio Médem is always resolutely Julio Médem’ (2007:16).
Another aspect of autuerism is the recurrence of thematic devices. Smith utilises similar content in each one of his films. Simply by the distinct way that each of his characters speaks, the audience is able to deduce that it is Smiths dialogue. His characters often speak in monologue and tear apart popular culture to great comedy effect. Clerks’s Randal is the archetypical Smith character as he epitomizes the way that Smith characters often view the world. An example of this is in Clerks where Randal tears apart the politics of the blowing up of the second death star in Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi (1983). Not only is dialogue a key component in Smith films, visually his films are distinctive; his style is that he has no style. Smith’s camera is often static and holds on the characters to extenuate the dialogue. This is something Smith himself often comments on and has improved with the increase in budget in each of his films. Cop Out (2009) for example was Smiths first studio film that he was simply brought on to direct; visually, Smiths camera moves, follows action ahead of dialogue. However, it can be argued that this loses Smith’s personal stamp on a film – akin to Kubrick’s Spartacus (1960).
A problem that occurs in autuerism is the role of the writer. If the director is the sole authorial voice on a film, what role does the writer play? This is an issue that lies within the auteur theory. However, if one were to be classified as an auteur, they would tweak a screenplay to show their vision. The contributions of other people involved with the film ‘may be particularly foregrounded […] but the controlling creative authority and deployment of these contributions is that of the auteur director’ (Phillips, 2001: 197). However, as previously mentioned, Smith is the screenwriter on nine of his ten films, this demonstrates that Smith’s vision would be able to be realised more clearly as he is the key creative influence on each of his films.
Thus far, the role of an auteur has been mentioned as a role to aspire to, however, this may not necessarily be the case. Consistency in filmmaking may not necessarily breed success: for example, Smith consistently represents females in his film as sexual or desirable objects for the male characters to either lust over or discuss in a derogatory fashion. Examples of this kind of female representation can be found in all of Smith’s films – the only basis of debating this is that in Chasing Amy, Alyssa actually refuses to pander to the requests of Holden. As previously mentioned, Smith’s dialogue often references popular culture and rips it apart – for example, a scene in Clerks II (2006) shows Randall deconstructing The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003). Whilst some find this brand of dialogue humorous and edgy, others can view it as opinionated. In interviews, on his podcasts and in his question and answer DVD’s, Smith is always free to offer an opinion on any subject. Smith himself states in his DVD ‘I’m used to saying shit left and right about people and nobody says anything back’ (Main Feature, An Evening With Kevin Smith, Disc 1: 2002)
As I have previously alluded to, there are films in Smith’s oeuvre that appear to be out of step with the rest. Jersey Girl, Cop Out, Zach and Miri Make a Porno and Red State are all vastly different to the other work that Smith has done. The other six films that Smith has directed were all set in the same universe and intertwined dialogue and characters with one another; for example, in Clerks, Randall and Dante attend the funeral of Julie Dwyer – it was her death that set the narrative into motion in Mallrats (1995). Given that Smith has created what became known as the View Askewneverse (after Smiths production company View Askew), each of the films within by definition contain Smiths signature. That is not to say that the other films that Smith directed do no contain typical Smith trademarks. For example, Smith uses many of the same actors in different films (he has worked with Ben Affleck six times, Jeff Anderson five times, Jason Lee seven times, Jason Mewes seven times to name a few).
Cop Out is very much the exception to all of Smiths previous films. It was the first film that Smith directed without writing, for the most part, he was working with actors that he never had before, not produced by Smiths friend Scott Mosier (the first time that had occurred) and it represents the first time that Smith worked within the studio system as a director for hire. Cop Out could quite simply be the exception that proves the rule with regards to Smith’s status as an auteur filmmaker. With Cop Out being so different from Smith’s previous output, it serves to highlight the similarities between his other films.
As previously mentioned, auteurism is a highly debatable subject. However, taking the definitions given by Phillips and Buckland, Kevin Smiths role in relation to the auteur theory is unmistakable. It is possible that in order to truly be an auteur in modern-day cinema, one must write, direct, edit and act. Smith does each of these with the exception of the editing on Mallrats and writing in Cop Out – as I have said before, it is possible that because of Smiths lesser involvement with the pre or post production, the films were less critically acclaimed than those that fall into the category of typical Smith films; an example of which would be Chasing Amy. Given that auteurism is debated, the question may not be whether Smith serves to be an auteur, it may be that he – along with others such as Noel Clarke, Spike Lee and Christopher Nolan – are the only true auteurs in modern cinema given that they are adding more than one credit to the production.
Kenny, J.M. An Evening With Kevin Smith (2002)
Médem, Julio, Lovers of the Arctic Circle (Los amantes del círculo polar 1998)
—, Sex and Lucia (Lucía y el sexo 2001)
Smith, Kevin, Clerks (1994)
—, Mallrats (1995)
—, Chasing Amy (1997)
—, Dogma (1999)
—, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001)
—, Jersey Girl (2004)
—, Clerks II (2006)
—, Zack and Miri Make A Porno (2008)
—, Cop Out (2010)
—, Red State (2011)
Buckland, W. (2003) ‘The Role Of The Auteur In The Age Of The Blockbuster’, in Stringer, J. (ed.) Movie Blockbusters, London: Routledge, pp. 84-98.
Monaco, J. (2000) How to Read a Film, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
King, G. (2005) American Independent Cinema, London: I.B. Tauris.
Phillips, P (2001) ‘Genre, star and auteur – critical approaches to Hollywood cinema’, in Nelmes, J. (ed.) An Introduction to Film Studies, London: Routledge, pp. 162-208.
Smith, K. (2007) My Boring-Ass Life The Uncomfortably Candid Diary of Kevin Smith, London: Titan Books.
Stone, R. (2007) Julio Medem, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Wood, J. (2004) 100 American Independent Films: BFI Screen Guides, London: BFI Publishing.