Sunday, April 11, 2010

An Evening with Kevin Smith

Like countless others, I first met Kevin Smith via Clerks. I don't remember if my old pal Travis and I rented it or found it on cable, but I was mesmerised by both its pop culture complexity and raunchy simpleness. Since my young mind couldn't wrap itself around this black and white enigma, this one part purely innocent/one part perverted cinematic blip, I dismissed Kevin Smith altogether (in retrospect, an ironically black and white decision), until his writing stint on Daredevil several years ago. Suddenly, the amateur filmmaker that talked about comics and science fiction was contributing to it, so I just had to take a peek. His scripts were lofty and ambitious, but I appreciated Smith's respect for the comic as a storytelling, character-driven medium. By the time Kevin was resurrecting Green Arrow, he had found his stride and pulled back on that panel-choking inner monologue text. By then I had seen and developed a better appreciation for his films, too, especially Chasing Amy and Dogma. I had become a Kevin Smith fan.

So, years later, on Saturday, April 10, 2010, my girlfriend and I are sitting in the Orpheum Theater in Phoenix, and the guy next to me shares that he had driven from Albuquerque that day to see his hero, Kevin Smith. He asks if I have the Zack and Miri Make a Porno DVD -- because apparently Smith's lack of commentary is disappointing and he wants to ask if Kevin will eventually record one -- and I respond honestly, that I don't. (I don't have the heart to tell him I haven't seen the movie at all.) Stunned, he asks why I'd even come to see Kevin live, then, especially considering the presumed cost for our excellent seats. (Again, I don't have the heart to tell him I scored the seats from Craigslist.) I'm tempted to tell him that origin story, the night at Travis's, the gradual discovery and admiration of Smith's self-funded journey into movie-making and comicdom, but I simply reply, "I like his comic book stuff." The guy nods knowingly, forgives my ignorance, and guides our conversation in a direction easily tread by a View Askew novice like me. I'm grateful.

Kevin strolled on stage, his Silent Bob overcoat replaced by a bathrobe, and on the heels of his recent debacle with Southwest Airlines, he told an engaging story about a road trip to Canada in his gay friend's "prom bus" and how it inspired him to rent a tour bus to Phoenix. It was a funny, let's-get-this-out-of-the-way monologue, a great way to harsh that topic and move on to the Q & A session that fuels these evenings with Kevin Smith. I don't remember the first question, which he answered within just a few minutes, because the second question was about his latest flick Cop Out, and he spent a good 20 minutes talking about that experience. Apparently, Bruce Willis is something of a diva, which I suppose isn't too surprising considering his length of time in the industry. Still, Willis has starred in several comic-inspired films (Unbreakable, Sin City, The Surrogates), so I thought the two would share that camaraderie. If they did, the connection was shattered by Smith's ignorance of camera lenses -- "Never tell an actor you don't know your lenses!" Willis hissed at Kevin during filming. Fortunately, Smith's ability to conjure the ghost of Willis's Moonlighting character during one tender scene in Cop Out was enough to make the strife worthwhile.

Amidst a slew of inquiries that focused primarily on film and Hollywood, I was happy my fellow funnybook fanboys represented with a few decent questions, the best of which was if Kevin "hears" any particular actors' voices when he's writing comic characters. Like many others, I was overjoyed when he answered that he hears the Batman: The Animated Series cast for those iconic characters, i.e. Kevin Conroy for Batman and Mark Hamill for the Joker. When asked which non-powered DC character he'd wish to be, Smith comically dismissed the question by answering Barbara Gordon, so he could look at himself naked in the mirror all the time, and chill in a wheelchair and surf the web as Oracle, something he tends to do a lot anyway.

Another highlight of the evening was Kevin's recollection of George Carlin. I had the pleasure of seeing one of Carlin's last performances in Anaheim just months before he passed away, so the subject is a dear one for me, as well, and I was grateful for Smith's candor and compassion. He spoke of his family's love of George (ironic, considering the strong Catholicism of Kev's childhood), how they watched his HBO specials together, how Kevin was happy to become friends with Carlin via filming Dogma and Jersey Girl. Kevin explained that George took the acting process very seriously, even comedic cameos like in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back, how it was indicative of his inherent inquisitive nature. "Even in death," Smith shared (and I'm paraphrasing), "George was generous, because he made people reconsider Jersey Girl. Critics ripped that film to shreds, but when George passed, they had to reconsider it because it was his largest role." Kevin summed up George's life best when likening it to his last book, which he recently read: "When it was over, I just wanted it to keep going. Kind of like George himself; it was just over too soon."

By the end of the night, after witnessing a Hollywood filmmaker talk so endearingly to his fans, I didn't blame myself for shunning Kevin Smith in my childhood, because even now he remains an enigma. I mean, how many bona fide directors would show up in your hometown, stroll on stage in a bathrobe, and engage in a no holds barred conversation with his fans? Interestingly, Smith confesses that he doesn't count himself a director at all, but storyteller, which makes sense since he's such an engaging one*, behind and without a camera. I'm glad I was smart enough to realize that in time.

* I didn't touch even half of what Kevin talked about, due in large part to its adult subject matter, but I'm sure you can YouTube "Kevin Smith Phoenix" and find what my fellow attendees recorded. That's even cheaper than Craigslist!

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