OK. I’ll admit that headline sucks. So let’s just move past that and get down to brass tacks, as it were.
This past Thursday, I attended the second day of director Kevin Smith’s Vulgarthon film festival, held in Red Bank, New Jersey. Smith is one of those rare breed that has never forgotten he was a fan long before he was a professional, and as such remains one of the most accessible of film directors working today. He makes frequent public speaking appearances and is a frequent guest at comic book conventions. But Vulgarthon is perhaps Smith’s biggest, and certainly the best, of his interactions with his fans.
A day long film festival, Vulgarthon screens nothing but movies that are in some way related to Kevin Smith. Past events have screened extended cuts of Smith’s films like Dogma (1999) and films directed by his friends Bryan Johnson (Vulgar, 2000), Brian Lynch (Big Helium Dog, 1999) and Vincent Pereira (A Better Place, 1997). Smith hangs out through the day, introducing each film and being approachable for chatting, pictures and autographs. It’s also known as a place where Smith has given sneak previews of his own films in advance of their general release date and this year, attendees were treated to not one, but two Secret Surprise Movies. More on those in a moment.
Having purchased a ticket for the second day of the event – both days were advertised with basically the same schedule of films – I headed out towards Red Bank early in the morning, the two-and-a-half hour car ride turning into almost three hours due to congested Jersey highways. No surprise there. Still, managed to land in Red Bank and get to Smith’s comic book shop – Jay and Silent Bob’s Secret Stash, where the comic shop scenes of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back were conveniently enough filmed – to pick up the wristband that also served as my assignment for one of the two auditoriums in the cinema with plenty of time to spare. Heading back up the block to the theatre, I found I’d arrived early enough that there were only four others in line yet. The group of us passed the next two hours or so waiting for the doors to open by chatting movies and music. At one point, we looked up in surprise as Clerks’ Marilyn Ghigliotti passed by. She hadn’t been scheduled to attend, but flew in from L.A. just to hang out. Needless to say, we jumped up and were able to get a few pictures with her before she headed into the theater.
Finally, the time came and Kevin himself – his trademark shorts and a t-shirt accented with a tuxedo jacket – threw open the doors to the theater like, as someone remarked, a bearded Willy Wonka and personally greeted each person in line as they entered. The Clearwater Cinema in Red Bank looks much like many other small town multiplexes. The carpeting is a little faded and the smell of buttered popcorn has permanently permeated the walls. The crowd shuffled past the refreshment stand towards their assigned theater to grab some seats and wait for the first film to unspool. (Actually, unspool is a bit of a misnomer as three of the four films were presented digitally.)
Once everyone was settled and armed with tubs of popcorn or other favorite movie snack, Kevin entered into the theater to fill introduce the first film and give everyone an overview of how the day would run. He informed the crowd that since yesterday’s screening ended several hours after the 10:30 pm scheduled end time due to the question and answer sessions after each film running long, they would be changing the posted schedule. Since Kevin is known for his lengthy and entertaining Q&As (He’s already turned out one DVD of his Q&As that runs almost four hours long), it should really have not surprised anyone that things would run over. Anyways, in order to ensure that the festivities would end at a reasonable time, they were planning on cutting two of the announced films- the extended cut of Smith’s Jersey Girl and Johnson’ Big Helium Dog – but would add onto the schedule a second “Secret Film” in addition to the one already scheduled. Although I had been looking forward to seeing how the extended cut of Jersey Girl played versus the theatrical version, it’s hard to say “No” to TWO Secret Films being dangled before you.
Anyways, here are a few impressions on the films screened-
Small Town Gay Bar– An absorbing documentary from Malcolm Ingram (for whom Smith has produced two previous films- Drawing Flies (1996) and Tail Lights Fade (1999)) that profiles three small town gay bars in the Deep South, a place that certainly doesn’t spring to mind when talking about regions that are tolerant of alternative lifestyles. As one lesbian in Tupelo states, “You can’t be a weak person and be gay in this city.” What emerge from this film are portraits of people who have forged their own unique combination of family and support group, oasises where they are free to be themselves without fear of reaction. Interestingly, Ingram also includes interviews with a representative from Focus On The Family and Fred Phelps, the minister who has gained notoriety for leading protesters at funerals of openly gay people. Ingram noted that while talking with Phelps he could definitely see the man had a certain kind of charisma, “Like a cross between Hitler and your grandfather.” The film just screened at the Sundance Festival, though Ingram said that he has since re-edited the ending and the Vulgarthon audiences are the first to have seen the new cut. The film is currently making the film festival rounds while trying to secure a theatrical distribution deal.
Oh, What A Lovely Little Tea Party– Essentially an almost two-hour long “Making of Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back” feature that got cut from the DVD release, this doc chronicles the making of the film and the thoughts of those involved on what was to be the last film set in Smith’s self-contained “Viewaskewniverse”. Shot by Ingram and Smith’s wife Jennifer Schwalbach, the movie really brings the viewer close into the production of the movie, with more access than the normal “Making Of” features one finds tacked onto DVDs these days. Schwalbach isn’t above hiding some of the more difficult days of the shoot, such as when her and Smith’s daughter Harley was on set to play Baby Silent Bob in the film’s opening prologue. At just under two years old, Harley was rather fussy and not interested in having her face smeared with chocolate, sitting still in her stroller or keeping on the baseball cap she needed to wear. “We must look like the world’s worst parents,” Schwalbach joked during the post film question session. Hopefully, this can find its way onto a DVD release at some point soon, as Smith’s fans should really enjoy it.
Secret Film #1– Catch And Release– An impressive directorial debut from writer Susannah Grant about a young woman (Jennifer Garner) who discovers that there was more to her recently deceased fiancée’s life than she suspected. Smith has a nice supporting role as one of three of the deceased’s friends who help Garner’s character cope with her loss. At turns funny and dramatic, Grant kept the film well-balanced, never letting it slip into sloppy sentimentality, which could have easily happened with a story like this. I’m thinking that this movie will surprise many people when it gets released next January.
Secret Film #2– That Clerks 2 would be the second “Secret Film” will probably go down in history as one of the world’s worst kept secrets. Even before the internet reports from the first day of Vulgarthon showed up online the night before, it was obvious from the hints Smith dropped online that the film would screen. And as a Smith fan, it was a film I was most anxious to see. Was the film going to be some kind of creative retreat/retrenchment following the lukewarm reception Jersey Girl received? Was he going to surprise us with something that would be on par with the original film’s mix of pop culture references, crude jokes and exploration on Generation X’s generational angst? While I’m holding off on giving a full review until the film opens next month, I will say that the film is definitely the latter of the two. As a fan of the original film, it’s great to catch with Dante (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) again and see how the intervening decade or so has treated them. And interestingly, the film address some issues I could immediately relate to, much in the same way the original did when I first saw it while working a dead-end retail job.
To be sure, there’s plenty of comedy, and while I don’t want to spoil anything, I’m going to leave you with a few favorite moments from the film. Taken out of their context, they really don’t tell you anything, but once you see the film, you’ll understand.
“A, B, C.”
“I’m taking it back.”
See you at the theaters for this one on July 21.
See Also- Kevin Smith’s New Jersey