Since 1994′s Clerks turned him from a proud New Jersey slacker into a leading light of the 1990s’ American independent film boom, cinephiles have energetically debated Kevin Smith’s abilities as a filmmaker. Even Smith admits that he considers himself more a writer who happens to direct than a director per se, and his fans and detractors alike seem to consider his scripts more a vehicle for his entertaining way with speech — with jokes, with cultural references, with elaborate foulmouthedness — than anything else. It certainly doesn’t surprise me that so much of his 21st-century output consists of podcasts, nor that, when you go all the way back in his filmmaking career, even before Clerks, you find a short but talkative, jocular, by turns placid and vitriolic, only seemingly improvisational piece like Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary, his first and only student film, made while enrolled for just four months at the technically oriented Vancouver Film School.
Having come up with the idea for a documentary on a local transsexual named Emelda Mae, Smith and classmate Scott Mosier, who would go on to become Smith’s longtime producing partner, found themselves unprepared to follow through on the project as they’d (vaguely) envisioned it. To make matters worse, Mae herself then skipped town, leaving behind not a hint as to her whereabouts. But amid this film-school crisis, Smith’s true filmmaking talent flowered: instead of a “serious” profile of his absent subject, he made a satirical examination of how that idea ran so quickly and unsalvageably aground, consisting not just of his and Mosier’s parodically confident reflections on the nature of the “failure,” but also their irate instructors’ and collaborators’ earnestly detailed accounts of how they couldn’t get their act together. But just two years later, Clerks would slouch its way to game-changing prominence in American cinema. Whatever you think of everything Smith and Mosier have put out since, you have to admit that this lazy-student gambit worked out pretty well for them.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.