I’m not sure if it’s still the case today, in fact, I’m almost sure it isn’t, but in my day the ethos of an entire generation could be tidily summed up by reference to a handful of movies. Or at least that’s what we were led to believe, those of us who came of age in the early-to-mid 90s, when films like Richard Linklater’s Slacker (watch free online), Ben Stiller’s Reality Bites, and Kevin Smith’s Clerks achieved almost instant cult status as totems of middle class ennui—that of overeducated narcissists and directionless dreamers and cynics with serial romantic disasters and a gnawing sense of the dwindling returns on their heavy investment in cultural capital.
Of this ad hoc trilogy of 90s slackerdom, it’s Smith’s 1994 low-budget, black and white paean to the lives of low-wage convenience and video store clerks, their clueless customers, and a comic duo of stoned hangers-on that perhaps holds up best, and this is because the film’s comedy—ranging from gallows humor to gross-out slapstick to observational geekery—seems most grounded in the everyday experiences of real, absurdly bored, working stiffs everywhere. So it’s for the best that Smith decided not to finish the film with the original ending he shot, which you can see above. In it, the movie’s main character, Quick Stop clerk Dante Hicks, is killed in a robbery. The last image we see in this version’s harrowing dénouement is of his corpse, awkwardly wedged behind the Quick Stop counter.
It’s an ending that makes little sense tonally. Despite the movie’s detours into the macabre, it never gets serious enough to justify this kind of heaviness. As Mental Floss puts it, “the alternate ending to Kevin Smith’s breakthrough film turned a lighthearted vulgar comedy [see above] into a dark tragedy of Ingmar Bergman-ish proportions.” Actor Brian O’Halloran, who played Dante, thought as much. “I hated that ending,” Rolling Stone quotes him as saying, “I just thought it was too quick of a twist.” I guess it’s a good thing for Smith (and O’Halloran) that he finally agreed, since without the Clerks universe’s main character, there may have been no Clerks 2, for what it’s worth, though Jay and Silent Bob would certainly have gone on to their post-Clerks revenge.
Smith’s choice to keep it light also speaks to the spirit of the time—or the spirit of these filmed representations of the time, which are ultimately about a lack of resolution, a meta-lack of resolution, that becomes its own brand of tragicomedy. Clerks is loosely modeled on Dante’s vision of purgatory, but feels more like Samuel Beckett transposed to suburban New Jersey. The characters in Smith’s films forever live their lives in what post-hardcore band Fugazi so anthemically called the “waiting room”—the kind of place where, in the midst of a personal crisis, the most logical thing to do is debate the ethics of killing off independent contractors on Return of the Jedi’s Death Star.
The Clerks alternate ending appears on the 10th anniversary DVD of the film. You’ll probably agree the movie works much better without this fatally abrupt turn, but watching it gives us a glimpse of a world where death—always hovering on the edges of slackerdom—intrudes to break the spell of terminal inaction and emotional paralysis.