Watch Kevin Smith’s Clever First Film, Mae Day: The Crumbling of a Documentary (1992)

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.

You will find Mae Day: The Crum­bling of a Doc­u­men­tary list­ed in our col­lec­tion of Free Online Doc­u­men­taries, part of our larg­er col­lec­tions of 635 Free Movies Online.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Kevin Smith’s Three Tips For Aspir­ing Film­mak­ers (NSFW)

Lick the Star: Sofia Coppola’s Very First Film Fol­lows a 7th-Grade Con­spir­a­cy (1998)

The First Films of Great Direc­tors: Kubrick, Cop­po­la, Scors­ese, Taran­ti­no & Truf­faut

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.

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