streamed live on mtv.com. (“Am I having a midlife crisis?” he asked mockingly. “Yes! But it’s an entertaining one!”) Smith was out to answer his critics — not just the film critics, like me, who beat up on Cop Out (he seemed to get that out of his system in his infamous comment-board rants of a year ago — and besides, he gave me a nice shout-out on mtv.com; thanks, Kevin!), but also the bloggers who attacked him for his rambling, half-hour-long “manifesto” after the Sundance premiere of Red State (that’s him at Sundance, above), when he got up on stage and explained, with a gonzo “f— the system” logic, why he planned to distribute the movie himself.Announcing that you plan to retire while you’re still in your prime used to be the special province of pop stars. David Bowie did it (his first “retirement” took place in 1973), and so did Jay-Z. Now some pretty famous movie directors are making the same noises. They’re talking about taking that retirement bait — and, more than the pop stars, they sound as if they mean it. On Tuesday, Kevin Smith sat down for a fascinating, soul-searching, at times nearly confessional here’s-why-it-looks-like-I’ve-been-cracking-up interview
He did a much better job of explaining it here. “I carry a lot of guilt for the indie-film thing,” said Smith. “I was an indie filmmaker for about 10 minutes.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that after Clerks was bought and distributed by Miramax in 1994, his continued relationship with that company made him a quintessential crossover artist, a rude and scrappy independent who got attached, like a foulmouthed barnacle, to the hefty cruise ship of the mainstream. With Red State, he wants to go back to the days when you didn’t have to spend four times as much to advertise a movie as you did to make it, a situation that strikes him as both decadent and deadening. There’s no doubt that a lot of filmmakers would kill for a chance to have that kind of marketing muscle. But as Smith held forth on mtv.com, there was a deep sincerity to his weariness, one that extended to filmmaking itself. “I don’t have the same passion for it I used to,” he said with straight-shooter candor. “I don’t have any stories left to tell.”
With Red State, a film that I have yet to see (here’s Lisa’s Sundance review), he wants to go back to his roots, to screen the movie, city by city, on one of the antic road-show speaking tours that now generate as much income for him as filmmaking does. To some, that may sound like slumming, but to me it sounded like Smith was taking the most direct route possible to injecting some joy back into a process that’s begun to leave him numb. It’s not just the distribution politics, either. “Zack and Miri [Make a Porno],” he said, “is literally me adulterating my own story…the story of how I made Clerks, with porn.” No wonder it felt so secondhand! After Red State, he plans to go out with one last shot of love: his earnest period hockey movie Hit Somebody (not a comedy, he says), which he claims will be his final film. I believe him, sort of.
For a guy who’s a mouthy, slacker hero to the Comic-Con generation, Smith has spewed a lot of venom over the past couple of years. At heart, though, he’s quite the self-deprecating soul, the good Catholic boy who’s still trying to make everything right. A year ago, when he tried to rip several critics (including me) a new one for panning Cop Out, I literally couldn’t figure out why he’d worked himself into such a lather. He kept saying: It’s only a movie! I kept wanting to say back: It’s only a movie review! Besides, I got to know Kevin a little bit back in the late ’90s, around the time of Dogma, and he couldn’t have been a nicer (or sharper) guy.
But now I think I understand what was going on with his Cop Out freak-out. The movie, a routine buddy crime comedy, wasn’t a “sellout” so much as it was a career — and life — experiment: Could Kevin Smith become a filmmaker for hire and still be happy? And I think that he took the experiment on because he honestly hoped that the answer might be “yes.” It would have been a ticket, for him, into a new relationship with movies. And maybe a newly creative one. I think he wanted to restart his engines. Instead, though, he was miserable, and seen in that light, we critics weren’t just panning a movie. We seemed to be cutting off his self-reinvention at the knees.
Smith now sounds as if he’s at peace with the films he no longer plans to make. “At the end of the day,” he said on mtv.com, “I had those movies in me. The ones that I wanted to do. And now I’m done.” That’s the sound of someone who knows himself. Yet a part of me can’t help but feel that Kevin Smith may be selling himself short. He obsessively mocks and trivializes his own talent, calling himself a writer and not a director, saying that Harvey Weinstein pushed him out on the road as a celebrity auteur because “my films were never strong enough to stand up on their own.” At one point, the MTV interviewer, Josh Horowitz, showed Smith a clip of himself as a floppy-haired, rather soft-spoken kid, selling Clerks (on MTV, of course!), and Smith reacted in barely suppressed horror to his younger, more sensitive self. “Look at that emo bitch,” he said. “I hate him!” Actually, I thought that emo bitch looked kind of appealing in his unironic quietude, but the bottom line is that Kevin Smith, at his best (Chasing Amy, Dogma, Clerks II), may have a greater talent than he gives himself credit for. He’s a word man, which is just what movies need right now. His dialogue zings, it cooks, it crackles with zigzaggy brainiac truth. He may be serious about retiring from filmmaking, but on some level I hope that he’s just breaking up with his audience to make up.
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The first director I ever heard talk about planning his retirement when he was still young was Quentin Tarantino. In a 2003 profile of QT in The New Yorker, Tarantino explained that he intended to hang up his director’s goggles by the time he reached, say, his early 50s. Making movies, he explained, was a young man’s game, mostly because of the logistics of it. A lot of fans had absolutely no idea how physically draining and consuming it was. That, he said, was one of the main reasons that even great directors decline. At a certain point, they simply don’t have the strength, the stamina, the round-the-clock obsession to get it done their way. And that seems to be the mind-set behind the other recent big news of directorial retirement, which leaked out about Steven Soderbergh.
Actually, Soderbergh, in an Esquire profile two years ago, stated quite explicitly that he planned to retire by the age of 51 (he’s 48 now), which would mark his 25th year as a filmmaker. At the time, though, that merely sounded like the kind of super-rational mad-scientist thing that Steven Soderbergh, with his dry-ice twinkle, would say. But near the end of last year, in an interview with The Los Angeles Times, Matt Damon confirmed and expounded on Soderbergh’s decision. “He’s kind of exhausted with everything that interested him in terms of form,” Damon said. “He’s not interested in telling stories…. He says, ‘If I see another over-the-shoulder shot, I’m going to blow my brains out.’”
On mtv.com, Kevin Smith quoted Soderbergh’s “over-the-shoulder shot” line with a supreme simpatico laugh. I guess you can get tired of doing anything, and it’s not really a surprise that film directing carries its own burnout factor. Both of these artists have other mediums that they’re passionate about pursuing: Smith with his podcasts, and Soderbergh, who says that he wants to become a painter. The history of Hollywood is filled with the careers of directors who kept on working long after they probably should have. So if these two former wunderkinds, these very different pioneer mavericks of the indie revolution, want to get out while they still have some juice, who would argue? Here’s my prediction, though: I think that both Smith and Soderbergh will retire. And mean it. And in the end, I don’t think that either one of them will be able to stay away.
So what do you think is up with Kevin Smith? Steven Soderbergh? Are these young old men, these premature indie-Hollywood retirees-to-be, really serious about quitting the business? Should they be? And who’s next — Richard Linklater? Jane Campion? Vincent Gallo? Which filmmakers should consider retirement, or at least taking a good long furlough?