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An Evening with Kevin Smith

As independent filmmaking's good-natured lowbrow auteur behind Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy, Dogma and other popular pings on the popcult radar, Kevin Smith is well known for his personal interactive rapport with his fans. For legions of largely suburban teens and twenty-somethings, he's their rumpled creative-class hero who rose from their ranks to give mainstream Hollywood a wedgie with his cheerfully vulgar and unselfconsciously verbal New Jersey series, better known as the five "Jay & Silent Bob" movies drawn from his own life experiences. Clerks and Mallrats remain cultural touchstones for teens who strive to achieve, at least vicariously, their own state of slacker nirvana. Smith and his movies jumped up a level in content and craft with Chasing Amy, which he made for $250,000. Its open-spirited up-frontness about sexuality and relationships helped it earn a standing ovation at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, then to find a place on several critics' Top 10 lists for the year (Quentin Tarantino listed it as his favorite of '97). In Dogma ('99), Smith worked through some thorny questions from his devout Catholic upbringing in a raucously funny yet ultimately intelligent and tender theological bull session (it also inspired traincars of sight-unseen hate mail, including some death threats). Finally, 2001's Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back closed the lid on that phase of Smith's work by being a bow to his fans and a middle-finger-flip toward the juvenile fanboyism that so often passes for discourse on the Internet.

That's something else Smith is familiar with first-hand. His production company's web site, viewaskew.com, is an online news zine, garage sale, and smoky barroom with a bulletin board that's belly-to-butt crowded with Smithophiles who laud and debate and quote from his movies like a moshpit full of deviant sidewalk evangelists. They can be a rowdy, raunchy bunch, but their devotion to all things KS is clear.

Now fans of this writer/director/raconteur have the next best thing to the man himself dropping by for beers and smokes. An Evening with Kevin Smith is both a university lecture series and an improv comic concert tour. Recorded in 2001 at Cornell, Clark College, the University of Wyoming, Indiana University, and Kent State, the footage is briskly edited to just under four hours. Clad in his signature hooded sweatshirt with baggy shorts or jeans, Smith stands before vast auditoriums that are packed to the rafters with hyper-enthusiastic audiences. No matter if the questioner at the mike is wacked out or decked in a homemade Jay & Silent Bob outfit, so genial is Smith's relationship with his fans that he goes with it when someone stands to ask him out for a post-show beer, bong, or blowjob (these throngs aren't here for a Film Studies lecture).

During these unscripted Q&A dialogues he's exactly what we expect and want him to be — laid-back, loquacious, profane, candid, acerbic, by turns cocksure and insecure, self-effacing, at times shockingly intimate, and pound-the-table funny. He maintains an affable charm even when telling blunt tales of sex (such as his oh-so-painful first date with his eventual wife), clarifying his deep-rooted Catholic faith (which didn't preclude joining the protesters incognito at Dogma's opening), and dishing dirt on pals/actors such as Ben Affleck (Smith tricked Affleck into making room in his schedule to shoot the forthcoming Jersey Girl).

Onstage shenanigans include an appearance by Jason "Jay" Mewes, who pours himself bonelessly into a nearby chair and remains unflappable even when propositioned by a lovelorn male fan. We get the goods on their friendship's history and how close Jay and Mewes really are. Although Smith is now a family man in his thirties who has grown past the films that have made him nearly famous, each of his View Askew New Jersey outings gets good talk-time, from the amount of leeway he gives his actors to the brouhaha over Dogma. He deflects a young lesbian's issues with Chasing Amy by suggesting that she viewed the movie with blinders on. That desire to get folks to remove unnecessary blind spots seems to be at the core of Smith's better work so far.

Other highlights include the legendary Superman Reborn fiasco, an object lesson in Hollywood corporate cluelessness arising from his stint scripting the aborted Tim Burton Superman movie. Smith encapsulates Hollywood's "fail upward" ethic in hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, who envisioned a ridiculously re-imagined Man of Steel in a movie showcasing battling polar bears, a gay-sounding robot, and (most insistently) "a giant spider." Director Burton and songster Prince are also among the artistes kevsmacked by anecdotes of Smith's experiences moving in arenas far from his native New Jersey. Sometimes the Beavis & Butthead contingent in the audiences grows tiresome, but Smith keeps it all moving with cordial, potty-mouthed aplomb. He displays throughout this unblushing and unpretentious late-night gabfest that his forthright openness and his pious thoughts about God are of a piece with impromptu porn tapes and his mastery of dick-and-fart jokes.

An Evening with Kevin Smith may be aimed solely at the fans, for whom it's an essential addition to the canon, and it may not be about professing college lectern erudition. But even if you aren't a true believer, because the dude is so darn likable it's all good snoogans.

*          *          *

Columbia's two-disc DVD set offers up exceptional 1.78:1 anamorphic video and DD 2.0 stereo audio. Even the main menu is fun — let it hang a while. Also on tap are nine Easter Eggs, plus four trailers including Smith's Stan Lee's Mutants, Monsters and Marvels and Dogma. Subtitles in English, French, Spanish.

—Mark Bourne

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