Monday, February 17, 2020

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back... Again: There's a Little Reboot in All of Us

"Who wants a free joint?"

This was the call not of the wild, but of exactly the type of fan you'd expect to be in line at the Jay and Silent Bob Reboot Roadshow. It was the equal parts depravity and generosity that would have made Kevin Smith proud; a true disciple, doing Alanis Morissette's the good lord's work (or a reasonable facsimile thereof). It was because of Mr. Smith and his collaborators that Ryebone and I found ourselves waiting in line outside in the snow in downtown Toronto at 9:15  in the evening on February 1, 2020, along with hundreds of our fellow anonymous compatriots. We were, in fact, suffering from the same mass depravity, being members of a Secret Society that has for countless years united people from around the world in peace, harmony, laughter, and blue smoke; we were Kevin Smith fans, and we were legion. 

My own initiation into this particular cultural club began back in my second year of university. It was a Saturday, and I was on the slow road to recovery from the worst night (that I can (partially) remember) of my university days. I had spent a good part of the night previous getting the most drunk (that I can (partially) remember) that I had ever been at my university's student pub with friends, and the remaining part of the night lying in bed vomiting all over myself and shivering in the dark waiting for the blessed release of the total black-out-drunk sleep that the sober can never really truly appreciate and the inebriated welcome enthusiastically.

I awoke to find myself and my bed drenched in the regurgitated food-stuffs that had been swimming around in the depths of me the day before and a weakness of mind and body I could not have imagined had I tried. By the time I managed to drag myself to the shower and stealthily strip my bed and get my sheets into a washing machine in the laundry room down the hall, it was already three in the afternoon. I was able to choke down a Pillsbury mini-pizza before my roommates--led by Ryebone--dragged me out to see a film that would forever alter the course of my destiny (even though I didn't know it yet):

Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back.

It was an unconventional introduction, to be sure, but a welcome one (in hindsight). Ryebone actually led the charge on this particular mission, and I was, at the time, unacquainted with any of Smith's work. For the uninitiated, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is arguably not the best entry point into the Kevin Smith pantheon. It stands well enough on its own, but really benefits from the audience having seen previous films in the View Askewniverse, the cinematic universe that existed before cinematic universes were a thing. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in the context of the View Askewniverse is the equivalent of The Avengers in the  Marvel Cinematic Universe; they were both crossover films that united characters and story arcs on-screen that had been roughly a decade in the making. Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back is essentially The Avengers if Captain America was a foul-mouthed stoner dealing weed outside of a convenience store and Iron Man wore an overcoat, never spoke, and would gladly suck his best friend's dick in a pinch, and they both went around door-to-door to personally kick the shit out of anybody who had ever written anything bad about them online. (Actually, somebody get Kevin Feige on the line...)

Needless to say, I was initially underwhelmed. Or at least, I was not in any mental state that in any way prepared me to process Kevin Smith at his Kevin Smithiest. I was still recovering from the worst drunk of my life, and wondering at the fact that I was up and walking around let alone not a rotting corpse in my room having choked on my own vomit in the middle of the night, another statistic of the degenerate celebration of youth in which so many of partake as a right of passage.

Beyond that, I had never yet seen another Kevin Smith film at that point, thereby lacking a reference point for the movie with perhaps the most in-universe references of all time. The surface level humour of the thing was obvious enough that I bought a copy of Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on DVD at Blockbuster one fateful afternoon some months later with nary a second thought, but the true significance was lost on me at the time. My finger was, as Brodie Bruce might pontificate, far away from the pulse, jammed straight up my ass.

It wasn't until another friend finally sat me down one afternoon when I was significantly less drunk for the double feature of Clerks and Mallrats that things began to click. It was like a Bugs Bunny cartoon; I could practically feel the heat of the light bulb as it materialized and lit up above my head.  Shortly afterwards, I was able to catch up on Chasing Amy and Dogma.

Mind officially blown. Cue the Scanners head-exploding meme:

All of the sudden, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back made sense. I was given the cipher I needed to appreciate the movie on a whole new level.

By the time Clerks II came along, I was first in line. That was a much different experience as one of the initiated, as I slowly realized that the other denizens of that sparsely populated theatre likely had no idea what to expect and almost certainly had no idea who Kevin Smith was. My wife and I were the only ones that were full out laughing at the movie (my wife later told me she could hear my laughter echoing all the way down the hall when she took a bathroom break), and for me, that was OK. More than OK (though Smith and his bank account might beg to differ). It was like I was in on a private joke, connected to a select community on a secret wavelength that only we were dialed into. It was the first time in my life that I had so acutely felt the effects of fandom (dare I add the qualifier "cult"?). My assimilation by that point was most definitely complete.

The whole process of my introduction to Kevin Smith's filmography felt like an initiation into an exclusive organization. The curtain was being pulled back, and I was being allowed into the dingy backroom where weekly meetings took place that few knew about and even fewer dared attend. Growing up as a fan of films, I had accrued a slew of passwords, secret and sacred words that let others knew you were in the know and tested their own membership in that same secret society. Clerks. Mallrats. Chasing Amy. Dogma. Jay and Silent Bob. Kevin Smith. These new code words were more than just the lexicon of an individual filmmaker; they were keys that unlocked the doors to a brotherhood to which only a select few felt the call to join.

Like all great filmmakers and films, Kevin Smith and the View Askewniverse films invite the audience into their world in equal parts fanciful escapism and grounded verisimilitude. Kevin Smith's films are able to achieve their own, profanity-laden version of that strange celluloid alchemy that makes the audience feel like they are simultaneously invited to share in an experience that is somehow fantastically epic yet incredibly intimate, and engage with a world that is wildly beyond their own day-to-day lives yet strangely so captivating because of the familiarity of our shared human experience baked into the narrative.

A large part of this engagement is the man himself. Kevin Smith is perhaps one of the most intimate and literal filmmakers of all time, and it serves him incredibly well. He delights in storytelling for its own sake, as evidenced by his now-legendary Q&A sessions and his establishment as the preeminent podcaster in the entire young history of the enterprise with a network and output that put nearly everyone else in that industry to shame.

Kevin Smith is a truly rare specimen; he is a human being seemingly completely lacking in guile. He is genuine in his dialogue to a fault, inviting audience members into the most intimate moments of his life and darkest corners of his mind with the kind of trust and acceptance that frighten most of us to the core. His films are unique in that they are not reflections of what is going on in his life at any given moment, but are nearly direct windows into his lived experience. There's an honesty to his movies and his dialogue that is so defiant and refreshing, that it's difficult not to be inspired when listening to him speak, whether it's coming directly from the proverbially horse's mouth or filtered through the voices of his characters.

Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is no different in that respect. It's a rumination on what it means to live and grow older in a contemporary world that seems to change at a pace many of us find ourselves out of breath trying to keep up with at times, the (seemingly) current cultural drive to want to retell or rehash the same stories over and over again and the cynical cash-in by Hollywood on this trend, and perhaps most significantly, parenthood and legacy. It's no surprise that these themes are cropping up in Smith's work now. As with most things, he's been incredibly candid about the changes and challenges that having a child and a massive heart attack (totally unrelated phenomenon, I assume) have had, and how those experiences have changed his perspective on life.

So you have had your asshole licked by a fat man
in an overcoat? How about a vegan in a baseball hat?
This new, rebooted Jay and Silent Bob adventure (A Jay and Silent Bob movie? Who'd pay to see that? Twice?) is simultaneously a reboot in its own right and a biting commentary on reboot culture itself. The word "satire" gets thrown around a lot these days with nary a worry as to its actual meaning, especially on the Internet (What the fuck is the Internet?), but Jay and Silent Bob Reboot falls firmly in the category of satire. This is not some grand revelation; I don't think that one could ever accurately accuse Kevin Smith's films of being subtle in their intent.

Brodie (Jason Lee), the comic book collector turned comic store owner from Mallrats (I assume after his tenure as host of The Tonight Show), goes so far as to literally break down the definition of what distinguishes a reboot from a sequel, so the audience is on exactly the same page:

A reboot, boys, is when Hollywood wants to make a lot of money without the hassle of creating a new movie, so they take an old movie and change just enough to make you pay for the same shit all over again... Oh, it's insidious, they take a flick you loved as a kid and add youth and diversity to it... Studios have given up on new ideas entirely in favour of building multi-movie universes that breed brand-loyal customers from cradle to grave.

There's a bit of the uncanny here as Smith levels his own critique of Hollywood's reboot culture while unabashedly revelling in that same compulsion. He quite rightly points out that rebooted movies or franchises tend to be deeply rooted in cynicism, more interested in what they can sell than what they could say. But Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is deftly held back from the brink, balanced on the event horizon of disillusion by the sheer willpower of Kevin Smith's sincerity as a writer and director.

As Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Kevin Smith) make their way to Hollywood, again, to stop a movie being made about the comic book characters for whom they were clearly the artistic and character basis for, again, it feels at first like maybe Smith leans a bit too heavily into the reboot conceit. Of course as the story of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot progresses, it's easy to see that every beat from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back that he revisits is accompanied by a knowing wink and nod that invites the audience in on the joke. It's this inclusion of the audience, letting them be a part of the conspiracy, that gives Smith just enough leeway to play the part of court jester, pointing out the folly of those in court as an insider.

Once again, Jay and Silent Bob embark on their adventure after consulting with Brodie, this time after being legally prohibited from using their real names through a bit of legal chicanery on the part of a two-faced lawyer for Saban (villains in the movie but also backers of the film in real life), who own the intellectual rights to the Bluntman and Chronic characters and don't want any trouble from the real-life stoners on whom the characters are based. (The lawyer, played by Justin Long, also helps to subtly folds Zack and Miri Make a Porno into the View Askewneverse, one in a slew of payoffs for hardcore fans.) Once again, the hapless duo find themselves on a cross-country road-trip with a group of four young women with an ulterior motive on their way to prevent the new Bluntman and Chronic film from being made (a dark, gritty reboot, of course). And once again, they are almost constantly derailed by the machinations of the people they meet as well was their own penchant for getting into trouble (and general disdain for sobriety).

The rudder that keep the whole enterprise steadily on course in the otherwise turbulent (if familiar) waters of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is the theme of parenthood. On their way to Hollywood, Jay and Silent Bob encounter Jay's old flame, Justice (Shannon Elizabeth), who introduces them to her and Jay's love-child, Millennium "Milly" Faulken (Smith's real-life daughter, Harley Quin Smith, who quite smartly plays the whole thing straight) on the condition that Jay not reveal himself to be Milly's father. (It turns out that Jay's boast about being master of the C.L.I.T./clit was not an idle one.) Milly puts on the honours student front with her mothers, but seems to be as foul-mouthed and prone to casual violence as her biological father. When she learns that Jay and Silent Bob are on their way to Chronic Con (a pun that you could tell Smith had been dying to share with the world for quite some time), she enlists their help at knifepoint to take her and three of her closest friends with them as it's the dream of one of the friends, Chinese exchange student Shan Yu (Alice Wen), to attend Bluntman and Chronic's greatest fan celebration.

That's not a reboot, mate, this is a reboot.
This tension of a father and daughter on the greatest road trip of all time (again), though not as father and daughter, is the emotional core of the film. Despite the often ludicrous situations they find themselves in, there's something fundamentally heart-breaking about a father too afraid to reveal his identity to his child while at the same time trying to bond with that same child who is desperately looking for someone to fill that father-shaped hole in her life but unsure about the true motivations of the strange stoner with whom she finds her destiny entwined. (Though not as heart-breaking as being condemned to an eternity in Wisconsin.)

It's revealed that there's a deeper reason Jay feels like he can't--or even shouldn't--connect with his daughter. Jay is hindered by the very human fear that his own fuck-ups will, in turn, negatively affect his child's life. He fears that the mistakes that he's made in his own life will serve not as warning but as licence to the next generation for more of the same. But as the movie goes through great lengths to show, the pain of a child not having a parent in their lives far outweighs the potential consequences from the inevitable mistakes that parents will make. (I mean, theoretically, a microwave on a low setting for a short period of time should dry off a baby. Why else would they make microwaves baby-sized?)

As Jay and Silent Bob Reboot progresses, it's made clear that the concept of the reboot serves as a thematic nexus; reboot culture is simultaneously the focus of satire, but also a metaphor for parenthood. On the one hand, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot calls out the apparent cynicism and unoriginality of the Hollywood machine as it continues to regurgitate our past back up at us solely in the search for profit; on the other, Smith shrewdly acknowledges that reboot culture is part of a much more fundamental human drive to tell, and retell, those common stories that unite us both within and across cultures: in this case, the story of parenthood. The idea of the reboot as a metaphor for parenthood also forms the emotional core of the film, wherein Holden (Ben Affleck), of Chasing Amy fame, articulates to Jay and Silent Bob what parenthood means to him in the context of his own life story:

Bluntman's getting a reboot, Netflix is making Amy. They hate the present so much it's like they want to retreat into the past. All of the sudden all my old bullshit is back. And some of that old bullshit meant the world to me when I was starting out. Now that all my childhood dreams are starting to come true--I mean it's nice, don't get me wrong--that kid is just way more interesting to me. 

I used to think that life was all about me; I was the hero of my own story. I was Bruce Wayne in one life-long issue of Detective Comics, so to speak. And that kid came along, and suddenly you realize you're not Bruce Wayne anymore; you're Thomas Wayne. Or Bruce Wayne's mom, whose name escapes me. 

Anyway, I'm just here to set the real story in motion. 'Cause, once you become a parent, you're not the star anymore; you're the stage. I'm just here to prop up my kid so she can put on the show of her life, like my parents did for me, like theirs did before them. And if you're lucky enough to have a kid, the trade off is you don't really get a third act to your story, 'cause the story changes. All of the sudden, it's not about you anymore. For the first time in your self-involved life, that's OK. 

Kids are like our reboots: another chance to tell a brand new version of the same old story. I know I'm supposed to be teaching Amy stuff, but it's like I'm learning from her every day. So I spend my days chasing Amy. So to speak.

One couldn't help, especially as a parent, being affected emotionally by this breakdown of the relationship between parent and child, and the sacrificial component on the part of the parent. As any parent will tell you, having a child (or if you're crazy like some of us, multiple children) it does take a degree of self-sacrifice, and a fundamental shift in perspective as the main focal point of your life shifts to another person. Parenthood is an incredibly profound experience, and as Smith points out, part of a cultural narrative that is destined to be told again, and again, by different people in their own unique way.

It's made all the more poignant with the meta-understanding of the relationships of the people acting in this scene that reunites Holden with Jay and Silent Bob. Kevin Smith's (relatively) recent reconciliation with Ben Affleck is the result of the kind of self-reflection that usually comes only with old age (and maybe a heart attack or two), and makes one consider what is truly important in life (other than crushing your enemies, seeing them driven before you, and hearing the lamentations of the women, obviously). Not only is the scene a mini-sequel to Chasing Amy, it's also the cinematic reunion of two good friends in dialogue about what it means to be a parent and, inevitably, growing old in that new role. It's a Russian nesting doll of reboots: a scene in a movie about reboots that is, itself, also a reboot, using reboots as a metaphor for parenthood, and featuring a rebooted friendship of both the characters and actors in that scene. This is the Inception of reboots.

Holden's speech about parenthood serves as the catalyst for Jay's epiphany and the conduit for Kevin Smith's feelings about being a dad. By the end of the film, Jay overcomes his fear of fucking up his daughter, and realizes his first great lesson as a father; the first step is to show up in your kid's life. The second step, I'm still working on, but I would submit that it's an extension of the first step, which is once you show up, try to stick around as much as possible. As a former child myself, I know that it's not just the big moments, but the little things that you carry with you. I remember the vacation we took to New York state that one time. But I also remember how mom and dad would come into my room every night and help sing me to sleep. (My dad's contribution to that evening ritual, incidentally, is how I learned all of the words to the Beverly Hillbillies theme song without ever having watched a single episode of the show.) The third step is definitely no children in microwaves for any reason (I guess).

Touch not, lest ye be touched.
As a massive fan of Kevin Smith's body of work, I was already predisposed to enjoy Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, but the roadshow experience was kind of amazing. It wasn't just that Smith managed to recapture that balance of crude humour and heartfelt emotion that he perfected in Clerks II (currently still my favourite Kevin Smith, if, gun to my head, I absolutely had to pick a favourite, and with Ryebone around, having a gun pulled on me is always a very real possibility); it was the nature of the movie-going experience itself, which was unlike anything I'd ever experienced.

Ryebone and I arrived about forty-five minutes early for a 10:00 p.m. show (which ended up being an hour and fifteen minutes early when all was said and done), and ended up lined up outside the venue in the cold, snow, and blue smoke in downtown-ish Toronto with a random stranger peddling free joints. I had insisted upon driving this time, as Rybone's high-speed joyride down the wrong side of the highway during our previous excursion had left me rattled. We'd stopped for dinner at Red Lobster, despite Rybone's allergy to shellfish, because, and I quote, "I won't let a fucking shrimp tell me how to live my life." I had suspected as much, and my itinerary included enough buffer time to account for our inevitable stay in the emergency room of the local hospital and for Rybone's system to have enough time to process his usual daily dose of crystal meth so that he would be fit for (semi-) civilized society.

The Queen Elizabeth Theatre was almost immediately disappointing by the time the line started moving at 10:15 p.m. There was no lobby to speak of, and the washroom facilities were completely inadequate for the sheer volume of people attending this--or as far as I could tell--any event larger than your average bar mitzvah. The concession stand was also not designed to handle this massive influx of people all at once, and seemed only to sell beer and small, overpriced bags of potato chips. The seating in the actual auditorium was of the temporary variety, linked together and laid out in rows that were far too narrow for even your average person to slide past strangers (the age old dilemma, ass or crotch) to find their seat let alone somebody who fell outside of society's standardized mold.

There was, however, a palpable air of excitement as the time for the show grew inexorably near. As we in the audience all settled into our seats, trying to get as comfortable as possible, there was an electric sense of anticipation, the kind that only occurs when the sheer volume of human flesh within a given area reaches that Critical Mass, and there's a sort of transubstantiation into a larger organism, beating in tune to its own rhythm, and each individual member of the crowd becomes merely another node in a tremendous biological network, a nerve carrying that electric pulse to the next cell, and the next, and the next.

Then, it was time.

The view from Row J, Seat 34.
There was Kevin Smith, on the stage, right in front of me. There's always something that feels more energizing when engaging with people live, and this instance was no different. Well, that's not entirely true. I haven't been to many concerts or live shows the like, but one thing that always struck me with the live shows I had seen was that, in addition to that raw energy that one can only experience in real-time in a real place with real people, was how much smaller those legends seemed in person. In a lot of ways, the media acts as both amplifier and funhouse mirror, taking celebrities and creating gods. There's almost invariably some tinge of disappointment in seeing those those gods up close and, upon further inspection, finding out they are still just fellow mortals.

Seeing Kevin Smith come out on stage was the first time at any kind of live show that my excitement wasn't marred (if ever so slightly) by that sense of being underwhelmed. Kevin Smith seemed to be exact right size (all due respect to Southwest Airlines). Perhaps it's his well-crafted public persona that seems so completely congruous with his private life that gives him a sense of being relatively down to earth, a regular Joe whose job just happens to be making films in Hollywood, or perhaps its the sense of playfully aware self-deprecating humour that pervades his dialogue and all of his films, including Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, or perhaps some combination thereof that helped to calibrate my expectations so precisely.

After Kevin Smith's brief(-ish) introduction, the lights went down, and the movie started. Two things became clear very early on: this would not be a typical movie-going experience, and simply stacking a bunch of speakers on either side of a screen/stage and cranking them up to eleven could in no way be mistaken for actual sound mixing.

We were off to the races, though, and nothing could deter us. Every time a familiar face appeared on screen, the crowd erupted with applause and cheers at members of the Kevin Smith pantheon, both new and returning. Normally, I would have been annoyed at people interrupting my movie-going experience, but having been given licence by Smith in his intro to the film to engage with Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in this way and setting those expectations, it added to rather than detracted from the experience. Even as I was focused on the movie, I was also acutely aware of how rare an experience it actually was; for perhaps the first time ever, I was in a room full of hundreds of people watching a movie together and knew for a certainty that, given the circumstances, we were all undoubtedly huge fans of the filmmaker and his films.

Adding fuel to the fire, Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was a fan made for fans by fans (as Kevin Smith explained before the show started, nobody is a bigger Kevin Smith fan than he himself, which probably explains a lot). Playing into the reboot conceit, it served not only as a new adventure but also as a round-up of his greatest hits, serving as mini-sequels to a healthy portion of the View Askewniverse films. Moreover, it highlighted the full range of Jason Mewes' acting abilities, especially in a very poignant scene near the end of the film. (Also important to note that as a habitual quoter of Glengarry Glen Ross, it was incredibly validating to see, based on Silent Bob helping his new crew out of a jam with some KKK members, that quoting that film is, indeed, the solution to every conceivable problem that one could face in life.)

Once the movie was over, Kevin Smith once again came back out on stage for an hour-long Q&A session. My fellow Canadians pleasantly surprised me with the calibre of the questions they asked, as other similar sessions that I'd seen had been the victim of a  more of a mixed bag of inquiries from audience members ranging from discussion-provoking to mundane to uninteresting to downright cringe-worthy. There was one answer that Smith gave in response to parental advice solicited by one audience member that struck a chord. The filmmaker advocating for spending as much time as possible with your children, because it's time that you'll never get back and also that you'll never regret. As with his movies, Kevin Smith's stories are a curious mix of humour and heart, and always entertaining. For anyone on the fence about attending one of Kevin Smith's live events, including for what I assume will be the inevitable roadshows for his announced upcoming Mallrats and Clerks sequels, I would wholeheartedly encourage you to go if you have the chance.

For me, personally, there was also something poetic about the experience. Going to see Jay and Silent Bob Reboot was the culmination of a cinematic journey that began nearly twenty years ago. In 2001, Ryebone had introduced me to my first Kevin Smith film, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and here I was in 2020 watching Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, once again seated beside my own hetero-life mate. There were only two words that could adequately describe the transcendent nature of the experience: snootchie bootchies. Perhaps for the uninitiated, they failed to fully capture the nuance of an adventure of such sheer scope. But for those of us in the know, this little bit of seeming nonsense was a talisman more powerful than the love between a man and his chocolate covered pretzels.

Snootchie bootchies to all, and to all a good night.

The Verdict

Watching Jay and Silent Bob Reboot on the big screen with the (not-so-)big man himself will forever remain one of my favourite movie experiences. I don't know if it will woo wider audiences, but for Kevin Smith's carefully cultivated fanbase, it is a truly rewarding experience. My current rating of Jay and Silent Bob Reboot is 8/10 = One Normally Silent Head Thwarting the KKK Through the Sheer Brilliance of the Dialogue From Glengarry Glen Ross


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