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Down but not out: On the fallen fortunes of Kevin Smith and Robert Rodriguez

The most celebrated film of 2014 was Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, seen as a crowning achievement following a two-decade-plus career so enviable it’s already received the retrospective-documentary treatment. Like his sorta-retired contemporary Steven Soderbergh, Linklater is known for his productivity, consistency, willingness to experiment, and artistic independence. Both Linklater and Soderbergh have been credited with kick-starting the independent film boom of the ’90s that also spawned Quentin Tarantino, whose commercial success has been surprisingly resilient.

But there were other American filmmakers who emerged in the first half of the ’90s and, for a time, seemed destined for long and interesting careers. Back in August and September of 2014, as Boyhood made its way around the country and gathered awards momentum, former ’90s wunderkinds Robert Rodriguez (a buddy of Tarantino) and Kevin Smith (whose Clerks came out from Miramax around the same time as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction) each released movies, now both available on disc and VOD, that garnered reactions somewhere between disdainful and nonexistent.


Rodriguez’s Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, a belated follow-up to his 2005 hit, eked out less than $14 million total at the domestic box office, or approximately as much as the first movie made in its first couple of days. Among Rodriguez’s features, A Dame To Kill For outranks only two: El Mariachi, his low-budget debut that never played more than a hundred theaters, and Machete Kills, another belated and critically derided sequel that directly preceded Dame. Smith, whose career has operated in a much smaller range of grosses, nonetheless found himself in a similar situation with his low-budget horror experiment Tusk. On the Kevin Smith box office scale, Tusk only beats Red State, his previous experiment in low-budget horror. Of course, box office isn’t everything—both movies also received mixed to negative reviews, with the negative ones especially vitriolic and the positive ones reading more like shrugs.

These failures felt oddly personal to me, even though I have zero financial stake in either director’s career—and much less emotional stake, for that matter, than I had in the ’90s, back when I was a teenager and became a fan of both directors. At the time, Rodriguez and Smith represented a strange pair of movie ideals to me, one visual and one verbal. Rodriguez’s flashy cartoon action movies were so kinetic that they were funny and become a vital part of my cinema consumption given that Sam Raimi had quit making Evil Dead movies. I hadn’t seen many of the B-movies and spaghetti Westerns that Rodriguez was grinding into pulp, but I loved the idea of them, or at least Rodriguez’s idea of them: iconic, outlandish, essentially about themselves. Smith, on the other hand, while a full decade my senior, felt like a Woody Allen who spoke a language I better understood—Star Wars and comics, rather than Freud and Marshall McLuhan.

This is all a rosy way of saying that Rodriguez and Smith made their bones by speaking to a teenage-friendly sensibility—the implication being that they failed to grow up with their audience. But as valued as maturity and austerity are in most critical circles, I’m not sure there’s something all that wrong with an innate immaturity in filmmaking. Is filmmaking such a mature, grown-up profession? The talky, somewhat self-satisfied yet rudimentary style of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, and the aggressive genre-mashing of Desperado, From Dusk Till Dawn, and The Faculty are, in their own ways, heartfelt and honest. I know enough about film now to see the giant seams in Smith’s directing style, and to see Rodriguez’s tricks as tics. But that doesn’t diminish the immediacy of those films, or their importance to my then-developing movie brain.

Of course, it’s important for artists to continue developing, too—and about a decade ago, both directors seemed on the verge of a mid-career breakthrough. Rodriguez’s films became increasingly DIY, often shot largely at his home base in Austin, and he had a trilogy of charming family hits with the Spy Kids series while still serving up high-grade pulp like Once Upon A Time In Mexico and the original Sin City. Smith, meanwhile, attempted to leave his interconnected “View Askewniverse” behind with Jersey Girl, a bid for mainstream filmmaking that could have been radical, given his fan-service-heavy filmography.


Instead, both filmmakers’ fortunes shifted. Grindhouse, a B-movie mega-project shepherded by Rodriguez and Tarantino, seemed to abruptly halt both the Weinsteins’ faith in the Rodriguez brand and Rodriguez’s ability to generate non-sequel/spinoff material, while the reception of Jersey Girl had Smith scurrying back to make the non-disastrous but significantly less hilarious Clerks II. His second non-Askew picture, Zak And Miri Make A Porno, failed to make the Weinsteins a mint, finally severing their relationship with Smith; two years later, Cop Out severed his and anyone else’s interest in Smith as a studio hired hand (while also becoming his highest-grossing movie, albeit mostly by default). Now, a decade or so after their potential turning points, Smith and Rodriguez are seen as insular at best and washed-up at worst. It wouldn’t be unusual for critics or even fans to wonder why they don’t just give up already, if this is all they have to share.

Yet, while neither of their 2014 films find either director anywhere near their peak, they both qualify as their makers’ best film in at least several years. A Dame To Kill For is very much a sequel to Sin City, for better or worse. If you liked Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s overcooked, ultra-stylized vision of film noir and want to watch another couple hours of it, A Dame To Kill For does the trick, even as it indulges in some shameless sequelitis. (Mickey Rourke’s Marv was the breakout character of the first one, so why shouldn’t he appear as often as possible here?) Rodriguez makes great use of Eva Green, doing an expert femme fatale routine, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, playing a daredevil gambler. He also continues his commitment, rare among big-league directors, to casting Jessica Alba in roles that don’t boil down to love interest.


In short, there are worse ways to kill a couple of hours than watching actors have fun with noir tropes in luscious, color-flecked black and white. The sense of returning to familiar, blood-spattered ground would not have gone unnoticed had the movie come out in, say, 2007, but it’s hard to imagine this entertaining novelty act getting cast aside with quite so much disgust without the passage of so much time in between movies. Many Dame reviews felt like the critic was waking up from an embarrassing fever dream that somehow tricked them into praising the first film—not surprising, given the adolescent impulses beating through a lot of Rodriguez’s work.

Tusk, meanwhile, is a marked improvement on Red State. While Smith’s first attempt at a creepy thriller is tediously overwritten and shot like a music video trying to stretch its budget with as many shutter-speed tricks as possible, his second go feels sillier and cheaper by design—in its weird way, it’s more convincing than Red State at selling something far more preposterous. The film had an unpromising origin in one of Smith’s eight dozen podcasts; in one episode, he and longtime collaborator Scott Mosier apparently giggled their way from a debunked Internet ad asking for a companion to serve as a human walrus to an impromptu horror movie about a lunatic hell-bent on literally transforming men into walrus-like creatures.


As dopey and self-consciously weird as that all sounds, Tusk does a surprisingly okay job of spinning Smith and Mosier’s nonsense into an actual story, about a callous podcaster (Justin Long) who heads to Canada looking for fresh rubes to mock and winds up imprisoned by a madman (Michael Parks, the same madman Smith hired for Red State). The movie’s attempts at body horror don’t really work, not least because Smith doesn’t bother to explain the actual mechanics of Long’s transformation, but some of Tusk is legitimately creepy and other parts are uneasily amusing.

In a lot of ways, Tusk feels even more like a low-budget try-out than Clerks, while A Dame to Kill For’s still-slavish Miller love plays like an understandable teenage crush overstaying its welcome. It makes sense that neither movie found an audience; they’re cult movies for a dwindling, derided cult. But both projects also contain glimmers of hope for what Rodriguez and Smith might do next, if they could apply those clear sensibilities—slacker horror; all-star noir fatalism—to fresher, better material.


Filmmakers diagnosed with any manner of arrested development or worn-out shtick are typically directed, by armchair managers, to direct someone else’s screenplay and/or to just grow up already, whatever that might entail. These suggestions are usually facile, though in this case the screenplay advice almost fits the two of them together: Smith the distinctive screenwriter could author something for Rodriguez the empty stylist to direct. But while this possibility in 1995 might have caused my teenage self to spontaneously invent Kickstarter just to give the project all my money, it doesn’t seem right in 2015.

Neither, though, does the idea that Smith or Rodriguez should give up and retire—or even surrender their signatures in favor of making spare, respectable kitchen-sink indies (though if they do the latter, I’ll be impressed enough to hide my adolescent-minded disappointment). Really, the general idea of a movie critic giving advice to a filmmaker is stupid; even given the two directors’ self-professed outsider statuses, I’m sure I don’t know as much about the movie business as Rodriguez or Smith. But I know what’s good about their work, even when the work is bad, and their most recent films have it, albeit in smaller doses than the likes of Desperado or Mallrats.


Linklater has eclipsed many of his contemporaries (Smith in slackerdom, Rodriguez in Austin residency) by examining the passage of time, something that resonates watching these decidedly non-contemplative films. Smith and Rodriguez can’t recapture their 20s any more than they can personally recreate my teenage years, but they also shouldn’t pretend those years didn’t happen, or that they don’t continue to inform who they are as artists. This might, for them, mean promised sequels like Clerks III or Machete Kills Again… In Space! (or, for Smith, starting another three dozen podcasts). But it doesn’t have to. The real model here may be pre-retirement Soderbergh: Much of his filmography jumps around genres and tones while remaining recognizably his own. Rodriguez and Smith have had periods of great productivity, and the bad stuff matters less when another chance looms around the corner. Tusk and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For aren’t the work of artists who need to retire; if anything, they’re the work of artists who need to work more.

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