"We Need to Talk About Kevin" Hosts on the Politics of Kevin Smith

"We Need to Talk About Kevin" Hosts on the Politics of Kevin Smith

I was hooked. It wasn’t since I first saw Pulp Fiction on HBO that I was so enamored by a film. 1994’s Clerks on VHS shone forth to me a promise of a cinematic universe bound by pop culture ephemera and Star Wars references. Echoing many of the conversations I had with my friends, Kevin Smith appeared as the voice of the everyman. A new populist filmmaker whose low budget films offered a vision strikingly as familiar as the petit bourgeoisie haunts I inhabited as an adolescent had appeared.

But even by the time I watched Clerks for the first time in 2003, Smith’s reputation was in a state of decline. Smith spent the nineties in Harvey Weinstein’s stable of rising “auteurs,” but 2001’s Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back promised to place an end to Smith’s comedic depictions of working-class Jersey miasma. Strike Back struck a different chord from his previous “serious” works, Clerks and Chasing Amy; it was obnoxious, filled with gay jokes, and startlingly vicious towards online critics of Smith’s films. His last few films, including 2019’s “return to form,” Jay and Silent Bob Reboot, could not find widespread theatrical distribution—a far cry from his early films’ status as pathbreaking works of brutally honest low-budget cinema. Yet, this movement away from his “authentic artistic vision” was foretold, perhaps most tellingly by Smith himself. In Roger Ebert’s review of Smith’s second film, the sex comedy, Mallrats, he recounts, “The year that Clerks played at the Cannes Film Festival (…) Kevin Smith cheerfully said he’d be happy to do whatever the studios wanted, if they’d pay for his films. At the time, I thought he was joking.”

Smith wasn’t joking. By the time Jersey Girl rolled around, it appeared all but clear that Smith had a commercial interest in maintaining proximity with the Hollywood system that had ignored him. Today Smith obsessively waxes sentimental over the latest offerings by Marvel Studios and other Disney conglomerates on podcasts with titles like “Fatman on Batman.” Parallel to Smith’s foray into podcasting, a number of leftwing podcasts analyzing political culture and writing emerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election in 2016. The left-wing Twitter provocateurs Rose (@_flowerguardian) and Trevor Drinkwater (@trev_drinkwater), and their friend and producer, Ted (TedAnon), take a completely different tack. Their podcast, “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” exists to, in the sarcastic words of Drinkwater, “Seek the complete annihilation of Kevin Smith and his films and reputation.” “Kevin,” now in its second season, has become a “dark horse” of left-wing podcasts, featuring guests like Matthew Christman of “Chapo Trap House,” “Murder Bryan” from “Street Fight Radio,” the hosts of the left-wing pop culture podcast “Struggle Session,” as well as Tim and Eric alum Vera Drew.

“Kevin’s” hosts spoke to me on the date they recorded their season one finale about the pod’s aims and future. “We never intended to make a political podcast,” Rose explains. “We really just wanted to make a podcast about an auteur filmmaker and we all gravitated towards Kevin because we were all mostly familiar with his work from being kind of ‘geeky’ pre-teens obsessed with movies. I was a huge fan of Smith because I felt like he was a working-class person who really ‘made it’ in filmmaking.” Rose continues, “I felt like if he could make it, so could I and a lot of people from my background.” (Rose grew up in a working-class area of Canada).  Drinkwater chimes in, “Not me. I always have hated Kevin.” He continues, “And I think a lot of that has to do with Kevin’s act—he wants to come off as progressive and working class, when his films show nothing but venom and malice towards working class and queer people, even though his films show complete condescension to the former and confusion and fear of the latter.”

Clerks, Smith’s first low-budget effort about convenience store workers in suburban New Jersey, is a point of controversy for the hosts of “Kevin.” “Clerks exemplifies everything good and bad about Kevin Smith. Because while it is a very stark and interesting portrayal of working people, much of the film’s humor comes from its main characters, Dante and Randall, sneering with contempt at their customers, who are all presumably other working people.” Rose says, “It diminishes the appeal and any sort of political or social import the film otherwise has by constantly undercutting by showing how unlikeable these two slackers really are—and we’re still supposed to identify with them.” Drinkwater elaborates: “I think it shows that Smith has no real ideology—all his films, even as early as Clerks, really don’t make any wider point about their working-class settings, it’s all just grievances, especially towards women.” Rose agrees, “Oh, all his films are especially weird, almost Freudian, about women in general but lesbians in particular.”

Rose, a trans woman, explains, “Yeah, in 1997 when Chasing Amy [Smith’s romantic comedy where a comic book author portrayed by Ben Affleck falls in love with a lesbian comic book artist] came out, it was praised as this kind of pathbreaking piece of queer cinema—and I think a lot of that had to do with the fact that it came out in such a virulently homophobic time.” She continues, “Amy was praised as an incredibly progressive and frank film about sexuality on the basis of it being frank, but there’s a real fear of women that comes out in that film that was really present and unexamined in a lot of nerd circles in the late 1990s. It seemed like anything that wasn’t explicitly hostile towards queer people was effusively praised for not being directly hostile.” Drinkwater concurs, “Female gayness is the real villain of Chasing Amy, with Affleck’s character basically uncritically voicing all of Smith’s fears and discomfort with the prospect of lesbians that extends well into, like, that one cartoon movie he wrote and produced [2013’s Jay and Silent Bob’s Super Groovy Cartoon Movie, which features a lesbian supervillain named ‘Lipstick Lesbian’].”

The usually silent Ted here pipes in: “I think this feeds into ‘the act’ Trev described earlier—I think Kevin hates being criticized in any way, and manages to translate his seething anger and disdain of critics into self-deprecation that makes it seem like he’s the butt of the joke when in fact he’s lashing out.” Drinkwater adds, “Whatever was working class about Kevin’s persona from Clerks vanished by the time he made Zach and Miri Make a Porno,” Smith’s 2008 Seth Rogen comedy that Drinkwater insists “blames millennials for their own problems because they spend too much money on dildos. Something completely out of left field considering all the conversations about lost prospects and regret in Clerks.”

On the working-class angle, I asked the hosts about a comment made by guest Kurt Schiller about “nowhere places.” “By this term, I think what Kurt meant was that you think of all places as possessing a unique identity, but places like the Jersey Shore and Leonardo, New Jersey [the setting of Clerks] really lack that—and that itself makes for an interesting setting for something as epic and important-seeming as a religious story,” Ted explains. Rose then adds, “Yeah, but then Kevin screws it up. I was really excited by the prospect of Dogma because I was raised Catholic and remember seeing these kids in the film, who were teenaged drifters with hockey sticks who follow orders of the demon Azrael. But Kevin doesn’t do anything with them either!  It was a perfect chance to connect working-class ennui with the fate of the universe, a real chance to say something about Jersey and he couldn’t deliver it.” Drinkwater scoffs, “That’s what happens when you trust Kevin Smith.” 

Trevor continues, “I think what animates Kevin’s films are a deep sense of misanthropy and antipathy towards anyone and everyone—and I think that’s inherently right-wing, even if it’s unintended.” All three hosts deny that the podcast is “explicitly political” despite their admiration of and overlap with satirical left-wing podcasts like “Chapo Trap House.” Still, Rose explains, “Smith’s films serve as an example of films that really seem like they should be about something, when really, they just depict conditions and situations without making any statements about those conditions. And, I wanted to do a kind of film criticism that does bring attention to those conditions.” Drinkwater augments Rose’s argument: “Yeah, and when you watch his films with any sort of left-wing theory in mind, it reveals how limited in scope Kevin’s view is—any time he tries to make a movie that isn’t about New Jersey like Red State or Yoga Hosers, it comes off as dated in the former or stereotypical and lazy in the latter [Red State and Yoga Hosers are set in the American South and Canada respectively].” 

“What really animates Smith besides spite is laziness—which makes a political analysis unlikely, but really fun and interesting to do. But if you want to get into other films or television that try to do what Kevin does, but better, there’s tons,” says Rose. “Yeah, like Joker,” jokes Ted. Everyone laughs. Rose breaks up the laughter. “No, but seriously, like, even Trailer Park Boys, I think is a better depiction of both working class people and Canada than, say Clerks or Yoga Hosers. Paris is Burning does a better job of depicting queer communities and their internal struggles with wider heterosexual society than Chasing Amy. American Movie shows the struggles of making a low-budget film in a working-class environment than even Clerks.” Ted, not joking this time, adds, “I think Bong Joon-Ho is the greatest socialist director working today: Parasite does a much better job showing the dynamics of a capitalist society than Clerks could—and it’s funnier.” Trevor says, “Just about anything else is better than Kevin. But, I recommend the films of John Cassavetes as a curative for Kevin. There are also great contemporary films and TV shows by black filmmakers that really show working-class politics way better—Sorry to Bother You and Atlanta come to mind.”

What struck me as I listened to these hosts discuss these “alternatives” to Smith was their real and palpable friendship and love of film animated by political passions. “We were inspired by ‘Chapo Trap House’ and find the allegations that they support fascism laughable—they are people of the left—and in my case, helped push me to the left in a real way,” Rose says. Ted adds, “The only instance of the right-wing even influencing Chapo is that the right provides stuff for them to make fun. They have nothing but contempt for the right-wing.”  Trevor then adds, “And I have nothing but contempt for Kevin Smith.”

Featured Image is Kevin Smith speaking at VidCon 2012 at the Anaheim Convention Center, by Gage Skidmore