Pop Culture

‘Clerks’ and the ’90s Indie Film Big Bang, Through the Eyes of The Village Voice

On Tuesday, Tricia Romano will release The Freaks Came Out to Write, her oral history of famed New York alt-weekly The Village Voice. In this exclusive excerpt, Romano tells the story of the ’90s independent cinema boom, featuring thoughts from Kevin Smith, Amy Taubin, and Colson Whitehead.

Colson Whitehead (assistant editor, Voice Literary Supplement): The film section was such an advocate for indie film—John Sayles and Spike Lee and David Lynch. That was a real training in production of art, how to talk about art, and having the courage to follow your own weird dream. They took film seriously and taught a lot of people how to watch movies.

Lisa Kennedy (copy editor, 1986; deputy copy chief, 1986-1988; supplement and TV editor, 1987-1990; senior editor, film, 1990-1992; arts editor, 1992-1993; features editor, 1992-1994): I really did have the best writers in America. I had Jim Hoberman, Manohla Dargis, Amy Taubin, and Georgia Brown, who had come from Seven Days. They were all very different.

Amy Taubin (contributor, film, 1987-2002): David Edelstein had terrible writing blocks. For about a year he came in with his—what do you call them? Comfort animals? His was a rabbit.

J. Hoberman (staff writer, film, 1983-2012): We often got lumped together. It’s like “intellectual critics interested in obscure things”—this was the rap. The film editor was a referee.

Manohla Dargis (contributor, film, 1988-1994): I felt really good when Lisa became the editor. First of all, there was a feminist who was now the film editor. She gave me a range of things to do. I covered a lot of the gay and lesbian experimental film festivals. Later on, Karen Durbin, at her finest, wrote this great piece about her empathy for the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction. I just thought that was awesome, man. There were these really, really great feminists, but it was always a struggle.

Ann Powers (senior editor, feminism, 1993-1994; senior editor, music, 1994-1996): There was this older generation of women critics. The conversations I had, especially with Amy Taubin, with M Mark, with Cindy Carr—a little bit younger, Donna Minkowitz—were so influential in opening my mind. Amy wrote a piece about Naked, by Mike Leigh, and she coined the term “hate-fucking” to talk about this misogynist character. You couldn’t do that at another media outlet.

Molly Haskell (contributor, theater, 1969; contributor, film, 1969-1976; staff writer, film, 1976-1977): Amy and Hoberman were both more interested in independent films. And independent films were coming into their own during that period.

Dargis: The Voice has this long tradition—it’s really important—of covering everything seriously. Big movies, little movies, no money, big money, everything.

Hoberman: I was always promoting Chantal Akerman whenever her movies were showing. Chantal Akerman is this Belgian feminist filmmaker. She made Jeanne Dielman, this three-and-a-half-hour movie, basically—a lot of it in real time—of three days in a woman’s life. It’s more than a landmark; it’s an amazing movie. Finally, it got a run at Film Forum. Karen Durbin saw it, and she really liked it, and she recognized that it also was a feminist statement. So, she put it on the cover.

Todd Haynes, I remember reviewing his Super 8 film, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, and then reviewing Poison, the next movie he made. The Voice was really behind him. It is sort of shocking that Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man got completely ignored by the lamestream press. But these people, Lynch and Jarmusch and Todd Haynes—I mean, it didn’t take all that long for them to become names, at least among film circles.

When Bad Lieutenant came out, it came out the same week as Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula. And Coppola’s Dracula was supposed to be the big movie, and I just flipped them because that movie is a piece of shit and I loved Bad Lieutenant. I went to see this David Mamet show, Oleanna; it was playing downtown. And in the intermission there’s Abel Ferrara, the director—this is the week that my review of Bad Lieutenant came out. He said, “Your check is in the mail.”

Kennedy: We were thoughtful about that ’91, ’92 boom in Black film: Boyz n the Hood, the Hudlin brothers’ films. Those were the start of movies that coalesced with what was going on in hip-hop.

Nelson George (contributor, music, 1981-1994; columnist, Native Son, 1988-1992): There’s a lot of Voice columns I wrote during that period, actually, about L.A. The first time John Singleton was written about in the press was probably an article I did in The Village Voice. I read the script to Boyz n the Hood thanks to Russell Simmons. I wrote a whole thing about L.A. and the gang thing and about this promising young filmmaker. Then you had Menace II Society. A lot of the people who were in hip-hop in New York started moving out there, trying to get into films.

It was a very fraught time to be out there. The riot had just happened, Rodney King, and O.J. happened. Luckily I was able to write about a lot of that stuff through the column I did at the Voice, Native Son. Barry Michael Cooper was also in Hollywood during that same time. He wrote New Jack City, which was a huge hit, and slightly based on his work at the Voice.

Michael Caruso (senior editor, sports, 1986-1988; features editor, 1988-1989; executive editor, 1990): That was part of that timeline of the Voice becoming mainstream.

Kennedy: Jim taught Manohla. That’s sort of how she came to the Voice.

Dargis: I was in graduate school at NYU, getting a master’s in cinema studies. The only writing class was taught by Jim Hoberman, who I really didn’t know. I knew he wrote for the Voice. I took this class, and he really liked me. He ended up quoting me in the Voice; I forget why. Then at some point after class, I got a call from Howard Feinstein, who was the film editor at the time. He first asked me if I was “exotic,” code for “was I not white?” He thought my name seemed Hawaiian or something. He was like, “Do you know anything about the avant-garde?” I’m like, “Yeah, I’ve seen some.” They offered me a job writing about avant-garde cinema, because nobody at that point really wanted to do it.

They brought me in, and they gave me a column. It was ridiculous. I had never published anything. I had written one newspaper article for my high school paper when I was in seventh grade, and that was it.

So, my first piece was published in the Voice, and it was a column. It was called Counter Currents. Immediately after my first column, this group of 40 different filmmakers called on the Voice to fire me. [Laughs.]

Taubin: The greatest editor I had—and Manohla Dargis probably says the same thing—was Lisa Kennedy. Because of the way she thinks about writing, she encouraged, “What do you think?” Not, “I have this certain position; I should support this.” Her writing was about very personal stuff.

Dargis: One of the first pieces that I was really happy with was a think piece on Thelma & Louise with Lisa. Lisa really helped me start to become a writer; I was starting to feel confident that I actually had something to say that people wanted to hear. Because that was really hard. Hoberman’s shadow was very, very big.

Kennedy: Amy has a really great feel for American independents and what they can do. She saw things earlier that were rough from young American filmmakers that spoke to her, and she could really tease out.

Taubin: Sometime in the ’70s, Jonas Mekas, who had left the Voice the first time they tried to edit him, had gone to the SoHo News, and then the SoHo News decided they would edit him, so he left there. And he said to me, “You know about avant-garde film, and you can write, so take over my column.” It was the easiest entrance into journalism.

Hoberman: Amy had a very strong interest in avant-garde, but more than that. She was around during a really fertile period for filmmaking in the ’60s. The word “hipster” is so poisoned now, but she always had a sense of what was going on.

Taubin: I did a column called Art and Industry. It lasted about five years. I did a lot of interviews with people who were totally unknown, like then-producers Ted Hope and James Schamus, people who went on to become major studio figures.

Hoberman: She liked to defend and help young filmmakers. She was very into the whole Sundance thing. Much more than I was; I hated Sundance. I was more into foreign filmmakers and not as interested in personal relationships with them. Amy did like to do a lot of interviews; she liked to know these filmmakers and champion them.

Taubin: Manohla and I both got onto Larry Clark’s Kids. I interviewed Harmony Korine, and it was the first time Harmony had ever talked to anyone. Harmony was living in that little apartment over on Spring Street near Lafayette, and he was living with Chloë Sevigny, and she was 18. They were magical, the two of them. And Chloë was smart and knew that she was going to have another kind of life.

As part of this indie column, I would go to the Independent Feature Market. It was where people showed their films that they had made for absolutely no money. The first year I covered it, I wrote about Richard Linklater’s Slacker; it was there and not completed. I was probably the first person who wrote about Go Fish. I wrote in my Sundance piece about Todd Haynes’s Poison. I wrote a huge piece on My Own Private Idaho, by Gus Van Sant.

Kevin Smith (director of Clerks, 1994): I was working at this video store for a couple of years, and this guy, Vincent, was the mop boy. One night we just started talking about Twin Peaks for some reason. Suddenly we realized that we both liked movies.

One week we read this review in The Village Voice about Slacker. The review was really good, and the movie just sounded wacked. On my 21st birthday we went up to New York to see the movie, and that was the key moment: watching that movie and finding it amusing and different. I thought, “How could someone make a movie like this? There’s no plot.” And then hearing the audience just go nuts around us. I decided, “That’s what I want to do with my life.”

The first piece ever written about Clerks was by Amy Taubin in The Village Voice, and it was after the IFFM (Independent Feature Film Market) in 1993, where it was screened for the first time. She was like, “His style is that he has no style.” And I always thought that was really funny, but it’s true. It’s a conscious effort to not do something wacky.

Taubin: It was a guy who had decided to put a world that he knew on film, accurately. And it was fabulous. And it was funny. And it was exciting. So, I thought, “I’ll make this column about Kevin Smith.”

I called him up, and I said, “This is Amy Taubin. I write for the Village Voice.” And he said, “You’ve got to be kidding. Who are you?” and hung up. Really, he thought someone was putting him on. I call him back up, and I said, “Kevin, this is the real Amy Taubin. I think your film is wonderful, and I want to interview you because I want to write about you.” He said, “I have the poster with your quote on Richard Linklater’s Slacker on my wall.”

Smith: And she goes, “Well, this is going to be the best interview I’ve ever done.”

Taubin: It didn’t take much for people to think that I had an eye for this stuff, because Clerks was enormously successful. And Kevin went on to be very successful.

Amy Taubin, Art and Industry, Village Voice, October 26, 1993
Clerks is the kind of unprepossessing, but enormously talented, first feature that one goes to the market to discover and might easily overlook. Shot in no-budget 16mm black and white, directed, written, and acted with wit and authenticity, it’s about a day in the life of a young Asbury Park convenience-store clerk, his friends, lovers, customers, and companion animals. Less glamorous and formally innovative than Slacker or Stranger Than Paradise, it makes absence of style a virtue in its depiction of blue-collar suburban depression and desire.

Taubin: What I learned from Jonas was that the things you care about, you are writing about them for history, and probably most of them will only exist in history because you’ve written about them. Clerks got into Sundance because of my story.

Smith: I will remember that piece on my deathbed.

This article has been excerpted from The Freaks Came Out to Write: The Definitive History of the Village Voice, the Radical Paper That Changed American Culture, by Tricia Romano. Copyright © 2024. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group Inc.

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