When I was a freshman in college, a chain-smoking film student I befriended declared that we must attend a midnight showing of filmmaker Kevin Smith's Catholic extravaganza Dogma. I agreed because I thought the kid was dreamy. I hadn't liked or understood Clerks, Mallrats or Chasing Amy, and I certainly didn't expect to like or understand Smith's latest film.
Two hours later, I emerged from the theater crying.
"Uh, are you okay?" my companion asked.
"That was beautiful," I said, tears running down my face. "I didn't know you could swear and talk about God and have it feel like that."
He rolled his eyes.
"You only liked that movie because you're a Catholic from New Jersey," he said. "I need to show you some real art."
And while his 2-minute freshman midterm film about his bookshelf had been the best in his class, the kid was dead wrong. The fact that Smith was also a post-papist product of a nowhere Jersey town was inspiring, but there was far more to my reaction than that.
When I saw Dogma, I finally got Kevin Smith. Here was a guy who genuinely loved his characters in a way that few storytellers in any medium do. Dogma showed me a fellow foul-mouthed weirdo of faith who was confused and angry and hopelessly, eternally in love with the messy process of figuring out where (and if) divinity and humanity intersect. And for all the hypersexual banter and outrageous imagery, here was a heterosexual male artist with a clear respect and love for women.
In Smith's world, it was okay to laugh at the darkness, at the light, and at everything in between. You could even laugh at God. If God existed, he/she was probably laughing back, anyway.
From that day on, I've been a Kevin Smith fan. I still haven't seen all his films, but over the years I've found myself increasingly fascinated by the non-film aspects of his mini-empire.
Smith's been online forever, and his View Askew message board has long been a thriving community. Through his popular cross-country Q&A tours, his active Twitter presence, his Red Bank, NJ comic book shop, and especially his multi-tentacled podcast universe (of particular note is the "Plus One" podcast featuring Smith and his ferociously clever wife, Jennifer Schwalbach), Smith provides a brilliant model for any artist seeking to make his or her mark in today's fragmented, hyper-paced cultural landscape. His much-publicized mission to self-release the fundamentalist-skewering horror film Red State in one city at a time (with a later wide release) is the logical extension of a career that has always been built on a grassroots DIY aesthetic.
Kevin Smith provided the model on which I've based my own professional life. Now, I'm not a filmmaker. I'm a comic, which is another word for "con artist." Inexplicably, I have made a career out of tricking people into paying me to write or say things that I think are funny. My audience is much smaller than Smith's, but it's big enough to fool my parents into thinking their eldest has some kind of semi-respectable career. That's a win.
I try to follow Smith's template, whether I'm talking to TV viewers, college students, comedy fans, political nerds on Wonkette or Indecision, advice-seekers on Formspring, folks on Twitter, fellow-travelers on Facebook, or the gloriously insane masses on YouTube. Today, many people (especially the under-40 ones) expect a previously-unimaginable level of interactivity with artists. It isn't tied to promotion for specific events, either. They want to be able to reach their artist regardless of whether there's a new product dropping soon.
Kevin Smith taught me everything I know about how to grow an audience and build an army of fellow weirdos. The short version of the lesson is this: Be as open as you can about as much as you can, because people crave honesty in art the way a sunflower craves the light. Give them who you really are, and they'll turn their faces to you time and time again.
As I bought my $124 ticket online to see Red State plus a live Smith Q&A at Radio City Music Hall, I thought of the doubtful teen who'd unenthusiastically waited in line to buy a ticket to that screening of Dogma. That girl sure as hell didn't want to be a comedian. If I recall correctly, she wanted to be a college professor (this after less than a semester of actual college). I knew exactly what she'd say if she could see me now. It's a sentiment I have no doubt many of my friends and many of Smith's critics would make today.
"You spent one hundred and twenty four f%*#ing dollars on a ticket to a Kevin Smith movie?"
I sure did, kiddo. Don't worry; when you grow up, you'll understand.