Clerks played all through high school, in friends’ dens and basements, usually in snippets because we’d get bored or sidetracked by the particularly provocative scenes. Then we’d head out to convenience stores (not much different from the generic Quick Stop Groceries) and waste time, talk to kids that carried around skateboards but couldn’t really ride them, walk all over town because we didn’t have cars or anything better to do. One of my friends recently described those nights as times “when we’d go and walk down four-lane roads at midnight because we thought we’d all get killed and it would be fun or something.” There was a sense that we couldn’t really go anywhere, or that even if we did we’d just end up back in someone’s basement watching movies.
Now that we’re all big bad college kids, with drivers’ licenses and a sense of dignity, we rarely think back to those dead-end nights—perhaps in part by choice, but also because our lives have become so different that it’s difficult to recapture that sense of enclosure, to relate to that time when we knew exactly where our boundaries were because all we had to do was reach out and touch them. College has become synonymous with freedom for many an American teenager, but often this freedom means that our options become almost terrifyingly broad. We flip bewilderedly through 800 pages of course offerings, we speak wistfully of “getting some direction” in our lives, we get new pamphlets in our mailboxes every day about “exciting new opportunities” among which we must pick and choose. Our views now extend far beyond our friend’s basement, out to the international stage, out to the sprawling world which our education is preparing us to take on.
Perhaps this sense of college’s yawning openness is what made Clerks seem so attractive to me last Thursday. The movie depicts characters whose worlds are smaller, whose paths are clearly, almost painfully defined, and recalls those small, clearly defined years from my own life which could nearly be contained within a convenience shop/video rental store. As the movie’s gleeful profanity and grungy soundtrack recalled the cocoon of my best friend’s basement (which, incidentally, was so small that we could barely stretch our legs on her futon without kicking her television), my college life suddenly seemed to be almost a search for a new set of boundaries to replace the ones that had once so unquestioningly bordered my days. The personal issues that now most press on my mind—how am I going to focus my studies? what do I most want to get out of college? what will graduation bring?—seek to pare down the vast range of Harvard and Harvard experiences to a manageable selection that I can grasp with my two hands, that can become as familiar to me as the lines of dialogue in Kevin Smith flicks.
Of course, no one is looking to box our college years into a constrictive package just for the sake of familiarity. While memories of the smaller life may be nice to return to from time to time, it’s not limits that we’re seeking so much as direction, assurance that we’re not just wandering aimlessly, but using our freedom creatively. Many of us are here because we enjoy being slightly on edge, slightly uncomfortable—that’s how we know we’re learning. The trick is to find that edge on the surface of something more familiar, so that we’re still oriented even as we’re exploring. Thursday night, on a whim, I went to see a play at the Loeb theater. The play was three hours long; it had a cast of dozens, several intertwining subplots, and playbill notes that included multiple philosophical references. It was challenging to watch, and raised more questions than it answered. Clerks it was not. But both were still theater, of one kind or another, and the play at Loeb managed to retain a familiar form of spectacle, still resonated with my sense of experience. It defined boundaries—the ones that I was still seeking, rather than the ones that I had forged years ago. So, while Clerks will always be safely stowed away in my laptop, I’ve decided that on most Thursday nights to come, its black-and-white video will usually be passed up for those things that are right before my eyes, vivid, in living color.
Catherine L. Tung ’06 is an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House. Her column appears on alternate Mondays.