Chasing Amy, 1997, written and directed by Kevin Smith.
Everyone has a moment when they're rudely forced to accept that they aren't as young as they'd like to believe. Martin Amis's day of reckoning came on May 21st, 1976, when the Rolling Stones played Earls Court. Here's what he wrote at the time:
Perhaps I'm too old for this sort of thing now—too old to buy fruitless discomfort at £1 an hour. I shouldn't have gone. I'm never going again.
He was 26. I'm not as precocious as Martin Amis, but I had a similar experience watching Chasing Amy. The film was released ten years ago this April; I remember seeing it on its initial run. It certainly didn't seem timeless, but neither did it seem to be bound to a particular moment in history. And even if it was, what of it? The time since leaving behind the yearly landmarks of college has been a more or less undifferentiated mass; certainly things haven't changed that much. But ask yourself (as I did): When was the last time you walked into a bar and the band looked like this?
The makeup, the hair, the flannel. And Pete's Wicked Ale. I must regretfully report that the world has moved on since Chasing Amy was released. This has unfortunate implications for me and my ever-more-out-of-date wardrobe, but it makes the film more interesting than it was the first time I saw it. Kevin Smith didn't know he was making a time capsule, but Chasing Amy is filled with small details of an era that you probably didn't realize was so long ago. All that's missing are those damn child-proof lighters with the plastic lock you had to rip out with your teeth. No, wait:
I stand corrected. Chasing Amy was shot during the long-ago days when comic book fans were still a unjustly-reviled subculture, before they talked the studios into making things like Ghost Rider and earned their revulsion. Appropriately enough, the movie opens at a comic-con. You know you're in the distant past from the first tracking shot: there are no studio publicists, no Harry Knowles, no A-list actors. Well, actually there's one A-lister, but he hadn't made it yet:
Ben Affleck plays Holden McNeil, a comic book artist who's sitting on the doorstep of commercial success. In plaid boxers.
That's his collaborator, Banky Edwards, played by the always-amusing Jason Lee. Holden and Banky's friendship is thrown into disarray when Holden falls hard for Alyssa Jones, a fellow comic book artist.
As in any romantic comedy, there's a complication, which once again pretty clearly dates the film to the mid-nineties.
That's Carmen Llywelyn—Jason Lee's wife at the time—making out with Joey Lauren Adams. This makes Jason Lee's great reaction shot all the more credible:
Alyssa's sexuality is just a stand-in for whatever the obstacle would be in any other romantic comedy; she could be seeing another man without much of a change to the film. It seems like more of a hook for Miramax's marketing team to seize on than an intregal part of her character. This is not to understate the importance of having an easy hook for marketing: this movie got distributed by a major studio for a reason. But Chasing Amy is more about Holden's jealousy than Alyssa's identity. And the best thing about the movie has nothing to do with either character: it's Jason Lee. He's the only member of the cast who moves smoothly through Chasing Amy's schizophrenic changes in tone. No matter how goofy the setup, Lee manages to make it funny. Smith stages a truly absurd scene near the beginning of the film where Holden and Banky heckle a black militant comic book artist (his book is called "White Hating Coon"). Sample dialogue:
They tryin' to tell us that deep
inside we all wants to be white!
Well, isn't that true?
It's just as ridiculous as it sounds on the page (more than you can see in that excerpt even: Hooper is arguing that the Star Wars trilogy is about urban gentrification), and Hooper's response to his hecklers is equally ludicrous:
But I defy you not to laugh at Jason Lee's reaction shot:
It's cornball, and straight from the eighties comedies Smith drew on in Mallrats, but it cracked me up. So Lee's got that going for him. But when the scene calls for it, he manages to draw upon the kind of depths that Robert Downey, Jr. would be proud of:
Jason Lee's unexpected soulfulness is unfortunate for Ben Affleck, whose character is supposed to be the film's locus for angst. His name is Holden, for Chrissakes. Still, he's up against a lot: Kevin Smith lets Lee convey a lot about his character wordlessly. Affleck has to get the same information across while wading through grandiose speeches. Here's how he confesses his love to Alyssa, who has just bought him a chintzy painting:
I love you. And not, not in a friendly way, although I think we’re great friends. And not in a misplaced affection, puppy dog way, although I’m sure that’s what you’ll call it. I love you. Very, very simple. Very truly. You are the epitome of everything I have ever looked for in another human being. And I know that you think of me as just a friend, and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you would ever consider. But I had to say it. I just, I can’t take this anymore.
I can’t stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can’t, I can’t look into your eyes without feeling that, that longing you only read about in trashy romance novels. I can’t talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. And I know this will probably queer our friendship—no pun intended—but I had to say it, because I’ve never felt this way before. And I don’t care, I like who I am because of it. And if bringing this to light means we can’t hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But God, I just, I couldn’t allow another day to go by without just getting it out there, regardless of the outcome—which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shootdown. And, you know, I’ll accept that. But I know—I know that some part of you is hesitating for a moment. And if there is a moment of hesitation, then that means you feel something too. All I ask, please, is that you just, you just not dismiss that, and try to dwell in it for just ten seconds.
Alyssa, there isn’t another soul on this fucking planet who has ever made me half the person I am when I’m with you. And I would risk this friendship for the chance to take it to the next plateau. Because it is there between you and me. You can’t deny that. Even if, you know, even if we never talk again after tonight, please know that I am forever changed because of who you are and what you’ve meant to me, which—while I do appreciate it—I’d never need a painting of birds bought at a diner to remind me of.
If that's how he responds to a painting, thank God she didn't get him a car. I have my own shameful history of speechifying, so the scene didn't exactly ring false to me, but nothing Affleck can do will make this word soup seem like it would have the desired effect on Alyssa (it does). And that's the reason the movie didn't work for me: Holden is such a sad sack that it's not credible that a straight, unattached woman would fall for him, much less a lesbian. On the whole, she seems to have a better time with Banky:
That's one of the Chasing Amy's best scenes: Banky and Alyssa trade war stories about cunnilingus while Holden sits silently by, embarrassed out of his mind. Say what you will about Kevin Smith, no other filmmaker has found quite as much comedy in the mechanics of sex. It may be a dubious honor, but this is really where Kevin Smith broke new ground, and why I believe he belongs in the Criterion Collection, even if I don't love his movies. Remember: as tame as it seems now, Clerks nearly got an NC-17 rating when initially released (it took Alan Dershowitz to convince the MPAA to give it an R). Mallrats, Smith's misguided attempt to graft his sensibilities onto the skeleton of a mainstream eighties comedy, was a misstep. But although Chasing Amy has the structure of a thousand romantic comedies, Smith successfully infuses it with a kind of grossout humor previously only plumbed by standups. Observe:
That's not the kind of thing you usually see in multiplexes. As funny as the scene is, Joey Lauren Adams's "can you believe I'm getting away with this?" expression illustrates the most dated thing about the movie. You can see it most egregiously when Alyssa affectionately calls another woman a cunt, but throughout Chasing Amy there's a self-congratulatory feel to the vulgarity that went out of style somewhere around the turn of the millennium. Come to think of it, there's a lot of self-congratulation going on throughout the film, which is packed with references to Smith's previous movies: Alyssa and Holden both knew the characters from Clerks (Alyssa went to the funeral that Dante and Randall ruined) and they both hung out at the Eden Prairie Mall from Mallrats. And of course, there's the obligatory appearance of Jay and Silent Bob. Actually, I kind of like what Smith does with these two; they're in the movie before they appear. Holden and Banky's success comes from a book based loosely on the duo called "Bluntman and Chronic":
From what we see of the comic book, they behave pretty much the way their characters did in Mallrats, which is to say they're completely insufferable. Late in the movie, they show up in person:
This gives Smith an opportunity for a moment of post-modern introspection, criticizing himself for the way he used these characters in his previous movie:
But that ain't like us at all,
all slapsticky and shit, run around
like a couple of dickheads,
saying... what's that shit he's got
Oh, um, Snoochie Boochies.
Snoochie Boochies. Who the fuck
talks like that? That is fucking
Agreed. This sort of recursion is pap to fanboys, but it doesn't help Chasing Amy succeed on its own merits. In the end, for the film to work, we have to believe that Alyssa and Holden really connect, so much so that Alyssa is willing to redefine her sexual identity in order to be with Holden. It's kind of a stretch. The characters do work pretty well when their relationship is falling apart, however. The best-directed scene between Alyssa and Holden is the fight they have at the hockey match, where Holden's jealousy and insecurity finally gets completely out of control.
It's tightly paced and edited, even if the insert shots are on the nose, and it makes me think Smith could have a great movie in him if he weren't quite as in love with the sound of his own voice. But when the opportunity comes to have one character give a grand speech, Smith can't resist. Watching the movie, I was reminded of Frozone's description of Baron Von Ruthless's fatal mistake in The Incredibles:
He starts monologuing! He starts this, like, prepared speech about how "feeble" I am compared to him, how "inevitable" my defeat is, how "the world will soon be his," yadda yadda yadda.
In the end, Kevin Smith's fatal flaw as a screenwriter comes straight from the world of comic books. I like to think he appreciates the irony.
- Chasing Amy is second only to Armageddon when it comes to discussions of films that don't really deserve to be part of the Criterion Collection. I see where people are coming from, but I think you can make a case for it now that you couldn't when the DVD was released in 2000. In addition to being a time capsule from the mid-nineties in terms of what's on screen, Chasing Amy also represents a pivotal moment in the film industry. The movie came out towards the end of the time that people thought of "independent film" as a sensibility, rather than a financing model. Harvey and Bob Weinstein were just starting to peak, Miramax's stranglehold on the Academy Awards was well on its way. And as much as people dislike it now, it was very, very well-reviewed on its release. Still, reactions to its inclusion in the collection are, well, mixed. Here's Ben Affleck on hearing that Armageddon wouldn't be his only Criterion DVD:
- And here's the slightly-more-circumspect Joey Lauren Adams and Jason Lee getting the same news.
- The still of Alyssa and Banky trading cunnilingus stories is staged to match the scene in Jaws where Quint tells his story about the U.S.S. Indianapolis—note the matching booth and windows. You can make your own vagina dentata joke here.
- This scene contains Chasing Amy's other great profane film quote, this time from The Graduate:
- Look closely at that still and you can see Banky's hair, moving back and forth at the bottom of the frame.
- Like any Kevin Smith movie, there's a part for Brian O'Halloran. And like any Ben Affleck movie, there's a part for Matt Damon. They play a pair of obnoxious MTV executives who want to make an animated series out of Bluntman and Chronic.
- According to the commentary track, Damon's character was based on Mike De Luca, whose best days were still ahead of him.
- Kevin Smith quotes one other filmmaker in Chasing Amy, and it's an odd choice for the consummate New Jersey white boy:
- During the scene where Banky tells Holden how Alyssa got her nickname, Smith cuts to a direct-to-the-handheld-camera monologue that's straight out of Do The Right Thing. And yes, that's the convenience store from Clerks in the background.
- The film was shot on non-anamorphic 16mm for budget reasons, and the transfer really shows its grain. When Criterion released this on laserdisc, the director of photography corrected some framing errors in the original theatrical release, but when they did an anamorphic transfer for the DVD, they made the same mistakes all over again. So the DVD duplicates the theatrical experience, down to the shots where Jason Lee and Ben Affleck's heads are cut off:
- Speaking of budget, Smith alludes on the commentary to taking the film away from Miramax and then bringing it back, but doesn't elaborate. On the Criterion Forum, I found a link to this interview with Smith, in which he explains:
Chasing Amy was supposed to be a $2-$3 million flick, and the money was there for the taking, but we just didn't agree on the cast with Miramax. I wanted to use Ben, Joey and Jason, and Miramax was all about using other people. And so I had a meeting with [Miramax head] Harvey [Weinstein] where I basically lowballed it and said, "Look, man, we'll go off and make this movie with our cast for two hundred grand, and if you guys want it when we're done, fine. If not, we can take it to someone else." And he was completely sold. So we went off and made it, came back, and the dude fell in love with it. And now he loves my actors so much that they've been cast in other movies.So with Clerks (financed on credit cards), Smith has now made at least two films completely on his own terms. In the case of Chasing Amy, he walked away from at least 1.8 million to get the cast he wanted. Whatever you think of his movies, I think you have to respect his balls. Also note that at the time the interview was conducted, The Onion couldn't take it for granted that their readers would have any idea who Harvey Weinstein was or what he did for a living.
- As self-indulgently recursive as Chasing Amy seems, it could have been worse. The film originally opened with Holden and Banky meeting two scornful comic book owners. Their snarky comments about "Bluntman and Chronic" were taken directly from a negative review of Mallrats.
- Casey Affleck has a brief appearance in the opening scene, wearing a Watchmen t-shirt. From what I hear of his performance in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, he's come a long way.
- The fashions of 1997 are all the more embarrassing because I remember wearing them. But consider this: Ben Affleck is wearing his own clothes throughout the film (which were apparently stolen during the production). Every flannel shirt, every pocket-t, every pair of raggedy jeans was from the personal pre-fame wardrobe of the star of Armageddon. Movie stars! They're just like us! Until they can afford not to be!