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Revisiting the Kevin Smith library: 'Chasing Amy'

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Emily Rowley and Bill Hanstock have decided to re-watch the entire Kevin Smith oeuvre. Is "Chasing Amy" as awful in hindsight as we feared?

You can find our review of Clerks here.
Find our review of Mallrats here.

Bill: So Chasing Amy was the movie that I was least looking forward to rewatching, but the process was a lot less painful than I anticipated. There are portions of the film that still are very much a chore to watch, but overall, I thought it was actually a fairly honest time capsule of the time period. In a lot of areas, it was actually surprisingly progressive (again, at least for the time).

Even moreso than Clerks and Mallrats, Chasing Amy thoroughly places you smack dab right in the goddamn middle of the late-90s. From the fashion to the music to Ben Affleck's high hair, ill-advised Van Dyke and his endless parade of sweaters, both cable-knit and crewneck.

Kevin Smith put down on wax a time when a pager was the most readily-available piece of mobile technology and comic conventions were a haven for underground dorks instead of a respected industry that could be stripmined for mass pop culture big business. Hell, Smith even inadvertently foretold a future of abundant varied mobile pornography in this movie.

Viewed through a necessary set of prisms -- that this is a time capsule of an America that barely resembles our contemporary society; that this is more or less the prototypical crossover indie film of the era, featuring barely-left ideals and dripping with the pacing of a late-90s quasi-pestige indie film (yes, the pacing is part and parcel of indie films of the era); that this is a movie made by a white straight cis 27-year-old dude who fancies himself a progressive and a Nice Guy in the year 1997 -- Chasing Amy feels surprisingly authentic, although it becomes a victim of its own uncertainty of tone (and could have benefited from a defter hand on the tiller).

The main thing to keep in mind -- and perhaps the hardest thing to objectively do, given the framing of the film -- is that Holden and Banky are not the heroes of this movie. Alyssa is. Holden is a scum-of-the-earth mansplaining Nice Guy who is a shitty ally. Banky is his friend who is really smart and clever, but thinks he's smarter and more clever than he actually is, plus he's a not-even-closeted bigot who is constantly yelling about what amounts to "PC gone mad." If he had the term for it, he'd be delivering neck-vein-popping diatribes about SJWs. Banky is essentially the first Redditor. Or the first 4chan poster. Whichever is more apt. I don't know how the Internet works.

Alyssa has some truly wonderful, honest, progressive moments in this film that are almost always immediately undercut by her confessing her love for Holden or her desire to be with him. The two things that hurt the movie most are the Nice Guy gambit (which, of course, actually pays off) and Alyssa's insistence that she loves Holden. (This is perhaps the ultimate in examples of there being a romantic match just because the movie tells us there is.)

Holden is just such a brutal shithead throughout and it's nice to rewatch and slowly understand that he's not at all the hero of this flick (even though that is undercut a few times, again, due to positioning). It perhaps helps that Smith famously hates himself (as do a lot of artists), so his avatar in the film -- Holden -- really comes across horribly. He's just the absolute worst, all the way down to thoroughly mansplaining the ultimate threesome decision and still failing to get it until long after he's blown everything.

The happy ending is that Alyssa got away from this butthole. Even though Affleck gets the long, mopey walk away with the look back, Alyssa gets the final word. She regains her composure and says Holden is "Just some guy I knew." The movie ends on her, not on Holden or Banky. She won. Holden may have discovered how to be a better person, but who fucking cares? I choose to read that the movie wants us to be glad they're not together. It clearly tells us that Alyssa was right all along.

Emily: Truly, I was expecting this movie to be a cringe-fest. I haven't watched it in a very long time and was fully prepared to balk at what passed for progressive 20 years ago (20 years! I am an ancient creature slowly turning to dust).  But you're right, Chasing Amy held up far better than I was expecting it to.  Granted, the sexual politics of the film certainly have some cobwebs on them, but the small, sweet little story Smith was trying to tell is still very watchable.

Part of the reason why, I think, goes back to an interesting point you made about Alyssa "winning" the movie.  I honestly had forgotten how the film ends and was certain that they wound up together.  Furthermore, I was already mad at the movie for the fact that they DO wind up together. So the forgotten/unexpected Roman Holiday ending was incredibly satisfying, as was Alyssa ultimately finding her place without Holden. But I'm not sure I agree that she won, because the movie truly does a disservice to her character arc.  Alyssa's hesitation to redefine her sexuality and her eventual acceptance of her love for Holden makes for the most compelling parts of the film. However, Smith sidelines this in favor of "man can't deal with woman's sexual history," which he'd already done at this point. "Finger Cuffs" is just "37 dicks!" but better acted.

And yet: I didn't hate Holden as much as you did, and I'm not as quick to dismiss him as a Nice Guy.  As far as Kevin Smith proxies go I found him far less obnoxious than Dante in Clerks, and Hollywood Movie Star(tm) Ben Affleck almost pulls off playing a schlub.  I blame all the unzipped jackets and unbuttoned shirts.  You said you didn't buy the love between the characters, but I thought Affleck sold the hell out of the confession scene.  I was on board with Holden until the 3rd act, when the entire movie kind of gets torpedoed.

You touched on Banky, a character who has probably aged the worst. Comparing him to a Redditor is pretty spot-on.  I wasn't especially phased by how homophobic Banky is because, frankly, that's how backwards baseball caps talked in the late '90s.  The movie tries to play his language as indicative of him being closeted, but the reality is that things were just kind of terrible then. I'd be interested to know how a young person (my teenage nephews, for example) would experience the character today.

I'm curious to know your thoughts on Hooper.  I found it fascinating that the militant persona of Hooper X was an intentional caricature of the "Angry Black Man," yet the "true" face of the character was an unintentional caricature of the flamboyant gay man. I don't know if it was a limitation of the time, or just the writing, but though Hooper gets to do some very on-point proselytizing he's still basically just a very broad sidekick.

Bill: I think you're probably right all around! Honestly, one of the big problems with the movie is how damn stilted all of the performances seem, which Smith himself would tell you is all his fault. It wasn't until he worked with "real" actors -- starting with Dogma -- that he didn't know a director wasn't supposed to give actors line readings. He was just telling everyone how to say his dialogue and they were parroting him, which serves to make all of the characters sound identical and, at the same time, inauthentic.

(Ironically, a whole generation of screenwriters -- myself included -- were influenced in equal parts by Smith and Quentin Tarantino. These were the first movies that a legion of young and aspiring filmmakers had seen where characters "talked like real people." Unfortunately, we didn't fully grasp at the time was that it was the subject matter that was new, not how they were delivering the subject matter.

All of Smith's characters in his first three films not only sound similar, they sound identical -- because Smith was giving line readings. Flash forward to present-day, where the cardinal sin a screenwriter can commit is having your characters read as indistinguishable from one another. How were we to know that what was getting Smith critical acclaim and a legion of fans would be an example of precisely what not to do when writing a script?)

What you say about Banky is totally spot-on: it was an especially shitty time for smart, arrogant white bros. He's clearly a villain when you watch the movie in present day, but BOY was he a hero for a lot of people at the time. That's retroactively chilling. Him flippantly telling Hooper, "I feel a hate crime coming on" was probably a great joke at the time. Now, it's harrowing.

(While we're talking about dialogue -- sort of, anyway -- it's interesting that so much of the dialogue in the film feels rote and cliché, but it was anything but at the time. This is one of the films that created these clichés. Smith had a far more long-lasting and deep impact on modern-day filmmaking than I think anyone would have ever anticipated.)

So let's talk about Hooper, then. Yes, it's interesting that he's an accidental stereotype wrapped in an intentional stereotype. I also think the accidental stereotype is probably a lot less swishy than it could have been and probably pretty in line with its contemporary cinematic portrayals of openly-gay men. I also think both aspects of Hooper's personality have some pretty interesting things to say. Him telling the young black kid to keep his eye on the man because "He the devil" is great, as is his forever-on-point acknowledgement that being a gay black man is a subset of a subset of a subset of being an unacceptable American.

I also think Hooper helps further a bunch of interesting commentaries on nerd/comic book culture at the time. His introduction as part of a panel on minorities in comic books packs a terrific one-two punch of intentional and unintentional jokes: The panel is called "WORDS UP!" and two of the five people on the panel appear to be white males.

But another thing about Hooper that stands out is an aspect of Smith's filmmaking that gets entirely forgotten about. (The fact that this aspect falls further by the wayside with every film he's made probably helps with this.) I'll own up to the fact that I'm reading ahead and have watched Dogma and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, but in Smith's third, fourth and fifth films there is a whole lot of what comes awfully close to fetishization of black people. Smith paying lip service to the coolness and unacceptability of being black seems a whole lot like what Quentin Tarantino was doing in the mid-to-late 1990s, albeit with far fewer invocations of a particular slur.

Hooper's role in the film is a whole lot of signaling of how cool and with it Smith is. It's a very good example of a white dude really, truly believing that he's a good ally. In 1997, maybe he was! Perhaps it's because Tarantino has doubled, tripled and quadrupled down on this fetishization in recent years. But it's an aspect of Smith's middle films that I'd almost entirely forgotten about.

The only other thing about Hooper is that his opening fire in the convention hall is hastily explained away (with an explanation that makes not even the slightest bit of sense), but actually (unintentionally or not) establishes Chasing Amy as magical realism. Which extends to the next two films in Smith's library. But it's the ONLY scene that makes this film magical realism.

This leads me into my next point: this film has a real tone problem. It wants to be a progressive, indie starcrossed romance, but it also wants to tell dick and fart jokes and do the Jaws scar-comparing scene, but with cunnilingus. Maybe it's intentional! Maybe the film tries to straddle the two sensibilities that have Holden and Banky at creative odds. Somehow, I don't think Smith was that clever at the time (or maybe even now). But the film continues to whipsaw between these two extremes with very little middle ground.

My next question for you is, what do you think of the actual directing here? I think Smith actually regressed as a director from Mallrats to Chasing Amy and I feel like the few bits of artistry on the screen (the silhouette of Banky and Holden working in profile in front of the window is GORGEOUS) are accidental -- sort of like that video store shot that blew us away in Clerks. Shots don't match, basically ever. There are entire scenes where there's no proof the subjects are in the same room together. When he goes handheld for the shot immediately following the "Easter Bunny" drawing, as Holden and Banky are launching into their largest argument, it's pretty embarrassing.

Emily: It seems so obvious, but I wasn't aware of Smith actually giving his actors line readings. I've always just thought that all the characters sounding the same was part and parcel of watching a Kevin Smith movie. His characters are like the Gilmore Girls with more swearing.  But, call me crazy: I actually thought the writing showed a marked improvement over Clerks and Mallrats.

Granted, Holden's first line comparing Bluntman and Chronic to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made me roll my eyes hard enough for the neighbors to hear.  But in, for example, the scar comparing scene you mentioned the characters sound relaxed and even naturalistic in a way I wasn't expecting.  I'm used to Smith's characters forever performing at each other; I was unprepared for them to seem like real people enjoying each other's company. 

Part of this I credit to Joey Lauren Adams, who is a fascinating actress to watch.  Because on the surface she seems to be terrible. And, honestly, she doesn't quite hit the mark on all of her big emotional cues (I blame the sexy baby voice). Yet she manages to imbue Smith's often titled and verbose dialogue with a lot more emotional and heart than many of his usual suspects do.

So let's circle back to your question about the directing....*sigh*

After the last two movies, the bar was set pretty low. We've talked a lot (as has Smith himself) about his mediocrity behind the camera. Yet when we watched Clerks it really seemed like he was spinning gold with his shoestring budget.  I agree that this felt like a recession.  It's almost as if, by the third movie, Smith had already bought into his own narrative that his only strength was a a writer and just...gave up on the artistry.  

The problem is that I wouldn't even describe the direction here as utilitarian.  There is a weird inconsistency to what he does. Some of the interiors of the Jersey apartment are gorgeous, as you said. But MAN, that argument scene.  I honestly stopped and rewound to confirm that I hadn't made up that mild tremor that lingers at the end of the scene.  I also took note of the scene where Holden and Banky are waiting for their meeting with the television executives.  Shot in a wide, static two-shot (as always), the scene is lit in a florescent yellow hue reminiscent of both a cable access talk show and a mid-budget porno. Smith's direction here could be summed up as "occasional flashes of imagination between long stretches of 'eh, fuck it.'"

Bill: Yep, I think you nailed it re: the directorial choices. He was back to working with zero budget, so he doubled down on the only thing he ever got praise for up to this point. And hey, it netted him the best reviews of his career and an Independent Spirit Award, so more power to him.

While you mentioned the meeting with the television executives, I wanted to make sure we pointed out:

1. The unbelievably adorable cameo from tiny baby Matt Damon
2. The most bizarre-yet-strangely-accurate piece of set decoration I may have ever seen: the gigantic fucking fork that is propped up behind Banky and Holden

Yes, a 12-foot-long wooden fork is ABSOLUTELY something that would be in an MTV executive's office ca. 1997. It's gloriously awful. I thought about it for a very, very long time afterward.

While we're on the subject of cameos, let's talk about like 12-year-old Casey Affleck. Seeing him in this was WILD. It should also be noted that Scott Mosier has absolutely CRUSHED IT in all three movies so far (spoiler: get ready for even more of that goodness in the next two films). His facial hair is unbelievable and seeing him in the trolling fan role at the beginning is such a departure from his SModcast (AKA "real") persona that I feel he may have missed his calling as a full-time actor.

The last MAJOR point I want to touch on here is the music. It never fucking stops. It's super high in the mix and as overbearing as Banky's personality. The little snippets of original score are every bit as invasive as the Ned's Atomic Dustbin-level alt songs they shoehorned in in post to give Miramax an excuse to sell a potential hot new indie soundtrack featuring hot new indie bands. It's all just a cacophony that really takes me out of so much of the movie. Again, this is pretty true of most indie (and even mainstream) films at the time, but it's one of the least-deft usages of score I've seen.

(While I'm talking about music, I finally got that Alyssa's song in the Meow Mix lesbian bar -- which as a pun is pretty decent -- is pretty obviously an homage to Blue Velvet. I totally didn't get that at the time. Or until this most recent viewing.) (I also still can't for-certain say whether Joey Lauren Adams is sweaty or just shiny in this scene.)

(The Meow Mix section still contains two of the funniest PERFORMANCES in the film: Affleck continually dancing into and out of frame, and Banky's "looking around the bar" sequence of takes, which holds up as probably the funniest thing he does in the whole movie.)

Emily: 1. Not only did we get Fetus Matt Damon, but we also get him dressed like Chandler Bing
2. I haven't seen "Blue Velvet" in probably 15 years, so I would have NEVER picked up on any homage if you hadn't mentioned it.  Apparently JLA wrote the song that she performed, a tidbit I learned by Googling, "Chasing Amy Soundtrack + That one god damn Mighty Mighty Bosstones song"

The soundtrack point is a good one, because it really is relentless.  Its amazing that the first three Kevin Smith movies have each wound up being a time capsule of different aspects of the 90's.  With Chasing Amy it's definitely the wall-to-wall pop soundtrack, Clerks was the horrific clothes (I'm not over it yet), and Mallrats was the Poop 'n' Boobs humor that we all thought was amazing when our brains weren't fully developed.  I feel like "Dogma," made in '99, will be a significant change in direction.

... Although I just remembered that the movie has a literal shit monster ...