Sex is easy. Love is hard.
Kevin Smith was off to a fairy-tale beginning in the wacky world of filmmaking. His first feature, Clerks was financed with credit cards, a comic book collection, and by working at the convenience store that also happened to be the setting of the film. Clerks was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, picked up by Miramax, and proceeded to become a cult favorite. Smith followed up his indie success with a big-time studio movie that had a budget of $6 million. Mallrats was a failure, no matter how you look at it. At the box office, it took in just over $2 million, a million less than Clerks. Most critics panned it. His work was cut out for him with Chasing Amy.
Clerks relied on my-god-I-can’t-believe-they-just-said-that humor, and Mallrats on slapstick. In comparison, Chasing Amy harkens back to Woody Allen’s films of the 1970s, such as Annie Hall. Annie Hall was wildly funny, in an erudite sort of way, but at its core it was a romantic tale of love between opposites that just weren’t meant to be together. Chasing Amy follows in that tradition, only with more dick-and-fart jokes.
Chasing Amy was a very personal tale for its writer and director. Smith based the story on his own relationship with the actress who would star in the movie, Joey Lauren Adams. Joey was adventuresome, and had seen and done more than the Catholic guy from the ‘burbs of New Jersey could ever dream of. The tale of a guy falling in love with a lesbian grew out of his struggle to come to terms with her more exploratory sexual life.
Though I love all his films, Chasing Amy is my favorite of Smith’s work. There’s the obvious reason why: it is his best film, technically and story-wise. I also respect the movie’s personal nature. I can relate to the geek who has a great friend of the opposite sex, but can’t resist the urge to act upon the romantic feelings he’s harboring deep inside. It rings all too true. Around the time I met Chasing Amy, I was going through something similar. I never fell in love with a lesbian, but I know first-hand the awkwardness and inevitable disaster of the friends-to-something-more scenario. Ahem. I’ll just nip this digression right in the bud.
Holden (Ben Affleck) and Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams) have so much in common. They’re from the same little suburban area of New Jersey where everybody knows everybody and interesting things are always bound to happen. They belong to the same little rarefied niche profession, that of the comic book artist. It is through a comic book convention that they meet. For Holden, it is love (or at least, attraction) at first sight. He misinterprets Alyssa’s attention as mutual feelings. Imagine his surprise a few nights later when he discovers she is a lesbian.
Despite the obvious clash of sexual predilections, Alyssa lets Holden down easy. She is very patient and understanding with his initial curiosity with her lifestyle, explaining in eloquent detail why her path is different from his and how she “does it.” Much of the movie’s charm comes from these early scenes, from the juxtaposition of our expectations of the interaction between men and women in love, and a man and a women who both love women.
The two become close friends, spending much time together. However, like any typical “guy,” Holden still cannot move past those initial feelings and the attraction he feels toward Alyssa. In a scene that will go down as one of the greatest expression of a character’s feelings in filmdom, Holden reveals to Alyssa his buried feelings that he can no longer contain. Predictably, she explodes. How dare he question her life? How could he possibly think that she would, or could, or should, change? But then, unpredictably, she relents and professes that she feels the same way.
It is at this point that I’ll step back from the story. If you look at the movie in the framework of the traditional three-act structure, we’re probably at the end of the first act. My favorite explanation of the three-act structure is this: In the first act, you get your hero up a tree. In the second act, you throw rocks at him. In the third and final act, you get him down from the tree.
In Chasing Amy, our main characters are up the tree, even if they don’t realize in their romantic bliss that they are in a precarious situation. The rocks come in the form of nuggets of information about Alyssa’s past. Has she always been a lesbian? Is Holden the first man in her life? Holden (like any guy) doesn’t know how to react, so he bursts out in anger (like any guy). This leads to the climax of the movie, where we get our heroes down from the tree. In this regard at least, Holden acts in a very uncharacteristic way, but the movie leads to the inevitable tragic end of the relationship. The last moments of the film leave the door open a crack for the possibility of a “Hollywood” ending, but Smith is mum on the outcome of Holden and Alyssa.
I’ve left out Chasing Amy‘s other two central characters. You can envision them as the angel and the demon that pop up over the shoulders of cartoon characters whenever they face a moral dilemma. Just which is which, I’m not going to decide. One of these advisors is Banky (Jason Lee — Mallrats, Mumford). Banky and Holden have been friends for many years. They work together on their comic book, “Bluntman And Chronic” (based on the Jay and Silent Bob characters who have appeared in all of Kevin Smith’s movies to date). He’s not unlike most “guys” you’ll meet. He’s full of bluff and bravado. He finds lesbians quirky and titillating, but gay men are a threat to his machismo. He’s cool with Alyssa when she’s kissing a girl in a bar, but when he finds Holden and Alyssa naked on the couch in their loft, he freaks out. Banky plays the role of the naysayer. He discourages Holden from the start, predicting the doom of the relationship. In fact, he’s the one who digs up the dirt that leads to Holden’s doubts. The other over-the-shoulder guide is Hooper (Dwight Ewell — Kiss Me Guido, Dogma). Hooper is also a comic artist, and he’s “the minority in the minority of the minority” — a gay black man. Hooper is oddly supportive of the relationship, urging Holden to forget about Alyssa’s past and follow his feelings.
In their roles as Holden and Alyssa, Ben Affleck and Joey Lauren Adams show acting colors you haven’t seen before or since. Affleck plays the straight guy — not in the sexual-orientation sense, though that is there, but in the traditional comedic sense. It’s very different from the glib (Armageddon) or short-fused (Dazed And Confused) characters he’s played before or since. Alyssa should have been the role that made Joey Lauren Adams a star. She’s patient and understanding yet quick to defend her feelings, strong-willed yet emotionally fragile, comfortable with her identity yet still willing to redefine herself. It’s a performance with many shades and facets, worthy of far more recognition that it received. It’s almost a slap in the face that the only major award nominations she received were for a Golden Globe and an MTV Movie Award. The Golden Globe in her category went to Helen Hunt for As Good As It Gets, admittedly also a very good performance. But, the MTV Movie Award nomination was in the Best Kiss category (for her same-sex lip-locking with Carmen Lee, who also happens to be the wife of Jason Lee). She lost to Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in Wedding Singer. Blecch. Any one of the other nominees was far more deserving than that tepid duo.
The Criterion Collection DVD presentation of Chasing Amy is very nearly a direct port of their laserdisc special edition, with a few changes and additions. The video transfer is a brand-new anamorphic presentation. The film was shot in Super 16, which is a lower-resolution film format than the 35mm film stock that is used for most Hollywood productions. As such, the video quality is not quite as high-quality as you would expect. The dirt that plagued other transfers has been cleaned up somewhat, but it is still very apparent. There are also a few framing problems that have come to light since the DVD’s release. One or two shots have been shifted upward, so that the tops of characters’ heads are cut off. It was presented that way theatrically, but was fixed by the director of photography for the laserdisc transfer. However, the DVD transfer was done without his supervision (despite what it says on the packaging!), so the problem is once again apparent. Audio is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. With a movie such as Chasing Amy that is almost exclusively dialogue, it is difficult to find anything meaningful to say about the mix. Dialogue is clear, the soundtrack occasionally reaches into the rear channels, and you might as well not have a subwoofer. The exception is the pivotal thunderstorm scene. Each belt of thunder rumbles through your subwoofer, making its way around your room and leaving its lingering presence. For such a dialogue-centric scene, it is aurally impressive.
Where the Criterion Collection discs shine is their wealth of extras, and Chasing Amy is no exception. What you get is a commentary track, deleted scenes, outtakes, a trailer, a cool booklet, and a special introduction to the DVD version by Kevin Smith. Each and every Kevin Smith movie on DVD is worth buying for the commentary track. Even if you think his movies suck sour frog butt, you will get a kick and a half out of the commentaries. Smith is joined by Ben Affleck, Jason Mewes (who plays Jay), his producing partner Scott Mosier, View Askew “historian” Vincent Pereira, and a couple guys from Miramax who don’t talk much (Robert Hawk and Jon Gordon). From beginning to end, it is a laugh riot. Affleck and Smith, it’s completely obvious, are quite fond of each other, and demonstrate it by giving each other a very hard time. The two of them account for at least 75 percent of the verbiage, with the rest split between Mosier and Pereira. Mewes is a big believer in Method Acting, playing the part of the stoner at all times. Occasionally, he will chime in with pointed and perceptive questions about why things are a particular way. The ten deleted scenes are not as extensive or significant as the ones included with Mallrats (it’s not like an hour was trimmed from the beginning of this film) or Clerks (which includes a deleted scene of one of the main characters dying). Still, they are quite entertaining. One of the cut scenes was a cameo by indie favorite Illeana Douglas, who portrayed Alyssa’s roommate. The trailer is your typical Disney-produced home video trailer, complete with full-frame picture and stereo sound. The liner booklet, which I aforementioned is very cool, contains Kevin Smith’s introduction to the film. He explains its genesis with his relationship with Joey Lauren Adams and their inevitable breakup. It also includes a two-page diagram detailing the connections between the events of Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy, and the ties between the characters. The introduction to the DVD is included because of an off-handed, vulgar comment made by Smith at the beginning of the commentary track. Remember, it was recorded for the Criterion laserdisc release, when DVD was in its infancy. He’s since changed his mind about the value of DVD…
I can’t find anything negative about film itself. I’m a bit disappointed that Criterion maintains such an expensive price point for their discs. Sure, they’re a smaller company and produce consistently high quality products, but other DVD distributors include more content at a much lower price. That is the main reason why I don’t own more Criterion DVDs; I wonder if the same holds true for other collectors.
Chasing Amy is a disc I highly recommend. The movie is an undiscovered gem that hopefully will find an audience outside Smith’s core fan base now that it is available on DVD. Sure, it may be a bit more expensive than Independence Day, but you’re paying for quality. Trust me.
I have a feeling that one or two of you cineastes out there scoffed when you heard me refer to the people who produce comic books as artists. I’ve known several comic book artists in my time, including the über-talented individuals who drew the cover art you see in the opening credits of Chasing Amy, Mike Allred and Matt Brundage. Most of these individuals are also painters or practice other forms of artistic expression, and produce comic books because they love the format. If the thought crosses your mind that they aren’t as talented as those whose paintings hang in galleries, I’d ask you whose work is seen by more people, or is more appreciated in his or her own time.