In 1997 I headed to the theaters to see Chasing Amy and fell. Hard. I wasn't gay, nor living the high life in New York City, nor pouring over comic books and attending Comic-Cons, but I could relate. I was just a girl in her first handful of post-high school years -- that time where the real world starts to come into focus, when maturation accelerates forward as some beliefs solidify, and others change with each passing day. I wasn't a particularly discerning moviegoer. At that time, I liked what I liked and had little time or patience to delve into why. Kevin Smith's lack of a visual style didn't bother me. In fact, I didn't notice, because unless an auteur had a distinct visual flair a la David Lynch back then, I was oblivious.
I've watched Chasing Amy occasionally through the years -- especially in the first few, making everyone I knew sit down to see it with me. As time moved on, viewings slowed. Picking it up 5 or 10 years later, I quickly spotted both the lack of visual prowess and just how completely and utterly '90s it was (the latter of which isn't a bad thing, just a bit of an aged jolt). But now, 13 years later, I was curious how it would hold up if I watched it with plans to write about it -- paying strict attention and not just letting retro fandom, or current Smith distaste as the case may be, affect me.
And it held up quite well.
Watching it now, what strikes me most about Chasing Amy is the myriad of discussions it evokes and lessons it relays -- about relationships, life, acceptance, race, sexuality... While I enjoy Clerks, this is Smith's true diamond in the rough -- a shocking anomaly against his usual over-the-top humor and ridiculousness. While the film certainly has its own shockers (the Black Beauty magazine scene in particular), they come off as regular and perverse blips in life and story, rather than a show-stopping number with a donkey. It's not about laughs, but honesty -- honesty between Kevin Smith and Joey Lauren Adams (which inspired the story), honesty between the characters, and honest discussion about any number of issues -- especially sexuality.
There are many opinions lobbied at the film when it comes to sexuality. I can completely understand those who argue that Chasing Amy is nothing more than a message that lesbians can go straight for the right man. It does, in many ways, suggest that. Here we have a successful young lesbian who meets some guy, becomes friends, and finally finds what's she's been looking for not in a woman, but a man. Though Alyssa does explain how she came to this decision with refreshing candor, after the big breakup, when she's back with women, she continues to not find what she's looking for, ultimately ending up with someone who doesn't seem to understand her at all.
But consider Kevin Smith's audience. If not written by Smith and featuring the faces of View Askew, how many of them would have forked over the cash to see a film frankly discussing homosexuality, race, and tolerance? To me, Chasing Amy is a film that caters to a number of audiences simultaneously, with none being as important as his core fanbase. Intermingling his humor and love for things like Degrassi and hockey with a pretty serious story about prejudices and acceptance, he opens a really important dialogue.
Holden is the newb. He knows words like "straight" and "gay," but he doesn't truly understand them. He's a New Jersey boy living the regular hetero life. It might seem hokey or ridiculous that Alyssa sits down with Holden and is willing to entertain any idiotic question that passes through his head, but it allows the ridiculous and honest questions to be asked, and for at least a small amount of education to be relayed. It allows any viewer like Holden to get the stupidity out of the way, to listen to a new and challenging viewpoint through humor. They talk and talk and laugh and laugh and rather than just sending out jokes for a giggle, it's comedy with a worthy undercurrent. Throughout the film, serious nuggets are thrown in. Dwight Ewell's Hooper explains the lengths he has to go to for acceptance as a gay black man in the comic world; Holden tries to school Banky on the problems with using "gay" as a derogatory word; Silent Bob himself discusses the ridiculousness of letting personal bias and prejudice push you away from good people.
The film might let the straight guy live out that still-joked-about ideal of turning a gay girl straight, but it also asserts that this is not a realistic fantasy. With no outside influences, Holden and Alyssa's romance is great, but it quickly falls to the pressure. Alyssa is shunned by her friends, Holden's close friendship with Banky is seriously threatened, and the relationship can't survive the pressures of history and lingering ignorance. As much as one viewer can read it as a testament to lesbians needing to find the right guy, others can view it as a recognition, deconstruction, and negation of that oft-held notion. As Hooper chastises: "Men need to believe that they're Marco f**king Polo when it comes to sex." At every turn, Smith recognizes the immaturity of the mid-twenties '90s male, and then proves why it's wrong, or at the very least, problematic.
Ultimately, Smith was able to offer something few are able to do -- or are even interested in doing -- offer entertainment with depth, to make an argument for honest discussion (which is practically unheard of in Hollywood films) and even dare to throw in wisdom. It's rather unfortunate that this intelligence and magic isn't present in more films overall, and especially Smith's subsequent work. Perhaps it's like Holden and his comics. More will come when he finally has "something personal to say."
- What do you think of Smith's treatment of sexuality in the film?
- Can the sort of conversations in Chasing Amy have worked in Smith's subsequent films?
- Does the simple cinematic style help or hinder the film?
- Do you think the end of the film is Holden and Alyssa's last meeting? Does the ending inspire hope, or just the end of the romantic interlude?
Next Week's Film:Dirty Harry | Add it to your Netflix queue (This one's streaming!)
Last Week's Film: Stalag 17