Monday, June 24, 2019

Film Appreciation - Never Will Regret This

Cody Hamman draws out some Film Appreciation for Kevin Smith's 1997 film Chasing Amy.

Kevin Smith has said that most of his films have been such personal stories that they were like he was tearing out chunks of his heart and having it projected on the screen. His third film, Chasing Amy, which leans further into drama territory than either Clerks or certainly Mallrats did - although there are still plenty of laughs - is one where you can really see that personal connection very clearly, and I feel it's the most emotional of all his films. Smith putting his heart on the screen touches my heart, and Chasing Amy brings the tears to my eyes every time I watch it. For over twenty years I've been struggling to figure out which is my favorite Kevin Smith movie, Clerks or Chasing Amy. I still can't give a definitive answer.

The story was partially inspired by Smith's producer Scott Mosier having a crush on filmmaker Guinevere Turner, who wrote and starred in Go Fish, an indie movie that was getting a lot of attention around the same time Clerks was. Both movies were shown at the Sundance Film Festival in 1994. But Mosier and Turner weren't destined to be anything more than friends, since she is gay. Smith took the idea of a straight man falling in love with a lesbian and mixed in aspects of his own painful experiences with love, especially the troubled relationship he was having with Mallrats cast member Joey Lauren Adams. Some of the story is also inspired by how poorly received Mallrats had been by critics after Clerks had been so well received.

While Mallrats had been a bigger budgeted studio film, Chasing Amy was a return to Smith's low budget roots. It wasn't an indie movie because it was financed by Miramax, but Smith and Mosier had just $250,000 to work with here. That's about ten times what they had to work with on Clerks, but Chasing Amy has a wider scope and Mosier really had to bust his brain to figure out how to make it happen. Miramax would have been willing to give Smith and Mosier a higher budget to work with, but they wanted a different cast. Miramax wanted Drew Barrymore, David Schwimmer, and Jon Stewart... and I can't imagine them playing these characters. With the $250,000 budget, Smith got to keep the cast he wanted: Joey Lauren Adams, Ben Affleck, and Jason Lee.

Affleck and Lee play Holden McNeil and Banky Edwards, comic book creators who had critical success with their self-published debut book 37 and are now having great financial success with their goofball "dick and fart joke" book Bluntman and Chronic, about a pair of stoner superheroes inspired by Clerks and Mallrats characters Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith). Banky is having a lot of fun with Bluntman and Chronic and is very happy when they're offered the chance to get a Bluntman and Chronic cartoon made, but Holden isn't thrilled that they're doing something so puerile. As one line of dialogue puts it, he's "a real artist trapped in commercial hell", and he wants to get back to telling personal stories like 37 was... He just needs to find something personal to say.

Holden will find that personal story thanks to fellow comic book writer Alyssa Jones (Adams). He meets Alyssa - who was mentioned in dialogue in Clerks, where we met her sister Heather before meeting her other sister Tricia in Mallrats - at the Manhattan Comic Con. Holden and Banky are there to sign copies of Bluntman and Chronic and also support their pal Hooper X (Dwight Ewell) by disrupting a panel with a heated, staged argument over Star Wars characters.

Holden is instantly smitten with Alyssa and thinks she feels the same about him, but finds that he's wrong when Hooper - who is a flamboyant gay African American man who puts on the act of being a macho, white-hating militant - invites him to see Alyssa at a club. Alyssa is well known in this place, and is even invited on stage to sing a song, a Joey Lauren Adams original I really love called "Alive", which she dedicates to a special someone. Holden thinks that someone is him. It's not, it's a woman named Kim (Lee's then-wife Carmen Llywelyn) who is also in the audience. Alyssa is a lesbian.

So romance seems to be off the table, but Holden and Alyssa become great friends and spend a lot of time together. Holden continues to crush on her in secret. One night, he finds he can't take it anymore. He loves Alyssa too much, he has to let her know. And he does, in a wonderfully written monologue that takes a couple minutes to deliver and which fans have been stealing and using in their own personal lives ever since this movie was first released. Shockingly, his speech works. Holden and Alyssa become a couple. And things are great for a while.

Holden is fine with Alyssa's sexual history as long as he thinks she has never been with a guy before him. When he finds out that isn't the case, he has a complete meltdown... A meltdown which is truly idiotic, but emotions can cause people in love to act in idiotic ways, especially when they're in their early-to-mid-twenties like these characters are.

Alyssa's past is revealed to Holden by Banky, whose story through the movie is that he feels threatened by Holden's relationship with Alyssa. He doesn't like her, he doesn't like how deeply into her Holden is, he hates that Holden starts paying more attention to her than him and their business deals, he's afraid this is going to hurt their friendship, and at one point even warns Holden that the day may come when he has to choose between them. This brings up the question, is Banky simply a jealous friend, or is he in love with Holden himself?

I've never dealt with exactly the issues and situations Chasing Amy deals with, but it still feels real and relatable. For me, this film features one of the truest cinematic presentations of what it's like to be in love. Love is complicated and messy, and can tear you apart as much as it builds you up. Sustaining a relationship comes down to how well you work through the issues. Sometimes the issues can't be overcome.

The lower budget is evident in the look of the film only due to the 16mm film stock, as cinematographer David Klein captured some great images on that film. After Holden first tells Alyssa that he's in love with her, her reaction to that speech takes place on a city sidewalk at night as rain pours down on them, the surroundings lit with a mixture of yellowish streetlights and blue/purple lighting. Another scene I love the look of is one in which Holden and Alyssa are lying in bed together, bathed in blue light shining through a window. This scene is also great because it's the one where Alyssa discusses her sexuality and how she ended up with Holden, "the one least likely", giving Adams a chance to really dig into how her character feels about things.

Chasing Amy is full of incredible scenes and terrific, often vulgar dialogue. The conversations the characters have, the confrontations, the emotions they convey, it all feels so real and so deeply heartfelt. Sure, the average people may not banter in quite as clever of a way and they may not have the words to express themselves that these characters do. But that's the beauty of this kind of movie. Sometimes cinema can be better at expressing our thoughts and feelings than we are ourselves.

Cinema can also bring us a scene in which two characters both have so many injuries from performing cunnilingus that they can show each other their battle damage, just like the scar show and tell moment in Jaws.

There is so much emotion contained within this film, it's a real heartbreaker. But just when the movie has reached its lowest point, in steps the acquaintances Holden and Banky based Bluntman and Chronic on. Jay and Silent Bob. There are images of Jay and Bob all through this movie, through the Bluntman and Chronic art, but the characters themselves only show up in one scene. A 9 minute scene perfectly placed to lighten the mood when we need it the most.

Silent Bob isn't exactly silent in this scene, he is given the most dialogue he has ever had in any of the movies. He delivers his own lengthy monologue, and within the story he tells is advice that Holden really needs to hear.

Holden then takes that advice and comes to the worst possible conclusion. After becoming a fan of Kevin Smith when Clerks was first released on VHS, I missed the theatrical release of Mallrats and saw that one for the first time on VHS as well. Chasing Amy was the first Kevin Smith I got to see on the big screen, and I still remember that theatrical experience from 1997. My mom and I sitting in the theatre watching this movie (I was 13, of course my mom accompanied me to this vulgar love story) with the entire row behind us taken up by college students who were clearly fans of Smith's previous movies, as they were audibly picking up on the references to things like Quick Stop, Caitlin Bree, Rick Derris, and Julie Dwyer. In his scene, Jay expresses disappointment with how "slapsticky" the Bluntman and Chronic versions of him and Bob are, and how Holden and Banky have him spouting baby talk like "Snootchie Bootchies". It's basically a reaction to the slapsticky version of Jay and Silent Bob we saw in Mallrats, where Jay would spout nonsensical lines like "Snootchie Bootchies". I think one of those college kids must have had a tendency to quote Mallrats-Jay lines, the way his friends reacted to Jay calling that baby talk. Even as a 13 year old, I couldn't believe how wrong-headed Holden's reaction to Bob's advice is. I was thinking to myself, "What is he doing? No!"

Thanks to his relationship with Alyssa, Holden has a personal story to tell in a new comic book called Chasing Amy. Just like Kevin Smith had a personal story to tell with the film Chasing Amy. And it is a beautiful story.

Clerks had a great end credits song courtesy of Soul Asylum, "Can't Even Tell". Chasing Amy features a memorable score composed by Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner - this is one of only two movies Pirner has composed the score for - and also ends with a great Soul Asylum song, "We 3".

As the credits finish up, a line of text tells us that "Jay and Silent Bob will return in Dogma." We were told the same thing in the end credits of Clerks, but this time that line is followed by "(promise)". And this time they did return in Dogma.

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