Doing this program (The Week in Film on Radio National) for the past three years has meant, among other things, being able to track the entire career of the young American writer-director Kevin Smith.
His debut Clerks (1994) was the classic indie success story – cheap, brash, with tremendous energy, and a certain guttersnipe charm. Then came Mallrats (1995), and with it every dire symptom of Second Film Syndrome. Despite a few good blue jokes, Mallrats was a stinker. The limitations and clumsiness of Smith's style became all too apparent, once he had a bit more money to splash around. Now, with his third film, Chasing Amy, Smith – like Spike Lee – has reversed his descent into oblivion. It's one of the best comedies of the year, and a genuinely surprising, rich movie in many ways. Not too surprisingly, its final credit contains a sarcastic dedication to all those critics like myself who mercilessly knocked his second movie.
Kevin Smith has committed himself to that classic, and somewhat treacherous path, of the independent filmmaker devoted to the idea of "personal cinema". His films follow a certain quasi-autobiographical curve: as he gets a bit older, his characters get older, edging up from teenagers to twentysomethings. As he gets a little wealthier, so too his characters become upwardly mobile. In Clerks his characters worked in run-down grocery and video shops; in Mallrats the decor was a bit more pastel and chi-chi; now his characters are authoring their own cult comic books, and attending conventions. They're still nerds, but they're nerds on the make.
Of course, a certain kind of rootlessness and emptiness can sometimes come with sudden celebrity, riches and upward mobility – this is true of filmmaking, as it is of pop music. What first gave an artist's work its distinctness, and its sharp, disconcerting ring of authenticity, in that debutante moment, can quickly disappear in a smothering haze of ego-gratification and back-slapping. Ordinary people and their ordinary problems – the daily drudgery that formed the basis for Clerks – all suddenly disappear as subject matter, as the filmmaker gets further away from his or her roots.
Sometimes all that's left for an artist to discuss and reflect on in his or her work is precisely this ascension into inauthenticity, glittering fame and materialistic madness – this is very much the autobiographical curve of Woody Allen's film career, for instance. Or Susan Seidelman, who started with a whole streetwise punk, post-feminist energy in Smithereens (1982) and Desperately Seeking Susan (1985), and now only makes self-hating films about the rich and stupid folks of Beverly Hills, or – at the other extreme – nostalgic, maudlin little pieces about the modest suburb that she grow up in, her lost nirvana.
Despite these changes in Kevin Smith's characters – changes in their station in life, and particularly their job-status – some things have remained rock-solidly the same in his movies. The main characters are still guys – another autobiographical preference, evidently, as if Smith is sticking to the gender he knows best. That puts him a universe away from, say, Éric Rohmer, who moves with ease and assurance from male to female leads in his films. But I'm willing to go with Smith's bias in this regard, particularly since the women who do appear in the margins of his first two films put in pretty colourful and ribald cameos.
A trickier matter to come to terms with, however, is the set of values that comes with Smith's adoption of an indulgent male perspective. With Mallrats, I had the bracing experience of laughing heartily through the vulgar bits at a cosy critics' preview, only to be confronted by an angry colleague at the end who demanded to know: "Are you going to say that that film was sexist, Adrian?" Well yes, I have always said that Smith's movies have some hair-raisingly sexist, misogynistic and homophobic jokes in them but I have to admit that I've never said it with much anger or conviction. I can't get too righteously ideological about Smith's work, because his films are so absolutely enjoyable in a disarming and outrageous way, and his straight, male working-class perspective has a lot to do with that defiant larrikin charm.
With Chasing Amy, Smith's formula is given a few severe tweaks. Again there are two guys, and again there are a lot of vulgar jokes about sex and various base bodily functions. In particular, there's an hilarious scene in which two characters, a straight man and a gay woman, compare their various embarrassing and uncomfortable experiences with oral sex. As always in Smith, the frisson of this sequence derives from the breaking of a taboo, both a movie taboo and a broader gender taboo. Smith is going to make you hear all these grotty, hysterical confessions about oral sex, about giving it and getting it; and he's also going to air a certain secret male complaint about how difficult and confusing the whole business is, when girls don't really help guys along with their fumbling attempts to master this art. For audiences – for me, at least – there's a very high recognition factor here, a kind of liberating, truth-telling outrageousness, and that helps win a special complicity between Smith and his fans.
With his third film, Smith's dialogue is sharper and snappier, his characters are more confidently and deftly drawn, and his rapport with actors, which was evident in his first film, has gotten even better. But what's different this time out? Well, Smith is on another path typical of much-hyped independent filmmakers, in that he has decided to respond to the criticism of his movies. Just as Brian De Palma made "violence in the cinema" the subject of his film Body Double (1984), after being labelled ultra-violent and sensationalist (most notoriously for Scarface ), now Kevin Smith makes a movie that addresses, in its own sweet and cheeky way, the issues of misogyny, homophobia and that blinkered, straight, proletarian, buddy-buddy worldview.
Chasing Amy starts as every Smith film does – with blokes wrapped up in their daily, egocentric, largely adolescent rituals. Smith usually poses a slightly sensitive guy against a very bullish one, and here he exaggerates that difference. Holden (Ben Affleck) is the sensitive, good-looking one; and Banky (Jason Lee) is the loud-mouthed, unlovely, ever vulgar nerd. They have both risen to cult fame in the contemporary world of avant-garde comic books. At a comics convention, our heroes start publicly picking on a hip black artist who, in a very funny speech, decries the racism of the Star Wars movies. When general chaos breaks out and the room empties we realise that their victim, Hooper (Dwight Ewell) is in fact a friend, and that the whole fracas has been a three-way stunt. We also realise that Hooper is flamboyantly gay – although, as he explains, he could never sell comics to nerds by openly admitting that.
Gayness is about to become absolutely central to the plot, theme and strategy of Chasing Amy. When the after-hours carousing starts at this comics convention, Holden sees and is immediately attracted to the fiery Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams). In a great teen movie-type moment, Holden watches as Alyssa, singing on a stage, gestures to someone in the crowd; Holden thinks for a second she's gesturing to him, but then a spiky young woman approaches the stage, and a full-on lesbian pash follows, instantly breaking Holden's poor straight heart.
But this minor heartbreak or frustration doesn't stand in the way of an intense friendship, between Holden and Alyssa. Chasing Amy is a very touching film about friendship – you really feel the changing moods of this relationship, and its growing depth. For a change, you really believe that there is a rapport between these two people, that's really captured by Smith in detail, rather than just gestured to or assumed, as in so many films these days. The crunch comes, in a superbly moving, rain-soaked scene, when Holden blurts out his impossible love for Alyssa. But the impossible then becomes possible.
It's at this precise moment that the film could have dived into a deeply embarrassing hole, if Smith was offering us in some shockingly naïve way the spectacle of a gay girl turning straight for love. But it's not like that at all. The words and gestures that Smith gives to the character of Alyssa, as she testifies to the paths she has walked and the risks she has taken and the decisions she makes from moment to moment in her life, are all deeply convincing. Without at all being a fashionable, politically correct movie about "queer" identity and sexuality, Chasing Amy does have a genuine sense of how variable and open our erotic identities and relationships can be. Coming from a cheerfully vulgar guy like Smith, that's really something.
Of course, true love, even in this ultra-modern form, must meet its obstacle. Here, it's the fatal flaw residing within Holden's straight male psyche. Sensitive new age guy that he is, he is entirely at ease with the record of Alyssa's lesbian sexuality. What he can't take is a series of revelations about her youthful erotic experiences with men, including an episode of group sex with a couple of nerds from the days in the old schoolyard. Suddenly, Holden is suspicious and paranoid, directing horrible recriminations and insults at Alyssa. He is sliding backwards, trying desperately to assert for himself some fanciful and mythical standard of "normality" in intimate relationships. Obviously, Holden needs a sentimental education appropriate to the 1990s – and this film is going to give it to him.
There's another intrigue bubbling all the way through Chasing Amy, involving Holden's best friend and colleague Banky. At first he seems like the classic Kevin Smith mouthpiece: a no-bullshit, tasteless, politically incorrect, tell-it-like-it-is kind of guy. But the film begins to take its distance from him, as the characters around him start dissecting his often vicious barbs, and debating whether or not he is a homophobe – and what that homophobia might suggest about his true, repressed nature. Eventually, the film becomes a complicated triangle involving Holden, Alyssa and Becky – which builds to a truly amazing moment when Holden brings the three of them together to discuss the possibility, even the necessity, of a bedroom threesome, in order to work out all their various problems and tensions.
Chasing Amy is not a perfect piece of work: Smith's film style is still too artless, clunky and repetitive. There are ways, finally, in which it cops out, or at least plays safe on certain tantalising points. But, all the same, it does take chances and explore possibilities; and it feels like a genuinely testing stretch for Smith, just as Dead Man (1995) was for Jim Jarmusch. Chasing Amy remains true to something that has been a strong impulse in Smith's other films: I'd almost call it a therapeutic impulse. Just about every popular movie these days is full of smarmy life lessons and journeys to self-knowledge and plateaus of magical honesty and transparency between characters, but there's something very sincere about the therapy idea in Smith. Whenever his characters finally get somewhere, or learn something, it's always a small enlightenment. And the fact that this tiny enlightenment takes place forever mired in the blue jokes and grotty detritus of everyday life makes it, somehow, real and true and special.
MORE Smith: Jersey Girl
© Adrian Martin July 1997