Tuesday, September 02, 2003

Chasing Amy

Movie review time! If you haven't seen this movie yet and might want to see it be warned that there are *MASSIVE SPOILERS AHEAD! You have been warned.

Chasing Amy is one of my all-time favorite movies, on the list with Young Frankenstein, 2001:A Space Odyssey, The Elephant Man, Monty Python and the Holy Grail and some others. It is at once frank, funny, profane, traditional, and thought-provoking.

Seeing the movie cold is just fine, but there's a back story to it all that makes for such resonance as to give you chills. The core of the movie is actually spelled out about three-fourths of the way through, by a character played by the director, Kevin Smith. In this scene, the character, Silent Bob, breaks the muteness that gave him his name through two previous pictures (Clerks and Mallrats) to tell a story about how his own sexual insecurity had led him to sabotage a relationship that he later saw was his "one true love." He regretted it with all his heart now and that regret he named "Chasing Amy" as it still dogged him to that day.

What fans of the movie learned from Kevin Smith's production company website, ViewAskew, is that the movie was actually loosely based his own relationship with the movie's co-star, Joey Lauren Adams! She plays a character, Alyssa, generally modelled on her own self, and Ben Affleck stars as Smith's alter-ego, Holden. Jason Scott Lee is Affleck's character's best friend, Bankey. It took enormous strength for JLA to take on the role, but she makes it worthwhile. Adams is a petite woman, with a high, slightly nasal voice, but when it comes time for her to be angry she really lets loose!

Forgive me as I give a summary of the movie, which is needed for the later discussion. You can skip the next six paragraphs if you want to avoid the plot but want the analysis.

Holden and Bankey are successful writers of a comic book. At a comic convention they meet Alyssa, a fellow writer. Holden is immediately smitten. When Alyssa contacts him through friends to invite him to a club, he thinks she's interested too. But as Holden is getting his groove ready at the club, thinking all her actions are meant for him, he is shocked when Alyssa's girlfriend enters the picture. Holden is angry at himself and writes her off.

But Alyssa shows up one day, still wanting to be friends. After some discussion, Holden agrees and the movie spends some time showing them becoming good friends. There's much discussion of homosexuality by several characters, some quite profane but very, very funny.

One night, Holden confesses his love to Alyssa and it angers her, deeply. There is a HUGE fight, as she shows how Holden isn't asking much of himself, but asking everything of her, expecting her to reject a lifetime spent as a lesbian. They break during a rain storm, only for her to come flying back into his arms and kiss him passionately.

But Bankey is jealous, of her and the time she takes from Holden. The movie makes a lot of Bankey's supposed repressed homosexuality, mostly joking and pointed comments. I'll come back to this. Bankey finds out that Alyssa used to have a notorious past as a heterosexual slut and shares this with Holden, seemingly as a friend but you can see the anger, too.

Holden confronts Alyssa, only to find it's all true, and much more besides. He's been a good Catholic boy up to this point and, though he loves Alyssa, he can't handle her past. It's not the sin, but the comprehensiveness of it that leaves him feeling inadequate. She simultaneously gives him a great compliment and totally rejects him. In a meeting later with Silent Bob and his friend Jay, Holden finally realises his great error and tries to make things right again.

Holden's solution is both hilarious and disastrous. He brings Bankey and Alyssa together to lay it out and in so doing completely and utterly destroys both relationships with no hope of bringing them back. His motives are well-intended and good, but he has failed completely to understand what's going on. He leaves Bankey with a terrible secret exposed and Alyssa bitter at his own confirmation of her worst fears about men.

OK, summary over. This movie is, as I've said already, profanely funny. A lot of adolescent "dick and fart jokes," as Kevin Smith himself says. But within this movie he has crafted a touching story of three memorable characters and of one's great mistake.

And yet, Keven Smith is a traditionalist, practicing Catholic, and it shows throughout the movie, mostly in Holden's character but also in how he constructs Alyssa's character. Although he never, ever gives any details of his own experiences, we see Holden as a one-woman, man-on-top-sex kind of guy, very traditional. His own worldview is limited by this and an (implied) limited experience with sex and women. Alyssa, however, has seen and done it all. Literally. At several points in the movie she lists some of what she's done. She is, as every guy but Holden says, a slut. But in a late scene in the movie she touchingly says (in paraphrase): "You got a map from A to B. You never had to wonder. I didn't get the map. I had to try everything first, just in case. But when I met you, I found what I was looking for. I was sated." Yeah, she really says "sated;" quite well. In the moment, it's beautiful and the most stunning compliment any guy could ask for. That's when Holden begins to realise just how far out of his depth he is, and what he's in danger of losing. He starts to understand Alyssa, or so he thinks.

It's interesting that she's a heterosexual slut in high school, then exclusively homosexual from college onwards. It's implied in the movie that an incident in high school that gave her an infamous nickname may have been responsible. Again, the implication is that she's not lesbian by nature but by choice. She nearly says as much when she falls for Holden, telling him that he's the person she's been waiting and looking for. This view is certainly controversial, but in line with Smith's Catholicism. It colors the film in a way that I suspect many homosexuals might find offensive and enjoyment-killing. I wouldn't blame anyone who did.

But if you see Alyssa as a person, not a lifestyle-choice or avatar of all gays, then this premise is buyable. That's how I get there. I have known some women in real life who have made this choice. Their experiences with men were just so traumatic and awful that they decided to turn their back on them, learning to seek love and physical intimacy from women. [Kissing Jessica Stein is another film that explores similar territory, though not quite as successfully.] It's just controversial to bring this up if you're not a lesbian yourself. Ownership issues and homophobia and all that.

Anyway, what I love so very much about this movie is its willingness to stay true to the characters it introduced. A big budget Hollywood film would have had a "cute" ending where everything is nicely wrapped up for you and everyone's happy. Chasing Amy posits that Holden can't understand what he's facing, and won't handle it well. That's exactly what happens. Holden uses his narrow and oblivious desire to try to "solve" everything, even though it is ridiculous on its face and destroys everything around him. The movie ends sadly and that's its glory. Holden learns a life-changing lesson, but at a great price. Any other ending would have cheapened the lesson. It is also to Ben Affleck's credit that he didn't try to force a script change, as most stars would in order to protect their image. It took courage for him to follow this character's arc all the way. Good on him.

There are also a lot of discussions about sex, to be expected in a movie about men and women in their twenties. They are all raunchy and frank, but illuminating as well. Bankey's claim that "it's all about the dick" is funny, but it shows his own character clearly, as does Holden's inability to see sex as anything but penis in vagina.

If you can accept the premise behind Alyssa's character, which might be tough for some, this movie leaves you heart-broken and sadly wiser. I can't recommend it enough.

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