Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Kevin Smith | Chasing Amy

doors that shouldn’t be opened
by Douglas Messerli
Kevin Smith (writer and director) Chasing Amy / 1997

In Kevin Smith’s boy loves girl/girl loves girl/boy loves boy-comedy, nearly all the characters draw and write cartoons, and are, similarly, treated as cartoons by the writer-director. That is not to say that there are not pleasing elements in Smith’s slightly-naughty sexual treatise, and certainly its central actors—Ben Affleck as Holden McNeil, Joey Lauren Adams as Alyssa Jones, and Jason Lee as Banky Edwards—are engaging. Although the movie often suggests that the director is questioning closed notions of sexuality and gender, in the end, because of his character-as-type approach we wind up with the status-quo, with each returning to their normative kind—while throughout Smith has gotten away with more gay bashing (both male gay and lesbian) than the most bigoted of cinematic works.

      The film begins, in fact, with a parody of gay male homosexuality, by presenting a lecture by Black cartoonist Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), who in a macho-like rant raves against the fact that the cartoon world, including that of cinematic figures, lacks Black heroes. Using the interruptive tactics of his friends, Holden and Banky, Hooper puts down any possible exceptions to prove his theory and to reassert his right to be assertive. In fact, Hooper is a feminized gay man, whose aggression is all a put-on to convince his fans of his militant correctness. In short, Hooper as a person denigrates Hooper as the artist, and the duality of that position is behind nearly every figure in Smith’s gallery of rouges.

      Also in league with Hooper is Alyssa Jones, a beautiful woman who immediately intrigues the somewhat thoughtful Holden. Holden, as his name suggests, has is a kind of disaffected Holden Caulfield, holding back his life artistically (his and Banky’s comic-book heroes are titled, intriguingly, Bluntman and Chronic, characters which may suggest the pairs’ differing relationships to life: he sees them, as he tells a fan, less like Cheech and Chong than as Rosencrantz and Gildenstern or Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon)—and sexually. In terms of the latter, Holden is  an innocent, unaware throughout the early scenes of the film of Alyssa’s lesbian sexuality, and clueless about his partner’s closeted love for him—but then Banky isn’t aware totally of his love for Holden either!

      The scene in which Holden discovers himself in a lesbian bar where the woman with whom he’s interested is at home, reveals just how blind Holden is to the realities of life—and how unbelievable is Smith’s typological straight man-child. It isn’t as if Holden and Banky have accidentally stumbled into the bar of The Crying Game; Smith’s bar is definitely a lesbian hot spot, filled with woman dancing with one another. Even the dunderhead Banky immediately perceives the bar is filled with “chicks” and, with his usual misogynistic suspicions, knows something is amiss. Holden sees only the beautiful Alyssa until she settles into a long,  passionate kiss with another woman, at which point Banky applauds, as if knowing now that he has won: Holden will not be taken away from him.

       To give Smith credit—or perhaps to give Joey Lauren Adams, whom Smith was dating at the time, credit—much of the rest of the film appears to be an inquisition of just what sexual differences mean. Although Alyssa appears to be a confirmed lesbian—Holden is convinced she has never been with a man—the two, nonetheless, become close friends, with Holden ultimately falling head over heels in love with her. Although it may be hard to comprehend what Holden has found in her that makes her, as he puts it, “the epitome of everything I have ever looked for in another human being,” we are, at least, charmed by Adams’ acting, for which she won several awards.

         In reaction to Holden’s honesty, Alyssa gives a rather stunning defense of her sexual choice, strong enough to convince us, for a moment, that Smith will not take the easy way out, reiterating, what both Banky and Holden affirm, that all lesbians really need is the “penetrating” act. Yet Smith lets us down, even if intelligently, by suddenly having Alyssa reverse her position, embracing Holden and transforming herself from a die-hard dyke to a “crossover” lover. Her explanation for her “switch” is even fairly convincing:
                 And while I was falling for you I put a ceiling on that, because
                 you “were”a guy. Until I remembered why I opened the door to
                 women in the first place: to not limit the likelihood of finding
                 that one person who’d complement me so completely. So here
                 we are. I was through when I looked for you. And I feel justified
                 lying in your arms, ‘cause I got here on my own terms, and I
                 have no question there was some place I didn’t look. And that
                 makes all the difference.

     I too used to believe that, that all people, if they might allow themselves, could be multi-sexual, gay, straight, even transgender—that we were born multi-sexual, “multi-genderous,” but where delimited choices by the learned restrictions of society and family. That last is a “made up” word, of course, and I no longer believe it’s quite so simple. It is the smugness of Smith’s assumption that now disconcerts me.

     Smith, however, can’t even leave this politically correct theorem be, bringing back the jealous Banky to do a little dirty digging through the characters’ New Jersey childhoods to uncover the fact that in high school Alyssa was not only, at one time, “straight,” but engaged in a threesome with two despicable males known to Holden and him. Holden evidently can accept that he has fallen in love with a lesbian but cannot get his mind around the fact that she has been so sexually experimental with the opposite sex, eventually forcing her to admit to her dalliances of ten years earlier as if such an openly sexual being must be punished for not fitting into his own moral code.

        And that is, after all, the issue. Smith himself, as his persona Silent Bob admits, was raised Catholic. Banky puts it to Holden in another way: “You’re way too conservative for that girl. She’s been around and seen things we’ve only read about in books.”

       The breakup between the perfect couple is inevitable. But in the process, at least Holden realizes he can no longer “hold on.” In a last desperate attempt to enter her world, a world of vast sexual knowledge of which he is terrorized, he brings Banky and Alyssa together, proposing that the three of them participate in group sex, thus allowing the clueless Banky to join him in sex while allowing his equally clueless self to feel at par, experientially, with the woman he loves. Oddly enough—or perhaps we should say, predictably—Banky accepts the invitation, but Alyssa does not, insisting she has already abandoned that in her search for sexual meaning, and will not play whore for Holden’s predicaments.

       There is no possible reconciliation given Smith’s typological setups. Alyssa returns to lesbianism and her own comic book versions of reality, Banky takes over the now successful cartoon series he and Holden had begun.

       And who is Amy? She is, as Silent Bob explains earlier, the woman Holden will be chasing for the rest of his life, a being of the imagination only. Holden meets his two former friends at another convention for cartoon-making, giving a copy of his new cartoon series, Chasing Amy, to his former lover, while acknowledging his former partner, Banky, with a polite wave, each of them having returned to the place where they had begun, alone and uncommitted. To her current girlfriend, Alyssa explains away any of the deep emotions she once might have felt; when asked who she was talking to, she responds: “Oh, just some guy I knew.” Despite the flirtatious liberations of Smith’s explorative work, it is finally a terribly conservative piece of film-making that sadly acknowledges, as Smith has expressed it: “Some doors shouldn’t be opened.”

     That these same characters or variations of them appear in most of Smith’s films might suggest a kind of continuity of vision, but also reveals that, in the end, this director doesn’t have much else to say.
Los Angeles, December 11, 2012

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