Chasing Amy [DVD]
Screenplay : Kevin Smith
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1997
Stars : Ben Affleck (Holden McNeil), Joey Lauren Adams (Alyssa Jones), Jason Lee (Banky Edwards), Dwight Ewell (Hooper X), Jason Mewes (Jay), Kevin Smith (Silent Bob)
For many, "Chasing Amy" is a film that hits a nerve. With blunt humor and a stark, honest approach, it tackles modern romance in the way few films do. It doesn't soften the edges or candy-color anything. It takes life as it is.
Specifically, the film explores a particular strand of cultural hypocrisy that has been constantly hammered into the male psyche and reinforced in almost every aspect of Western society. To quote writer/director Kevin Smith, whose inspiration to make this film stemmed from personal experience, "There are these unspeakable, ingrained mistruths men are brought up to believe about sex: We're dominant, we should go to bed with whores, but wake up with virgins."
Sometimes referred to as "The Madonna-Whore Complex," it is often couched in strictly Catholic terms, so it should come as little surprise that Smith is a practicing Catholic. Another Catholic-inspired filmmaker, Martin Scorsese, has also dealt with this issue, explicitly in his first feature, "Who's That Knocking at My Door" (1967), and to a lesser extent in "Mean Streets" (1973) and "Raging Bull" (1980).
"Chasing Amy" is about Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), a twenty-something comic book artist who falls in love with a woman named Alyssa (Joey Lauren Adams), successfully builds a relationship with her, then unwittingly destroys it because he is emotionally incapable of dealing with her past sexual exploits. The film is given a double edge in that, when she is first introduced, Alyssa is a practicing lesbian, so it seems that the chances of Holden winning her affections are next to none.
Yet, he does, but the film is not about "turning" homosexuals. It is about relationships and how difficult it is for men--even those who consider themselves modern and liberated from traditional cultural baggage and sexual hang-ups--to deal with being intimate with a woman who is more sexually experienced than they are. When Holden confronts Alyssa about her past and demands an explanation, nothing she says can possibly suffice because he doesn't actually want her to explain anything. There is nothing she can do; it is all up to him because it is his insecurity that drives a wedge between them.
What is striking about the film is the frank and moving manner in which Smith is able to bring out such sensitive, nerve-jangling material in a film that is also very funny. The closest cinematic relative to "Chasing Amy" might be Rob Reiner's "When Harry Met Sally ..." (1989), which was also a penetrating look at modern romance that also happened to be hilarious. Still, "Chasing Amy" feels more raw and uninhibited. This is very much a low-budget independent film, from its somewhat grainy 16-mm photography to its unabashed dialogue that delves into often embarrassing truths about human sexuality without even the slightest hint of restraint.
At times, the film seems to be pulling in multiple directions. While it is primarily about the relationship between Holden and Alyssa, it is also about the relationship between Holden and his best friend and business partner, Banky (Jason Lee), who has even more hang-ups than Holden and is, perhaps, repressing latent homosexual desires. The entire story is infused with homosexuality and its place in modern American society, and in this respect the film sometimes feels a bit schizophrenic. In some scenes, it seems very open and understanding of the gay lifestyle; in others, it lapses into stereotypes and crude humor.
The best example of this is Hooper X(Dwight Ewell), an African-American cartoonist who poses in public as a Black Panther-style militant who writes a comic called "White-Hating Coon," but in actuality is an effeminate gay man who bemoans the fact that he is an oppressed sexual minority within an oppressed racial minority. Still, it must say something that Hooper is, in the end, one of the most adjusted and self-assured characters in the film, especially when compared to Holden and Banky.
"Chasing Amy" was Kevin Smith's third film, after his highly praised black-and-white indie debut "Clerks" (1994) and his roundly lambasted studio film "Mallrats" (1995). While "Chasing Amy" has a little bit of both of those films, it marks a significant departure for Smith in that it is about more than the '90s slacker lifestyle dressed up with witty, vulgar dialogue. Smith is great writer of dialogue; he is a master of lacing pop culture references and sly in-jokes throughout conversations in a way that feels completely natural and true to the characters. His two earlier films used this to great effect, but they were never about much more.
"Chasing Amy" matters because it is about something. It tackles issues and explores situations that many other filmmakers have shied away from. It's the kind of film in which almost everyone can recognize a hint of themselves and perhaps a mistake they or someone they know has made. Although Smith's directorial style remains somewhat flat and uncreative, it fits the mood of this film because a lot of self-conscious camerawork and fancy editing would have distracted from the heart of the story. This is a truthful movie simply told, and it works marvelously.
16x9 Enhanced: Yes
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
Extras: Running audio commentary with writer/director Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, actors Ben Affleck and Jason Mewes, associate producer Robert Hawk, Miramax executive Jon Gordon, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira; new video introduction to the DVD by Kevin Smith; 10 deleted scenes with introductions; outtakes; trailer; The Askewniverse Legend: A guide to the characters in the "New Jersey Trilogy
Distributor: The Criterion Collection/Home Vision and Miramax Films
Video: There has been a good bit of controversy about the new anamorphic transfer for the Criterion DVD, namely the fact that certain scenes are incorrectly framed. This is most obvious in the train station scene. On the DVD, the tops of Holden and Banky's heads are cut off. And, to add insult to injury, on the running audio commentary the cast and crew talk about how, when the film was in theaters, this scene was often misframed, cutting off the tops of the characters' heads. Obviously, the original laser disc transfer, done under the supervision of cinematographer David Klein, was framed correctly. Unfortunately, for the DVD, this was not the case, even though the liner notes claim that the new transfer was done under Klein's supervision. Otherwise, the transfer is excellent. Because the film was shot on Super 16-mm film, the look is a bit grainy. Several scenes in "Chasing Amy" have particularly intense color schemes, and the colors are always nicely saturated without bleeding. And, even though the overall film is a bit soft, detail is still quite good.
Audio: The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack works, but it is nothing special. Most of the film is dialogue, so the surround speakers and subwoofer are rarely used. The overall mix is generally good, although sometimes it can be a tad overbearing, especially when music is laid on top of dialogue (I'm thinking specifically about the Jay and Silent Bob scene in the restaurant).
Extras: The plentiful extras are essentially what was available on the original 1997 Criterion laser disc. It includes what has to be one of the more crowded running audio commentaries available. It include seven people-- writer/director Kevin Smith, producer Scott Mosier, actors Ben Affleck and Jason Mewes, associate producer Robert Hawk, Miramax executive Jon Gordon, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira--who recorded the commentary all at once. This gives it a relaxed, conversational feel, and it is certainly more entertaining than it is informative (lots of jokes aimed at each other and audible sounds of eating and drinking), although Smith is open about the various filmmakers from whom he borrows (most notably Spike Lee). The disc also includes a new video introduction by Smith, who spends most of the time humorously apologizing for a rather crude statement he makes at the beginning of the commentary dismissing DVD as a format (when the commentary was recorded in September 1997, laser discs were still the choice among video connoisseurs, and DVDs were just emerging). The 10 deleted scenes are a nice additional in that they give good insight into how a film is put together and why certain sequences have to be shortened or sacrificed altogether (some are good, some are bad). Another nice addition is the insert booklet, which has a guide to the characters who reoccur throughout "Clerks," "Mallrats," and "Chasing Amy." On the down side, the included trailer is, unfortunately, the home video preview, rather than the original theatrical trailer, which was included on the laser disc.
©2000 James Kendrick