GAY FILM REVIEWS BY MICHAEL D. KLEMM
Rated R, 113 minutes
Every now and then, a straight filmmaker throws the audience a curveball by unexpectedly including positive gay themes in a mainstream movie. Kevin Smith, the writer and director of Clerks did just that in 1997 with his clever and witty comedy Chasing Amy. While it's impossible to please everyone, this film is refreshingly successful on many levels despite a few moments that might exasperate some gay, especially lesbian, viewers. Because Chasing Amy has just been released as a special edition DVD, loaded with extras, let's take a second look at this film to see how it really rates as queer cinema.
Chasing Amy at first appears to be another typical "boy meets girl" story before it suddenly takes a left turn at Albuquerque about fifteen minutes into the movie. Ben Affleck stars as Holden McNeil, the co-creator of a comic book named Bluntman and Chronic. His drawing partner/roommate/boyhood friend is Banky Edwards (Jason Lee.) At a comic book convention they meet a fellow artist named Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams). Holden falls head over heels in love with Alyssa and assumes that she feels the same way about him.
The next night, in a bar, she sings onstage and announces that she is dedicating the song to someone special. Upon finishing the song, she motions with her finger in Holden's direction. Holden blushes and starts to walk towards the stage and then stops when he spots a young woman approaching Alyssa. His jaw drops in shock as the two women meet and begin to passionately kiss.
That moment is the hook which draws viewers into this truly subversive comedy. While this situation could have been easily milked for cheap jokes, instead it becomes a springboard for a surprisingly intelligent exploration of sexuality and relationships in all their myriad forms. Predictably, Holden becomes obsessed with winning over Alyssa. This is much to the chagrin of his old friend Banky, who begins to act as if is his best friend has pushed him aside. Feeling threatened, Banky expresses his anger by uttering one anti-gay epithet after another.
But Chasing Amy is not a film about lesbians. It is a film about male sexual insecurity. It examines how the dream of many straight men is to prove their superiority by (to quote the film) "deep-dicking" a "carpet muncher." While this might make the film sound like it is on the intellectual level of some dreck like Porkys, nothing could be further from the truth. Holden deeply loves Alyssa and will do anything, even jeopardize his long friendship with Banky, to get her. The notion that he can be friends with a woman that he isn't sleeping with is a new one to Holden. Alyssa is surprised to find that she feels the same way about a man but, because it is her nature to be adventurous, she has left herself open to finding her soulmate, whatever his or her sex might be. Her lesbians friends, of course, do not approve.
Naturally Holden manages to screw it all up. Like many men, he becomes threatened because Alyssa is far more experienced sexually than he is and he cannot deal with her sexual past. It is a huge blow to his ego when he discovers that he is not the first man to have sex with her. To further complicate matters, a gay friend named Hooper (more on him later) makes Holden realize that Banky's homophobia might stem from being a closeted gay man who deep down is really in love with his best friend.
This is not standard fodder for a youth comedy and Smith is to be commended for bravely writing some really radical ideas into his third movie. But Chasing Amy has its problems as well as its strengths for a gay audience. Most lesbians were rightly outraged when Holden "gets the girl" at the midpoint of the movie. By allowing this to happen, Smith helps perpetuate the delusion that a person's sexual orientation is chosen. However, Alyssa doesn't fall for just any guy. Many gay people, at some point in their youth, have encountered a member of the opposite sex that they felt a connection with. This was the case with me when, in my early 20s, I was still confused about myself and thought that this one woman could "change" me. (She couldn't of course; I was far more interested sexually in a guy who worked at a nearby convenience store.)
But Alyssa is quite sure of herself, and comfortable with her sexuality, and it seems unlikely that she would suddenly fall for a guy. On the other hand, she is a person who has "tried everything" and her sudden attraction to Holden is possible. In the name of realism, however, their relationship doesn't last and at least the director didn't send the sexist message that all a lesbian needs is a good man in order to change.
Of course if Smith really wanted to make a truly subversive film, he could have ended it with Holden and Banky becoming lovers. But of course the film doesn't go that far. Still, in a climactic scene Holden suggests to both Alyssa and Banky that the three of them sleep together. It is a desperate, and oddly compassionate, last minute attempt by Holden to salvage the two most important relationships in his life.
Like SmithÕs earlier Clerks and Mallrats, Chasing Amy is filled with a lot of crass humor and the myths and lore of comic books. Like Quentin Tarrentino, Kevin Smith can be rude but he also excels at offbeat dialogue. When a fan refers to Holden and Banky's super heroes as "Bill and Ted meets Cheech and Chong," Holden says "I prefer to think of them as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Vladimir and Estragon." All of the sexual talk (and some of it is on a gutter level) rings true in a way untouched upon in most comedies aimed at a teen audience. Most telling is a wonderful scene between Holden and Alyssa where they discuss what "normal" sex is. Holden has his own ideas of course but he does take the time to listen to what his lesbian friend has to say.
A beautifully realized fourth character is a fellow cartoonist named Hooper X (Dwight Ewell). He is a young gay black man who masquerades behind a Malcom X facade when he appears at conventions to promote his African American comic book hero. Dressed as an urban guerrilla, he rants about how Star Wars made the universe safe for white people, how Luke Skywalker is a "blonde Nazi poster boy" and how the "Blackest Brother," Darth Vader, is revealed in the end to be a "shriveled up old white man." Hooper is the one who recognizes that Banky might really be gay and baits him during a discussion about wholesome comic books by insisting that Archie and Jughead were lovers.
All in all, Chasing Amy might not be politically correct in all queer circles but it is a very entertaining and thought provoking comedy. Its recent re-release on DVD is welcome because the disc offers (in addition to a pristine widescreen transfer of the film) a director and cast commentary along with almost a dozen deleted scenes. Several of the missing scenes, deleted mostly due to pacing and time restrictions according to the introductions, expand on many of the gay themes. One in particular was cut by the director because he felt it was "too preachy" and he feared that the audience would get up to buy popcorn because the scene went on for too long. All of these scenes illuminate the creative process and will be of great interest to fans of the film. [Reviewer's note 2009: In perhaps a nod to the lesbian community, Guinevere Turner (Go Fish) makes a cameo during an early scene.]
And to those who think that this may have just been a passing phase for the director, check out his latest film, Dogma. In one scene, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck are Angels of Death who wipe out a conference room of sleazy executives (the crime for one of them was disowning his gay son) while Smith's recurring slacker characters, Jay and Silent Bob, get the shock of their lives when the 13th Apostle reveals that Jay likes to fantasize about men.
Spike Lee once wrote that Steven Spielberg shouldn't have directed The Color Purple because he's not black. (By his own logic, he shouldn't have been allowed to direct it either because he's not a lesbian.) This argument could also apply to Kevin Smith who is, of course, not gay. But while it is true that Chasing Amy doesn't go as far as it could have, it is also true that it is a film that definitely challenges its mainstream audience and that is certainly a plus in its favor. Messages are best when slipped to an audience without their noticing it and laughter is the best medicine. Chasing Amy is a terrific comedy and well worth a rental.