I watched Chasing Amy the week his latest film, the religious horror picture Red State, premiered at Sundance. If you’re reading this, you probably know about the controversy and hype machine leading up to said premiere, and the debacle that followed. Far, far better writers have weighed in on what went down on the way to the top of Park City — among them Devin Faraci of Badass Digest; I thought his opinion is the closest to mine.
I’d like to thank Phil N. for giving me the idea for this piece.
#75 – Chasing Amy
Kevin Smith, 1997 – USA
Watched on DVD w/director’s commentary
“I just want to say: this is it.”
But the same week that Smith was pulling his Sundance stunt, I also listened to him on WTF with Marc Maron, watched his latest stand-up special, Too Fat for 40, and watched Chasing Amy with the director’s commentary on. I cannot honestly remember the last time I watched a Kevin Smith movie without the cast and director commentary; the Amy disc featuresproducer Scott Mosier, actors Ben Affleck and Jason Mewes, associate producer Robert Hawk, Miramax executive Jon Gordon, and View Askew historian Vincent Pereira.
And I don’t know whether it was the fact that what I used to find pretty funny I now found boring, if it was because I was overdosing on Smith, if that I didn’t buy his defenses on Maron or got tired of his long, long, long story involving smoking pot, hockey, Wayne Gretskey, and poop as an answer to the question “What was it like to work with Bruce Willis?” on the stand-up special, but at the end of Amy, I turned to Ruby and said “Yeah, I think I’m done with Kevin Smith.”
Chasing Amy is, in many ways, a key point in the careers of everyone involved, and for the Criterion Collection itself. Released first on laserdisc (the ported-over commentary starts with Smith exhorting “Fuck DVD!”; a fact he has to apologize for elsewhere on the disc), Amy is perhaps Smith’s most critically acclaimed movie. After the clever wordplay and slacker ennui of Clerks and the zany antics a good two to five years off from rediscovery, Chasing Amy was seen as a step forward for the filmmaker, who was taking his obsessions — comics, relationships, Star Wars jokes — and using them to say something meaningful about how people interact with one another. It seemed like the young filmmaker was growing up, or, at the very least, maturing a little.
It starred Affleck, months away from Oscar gold with Good Will Hunting (Matt Damon also appears in a small role, as does Casey Affleck, leading Ruby and I to argue about whether this was the Kevin Smith movie with the most Oscar nominees, at three) and box office success with Armageddon. Both of these topics come up in the commentary, and if there’s a truly odd/funny thing about Amy, it’s listening to the guys sitting alongside Affleck make fun of him for those upcoming projects.
Then there’s the Criterion Collection itself, because Chasing Amy was one of several DVDs released by the label that were part of the Disney empire (Amy being a Miramax film). These were DVDs that they knew would sell well, and would consistently sell well. Their deal with Wes Anderson, who for a while was the only filmmaker guaranteed “induction” into the Collection, was part of this — hence the immediate releases of Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Anderson’s three pictures with Touchstone, while we had to wait for Bottle Rocket (Columbia) and The Darjeeling Limited (Fox), and are still waiting for The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Even in the early days of DVD, these filmmakers had followings that would translate into sales for Criterion, and allow them to finance more obscure, esoteric titles.
Among the others are — arguably — the two most controversial releases in the Criterion Collection, Michael Bay’s The Rock and Armageddon. While I have plenty of love for both those movies, I like other Michael Bay movies more (Bad Boys II for life), and I think the Criterion Cast’s podcast on The Rock sums up the debate nicely for that particular film. While Armageddon is questionable, I do think if the goal of the Criterion Collection is “important current and contemporary films,” then Bay’s straight-faced, sincere, end-of-the-world men-on-a-mission flick is probably the biggest (if not the best, though I think it’s maligned a bit too often. Parts of that movie really work) and most well-constructed movie from that crop of late-90s disaster flicks that suddenly seemed in bad taste on September 12, 2001.
And for the young format of DVD, if you wanted to show off the picture quality on your new player and sound system on a big TV, The Rock and Armageddon might have been your huckleberry.
So that was 1997. What about now, almost 14 years later?
Well, as far as I know, Chasing Amy, The Rock, and Armageddon are still among the Criterion Collection’s top sellers, and the inclusion of the latter has not led to Kissing a Fool‘s inclusion in its list of titles. If anything, one misses the days when stuff like Halloween and Robocop and Hard Boiled and Help! were part of the Criterion’s laserdisc collection (if you remember that; I wasn’t into laserdiscs aside from looking at the lurid box covers at the record store in the mall) and wishes they’d throw more curveballs like the upcoming Blow Out or the just-out Broadcast News at folks. If the DVD itself has a flaw, it’s that it’s one of those early Criterion DVDs with a decent, but not an amazing, amount of special features on it; ones that are slowly being reissued with different box art and more features.
The cast of Chasing Amy went onto have success of varying degrees — has anyone heard from Dwight Ewell, who played Hooper X, lately? The Amy of the title, Joey Lauren Adams (spoiler: She’s not named Amy) played Adam Sandler’s love interest opposite Scuba Steve in Big Daddy, Jason Lee starred in a funny-for-one-season sitcom made all kinds of TV money and is now playing a cop who sometimes impersonates Elvis (which is not as cool as it sounds). Jason Mewes, the Jay of Jay and Silent Bob, battled drug addiction and now shows up in B-movies from time to time. Bit player Casey Affleck got nominated for an Oscar, and is one of the more engaging, watchable actors going today.
Silent Bob, aka Smith himself…well, he’s not so silent anymore (God, I’m so sorry for that). After the “maturity” of Amy (though I can’t let this thing go without mentioning that the sexual politics of this movie remain highly, highly questionable and quite in line with Smith’s conservative Catholic upbringing) and Dogma (really kind of a step back, though it’s my favorite of Smith’s movies),Smith began increasingly, cynically pandering to his audience, blaming everyone — the critics, the Weinsteins, Bruce Willis — for the “failure” of movies like Jersey Girl, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, and Cop Out. Smith compared the critical drubbing on that one to “beating up on a retarded kid,” which I do not understand at all. If you do, please, explain it to me.
I opened this piece with a quote from Smith’s commentary; “This is it.” He’s discussing his directorial style and his lack of growth as a filmmaker. This is in ’96-’97; on Too Fat for 40, he cites not knowing what lenses he uses as one of the reasons why he and Bruce Willis didn’t get along. While he may have directed movies about different things, as a filmmaker, a visual stylist (pretension ahoy!), he has displayed no interest whatsoever in growing, in changing, in challenging himself. He’s got an audience who will listen to every podcast he makes, who will buy his sneakers, who will shell out lots of money to see him in concert, but he’s not interested, it seems, in being a filmmaker worthy of being in the Criterion Collection, a filmmaker who truly has a career worth studying, except on perhaps an economic and psychological level.
This is, in fact, it.
That’s why I don’t have time for Smith anymore. He was one of the first filmmakers I really, really loved, and a guy who I really liked listen to talk about making movies. But I want my directorial heroes and icons to change with each film, to challenge themselves, to do something truly different each time out of the gate. To jump from genre to genre, to not rely on the same styles or visual cues. And even if you’re going to — like many of the great classic directors do, working in a similar classical style — at least fucking try, whether it’s in your scripts or your themes or your cast.
Looking back at the journey of the people involved in Chasing Amy, the one who comes off best is Ben Affleck, the pretty boy heartthrob and future half of Bennifer. After becoming a mega-star with Armageddon, Affleck made some truly terrible movies (Forces of Nature) or ones that didn’t do great, despite his best efforts (Bounce, Chasing Lanes, neither of which I have seen but have heard good things about). The split with one Jennifer led to a marriage and children with another — Garner — and a second act as a writer-director, with the occasional movie part in an ensemble cast. In a weird way; his journey sort of reflects that of his character in Chasing Amy, eschewing broad commercial success for something more artistically rewarding. Gone Baby Gone was one of my favorite films of 2007, and featured some of the best acting in the careers of everyone involved.
I don’t know if I’d select The Town or GBG as being Criterion-worthy releases, but when you look at the “Chasing Amy” scene of Chasing Amy now, it’s kind of hard to believe that the morose motherfucker sitting across from Kevin Smith would be closer to having a Criterion-worthy career than the bearded fellow with the potty mouth. Even back then, Affleck was busting his director on the commentary for not challenging himself, for his mockery of himself, and Smith just shrugs and goes “This is it.”
It’s a shrug. It should never be a shrug.