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Chasing Amy: Helping Men since 1998.

posted by Paul on 10/31/01

When people are discussing movies that shed light on the male psyche, they'll invariably turn to gems like "Fight Club", "Your Friends and Neighbours" or "In the Company of Men" - pictures that pull no punches in exposing man's weaknesses and insecurities. The male psyche, however, is a very hard concept to explain. Most men give up trying to reason why they do and say the things they do; women have reduced our foibles to "guy stuff" and some (talk show hosts) have made a career exploiting men. And it's funny, because for all the complaining, over-analysing and the countless books that have been wasted on the so-called (and over-stated) "battle of the sexes", one movie has encapsulated modern society, love and the nuances of man perfectly:

Kevin Smith's "Chasing Amy".

I'm sure that as I write this, most people will be scoffing. After all, this movie is the third act in the successful Kevin Smith trilogy, and within that context, little was really made of it - most thought it was a nice movie that was well made. However, not only is Kevin Smith an acquired taste (with his comic book references and frat boy humor), he is, to my mind, one of the most under-rated social commentators working in cinema today. Now, to appreciate this view you must remove all prejudices. Kevin Smith is not nor will he ever be a Martin Scorsece - he is a director working with limited means and with a clique of talent unique to his work. But if you look at the content of his work and the truths it tells, you'll soon see that he is very relevant.

Like Quentin Tarantino, Smith has a penchant for connecting all his movies by referencing characters, place and events. However, unlike "Clerks" and "Mallrats", which were more juvenile and flip in tone,"Chasing Amy" is essentially a mature, adult movie. It focuses on two friends, living in New Jersey, who collaborate on comic books. Both guys are essentially blue-collar, regular guys with big dreams but simple lives - close friends, with similar senses of humor and years of history. Standard enough start, but it's interesting how Smith uses an actor like Ben Affleck, one of the least dorky actors working, to portray a comic book author. Comic book authors are considered as geeky as people who write on the web (not that every one is), so from the start it's clear that the movie is trying to steer clear of "Can't Hardly Wait"-like cliches. The movie really kicks in - when it becomes clear that this won't be another jokey ode to comics - when Alssya Jones (Joey Lauren Adams) is introduced. Alyssa is a comic book artist. Young, attractive and witty. Ben Affleck's character, Holden, feels he has a chance with her and makes his move. The two become close, truly click but when it's revealed that she's a lesbian, it's a shock to the system.

This is one of those movies, however, where the plot is secondary to the themes and issues that are raised. Like "Swingers", which was essentially a friendship movie with man's insecurities about love thrown into the mix, this mightn't sound too enticing via the synopsis. Basically, it centers on Holden (Affleck) and his growing love for someone he can't have, surprisingly DOES get but can't keep due to his own insecurity. It's also about friendship, and how some friendships are similar to loving/sexual relationships - more enduring and with arguably as many feelings on the line. It also reveals stunning truths about the male psyche, and how self-destructive those truths can be.

The interesting aspect about this movie is that you actually believe the characters like each other. A common problem with romantic comedies (and movies in general) is that it's often hard to fathom that the characters actually inhabit that universe and would like each other - it's as though they're just thrown together for the plot's benefit, and utter obviously scripted lines for the plot's benefit. Here, Smith creates a very real world, free of cinematic hyperbole - with quirky dialogue and sound chemistry. When we first meet Holden and Banky, we're convinced they're friends. They listen to each other, share humorous banter and seem to enjoy each other's company. This is a big credit to Smith's dialogue and the acting abilities of Affleck and Jason Lee.

Ben Affleck, I feel, is unfortunately overlooked as an actor. Too much attention has been focused on his personal and love life (although why he'd ever be taken by the sickly Paltrow is beyond me) and it seems to detract from his talent - because the guy DOES have talent. Here, he plays lovesick very well and, despite the common criticism, his emotion is spot-on. He strikes a balance between smug and heartbroken and it's a very effective combination in this movie. Lee doesn't have as much to do, but his one-liners are well-timed and his character's descent into jealousy is convincingly handled.

Holden: What do you want to do tonight?
Banky: I don't know. Get a pizza. Watch Degrassi Junior High.
Holden: You got a weird thing for Canadian melodrama.
Banky: I've got a weird thing for girls who say "aboot".

That jealousy comes when Holden and Alyssa eventually do fall in love, and we see the roots of it from the outset. Banky, a cynical guy who would rather crack one-liners about pop culture than try to be nice, feels shut out when he sees his life-long friend fall for "the enemy". It's not that Banky sees lesbians as the enemy, he just seems to see women as somewhat less than equal, whereas Holden is the more sensitive of the two. More open-minded. Smith plots Holden and Alyssa's "coming together" in such a way that you can't fail to be moved. Really, it wasn't a matter of "if" they would hook up, but more a case of "when", and when you see the exchanges before their eventual embrace, it's easy to see why. These characters love one another. They're from the same world, they're looking for the same things in life and they're incredibly similar in the way they joke, act and talk - the rapport is immense. The point here, I think, is that it doesn't matter about someone's sexual orientation; Holden and Alyssa were both looking for love and kinship, and while she was searching within her own sex, the fact that she found it in the other sex was irrelevant. Love is love however you want to paint it.

When Holden stops the car in the pouring rain, and his feelings are exploding (a scene that could have been cliched), he delivers one of the best expressions of love I've ever seen in a movie:

I love you. And not in a friendly way, although I think we're great friends. And not in a misplaced affection, puppy-dog way, although I'm sure that's what you'll call it. And it's not because you're unattainable. I love you. Very simple, very truly. You're the epitome of every attribute and quality I've ever looked for in another person. I know you think of me as just a friend, and crossing that line is the furthest thing from an option you'd ever consider. But I had to say it. I can't take this anymore. I can't stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can't look into your eyes without feeling that longing you only read about in trashy romance novels. I can't talk to you without wanting to express my love for everything you are. I know this will probably queer our friendship -no pun intended- but I had to say it, because I've never felt this before, and I like who I am because of it. And if bringing it to light means we can't hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But I could'nt allow another day to go by without getting it out there, regardless of the outcome, which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shoot-down. And I'll accept that. But I know some part of you is hesitating for a moment, and if there is a moment of hesitiation, that means you feel something too. All I ask is that you not dismiss that -at least for ten seconds- and try to dwell in it. Alyssa, there isn't another soul on this fucking planet who's ever made me half the person I am when I'm with you, and I would risk this friendship for the chance to take it to the next plateau. Because it's there between you and me. you can't deny that. And even if we never speak again after tonight, please know that I'm forever changed because of who you are and what you've meant to me, which -while I do appreciate it- I'd never need a painting of birds bought at a diner to remind me of.

Read that, and you'll see more truths about the male psyche than you'd ever hope to fathom. Not only is it the most honest proclamation I've seen, it's also the perfect description of how many men feel but are too afraid to admit - because most men are so terrified of rejection, lines like this will rarely be said in such a coherent way. So, instead of an articulate, sober and honest admission, it's more likely to come out, in a drunken stupor "I wuv u!". That's why most women don't believe guys when they say it, because very few say it at the right time or in the right way, and it seems stilted and emotionless - sometimes that's the desired effect, because god knows we can't look vulnerable.

The speeches and discussions about sex are astute and often hilarious. This movie just overflows with life. You have the gay black man, Hooper, firing out lines about racial and sexual inequality. How many gay black men do you see represented on the screen? At its core, "Chasing Amy" is about sex and how it can both make and break a relationship. Alyssa is a promicuous character, whose past is chequered. For the common male, this is not a good thing. We all want to feel that we are the only one, and thoughts of past relationships torture us. All guys, let me assure you, have curiosities about size and performance, but as this movie shows, very few girls care about that - they generally want love, and to be with someone they love who loves them in return. Sadly, the common male wants to be the biggest, the best, the greatest lover and few of us cherish that more than a large I.Q. It's that Freudian quirk we were sadly born with. Everything will eventually boil down to the phallic - whether it's the car you drive or the job you enjoy.

According to his account of making the movie, "Chasing Amy" was an autobiographical labor of love for Smith. He, too, knows how it feels to obsess over past loves and question his own worth. Holden's relationship with Alyssa ends not because they're incompatible as people, nor because she doesn't respect him as a person or because she cannot deprogramme her lesbian tendencies. No, their whole relationship ends because Holden cannot deal with her past - torturing himself about her former promiscuity and conquests. He just can't deal with the simple fact that she loves him, and while he was delighted that he "converted" her from lesbianism (an obvious stroke of the male ego), his revulsion that he wasn't the first male with whom she's slept is enough to end his happiness. And that's the true sadness. We guys are allowed to sleep with as many people as we want (and are seen as more "manly" for doing so), yet we have trouble affording the same privilege to females.

Alyssa: Is that what you want to hear? Is it? Yes, Holden, it is true! In fact everything you heard or dug up on me was probably true! Yeah, I took on two guys at once! You want to hear some gems you might not have unearthed-I took a 26 yr old guy to my senior prom, and then left halfway through to have sex with him and Gwen Turner in the back of a limo! And the girl who got caught in the shower with Miss Moffit, the gym teacher? That was me! Or how about in college when I let Shannon Hamilton videotape us having sex-only to find out the next day that he broadcast it on the campus cable station? They're all true-those and so many more! Did'nt you know? I'm the queen of urban legend!

In the end we all need to grow up and leave the past where it belongs. That's the point of this movie, yet this will always remain a compelling portrait of man - or he was in the late 90s. Banky's bitterness and attempted sabotage of Holden's relationship gives way to his own regret. Due to his selfishness, he has lost a good friend. But due to his own bitterness and paranoia, Holden loses his soulmate. And why? Because she enjoyed a colorful sex life?

Man wants to have his cake and eat it too.

The last scenes say it all. A year later, a year wiser, Holden's eyes tell the whole story.

The past doesn't matter and our self-righteous posturing is, in the end, self-destructive.

Which goes to show that beyond all the cute one-liners and sarcastic characters, Kevin Smith has a story to tell. And, working in this way (when everyone else is churning out dire teen horrors and popcorn tripe) and with such a low budget, we should applaud him for telling it.

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