Unsung Masterpieces, Vol. 1: Chasing Amy
Welcome to a new feature series here at the Populist Art House, the Unsung Masterpiece Series. We’ll take a closer look at films that may not have gotten their due as cinematic masterworks, and make a case for their inclusion in the film canon from this point forward. Time has a way of weeding out the riff-raff and letting the cream rise to the top, thus most masterpieces of bygone eras have long since assume their status as such. So most of the films spotlighted in this series will be more recent films, often released in the last 25 years. They may have divided critics. They may have arrived in the wrong cultural climates. Or they may have just taken a while for people to see their worth. This is also done with a clear understanding that no film is perfect, even the greatest o greats, so pointing out scratches on pristine castles is not a worthy avenue for this kind of discussion. The impact of these films has lingered long enough to garner renewed attention, and their incredible quality has proven impossible for this writer to ignore. Thus we will reopen their case files here and label them Unsung Masterpieces. Go back and take another look at them, or if you’ve never seen them, expand your film library with some overlooked greats.
And so we begin by selecting the first Unsung Masterpiece of the series, Kevin Smith’s Chasing Amy.
Chasing Amy (1997)
Kevin Smith had fallen out of indie grace almost as quickly as he’d risen to it. Mallrats, his follow-up to Sundance darling Clerks, had arrived with a thud and proved too juvenile for critics to appreciate and too uneven in the laugh department for many of his faithful fans to warm up to. So it was on Smith to deliver another quality film or risk being yet another one-hit washout in the Indie Renaissance of the 90s.
He responded with Chasing Amy. Strikingly opposite in tone to the goofy and anarchic Mallrats, this was the work of a filmmaker with not only a keen ear for socio-literate giggles, but also with some mighty serious emotional ideas on his mind. The romantic comedy of the day was still stuck in the idyllic 80s mold of When Harry Met Sally, but this was something altogether different. Behind the laughs (and there are plenty of them), this was very thoughtful and often melancholy meditation on Gen-X love and loss, a clear-eyed look at the self-absorption and faux-wisdom that so often derails even the most precious of 20-something relationships.
The romance at the film’s center is appropriately offbeat. Ben Affleck’s endearingly narcissistic Holden McNeil falls for a “guy’s girl” who happens to start the film as a lesbian. His comic-writing partner and life-long friend Banky (still Jason Lee’s best onscreen work) is a volatile wit with an inability to keep his mouth shut, and Banky’s attraction to Banky is curious from the outset. What follows is a surprisingly touching and then tragic collapse into insecurity and selfishness, qualities that define all of the characters except the lone female protagonist. Joey Lauren Adams overcame a small budget and an off-putting voice to garner a Golden Globe nod and a great deal of attention, even if it didn’t lead to a particularly fruitful career. But the real heart of the film itself, and of Smith’s razor-sharp critique of his generation, is Holden. Here is a smart guy who wallows in his own sense of pious estrangement from his peers and thus puts himself square in the pack. He sees himself as witty, sensitive, and enlightened. And he is, to a certain extent. But he’s so caught up in his image of himself as a wise romantic that he’s courageous enough to take on a high-level challenge (wooing a lesbian into falling for him) but unable to keep standing when cracks begin to show in the floor. The girl is not entirely who he thought she was. In fact, she’s even more complicated and beautiful than he’d originally thought. But the roadblocks of his own ego, obstacles he fails to recognize until it’s too late, cost him not only the girl, but his best friend as well, who suffers from his own case of pious denied identity and can no longer share space with someone all too similar to himself.
It’s a story filled with keen observations about romance between young adults that at first bemuse (with the help of some very Smith-ian dialogue), but then slip rather sneakily into the profound. Its characters are indeed long-winded and a little too hip, but then so is Smith, and he’s using his newfound position as Gen-X spokesman to deliver some very harsh criticism at the peers that comprise his own fan base. Perhaps that’s why many of his fans didn’t completely get back on the bandwagon until the similarly observant but more cartoonish Dogma. These young people are certainly more worldly than the generations that came before them, but their incessant cleverness and sense of being on a higher plane than their forbearers wind up being their undoing in the most important arena of all; the building of human relationships.
Smith still delivers his fair share of lude humor (conversations deal with such academic matters as the sexuality of Archie and Jughead), but unlike with Mallrats, he does so with the eye of a satirist and a sharp sense of the insecurity and viciousness often found behind the jokes of funny people. Even when frat-humor stalwarts Jay and Silent Bob show up, they do so briefly and with the purpose of holding up an unfriendly mirror to Holden’s cluelessness and self-pity. Banky, with his school-boy crassness and sarcastic charm, is the film’s primary source of comic relief, but it’s telling that a film by Kevin Smith needs such “relief” in the first place. The tone of this one is more often downbeat, with an odd sense of impending doom uncommon to the romantic comedy, put most succinctly when Banky acutely observes that “this is all going to end badly.”
But showing a maturity in his art that other hip young filmmakers often drop the ball with, Smith doesn’t punch the audience with a resolutely pessimistic ending. He offers at most a hope that Holden can repair both relationships, but at the very least a sense that all concerned have grown from their experience and are the better for it. It rounds out the film’s status as the work of an artist doing a lot of his own learning and finally finding the means to express those lessons through cinema. Smith would never return to this artistic plateau, and his career since has veered from the sublimely clever (Dogma) to the insufferably overwrought (Jersey Girl). But if there is ever any doubt that Smith once possessed some serious artistic panache, one need look no further. It’s a one-of-a-kind work that makes use of the freedom of indie filmmaking to tell a story no studio would ever tell, and to this day it has not been successfully imitated by Smith or anyone else.
It’s the Populist Art House’s first Unsung Masterpiece.