Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Criterion Recollection: Silent Bob Strikes Out

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

Pretentious Farts from a Stupid Dick: Spine #75, Chasing Amy (1997)

Watching the Criterion logo fade into this waste of celluloid brings a single, artificial tear to my eye, much like when Jason Lee's character Banky poignantly asks Ben Affleck's Holden MacNeil, "Girl?" Criterion introduced Chasing Amy into its collection early on, in the laserdisc days, and I see its inclusion in the same light as Armageddon and The Rock: a movie that exemplifies its genre, even if it lacks individual merit in spades.

It would be hard to count the number of times Kevin Smith has justified his filmmaking by explaining in his Comic Book Guy voice that he just makes "dick-and-fart joke movies" and that taking them seriously misses the point. If only this were true. The problem with Smith's filmmaking, evident in Chasing Amy, is that he actually does think his movies are more than dick and fart jokes; he makes a point of forcing his juvenile ideas of morality, social commentary and intelligent dialogue into his already jumbled and mismanaged work. That he also utilizes an excessive amount of dick-and-fart filler to offset the pretentious emptiness of his dialogue and plot proves only that he has the faintest glimmer of awareness that his movies suck and, as such, need sufficient cushion to repel critical barbs.

I won't dwell on the whys or hows of Clerks' success, but its unlikely acceptance into the usually hermetic world of filmmaking launched Smith's career and developed a cult following that has maintained its adamant support all the way down the steep trajectory of his oeuvre. After the abysmal failure of Mallrats, Chasing Amy almost did not get made at all. But low budgets and independent productions can be positive aspects of a film. One of Smith's stated influences, Richard Linklater's Slacker, proves that a movie does not require a big production to be good. It does, however, require some kind of unique insight and respectful self-awareness, the lack of which can only produce pretentiousness, something that seems as much an integral part of Smith's "Askewniverse" as hockey, skeeball and inside jokes.

Ostensibly, Chasing Amy tells the story of Ben Affleck's giant face, complete with goatee (or, as Smith angrily points out on the commentary track, a "van Dyke"), mugging the camera for a consistent two hours, under the laughably allusive name Holden MacNeil, while one of the women Smith somehow convinced to touch his penis, Joey Lauren Adams, rambles incoherently in her trebled screech about gays and lesbians, much to the chagrin of homosexuals everywhere. Adams' Alyssa is the comfortable sort of movie lesbian: she's blonde, good-looking, politically null and evidently just a little bit of pitched-woo away from not actually being a lesbian.

Rounding out the characters, Jason Lee's over-emphasized sarcasm as Banky effectively stands in for an audience unwilling to approach socialization and human sexuality at an adult level, while the one-dimensional gay black man Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), puts on a persona of a strong, militant black leader. He does this to sell comic books to people attracted to the apparently hilarious idea of African Americans standing up against the inherently racist society into which they were forcibly immersed. Smith could only try to trivialize and emasculate race relations further by putting Hooper X in a dress and revealing he has no penis.

I find it hard to peg Kevin Smith's understanding of class dynamics. Throughout Chasing Amy, we hear hip-hop played over generic establishing shots of the city. Yet, aside from the token presence of Hooper X, all of our characters are upper-middle class white bourgeoisie, entrenched in their first-world problems. Moreover, although Chasing Amy pretends to social awareness regarding the gay community, it fails to even touch on how these liberal button issues are symptomatic of a larger social problem. His caricature of the MTV executives trying to get Holden and Banky to sell-out on a TV show gives a nod to the Spielberg/Lucas method of condemning greed and profit in their movies while simultaneously grabbing as much of the pile in real life as possible.

It almost makes sense to blame many of the shortcomings of Chasing Amy on its age. The 1990s offered a different set of problems, and society had a different awareness than at present. The film has not aged well, precisely because it lacks any coherent insight into the universal human condition and operates solely upon the ever-changing superficiality of cultural appearance. The sexual mores against which Smith rebels seem trite and unexplored; his films shout, "No, YOU shut the fuck up, grandma!" as they rage against a long since rusted-out and inoperable machine.

We're supposed to believe that, although Ben Affleck is totally cool with dating an ex-lesbian who casually mentions fisting on a park swing, he can't repress his puerile, hockey-fueled rage at her having engaged in a threesome in high school. This staged shock at what is supposedly a torrid sexual history should remind viewers of the equally inexplicable scene in Clerks where Dante freaks out because his girlfriend who can't act has sucked a ton of dicks. Instead of coming across as edgy, groundbreaking, daring or whatever other stupid adjectives have been misapplied to these farces, these scenes only reveal that Smith's obsession over sexual perversion comes from a place of deprivation, not experience.

He simultaneously tries to shock us with intimate sexual detail (36 dicks sucked, necrophilia, "snowballing" (Clerks), anal sex (Mallrats), fisting, threesomes, homosexuality (Chasing Amy) bestiality, ass-to-mouth (Clerks 2), while accentuating the fact that none of these things bother him, because he's a progressive, understanding, brave, honest artist with a compassionate love of humanity. It would be fairer to say that none of these things bother Smith as topics intended to stun and manipulate the audience, but their actual treatment reveals a self-centered and misogynistic prudishness. The blowjob-friendly girlfriend in Clerks is very clearly a villain, and the nucleus of her villainy centers on enjoying a sex life as liberated and self-assured as a man's. Similarly, Alyssa's sapphic background gets played for all of the cheap titillation and exoticism of women having sex with women, but the precipitate act that makes her somehow retroactively betray Holden is admitting to having sex with other men. In the Askiewniverse, women are welcome to be whores in bed and in their lovers' imaginations, just as long as it's reasonably possible to believe they have never been so with men preceding the protagonists.

While comic books may provide a necessary backdrop for the storyline (the movie has to be about something), they also serve as a clear reminder of Smith's interests and priorities. A champion of inappropriate nostalgic attachment to childhood media, Smith's obsession with comic books both in his movies and in real life is symptomatic of his willfully arrested emotional and intellectual development. Within the tight confines of pubescent fantasy, Smith feels free to opine on social issues and human interaction, despite not having any special insight or perhaps even first-hand experience with either. Even if Smith does have real life experience with the issues he brings up, his inability to translate them into his craft leaves the viewer with an agitated sense of pretension, as they fail to integrate into a cohesive whole.

Early in the film, we're subjected to another manifestation of Smith's pretension. A comic book fan describes Holden's comic Bluntman and Chronic as "Bill and Ted meets Cheech and Chong" to which Holden replies, "I kinda like to think of them as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet Vladamir and Estragon." Thus Holden (read Smith) proves his masterful knowledge of literature without actually showing why this particular analogy has any meaning other than as a pathetic namedrop of works he almost certainly doesn't understand. Compare this to Linklater's Slacker, where he references James Joyce's Ulysses. Because Slacker shares many of the same themes of Ulysses — aimless modern wandering, layperson curiosity about ideas, finding the heroic in the banal — and because its form resembles the "Wandering Rocks" chapter of the book, bringing it up inside the film feels organic and relevant.

Smith perhaps anticipated the comic style of shows like Family Guy while also missing any of the necessary self-aware irony. He consistently alludes to other fragments of pop-culture, hoping to infuse his own work with the collective nostalgia/humor/pathos of his reference. From DeGrassi Jr. High to Star Wars, the entirety of Smith's allusive capability seems to be, "Hey, remember this? Yeah, me too. Cool, huh?" Most obnoxiously, he also repeatedly refers back to his own creations, attempting to shoehorn them into the pop-cultural conversation as shared hallmarks of events or ideas on par with the other works he namedrops.

This approach might work in casual conversation, where people avoid intimacy by projecting their connection onto shared appreciation for media, but in an actual work such as a film, without the necessary next steps — elaboration or explanation of how and why these references fit into the original work at hand — they come across as superficial and pointless, especially when he inserts them even in the most emotional situations. For instance, when Alyssa confronts Holden about his poking around into her past, she asks him if he's "Hercule fucking Poirot." While this may appear clever on paper, calling a reference out of left field during an intense argument only draws attention to its artificiality. I'm sure Smith would like to compare the Askewniverse to Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha county, in the way he uses repeated self-reference to form the surface illusion of a cohesive world; however, where Faulkner's references provide insight into the characters and/or situation at hand in the current narrative, Smith's offer an Askewniverse-aware audience member a sly wink, and that's about it.

Smith's unabashed use of gimmicks, such as the dart-throwing shot (which he acknowledges in the commentary that he stole from Se7en) or the overlong joke about who will reach the hundred dollar bill first, reveal his fundamental inability to follow narrative lines through to their conclusions in an organic manner, without relying on distractions to keep our attention. The most blatant example comes when the audience needs to understand that Holden and Alyssa are falling in love. Here, Smith falls back on the convention of a musical montage, a device so ridiculous that, even at the time Chasing Amy came out, its use was more parody than serious.

Another inexplicable gap comes at the end of the film, when after Holden's brilliant plan to reunite the people he cares about blows up in his face, we're given a "One Year Later" title card, after which he seems to have finally matured and understood his mistake. However, we never see why. What happened to change him? Why does Holden suddenly confront reality? Instead of answering these crucial questions, we bear witness to a prolonged series of non-verbal communication between Holden and Banky, shots of knowing nods and hand signals held so long they appear laughable, along with the definitive "atheist nod" and a throwback to the "shared moment" hand signal, to show us that he and his friend still share a bond.

Smith repeatedly cites Woody Allen as another of his influences, comparing the untouchability of his scripts to those of Allen's. Smith does not approve of actor improvisation, because he feels that the most important part of his movies is the dialogue, which he has expertly crafted. In reality, all of Smith's characters speak with a singular voice, his own, and their internet-atheist semantic quibbling comes off not as intelligent, but as pedantic and arrogant.

In nearly every one of the many speeches in the movie, as in the Askiewniverse, people don't so much talk to each other as exchange navel-gazing rhetoric; the crux of arguments rest on how terms are defined and whether these definitions are proper. "Fucking" in the Jaws homage, "penetration" in the swing set speech, and so on. Smith mistakes the inconsistency of words and symbols with the actual antagonism present in that which they represent, and instead of taking the conclusions of his pseudo-Socratic catechisms back into the real world, he stops short, content enough to "win" his arguments in the abstract. Further, he buttresses his own arguments by having characters praise the extremely witty things that his other characters say. More than once Alyssa replies to Holden, "Well aren’t you so clever?" No. No, he isn’t.

Smith's word choice comes across so artificially that Roget's Thesaurus should garner a co-writing credit on the film. This wouldn't be so problematic if only one character spoke this way, but his inability to differentiate voices means that every character speaks with the same stilted, pseudo-intellectual vocabulary. His rambling speeches leave no room for dialogue or for another person. This type of engagement-free engagement smacks of contrived, echo-chamber writing. It's almost as if Smith entered his own Malkovich doorway and didn't know it: every character is Kevin Smith.

When Smith writes long soliloquies, he doesn't do so from an attempt to ironically portray how Holden conceives relationships with juvenile sentimentality, but because he lacks the ability to give you insight into each character without having them wrenchingly declare themselves and their universe to you. A better writer gives you the details and lets you discover a human being from them, but here, each word is very important, and each one has meaning, because this is communication through vivisection. You open up the animal, and every working part matters.

When Holden finally reveals his love to Alyssa, he delivers the funniest lines in the entire movie. Unfortunately, they were intended to be sincere, open and emotional. Holden's vacuous speech reads like the worst letter the worst kid you can remember in high school ever wrote to a pretty girl on his Livejournal, with no intent for it to ever be read by its target. Smith himself thinks very highly of this speech, as does Affleck, so let's look at the text of it and consider:
I love you. And not, 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. I love you. Very, very simple, very truly. You are the-the epitome of everything I have ever looked for in another human being. And I know that you think of me as just a friend, and crossing that line is—is—is the furthest thing from an option you would ever consider. But I had to say it. I just, I can't take this anymore. I can't stand next to you without wanting to hold you. I can't—I can't look into your eyes without feeling that—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. And I know this will probably queer our friendship — no pun intended — but I had to say it, 'cause I've never felt this way before, and I—I don't care. I like who I am because of it. And if bringing this to light means we can't hang out anymore, then that hurts me. But God, I just, I couldn't allow another day to go by without just getting it out there, regardless of the outcome, which by the look on your face is to be the inevitable shoot-down. And, you know, I'll accept that. But I know, I know that some part of you is hesitating for a moment, and if there's a moment of hesitation, then that means you feel something too. And all I ask, please, is that you just—you just not dismiss that, and try to dwell in it for just ten seconds. Alyssa, there isn't another soul on this fucking planet who has 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 is there between you and me. You can't deny that. Even if, you know, even if we never talk again after tonight, please know that I am 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.
Please, please note the ominous thunderclap after the first utterance of "I love you."

If you can make it through that entire block of text without your gag reflex ruining your custom kicks, you'll notice that apart from being contrived and about three times as long as it needs to be, the whole speech comes across as self-deprecating, unaware and completely alienated from the reality of interpersonal dialogue. This kind of pedestal soliloquy luxuriates in the suffering of the speaker, as if the greatest human experience is his pleasure at knowing the depths of feeling he can attain through unrequited longing. This is important stuff, way headier than the banal but universal pleasure and work of being with someone and making sure you both feel understood and satisfied. But here one pictures Smith brushing the coffeecake crumbs off of his laptop, furiously pecking at the letters, smugly nodding as he puts his soul to paper with, "I don't want to QUEER this friendship." QUEER it. 'Cause you're gay. Get it?

This silly rambling strikes me as even more bizarre when I consider that this whole passionate argument, if you give Holden/Smith the benefit of the doubt for its sincerity, explodes when Holden confronts something as mundane and ubiquitous as an "illicit" sexual past. So he loves her like the sun and the moon, but only because the sun and the moon don’t have parts that other people could have had sex with. It's true that Alyssa does lie to him about having slept with a man, but Holden's argument hardly mentions the lie and instead focuses on the content.

Late in the movie Holden says, "I know this sounds pretentious as hell, but I like to think of us as artists." And this embodies the whole problem of Kevin Smith and Chasing Amy: Smith desperately wants to think of himself as an artist, as offering human culture something of value, some unique perspective on our existential condition, intimate relations and social integration. But he doesn't. He makes pedantic dick-and-fart-joke movies that appeal to an extremely narrow demographic that shares his closed worldview. His furtive obsession over reviews and box office draws shows his concern with success, but rather than apply some introspection, critically assess his own work, and attempt to improve his craft, he banters with critics and insults "haters," choosing to listen instead to the adenoidal, echoing praise of his fans. Smith craves popular success and material success, not artistic success (though the three need not be mutually exclusive). This is why, to him, artistic aspiration "sounds pretentious as hell."

If you’re an unrepentant masochist, by all means purchase and watch this DVD to your heart's content. Criterion packed it with more Kevin Smith bonus features than you could ever possibly want. For instance:
A Digital Media Presentation to the BITCH Who Wouldn't Fuck Me in High School by Kevin Smith (30 minutes)
Joey Lauren Adams' Unedited Vocal Performance (17 minutes)
Video Introduction by Famed Autistic Virgin Ulilililia (124 minutes)
Interactive Star Wars Construction-Paper Collage with Glitter-Text Excerpts of Favorable Reviews of the Askiewniverse
The Flavor and Topography of Stan Lee's Dong (Map and Soundboard)
Beards: Nature's Other Jawlines — A Conversation with Kevin Smith (22 minutes)
I Don't Need No Airplane to Get High: Smith Explains the Subversive Cool Factor of Weed (14 minutes)
Ben Affleck Gag Reel Edited by Ben Affleck with Video Commentary by Ben Affleck (45 minutes)
Screaming to Indicate Sarcasm: An Evening With Jason Lee (13 minutes)
Behind the Scenes Midnight "Run for the Border" with Cast (237 burritos)
Hooper X: Race, Class, and Sexual Preference (1 minute)
Jay and Silent Bob perform Samuel Beckett's Waiting for God Ot (120 minutes)
A Collection of Bad Reviews of Kevin Smith Movies With Annotations by Kevin Smith
A Collection of Fat Jokes I've Made About Myself So Now You're Not Allowed To by Kevin Smith
BIG JUGZ AND HUGE NUGZ: Hot Bitches in Tight Shit with Mondo Weed, (Featuring bell hooks as Bongos Thunderpussy)
Goldeneye N64 Patch That Replaces Oddjob with Kevin Smith and Auto-Adjusts Game to God Mode
This movie is a stain on Criterion's nearly spotless reputation, and purchasing it would be ethically irresponsible for all people who enjoy movies.