Kevin Smith has been attacked as a director almost as much as his films have been attacked for lacking morality. The easiest attack levied at him was that he didn’t have much visual style as a director. Writing is most certainly his forte and was the calling card for his breakthrough, the seminal 1994 Sundance darling Clerks. That film was focused entirely on the banter between the two clerks and how they navigated the misanthropic paradise of a central Jersey convenience store. The movie was almost exclusively a collection of static oners, with some shots lasting well into the five minute range with few cuts in between and little to no camera movement (which makes the choice to go hand-held during the roof hockey game feel like something out of Cloverfield). Smith himself has taken this criticism to heart, and eventually latched on to the idea of having a “no style-style” as some sort of coping mechanism. I believe he even copped to as much in the first “Evening With Kevin Smith,” with the notion that if you say it first, then the insult loses its power. So everyone–including Smith himself–has come to the conclusion that he doesn’t have a visual style.
And to that, I call bullshit.
Smith has a definitive style and it matches both his dialogue and his subjects well. Smith is a hometown Jersey guy. He mentions it on his twitter bio, mentioning how his body might be in LA, but his mind is always in the garden state. During the press for Clerks II, a film that ends with the idyllic notion of the two desk jockeys owning the store that was once an existential bottomless pit a decade-plus ago into the place they were always meant to be. During the press for the film, Smith discussed how happy he would be if he never left that store, which is not exactly how I read his relationship with the store to be (as in, Dante’s commercial, cigarette-infused, salsa-shark-infested hell). But the Quik-Stop is always greener from the other coast.
Smith’s an extrovert, certainly, constantly sharing all of his inner thoughts (and the things he does to his wife’s innards) in as many places as will allow him a voice: speaking in large swaths on twitter, his popular stand-up gigs that are masked as a Q&A sessions, and the extended podcast network he’s featured prominently on. But we shouldn’t confuse that with someone who seeks the spotlight. Hell, he’s supposedly going to refuse to do press for his new film, Red State, deciding instead to essentially control what he puts out, dictating the questions he’d like to be asked of his stars about the process of making the film and letting the press just pick and choose whatever bits they’d like to form their stories. In the excellent documentary “The Snowball Effect” from the “Clerks X” DVD set that follows the process of “Kevin Smith, suburban boy” into “Kevin Smith, filmmaker,” his mom recounts the hours that would go by as Kevin sat in his room, endlessly typing away. He’s a man who has a big voice but prefers to sound it out of the window of his small room.
This is reflected explicitly in what was then nicknamed “the Jersey Trilogy,” (the aforementioned Clerks, Mallrats, and Chasing Amy) an interconnected series of films that occurred in, or had characters from, the tri-town area where he grew up. His stories were of small time folk who had interesting, kooky shit happen to them that warranted mention to the public at large. What he focused on was small, natural, the odd turns of life that he happened to capture. The films feel the same. Mallrats, of course, is the one exception, as that was set up at Gramercy (a long-dissolved former subsidiary of Universal) and is a really adorable, quaint vision of what a “studio” movie could be for Smith at that time. Now, if you take away the Batman-esque grappling hook and the dating game TV show that seems to exist solely because they had the money to build the set, shoot it in 16mm, and you’ve got a movie that’s tonally, and stylistically, right in line with Clerks. Then, add a growth of maturity as both a writer and a man, and you have his small town epic (as well as his best film), Chasing Amy.
Everything about the film could be considered “small” or “basic” but that’s dismissing the very nature of the story as a naturalistic, everyday sort of event. The star of the film, Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck), is a somewhat of a star himself, as he and his roommate Banky (Jason Lee) are co-creators of a big indie comic named “37” that gets popular and allows them to have a big, action-packed superhero movie starring Jay and Silent Bob, clearly mirroring Smith’s life at that time. It’s not a shock to read that Smith considers this (or at least considered it at the time of the DVD pressing) his most personal film. It’s easy to see why.
Their careers move from getting local press in the Asbury Park Press to getting their creation on the cover of Wizard, which is like getting the front page spread of the New York Times Magazine but, y’know, for comics. They even get their own table at a Comic-Con as Holden gets to live out what we can only assume is the then-daily life of Kevin Smith. He has people yelling at him such brilliant observations as, “they’re like Bill & Ted meet Cheech & Chong,” while he feels intellectually inferior to the point of name dropping a combination of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern meet Vladamir and Estrogon. Ah, the artist who strives for more, but isn’t sure if the amount wanted is credibility or money.
The problems that the characters deal with in this film aren’t massive; Affleck is spared another trip to a meteor the size of Texas. Instead, he has to go through a series of relationship-related issues with Joey Lauren Adam’s seemingly everyday girl, Alyssa Jones. Instantly he falls for her and has to try to win her over. Then, to make the climb just a tad bit steeper, it turns out that she’s a lesbian, so now he has to try to win her over and potentially cross-up her sexual wiring. Once that’s accomplished (and holy shit does that piss off her lesbian, instantly-former, friends) then he has to deal with a whole bevy of other sexual issues that deal with his own perceived sexual inadequacy, climaxing with a clumsy attempt to kill two birds with one three way that is handled like an immature teenager; he’ll literally fuck his problems away.
It fits the mold of what was then considered an “indie” film; a personal story told that would not get made unless someone made it themselves. In terms of plot, tone, and camera placement, how radically far off is this from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, or Cassavette’s Shadows? His forte is that of personal struggles and his mise en scene reflects that. His characters aren’t decked out by designers, but in LL Bean and browns and earth tones. They dress to impress the people they’re talking to, not the audiences across the country they don’t even see. The apartment Banky and Holden share isn’t something off the set of “Friends,” even though they apparently make a good amount of cash, yet they can’t afford a separate office and place of living.
A good deal of the action comes about in turns of the tongue (bad word choice in a lesbian story?), which might not be the most visually stimulating of film choices, but it’s certainly the most true-to-life. People deride this film as a series of two shots, just some people talking to each other in the frame and not much else. But in that way, aren’t our lives always a series of two-shots? I know that I never attended the college that Michael Bay presented in Transfomers II; my life didn’t necessitate wobbly, turning, tilting shots when I stepped foot on the quad. This story I can relate to. If you’re reading this post, then I’d imagine you yourself revel in the talks and ideas you bandy about with your friends. In this world and ours, conversation is a currency toward buying time with others, romantically or otherwise.
When Holden is first hitting on Alyssa and lands a good joke, he gets a compliment. He then immediately screws the pooch by following it up with a long, unfunny follow-up that clearly doesn’t land. They both sit, her now turned outwardly, he looking down at the table in a way that I know all too well in these situations. In that beat there is that crucial make-or-break moment where the other person can try to engage you further or shuns you forever. Both characters know it, just as both understand what it means when Alyssa asks him to play some darts, giving him more opportunity to ingratiate himself (or, conversely, more rope to hang himself).
Alyssa Jones herself is a testament to how this movie is made and how her character is handled. Amy came out in 1997, at a time where being gay would be the point of a movie. The frank conversations that are featured here about lesbianism, such as the one where she and Banky bond over various sexual scars (only physical), have an honesty that feels like guys in a locker room. There are no snap-zooms, or cuts to “she’s a WHAAAAAA???!?!?!” reactions. When Banky finds out, he gets a bewildered look on his face not because she’s gay insofar as the character realizes that not only can he not have the girl he’s falling for, he can more than likely never have her. The film goes a long way to explain what being a lesbian is, what the choice was like for her character, how one makes love, what is considered “making love,” and so on and so forth. The almost banal shooting of this section helps alleviate the “IMPORTANT MESSAGE” that the first half of the movie quietly slips in.
Now, in the same way that this whole idea would be a shock to suburbia, it would be a non-issue in most urban, forward-thinking cities. That’s what makes the film click so. Alyssa is a star, a rebel, a wild child because of where she was brought up, and it’s all reflected in the decisions made by Holden. Notice how Smith shoots the scene where Alyssa sings at the club. It’s a woman dedicating a garage rock ditty, all dirty, sweaty, and sensual, in this great close-up. This is her star moment, at least to Holden, and it’s all within the comfortable confines of some lower east side dive. There’s also the fun, almost-meta moment when it’s revealed that the girl who was awkwardly placed in all the shots of Holden’s reactions wasn’t clumsy filmmaking in order to make the room bigger…it’s actually the girl who was being sung to. The alarms blare, loud and pronounced, as we focus in on the cavalcade of emotions that awash Holden. The world doesn’t stop around him; everything moves on without him, like it has and will continue to. (There’s also the great moment of realization from Banky, after seeing a number of shots of women making out, that when a couple of women are talking, that triggers the fact that they are at a gay bar and that Alyssa is, in fact, just a regular patron.)
The film, like the dialogue that it’s based upon, all adheres to a strict rhythm. All of the scenes of big conflict explode out in fits of rage, disappointment, fear, and other emotions that are forced to come out externally in large blasts. It’s what the story hinges on and what dictates the camera work. Putting in push-zooms and crane shots wouldn’t effect this movie in the slightest. In fact, it might detract from it, distracting the viewer from the story its trying to tell. There’s a difference between lazily setting up a camera and hitting “go” and letting a scene play itself out in wide shots.
A great example from this film is the culmination of Banky and Holden’s argument over Alyssa’s state in their friendship and business that explodes with Holden yelling his love for her. Smith has followed a directive that many other directors have to let the actors fill the space in with their performance. The reactions and the real, in-the-moment tension of the scene would be disrupted by cuts and could feel manipulative if it’s just a continuing set of ever-getting-closer close-ups. That’s not to say it always works. When your cousin is running out of breath trying to get out all of his dialogue without passing out, then it comes off less of an homage to Do The Right Thing and more of a clunky minute and a half of film with distracting camera movement. Now, if that same style is employed with two great (yeah, I said it) actors–including Adams who got a Golden Globe nomination in the role–then a simple medium close-ups of one man bearing his soul as we watch the others’ reaction is gripping.
The story is essentially the story of Smith’s own maturation, but with it came the death of his intimate style, both in writing as well as direction. He made Dogma, a script that pre-dates Clerks, then the slapsticky, Looney Tunes-esque Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (aka, “Holy Shit How Did We Actually Get $30 Million To Make This, Seriously”) both of which rachetted up the image quality and depth (and both had DPs that weren’t named Dave Klein who helmed the first three flicks). Everyone criticized him for his lack of visual style and tried to make him into a more standard-issue director, plucked from a hermetically-sealed bag, and placed on a soundstage in Burbank.
With Amy, he makes his own epic, a story with cursory mentions of various characters that spans his previous two movies, weaving together everything into one cogent story of people in a town, the same way stories and legends were passed along as he was growing up. In my section of suburban Jersey, we passed around stuff like this one kid [name redacted] who mistook an overweight girl’s stomach roll for her vagina, or how the twins escaped a party that was broken up by the cops by hopping out a window and off a roof, then having a girl try the same escape, ends up falling and breaking her ankle, yet they still carry her out like they were headed to a medi-vac while in enemy territory.
It’s that small town mentality where the shared stories are traded like comodities of the times and places that you existed, almost like a living landmark, something to share with other people as you sit around the local bars when you’re back from college break, or just hanging after work at your now-favorite dive. There is a shared connection through these experiences, and it enriches this story in the same way. Smith somehow managed to translate that onto a big screen, allowing others to share in the bigness that exists in a small-town set-up. As he moves forward with Red State, his new horror film, people have raved about the evocative visuals and off-kilter tone. In the Amy, Smith, through his proxy Holden, mentions how he won’t have a personal story to tell until it happens to him. I just hope he, and more filmmakers like him, have more personal stories to give. We can never have enough.
This colorful Christmas-themed banner was created by Matt Lubchansky. Read his excellent web comic The Adam! and follow him on twitter, if you’d be so kind. You can click the image above to see the rest of the films in the series.