Cries & Whispers

Cries & Whispers (1973)

Dir. Ingmar Bergman

Written by: Ingmar Bergman

Starring: Harriet Andersson, Kari Sylwan, Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann


By and large, the works of Swedish auteur Ingmar Bergman are a pretty large cinematic blindspot for me. For whatever reason, his films were sparsely taught at the University of Pittsburgh, at least by the professors I had when I was in film school there. I saw Persona in a class my first year of college and really loved it, although I found it fairly inscrutable, and I sought out a few other films of his on my own. For the most part, however, I haven’t given this challenging filmmaker his proper attention. I briefly attempted a deep dive into his filmography around 2012, shortly after purchasing Bergman’s career-spanning autobiography Images: A Life in Film, but his filmography is so deep that I didn’t put much of a dent in it. I still haven’t completed the book, nor have I progressed much further in my exploration of Bergman’s cinema over the last half decade, but even attempting to explore his massive body of work gave me a better appreciation for this master’s art. Though his films are often extremely personal, investigating his own life, history, and relationships, at the same time, they explore universal themes of death, faith, and identity. Bergman’s is a challenging, cerebral cinema, and I think he often gets a reputation of being a cold filmmaker, but his work also plumbs the depths of human emotion, attempting to portray the full scope of human existence. Cries & Whispers bridges this gap somewhat, providing an emotionally stirring narrative that explores the nuances of human love and familial relationships while also holding its subjects at arms-length. It’s a study of the limits of human love and also the propensity of humans for cruelty, a rumination on the meaning of a life.

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Cries & Whispers, set at the turn of the 20th century, is the story of three sisters, Agnes (Andersson), Karin (Thulin), and Maria (Ullmann), who have been brought together in their familial home because Agnes is dying. As her illness progresses, Agnes’s sisters find themselves unable to provide her with any comfort or empathy. Instead, they sulk and pout around the isolated mansion, leaving Agnes’s care to the family’s dedicated servant, Anna (Sylwan), who is Agnes’s only source of comfort in her final days. A series of flashbacks, one focusing on each woman, explore the incidents in their interconnected lives that have brought them to this place of resentment and have shaped them into the women they’ve become. Being in the family home also seems to bring these feelings of jealousy and malice to the forefront for the women as Maria and Karin begin acting increasingly hostile towards each other, and particularly towards Anna, whom they intend to fire once Agnes dies. Upon Agnes’s eventual death, Karin and Maria are forced to recognize their callousness and their failure as sisters, but they are ultimately too driven by their own selfish desires to allow for proper reflection, and they choose to return to their bourgeois lives, forever closing the door on their past.

Like the other Bergman films that I’ve seen, Cries & Whispers is richly symbolic, its narrative and visual compositions both densely packed with information. Unlike other Bergman films that I’ve seen, which seem to purposefully hold both their subjects and their audience at arm’s length, Cries & Whispers is an enveloping experience. Bergman has said himself that all of his films “can be thought of in black and white, except for Cries & Whispers,” and it’s true that the film’s distinctive red color palette is its defining quality, creating, to me, a womblike atmosphere in the film that makes me feel totally ensconced in its chamber drama. This is a film of suggestion, hinting at states of heightened emotion through its rich swaths of color and Bergman’s impressionistic direction. The title is perfect, as the text communicates with the audience in sharp, startling cries through its memorable visuals, while the characters therein are able to communicate with one another only in whispers, if at all. Maria and Karin find themselves totally cut off from any emotional response, unable to connect with one another on any meaningful level, although they attempt to feign concern for their dying sister. Though it provides only sketches of backstory for its four central characters, with its flashbacks feeling purposefully elliptical, the scant details the audience is granted allow for a deep understanding of the various women’s psyches. All three sisters suffer from a deep-seeded repression, and the film’s refusal to fully unleash all of its mysteries is a perfect mirror of that denial. The film’s structure makes for a beautiful suture of form and content, as the its setting of the familial mansion forms a hermetically sealed environment made up of disparate rooms, reflecting the sisters’ detached relationships and closed-off natures. Its red walls, at the same time soothing and intimidating, are representative of the storm of emotions bubbling under these women’s calm surfaces. The white dresses that Karin and Maria wear during the early parts of the film stand in stark contrast to the overwhelming red interiors of the home and serve as visual reminders of their attempts to maintain their states of emotional detachment. Both women have reasons for retreating into themselves, each having experienced traumas in her marriage, and though the film is largely observational, refusing any ambitions towards melodrama, watching Karin’s and Maria’s emotionally stunted state is heartbreaking.

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The performances across the board are superb, with Ullmann and Thulin as Maria and Karin, respectively, bringing differing motivations to characters who have ended up in similar emotional and psychological places. Both characters are icily cold, but Ullman’s Maria is more manipulative and active, while Thulin plays Karin as defeated and reserved. Karin’s emotional repression manifests itself in a self-destructive tendency, while Maria’s is more outwardly cruel and harmful to others. Regardless, both actresses perfectly portray the agonizing reality of being unable to express the host of human emotions that are raging internally. Their resentment for each other, as well as for their dying sister, is apparent, and it is only magnified by the film’s intense color scheme. Bergman often chooses to focus closely on his actresses’ faces, leading into each character’s individual flashback with a lengthy facial close-up, lit by alternatingly naturalistic and artificial red light, and their blank expressions staring directly into the camera are memorable, but it’s the tiny tics and attempts at human connection that Ullmann and Thulin bring to their roles that stick with me after multiple viewings.

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Sylwan’s Anna is the film’s emotional core. Her obvious goodness is the natural counter to the contempt that Maria and Karin exude. Unlike the sisters, Anna is deeply in touch with her emotions and her faith, providing genuine love and care to the dying Agnes. Sylwan’s performance lends Anna the quiet dignity of the meekly pious. As a servant, her role often relegates her to the background, but she has an important role to play in the dynamics of the household. We see that Anna has suffered as much, if not more, than Maria and Karin, having lost a child. However, Anna’s faith is strengthened by her suffering, and rather than turning inwardly, she has devoted her life to loving service. Anna is the only character in the film who offers any genuine kindness to Agnes, and it is implied that through this kindness, Agnes is able to finally experience some of the beauty of life in her final days after years of being deprived of the familial love that she has craved. Anna shares a strong religious faith with Agnes, and in the end, it is their optimistic point of view that is reinforced by a coda that features Anna reading from Agnes’s diary, negating the staid, emotionally repressed viewpoint of Karin and Maria. All of the performances are naturalistic and haunting. When combined with the film’s overall visual aesthetic and tone, they create an atmosphere of mystery, with small gestures containing monumental significance and personal character history only vaguely implied but easily perceived and understood.

Cries & Whispers is a profoundly challenging film, representing, as it does, extremes of human emotion and suffering. It’s a painful watch, and the cold indifference with which the characters hurt themselves and one another, with Maria and Karin waging cruel psychological warfare, can be tough to watch. For viewers who choose to wade into the claustrophobic examination of trauma that is Cries & Whispers, though, there are rich cinematic rewards. I feel similarly about this film as I do towards Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, which I have written about as one of my favorite films and one of the most important films to me. Though my personal affections for Cries & Whispers are not as strong, I feel that it is a similarly prescient look into the emotional human experience, although perhaps from a more cynical viewpoint than that of Bresson’s film. While Bresson was, admittedly, a man of strong religious conviction, Bergman was possessed of no such religious faith, opting instead to approach the questions of God and the universe through close examination of the human psyche. Bergman used the tools of the cinema to delve into the depths of human psychology, seeking to use the filmic image to create a language to express not just tangible reality but also the psyche, identity, and emotion. It is this examination that informs the masterpiece of modernist filmmaking, Persona, and this examination which Bergman expands in Cries & Whispers, visually representing emotional states and transmogrifying them into vibrant color, sound, and, importantly, silence. With its elliptical flashback structure, Cries & Whispers mimics the patterns and functions of memory, creating a textual representation of the very workings of the psyche. The film is great enough simply as a narrative film, but as a formal experiment in expanding cinematic language, it is brilliant.

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I watched the film twice closely and once distractedly in preparation for writing this post, and each time, like every other time I’ve watched Cries & Whispers before, I was struck with the desire to watch more Bergman. His filmography is daunting in its depth, with well over 50 features made, and his style is not the most accessible, even when judging by the standards of international art house cinema, but I want to make further inroads into viewing his films. The handful that I’ve seen have left me stunned by their visual beauty, their formal and narrative audacity, and their ability to tap into universal truths about the human experience. I’ve written many times that I feel great art should always give its audience cause for introspection and there is no way to come out of the experience of viewing this or any Bergman film without doing serious soul searching. Art should be used as a tool to reveal real, human truths, and Cries & Whispers insists on doing that. The film’s style is decidedly modernist, but the emotions and human truths that it speaks to are something primal. It might not be a comfortable watch for everyone, but it’s a powerful piece of art that demands thought and attention, and that rewards careful viewers with deep insights.

A Clockwork Orange

A Clockwork Orange (1972)

Dir. Stanley Kubrick

Written by: Stanley Kubrick (from the novel by Anthony Burgess)

Starring: Malcolm McDowell


Some months ago, when writing about 2001: A Space Odyssey, I indicated that Kubrick had been my favorite filmmaker throughout my teens and early twenties. Some recent reexamination and rumination on other major films from that time in my life has probably revealed that though he may have seemed to stand head and shoulders above all other filmmakers in my formative years, it’s likely truer that he was one among a handful of filmmakers that have come to make up my personal pantheon. Regardless, the influence of Stanley Kubrick on my early film viewership is undeniable. I was an instant fan of 2001, and came to hold Full Metal Jacket and The Shining in equally high regard. I became familiar with his earlier work, including masterpieces such as Dr. Strangelove and Paths of Glory, after I came to college. I was a full devotee, and I sought out all of Kubrick’s films in my first couple of years of college, learning to appreciate each one of its own merit. Some I enjoyed more than others, but overall my opinion of Kubrick as perhaps the greatest master filmmaker was more or less cemented. It is probably a bit ironic, then, that the only film of his that still resides in my collection, besides 2001, is one of the few that I truly feel ambivalently about: A Clockwork Orange.

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Set in a not-quite-dystopian future London, A Clockwork Orange is a look into a world defined by violence and nihilism, where street gangs are free to brutalize the public. Our window into that world is Alex (McDowell), teenaged leader of a gang of droogs, whose favorite pastimes include rape, murder, and listening to Ludwig van Beethoven. Alex wields his authority over the gang through physical intimidation and takes advantage of the crumbling societal structures to wreak havoc. When the droogs get sick of Alex’s mistreatment, they decide to set him up, leading him to break into the home of a wealthy woman whom he subsequently clubs to death. When he tries to make his escape, the droogs turn on him, smashing a bottle over his head and leaving him to be caught by the police. Alex is charged with murder and sentenced to prison, where he learns of an experimental psychiatric treatment that might reduce his sentence. Alex submits to the Ludovico treatment, in which his eyes are held open by a machine, and he’s forced to watch video of horrific acts of violence and warfare. The treatment leads to a physical and psychological change in Alex wherein he becomes physically ill at the thought of engaging in any of his previous behaviors. Finally deemed sufficiently neutered and reprogrammed, Alex is released back into society. The world that he had left just two years ago seems as different as Alex is after his Ludovico treatment, but have either really changed that much?

Though it is probably one of my least favorite Kubrick film, I can’t deny that A Clockwork Orange is a cinematic work of art. As is every Kubrick film, this is a beautifully rendered and thoughtful film. Its art direction might be my favorite in his whole filmography, with vibrant color splashed across the screen and set designs that are both retro and futuristic at the same time. When I picture the swinging 70s of London, it’s really the design of A Clockwork Orange that I’m envisioning. Kubrick is at the height of powers, using striking visuals to set the tone of his film and also to imply subtle narrative details about the characters and the world.  Early on, the film’s visuals evoke its mood so perfectly, the setting of the Korova Milk Bar oozing sinister dread when we first meet Alex and his gang. The bar’s stark black and white color pattern signify a world that is broken down into dualities: black and white, good and evil, peace and chaos, rule and anarchy. Alex’s worldview, too, is dominated by a duality, chiefly that of the hunter and the hunted. Of course these simplistic visual and narrative points of view belie a layered examination of power dynamics and the inherent role of violence in human nature.

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This examination is at the heart of A Clockwork Orange, as we see domination played out in three different ways: initially, individually through Alex’s physical intimidation and domination of his gang, his family, and those around him, subsequently, domination by the State after Alex is imprisoned and subjected to a mind altering experiment, and lastly, a reactionary sort of violence from the townsfolk who exact revenge on the newly humbled Alex. This is an important and continuously prescient line of inquiry for a piece of art to make, but I feel that the ideology of the film gets a bit muddled. Its attempts to be critical of violence as an institution are undercut by the fact that Alex is the film’s ostensible hero, and the fact that the audience is often led to sympathize with and even root for the murderous, rapacious Alex. Malcom McLaren has often claimed that the film was not better received upon its release because people weren’t able to understand that it was intended as a dark comedy, and I can understand where he’s coming from with that comment, because there are certainly elements of satire to the film, but I can’t say that I agree that A Clockwork Orange should be read as a comedy. The film’s gleeful sadism should be repulsive and horrifying, not amusing. I think presenting A Clockwork Orange as a comedy of any sort is a dangerous proposition. I have defended violent, bleak films in my writing before, but I find A Clockwork Orange difficult to defend, its obvious artistry notwithstanding, due to the misconstrued fandom of the film that I have observed, and to the cult of personality that has sprung up around its hero, Alex.

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I’ve noticed that most of the fandom surrounding A Clockwork Orange seems to be driven by young men who are enamored with the film’s violence. To these men, Alex has become a counterculture icon, snubbing his nose in the face of authority and daring to live out his most extreme fantasies. I personally find this fandom disturbing, and, unfortunately, I can’t separate the film from its fandom because it seems as if the film does very little to avoid glorifying Alex and the deplorable behavior that he displays throughout. I’m often able to separate art from its creator, or from its fan base, but I have always had a difficult time reconciling my love for Stanley Kubrick with this particular film. I recognize that A Clockwork Orange is an important cinematic work of art, and I appreciate its sumptuous visual palate and its attempts at social critique, but I can’t bring myself to really enjoy the film. Kubrick was never a filmmaker who seemed interested in creating relatable, sympathetic characters, but his characterization of Alex is an anomaly even in a filmography peopled by depraved, morally empty figures. Alex’s entire raison d’etre is violence. He has little depth as a character, and even as a symbol or a metaphor for youth gone wild, he falls entirely flat. Kubrick attempts to make up for this lack of character depth with an emphasis on style and superficial details, but they don’t ring true and Alex is ultimately proven to be hollow. I work for an independently owned craft brewery and we offer a seasonal beer called Milk+, which features tap handle and label artwork inspired by A Clockwork Orange, and any time I have the beer on tap I invariably have customers who order it simply based on the name and artwork because A Clockwork Orange is “their favorite movie.” Sometimes I really wonder if they’ve thought about the implications of the film’s mixed messages.

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Maybe I’m being overly sensitive, but I feel that A Clockwork Orange is a film that tries overly hard to make its audience sympathize with a totally abhorrent protagonist. More than simply asking its audience to consider the ramifications of Alex’s actions, by not wholly critiquing these actions the film tacitly approves of them. Although all forms of dominative violence seem to be viewed equally in the film, whether they be State sanctioned or individualistic, Alex is clearly presented as the film’s hero and, as a result, his actions are championed, and even justified by the severity of the trauma that is inflicted upon him during the Ludovico treatment. The film masquerades as a critique of violence and authority, but in actuality it seems to be a reactionary fantasy, with Alex’s final rapacious daydream supplying an orgasmic triumph over the film’s moralizing forces. A Clockwork Orange is a film that I wish I could enjoy more thoroughly because it contains some of my favorite moments of Kubrick’s visual genius, but I just can’t get over the hump of the film’s treatment of its subject matter. There’s a reason that the copy of the film that I currently own was still in its shrink wrap when I took it off the shelf for this post, nearly four years after picking it out of a BestBuy bargain bin: A Clockwork Orange is an impressively beautiful film, but I almost never want to watch it.


Clerks (1994)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Brian O’Halloran, Jeff Anderson, Marilyn Ghigliotti


Mallrats might have introduced me to Kevin Smith and hooked me on his brand of humor, but Clerks literally changed my life. Not only did the film deepen my appreciation for Smith, who was one of my youthful film heroes, but it totally opened up my eyes to the possibility of a different kind of cinema. Of course I knew that there was such a thing as “independent cinema,” but it existed more as a nebulous concept than a concrete entity in my mind. I had seen a handful of movies on Independent Film Channel when I was 11 or 12, over a month when my parents’ cable offered a free preview of the channel when it became available in our area, but, for the most part, these movies just seemed like slightly less glossy versions of what I could see in the local multiplex. It wasn’t until I saw Clerks that I think independent cinema really clicked for me as something that could be radically different from the mainstream. Clerks turned me on to the idea of filmmaking existing outside of the Hollywood system, and the idea that anyone can make a movie if they really want to. At that time in my life, I really wanted to.

Even at 14 years old, I was an aspiring filmmaker of sorts. Most of my friends were getting into skateboarding and I became a de facto cameraman because my parents had recently bought a video camera, and I was also too uncoordinated to skate with any proficiency. At first, our videos mostly consisted of poorly shot and executed skateboard tricks and stunts, modeled after the MTV show Jackass, but I got more interested in learning how to edit the footage and add music. Seeing Clerks around this same time further cemented my interest in filmmaking and led to me trying some very basic narrative experiments in addition to the skate videos that I was shooting. What were once strictly stunt videos started becoming slightly more narrative with the addition of loosely scripted sketches and parodies. The “humor” contained therein was still overwhelmingly physical, but we were striving towards a more cinematic vision of our silly videos. My friend Mike introduced a distinctively performative aspect to the videos with his incessant mugging and rapping for the camera, and his various alter-egos, many of which were clearly influenced by Jason Mewes’s performance as Jay in Clerks and Mallrats. Our videos never really advanced beyond the most rudimentary experiments, and all of the tapes have been lost for over a decade, but I remember those days that we spent filming ourselves hurting each other with great fondness. I continued to dabble with filmmaking throughout high school in various forms, but it was largely something that I abandoned until I moved to Pittsburgh.

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Of course, while my interest in making my own films waned in high school, my interest in watching them and consuming the medium was only beginning to peak. I don’t know if I used Kevin Smith and Clerks as a jumping off point, per se, but at this time in my life, I began to more fully explore the American independent film movement of the 1990s. I truly discovered Tarantino around this time, I saw Do The Right Thing for the first time at 15, Richard Linklater started to bubble into my consciousness through his comedies. Through these filmmakers I started to branch out, discovering their influences, and laying the groundwork for my later formal education in Film Studies. Even though it was a period of great exploration and discovery for me, I always came back to Kevin Smith. As I wrote last week in my Chasing Amy post, I was obsessed with the View Askewniverse all throughout my late teens. By the end of high school, I’m not sure if I would have mentioned Smith as my favorite filmmaker above Tarantino or, perhaps, Kubrick, but that would have likely been youthful posturing. In retrospect, I was always watching more Kevin Smith than anything else. That changed somewhat after I came to college and my expanding tastes and more crowded viewing schedule put an end to the ritualistic repeat viewings of Smith’s films. That time in my life also, coincidentally, dovetailed with an artistic low period for the filmmaker, whose post-2000 output has been of varying quality, at best. Clerks, however, has been the one film in his filmography that I’ve come back to over and over again, year after year. I still revisit the other 1990s Smith films, but Clerks is the only one that has become truly indispensable for me.

Clerks has been different things for me at different points in my life, but it’s always been a film that I watch once or twice a year. I’ve definitely seen it over 50 times in my life, and maybe even close to 100 times. When I was first introduced to it, it was inspirational, challenging in its simplicity. It was a film that dared me to want to make something of my own. In college, even though I often found myself thumbing my nose at Smith’s current films, Clerks was still the high water mark that my film school friends could all agree on. When I started my bartending career after college, Clerks gained a professional relevance that I wouldn’t fully appreciate until I started managing bars in my late-20s. I don’t know how many times in the last five years I’ve found myself repeating Dante’s (O’Halloran) catchphrase from the film, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” It’s become a mantra to get me through the long nights and weekends. The beauty of the film to me is a malleability belied by its overall simplicity. I can appreciate a different aspect of Clerks every time I watch it depending on my mood or how my week has been going, and even though I’ve seen it dozens of times, it never gets old. Smith’s ambitions as a filmmaker have certainly grown since Clerks, and his technical prowess has greatly improved, but Smith has never made a better film than Clerks, and he almost certainly never will.

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Famously shot on a self-financed budget of just under $30,000, Clerks follows a day in the life of register jockeys Dante Hicks, who works at the Quick Stop convenience store, and Randal Graves (Anderson), Dante’s friend and erstwhile employee of neighboring RST Video. The two clerks deal with annoying customers, drug-dealing loiterers, and Dante’s romantic foibles as he tries to decide between his current girlfriend, Veronica (Ghigliotti) and his ex, Caitlin (Lisa Spoonauer). He’s not even scheduled to work on this particular day, and Dante just wants to get through his shift and get home, but life keeps throwing obstacles in his way as he’s forced to live out his mundane, hellish existence. It’s a depiction of existential nothingness, and a perfect expression of a frustrated sense of arrested development. Clerks is the end result of a person deciding that they have a story to tell so important to them that they have to get it out there by any means necessary. Clerks is filmmaking by necessity, which makes it great.

The film is based on Smith’s actual job at the time, and was primarily shot in the convenience store that he actually worked at. It’s decidedly lo-fi, shot on 16mm black-and-white, and featuring almost exclusively non-professional actors. Rather than being hampered by the constraints placed upon him by his limited budget and lack of experience, Smith uses his technical simplicity and idiosyncratic cast to his advantage, and plays to his strengths. The film is conversational, broken up into nine vignettes (in reference to the nine circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno) that consist primarily of lengthy passages of conversation between Dante and Randal, or between one of the two and his customers. These dialogues are shot simply, often consisting of a lengthy master shot, broken up by a bit of shot/reverse shot, with the occasional reaction shot of an eavesdropping customer thrown in. The simplicity is surely due to circumstance and to Smith’s limited filmmaking experience, but it isn’t incompetence. Instead, the lack of edits and the largely static camera work to highlight the script, forcing the audience to pay close attention to the cascade of pop-culture references and vulgarities that the two protagonists exchange throughout the film. The languid visual style also exhibits Smith’s already developing sense of comedic timing. When he does make cuts for comedic effect, they work more often than not. Smith doesn’t over extend himself as he sometimes will later in his career, and it pays off. The film also gets some of its most memorable moments from the unusual shooting requirements. Because the film could only be shot in the middle of the night, after the convenience store closed, Smith had to fabricate a reason for the store’s steel shutters to be lowered. In the film, vandals have plugged the shutters’ locks with chewing gum, forcing Dante to write a sign on a bedsheet with shoe polish that reads, “I assure you, we’re open!” It’s my favorite running gag from the entire film, and it’s the result of forced ingenuity.

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Clerks also manages to bring out the best in a cast made up chiefly of Smith’s friends and other non-professional actors. The performances in Clerks are not necessarily good, in fact, sometimes they’re not very good at all, but they are perfect for the film and for the script. Though it very much feels true to life, Smith’s dialogue is often somewhat off-kilter and affected, especially early in his career as a screenwriter. O’Halloran and Anderson manage to internalize those affectations and their line delivery feels completely real. I think that often when Smith employs non-professional actors, such as in Clerks or in the case of Jason Lee in Mallrats, they give more naturalistic performances and are able to translate the idiosyncrasies in Smith’s dialogue into speech patterns that read as familiarities between the characters. O’Halloran and Anderson, as Dante and Randal, speak in the language of close friends, which drives home the film’s realism. The rest of the film’s characters, who could broadly be described as the customers, with the exception of Veronica and Caitlin, provide a counterpoint to the chummy, laid back nature of Dante and Randal’s relationship. They’re shown only in glimpses but could largely be characterized as manic and reactionary, outsiders who are imposing their neuroses on the Quick Stop. As Randal says, “This job would be great if it weren’t for the customers.” This type of characterization of the retail customer and the sometimes antagonistic relationship between customer and employee will likely ring true for many who have worked in service.

I don’t know if there will come a time when I get tired of the movie Clerks. It’s certainly a film that is aimed towards people of a certain age demographic, which I am rapidly approaching the tail end of, now that I’m in my early thirties. Clerks is definitely a product of post-adolescent fury, and it speaks to concerns of youthful rebelliousness, but I think its anti-establishment, anti-authoritarian message transcends age demographics. It was a seminal movie for me at a time when I was starting to discover my own anti-authoritarian streak, and it’s adherence to DIY principles was inspiring to me. It’s stayed with me through the years as a reminder of one of my youthful obsessions, but also as a movie that has remained relevant and changed in meaning for me over time. Sometimes I sympathize more with Dante, a tired man clinging to a scrap of professionalism and optimism in a town full of savages, and sometimes I’m more of a Randal, openly antagonistic and despairing for the state of humanity. Clerks is an important movie in the history of independent cinema, and it set Kevin Smith up to be an important and influential filmmaker throughout the rest of the 1990s. For me it’s an important film because it’s a reminder of who I was when I first started getting serious about movies and filmmaking, and because it provides a symbolic throughline from the kid I was then to the adult that I’ve become.

Chasing Amy

Chasing Amy (1997)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Joey Lauren Adams, Jason Lee


From age 14 to age 19, I was obsessed with Kevin Smith and his View Askewniverse, the interconnected film universe that was made up of his first five features. I discovered the king of 1990s raunchy, independent comedy when a friend of mine rented Mallrats on VHS when I was staying the night at his house. I’ll write much more about that film later in this project, but we watched that tape three times over the course of the weekend and I was totally hooked, itching to track down more of Smith’s movies. This would have been 1999 or 2000, and Dogma was fairly new, although I hadn’t seen it in the movie theater. My first experiences with nearly all of his films, at least until me and my friends went to see Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in the movie theater, was via rental tapes from my local Blockbuster Video. My friends and I would take out both Mallrats and Smith’s debut, Clerks, routinely, memorizing the lines and inserting the catch phrases and odd character mannerisms into our everyday banter. We were totally enamored with the broad comedy, the esoteric nerdy callouts, and the laid-back stoner vibe that Smith’s first two films represented, but Chasing Amy was something different. Eventually, at least for a while, the film would be my favorite Kevin Smith movie and, at least briefly, my favorite movie, period, but it took time for me to get there. It was a movie that I had to grow into, and mature a little bit to really understand, but it was also a movie that I quickly outgrew when I moved into my adult life.

Smith’s third feature, Chasing Amy, marks the first turn towards more dramatic storytelling for a filmmaker who was to this point best known for his crude sense of humor. All of Smith’s first three films, at that point loosely grouped together as a “Jersey trilogy,” could be described as some sort of love story, but Chasing Amy is the only one that I would really describe as a romantic comedy. The film presents the quasi-love triangle formed by best friends Holden (Affleck) and Banky (Lee), creators of the popular “Bluntman & Chronic” comic book series, and Alyssa (Adams), author of the feminist comic “Idiosyncratic Routine,” whom they meet at a convention. Holden immediately falls for Alyssa and he initially believes that his affections are reciprocated, until Alyssa invites him out to a bar, which he slowly realizes is a lesbian bar. Although she isn’t interested in him romantically, Alyssa and Holden strike up a friendship, which eventually becomes a deep emotional bond. Eventually, Holden reveals to Alyssa that his romantic feelings haven’t subsided and that he is more in love with her than before. Initially, Alyssa is resistant and justifiably angry at the assumptions that Holden makes that she can just turn her sexuality on and off, and recontextualize her entire identity to suit his whims, but she eventually accepts that she has real feelings for him, as well, and they begin a romantic relationship. This new relationship pushes an already strained relationship between Holden and Banky to the breaking point, and Banky begins to try to sour Holden’s feelings for Alyssa by dredging into her past. Banky’s digging eventually causes Holden to question Alyssa about her sexual past, and while she tries desperately to reassure him, Holden’s insecurities ultimately torpedo their relationship. At the same time, his resentment of Banky for meddling ends their friendship and all three characters are left at a crossroads, deciding to move on alone.

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When I first saw Chasing Amy, probably sometime freshman year of high school, my response was mixed. I wasn’t prepared for the sharp left turn that this film represented, especially after having seen Clerks and Mallrats a dozen times each. Smith’s characteristically intelligent, rapid-fire dialogue was there, but it wasn’t being used in the service of comedy most of the time. He was exploring emotions that I wasn’t really experiencing yet in my life, and I didn’t find as much to grasp onto with Chasing Amy at first. I was, however, able to glean some enjoyment out of the film even early on before it really sunk its claws into me. I remember being a big fan of Banky, as his character was the most “comedic” element in the film, and because Jason Lee has an innate understanding of Smith’s dialogue that often seems to elude other actors. Smith’s writing has a naturalistic feel, but the dialogue is often peppered with unusual slang and portmanteau, and Lee manages to get inside the words in a way that makes the sometimes strange phrasings feel familiar. In Chasing Amy, he delivers one-liners and acerbic quips with off-the-cuff regularity. Moreover, even though the romantic bits of the film didn’t connect with me on an emotional level yet, I could recognize that the turn towards more dramatic storytelling was producing some of Smith’s best writing. Chasing Amy feels real, in a way that Smith’s earlier and later output never has, and after I had had an opportunity to have some real romantic relationships and experience a few breakups, it felt even more real and relatable to me. By the end of high school, I picked up my own copy of the movie on DVD (probably my first Criterion Collection disc) and it became one of my go-to films, and one of the cultural treatises on romantic love that I clung to as gospel.

A lot can change in a decade and a half. Watching Chasing Amy again in 2017 was a much different experience than the one that I remembered from the last time I watched it. As I mentioned, Jason Lee’s Banky was one of my favorite parts of the film when I was younger, but watching it again now, his casual misogyny and homophobia is cringeworthy. The film as a whole tries to walk a tightrope between opening up the View Askewiniverse to new, diverse characters and points of view, and doubling down on the male-centric humor of Smith’s other films. Even though the film portrays Banky’s views as regressive and small-minded, it still culls much of its humor from his putdowns and insults of Alyssa and her sexuality, in a way trying to have its cake and eat it, too. I don’t know if there are viewership statistics available for this film, but Smith’s core audience was male dominant to this point in his career, and even though Chasing Amy was a breakout hit that connected with the mainstream, I would imagine that Smith was hesitant to fully alienate his teen male following by fully embracing the potential of a more progressive script. I think that Chasing Amy is, on the whole, a good film for representation, but I think some of its condemnations are a bit too light for me to wholly endorse it as a progressive or positive representation of modern sexuality.

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As a straight man, I don’t know that I truly have the depth of insight to comment fully on the sexual politics at play in Chasing Amy, so I will make an attempt to stay in my lane and not step out of my own role as a film critic. The film’s unfortunate homophobia aside, it portrays nuanced, realistic gay characters, but sometimes undercuts their agency. Hooper X (Dwight Ewell), is a codeswitching gay, black comic author who is a friend to Holden and, to a lesser extent, Banky. In public, Hooper adopts an aggressive, militant demeanor to better match the persona put forward in his comic book, “White Hating Coon.” He feels that the book would lose authenticity with his readers if they knew that he were actually an effeminate gay man. This speaks to the sort of passing that many gay men and women feel they have to go through every day in order to succeed in their social or professional lives, and it’s an issue that deserves to be addressed fully, but, unfortunately, Hooper is often reduced to comic relief. Instead of exploring the nuances of a character like Hooper, I felt like that character was often being set-up as a stereotype for a punchline. I can forgive Smith for not exploring the full ramifications of Hooper’s character because, ultimately, he’s a rather small character in the film, but I can still wish that Chasing Amy would go there.

Even in its portrayal of the central romantic relationship between Alyssa and Holden, Alyssa isn’t given equal footing to stand on. While Holden’s sexuality and sexual desire are presented as simple and pure, and are the catalysts for the film, Alyssa’s sexual desire is summed up as a confusing problem that can be solved by just meeting the right man. The film’s approval of Alyssa’s sexual past and the fluidity of her sexuality are progressive, and they’re ideas that certainly weren’t often presented as positively in films of the time, but the ultimate romantic goal in the film is to form a male/female couple. Even though Alyssa very clearly is a lesbian and identifies as such throughout the movie, Chasing Amy largely still plays out as a “straight savior” story, and implies that some gay women may just need to meet that right guy in order to “fix” their sexuality. Again, I try to tread lightly when I’m considering representation of groups that I don’t belong to, but something about the portrayal of Alyssa’s sexuality felt off to me. Of course, maybe I’m asking too much from a filmmaker like Smith, and I appreciate the attempts that he did make in this film simply to include gay characters and people of color. I think Chasing Amy wants to be a more progressive film than Smith necessarily had the vocabulary to make at the time. It comes close, but its insistence on clinging to straight male points of view hampers its ability to fully explore some of its ideas.

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That being said, watching Chasing Amy is still a pretty enjoyable experience. While it probably doesn’t go as far as I would like in exploring its characters sexuality and desires, it presents ideas about romantic love, friendship, and sexuality that are progressive and valuable. Joey Lauren Adams gives a memorable performance as Alyssa, and this film is the reason that I continue to be a Ben Affleck apologist. Both actors portray real, raw emotions as they try to work out the dynamics of a new relationship. The movie is still funny, and it still probably represents the high point of Smith’s screenwriting. Watching a film that was impactful on you in your youth after years of growing up is an interesting experience. Chasing Amy is a film that I was so familiar with, but changes that I’ve made in my life have left me viewing it very differently in my thirties than I did as a very young man. While it had seemed monumental and profound then, now I enjoy it as a realistic, if not totally relatable, romantic comedy. In real life, romantic love can take myriad forms, and that’s one of the important lessons in Chasing Amy. Don’t close your mind off to other possibilities or exist within rigid structures if you want to chase happiness.