Two years ago, the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, imploding almost overnight a motion picture empire that had built thousands of careers over more than 45 years and beginning a wider socio-political moment known as #MeToo. Harvey and brother Bob were the captains of the independent film cottage industry boom of the 1980s and 1990s that accrued 81 Oscars before the end.
The shocking revelation was that entire project, a whole epoch of cinema history, was built off a rapist’s sexual expropriation of unwilling women. Major films that won Best Picture and became the biggest box office hits of a given year had at their foundation contracts with female stars that were finalized only because those actresses agreed to remain silent about Harvey Weinstein molesting and/or raping them. There might be in the future a film history title that catalogs every movie Weinstein was involved in and demarcates in each entry which woman on the picture was listed in the credits because of his violence. (The moral legitimacy of such a hypothetical title is a debate well outside of my purview.) For just a basic sense of scope, consider this: Weinstein had his name connected to everything from Kevin Smith’s 1994 Clerks (produced for just under $2,800) to the 2001-2003 Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Smith in particular jumps to mind for a few reasons. His biography was a particularly Dickensian rags-to-riches story that seems more extraordinary than his contemporaries Spike Lee or Quentin Tarantino. After dropping out of film school, Smith scratched together funds by doing things like selling his comic book collection to make a bare-bones black-and-white gross-out comedy about the daylong grind behind the counter of a New Jersey convenience store and adjoining video store, Clerks. Despite a parade of lewd gags like an in-depth conversation of fellatio variations, unintentional necrophilia, and a constellation of curse word rearrangements, the picture was a critical darling, with Roger Ebert writing “Within the limitations of his bare-bones production, Smith shows great invention, a natural feel for human comedy, and a knack for writing weird, sometimes brilliant, dialogue.” While I certainly have my qualms with Ebert’s brand of film criticism, which helped reduce to form to the equivalent of an article in Consumer Reports, I always had a soft spot for his Norman Rockwell/Norman Thomas social democratic politics. Roger Ebert was a decent Midwestern newspaper scribe who became a major advocate of socially conscious anti-oppression films, most notably Do the Right Thing, and so their is a moral legitimacy within his writings.
But in light of the Weinstein scandal and the #MeToo momement, hindsight makes me flinch at Smith’s films that, as a teen, inspired my aspirations to become a film director. No matter how you try to square it, these movies were kinda racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and promoted the hegemony of a gender binary. Granted, that also defines the mindset of their target audience demographic, stoned teenagers living in red-lined suburbs, but that’s no excuse.
That’s what makes this video ring kind of false. Smith has plenty to say about how he didn’t know and would jettison all his prior successes because they came about in part because of this sexual violence.
But he isn’t saying that he wants to destroy every copy of Chasing Amy, his 1997 romantic comedy that deals with sex, sexuality, gender, and power dynamics in ways that are pretty reactionary. While there was a certain novelty 20 years ago in the script, (with Ebert writing that the film “…Is a romantic comedy about people who write comic books for a living and whose most passionate conversations can center on the sex lives of Archie and Jughead… Smith…makes these characters intense and funny. It’s all in the writing”) it actually is a very old-fashioned and very hetero-patriarchal story that audiences know very well, the love triangle comedy.
Heterosexuality in the Smith universe is a singular, default position for human beings and everything else is a taboo-breaking but still sensational thing that exists for exhibition rather than legitimate respect. I won’t deny that Smith certainly grew in his later films on this topic, especially after getting married and having children, but the picture is a monument to a certain kind of Generation X frat boy mentality that can and does do serious harm to our understandings of how human beings relate to each other intimately. In other words, it articulates an ideology that maintains rape culture, a system that demeans and objectifies women, their sexuality, and their gender in the name of male supremacy. Smith isn’t making a movie promoting overt aggression and telling males to force themselves onto women. But he is trafficking in the ethos of boys behaving badly which allows that violence to get a pass.
That might of course seem like an absurd claim, but then again I speak from personal experience on that one. I was a deeply-closeted queer teen in an all-male Catholic prep school and Chasing Amy was a very safe gay movie for me to watch with people to whom I could deny being queer. And as such that movie shaped my perspective on how I should grapple with my emerging sexuality and understanding of gender identity.
Now in all fairness, it’s not like teen comedies are seminars on the theories of Judith Butler and Michel Foucault. All of them are pretty reactionary.
Furthermore, these shortcomings also are on display with Smith’s generational peers. Spike Lee has been driving feminist film critics batshit for decades now and Quentin Tarantino infuriates many Black academics.
But the old Arabic saying remains “When you point one finger, three point back at you.”