A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
This book was brought out for the 20th anniversary of Clueless in 2015. I missed it then, but caught up with it at Jane’s 200th and have just read it with delight as a fan of the film I think is unsurpassed as a screen adaptation of Jane Austen’s work, with its foundation in Emma, such fertile ground for adaptation and re-imagining.
The book is constructed by journalist Jen Chaney as an oral history, in the words of the director, (surviving) cast and crew, recorded in interviews with her. The cover in lurid pink with hints of mustard-and-black plaid and the Clueless branding make a very strong hook to reel in anyone who loves the film, but it really is only going to make sense for people who have watched it. The reader is plunged straight into the arcana of creating Cher Horowitz’s world and its denizens. Anyone who has not seen the film will wonder why it really warrants all these words; those who have seen it might ultimately need no persuading. And of course, by its very nature it is one great big 300 page (I kid you not) spoiler. So, Clueless addicts only need apply – but this addict says: why not watch Clueless first anyway and then, once hooked, read on?
It is apparent when beginning to read it that, even though it must have been distilled and reduced from many hours of interviews, that this is going to be an exhaustive, even perhaps exhausting, account of the making of the film – the tribulations of getting it made from the false starts and casting decisions that went wrong, through filming and editing, to its unexpected breakout success and enduring reputation. It is repetitive to read about one aspect several times over in different voices, until those voices begin to be familiar and valued. Even so, I found parts of it quite skippable, though these will not be the same parts for every reader.
I found it interesting to be made to think why I cherish so much a teen comedy, from among so many, why I am happy to rewatch it time and again when I need cheering up, and why I would press it on anyone, of any age. If the contributors to this history are to be believed, it was a project that, even though it had some initial disasters in going ahead, came together beautifully. Everyone got it, the cast bonded, the crew too. The look of the film, the iconic jokes and lines, the characters – what has endured is accidental in a way – controlled by the audience, whose power created the legend that has a life of its own. At the heart of it is director-writer Amy Heckerling – hers is the vision, and possibly the strongest voice in the book. Other voices that created the memories I shall take from this book are costume designer Mona May, Director of Photography Bill Pope, and Twink Caplan, Associate Producer and (as we are always being reminded) Miss Geist. It is an interesting reflection of the balance of creativity in making a film that I ended up more interested in the point of view of those who were creating the world in which the characters interacted, than of the actors themselves, Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Stacey Dash et al., articulate and fascinating as they were. The book goes on to examine the after-life, of the film, and of those involved in it. Sadly, this was not necessarily the career for all the teen stars that they deserved, nor quite for the brilliant writer-director. One bright star of Clueless, Brittany Murphy (who played Tai), died tragically young, and the book contains a heartfelt and fitting tribute to her from her colleagues.
It is part of the legend that this was a low-budget movie that struggled to get made, with Amy Heckerling’s reputation from Fast Times At Ridgmont High and her champions finally carrying the day. It was the classic sleeper hit, unexpectedly trouncing the blockbuster Apollo 13 at the summer 1995 box office, and now it has an enduring word-of-mouth afterlife, discovered by new viewers who were too young (or too old) to know the cultural references first hand – and from now on, not even born when the film was made. It is turning into the same sort of timeless classic as His Girl Friday or The Philadelphia Story. This is entirely appropriate.
So, what is its appeal, to Janeites and not? It is full of intelligence, wit and energy, so sunny, so optimistic, so bright and full of colour. It thinks young people are wonderful (I love that), it thinks they can be and do good, it watches them grow. It takes a look and a soundtrack and lifts them out of their era for us all to enjoy. I love the characters, everyone in it (even Cher’s Dad) and want to know them. Reading this oral history helps me understand just how much goes into making it seem so light and effortless. The cover quote (in a pink cartouche against a mustard-and-black check, naturally) from Amy Heckerling explains the world she wanted to conjure:
I’m happiest when I’m in that sort of fantasyland. That happy, youthful, optimistic place where somebody can see what’s good in people and see what’s good in the world. Maybe you have to be an idiot to be like that. Not an idiot. But clueless.
I think that Clueless should be required watching for every adult who has the happiness and well-being of young people in their gift. Young people are wonderful, and angst is not obligatory.
The appeal for Janeites (if they experience it, and if not, I want to know why not) comes from the real cleverness with which the Emma underpinning is handled. The roman à clef is there for those who want to find it, but not slavishly followed. The characters are brought right up to date and given different, relevant 20th century lives. Heckerling captures the essential optimism of the novel, and the driving force behind it that the heroine grows and learns – and so too do other characters (Knightley, Harriet, even Mr Elton), as they find where their hearts and temperaments are really leading them. Emma too is one of Jane Austen’s sunnier, brighter novels in its unravelling (qualms about the marital fate of Jane Fairfax apart).
Clueless landed right in the period when Jane Austen’s works were being rediscovered for the screen, that era when the iconic cartoon of Jane by the LA poolside cutting deals on her mobile was spot on. That year, it went head to head with Roger Michell’s Persuasion and Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility. It was cheated (or so its fans believe) of a potential screenwriting Oscar by being possibly too open about its Emma roots, causing the Academy to consider it as an adapted and not an original screenplay. The following year, a screen version of Emma was made starring Gwyneth Paltrow (who was at one point in the frame for Cher Horowitz), and her 1996 unintentionally prophetic take on Clueless in a New York magazine interview is quoted in this book with gleeful schadenfreude, in its section (complete with admiring Austen scholars) on the film’s Jane Austen inspiration:
‘I think it is sad, ‘ she says, lighting up her first Camel, ‘that America’s first cultural reference to this movie will be Clueless. I mean honestly.
But Clueless opened the floodgates of imagination, bringing on so many other Austen re-imaginings, some with zombies, some without, more or less good or awful, the best never quite matching the original for wit, but showing the world the wealth of inspiration for the creative imagination to be found in Jane Austen’s works. The best use her writing as a jumping-off point, the less good do it by numbers.
So, for Clueless fans, or friends that the film has not yet made, this is a fascinating read, showing those of us who love its world and characters that we can love the brilliant people who brought it to us just as much.
Jen Chaney: As If! The Oral History of Clueless™ as told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast and the Crew. New York: Touchstone (an imprint of Simon & Schuster), 2015. 322pp