September 2015

Will George

nonfiction

As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast and the Crew by Jen Chaney

I spent twenty years struggling to identify with Alicia Silverstone in Clueless. Identify with her character, anyway: the adorable Cher of Beverly Hills, the cutest, cleverest, sassiest debutante in teen film comedy. Like I say, it's been a struggle to be remotely like her. As if! I guess the gaps in income, looks, and gender were obstacles, and getting older doesn't help. Then there's the yellow plaid suit.

Remember that ray of sunshine? Pleated skirt, mustard vest, white socks to the knees? Only Alicia could carry it off with such panache, but at the height of my enthusiasm I was willing to try. In mid-2002 I begged a tailor for a similar three-piece for men. "Get out of my shop," he said. "And get sober."

Ordinarily I'd ascribe a fixation like this to some warrantless peccadillo. But today, twenty years after the premiere, on the release of the first book about director Amy Heckerling's masterpiece, I think my freak is justified. Clueless remains the quintessential '90s bubbly teen flick. Still, its mass appeal screams for explanation. Why does this "movie for girls," according to Heckerling, speak so tellingly to adults -- now two generations' worth -- of both sexes? How does it continue to outstretch its original viewership and live on as one of the best-loved, cheeriest comedies ever?

Jen Chaney's As If! The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew invites the film's creators to ponder such questions. As a pure "oral history," the book goes light on the analysis and heavy on the quotes from a gaggle of insanely detailed interviews. There's little real prose. The book just cites one Clueless insider after another -- Heckerling, Silverstone, male lead Paul Rudd, costume designer Mona May, casting director Marcia Ross, and many others -- cutting and pasting their remarks by subject ("All That Plaid," "The Language of Clueless," "The Story Behind the Clueless Soundtrack," and so on). To those unsympathetic with the oral history style, As If! may seem clunky and underwritten. Have a peek at Chaney's 2013 article "Suck and Blow: The Oral History of the Clueless Party Scene," from New York magazine's Vulture blog, that motivated the publication of As If! Now imagine 304 pages of that, much of it on obscure aspects of the film.

The book's strengths rest in those underlying interviews with otherwise inaccessible persons and the reminiscences that Chaney, a pop culture critic with Washington Post credentials, unearths. Some of it falls into the "fun fact" category. Silverstone could power-nap between takes. Two extras who met on set eventually got engaged (no word on the marriage). Donald Faison (Murray in the film) had his head tonsured like Sherman Hemsley on The Jeffersons. But As If! mostly offers a meaty, movie-buffish commentary on the film's progress from concept through scripting, selling, casting, shooting, and promotion. There's loads about the property's early history at Fox before (incredibly) being dropped for Paramount to pick up; about screen tests that failed; locations and the weather during shoots; meticulous observation of the filming timetable (Monday, November 21, 1994 to Tuesday, February 7, 1995); lighting, makeup, hairstyles; CGI, voiceovers added in post. After all that, Chaney singles out a few notable scenes for extra attention. Sometimes the film geekery plunges overboard. Dicky Barrett, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones frontman who appears in one scene, usefully tells us that some guy out of focus in the background wasn't an extra but a roadie named Mark Higgins. Good to know. So be warned: this book isn't for casual fans.

 As If! shines when it explores the film's signal attractions: the dialog, the hipper-than-hip slang, the once-in-a-lifetime casting of Silverstone, the costumes. "The clothes were really a character in the film," Stacy Dash (Dionne) says, noting how the film's best sight gags come from the wardrobe department. Perhaps coolest of all, Chaney leads Heckerling to discuss her unforgettable lingo: hymenally challenged, surfing the crimson wave, in on the heavy clambakes, jeepin', and more. It's heartwarming to see this sublime moment in comedy getting such a thorough rubdown. I wish I could say it's enough to satisfy any Clueless die-hard. But, speaking as a guy who once tried to order a yellow plaid suit, by the book's end I felt that the most ticklish issue -- grasping the film's lasting appeal to a wide demographic -- needed a few more strokes.

Surely the brightest feature of Clueless, after Alicia, is its literary pedigree: It reworks Jane Austen's spiffing 1815 comic novel Emma. (For the unfamiliar, several characters in the film correspond to Austen's -- Cher updates protagonist Emma Woodhouse, Tai is a slightly rustic villager named Harriet Smith, Josh is Emma's friend Mr. Knightley, and so on -- and the plot is pure Emma: a rich, attractive young woman, manipulative though well-intentioned, tries to snare a mate for her lonely pal before realizing she's romantically clueless herself.) As If! touches on this in seven pages of quotes from Heckerling and four Jane Austen scholars, without considering very deeply how much the film's interest may owe to direct liftings from Emma. It isn't just that Clueless is the funniest film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel ever. Though the film is primarily "for girls," Emma aims at adults, prompting thoughts on youth and intellectual immaturity. These promptings Clueless cheerfully repeats.

It comes down to the personality of Cher, or Emma -- a crafty socialite with no knowledge of anything remunerative or important. Memorable scenes of Clueless show Cher faking her way through homework assignments and then haggling with her teachers for grades, just as Austen's Emma maintains a handsomely penned list of books she'll never read and a stack of half-attempted portraits. Still, Cher remains popular -- more popular than she'd ever be if she did her homework. Moral? Witness the social advantages of ignorance. Forget clichés like "Know thyself" and "Knowledge is power." It's good to be clueless. People like you more that way. A famous passage from Emma (book 2, chapter 13) sums it up: "'There is no charm equal to tenderness of heart,' said she [Emma] afterwards to herself. 'There is nothing to be compared to it. Warmth and tenderness of heart, with an affectionate, open manner, will beat all the clearness of head in the world, for attraction..." Provided, of course, you're filthy rich.

This easygoing anti-intellectual message must be tantalizing to high-functioning adults who unfortunately have to know something valuable for employment. Apart from the sentimental effect of the notion, probably true, that emotion is more endearing than wisdom, the Cher/Emma character upsets received ideas about the worth of knowledge. It's not quite that ignorance is bliss. That knowledge (of things traditionally held good to know) can materially hurt more than help is a beautiful fantasy and something of a deep thought. In special conditions, ignorance confers greater survival value than knowledge. Like knowing stuff kills your street cred.

And the fantasy goes on. You might not suffer injury from unawareness of that state of affairs either. You might profitably be ignorant of the extent of your ignorance. At the start of Clueless Cher brags about her fine taste in men: she hates high school boys, adores college freshmen like Elton (the film's analog of Austen's Mr. Elton), and, above all, is sure she knows what she wants. Not until the end does Cher receive the sweet epiphany of cluelessness. Thank Jane Austen for this theme of self-delusion: Emma too was "imposing on herself" -- imposition here in the sense of introducing something supposititious -- and subject to "delusion" that made her "ignorant of her own heart" (book 3, chapter 11). Yet until the end, Cher/Emma hardly hurts from the self-deception. If anything, her false self-assurance carries her brilliantly through.

Clueless starts like a Noxzema commercial and ends with a proposition much more than skin deep. To me the fascination of the girl in the yellow plaid lies in this inheritance from Emma: the unexpected, faintly giddy idea that ignorance is superior to knowledge except when picking a spouse. Shame it can't be true for everyone. Unless you're young, clever, handsome, and rich, it's a mistake to aspire to epistemic insouciance. Futile too.

2015 marks twenty years of Clueless and 200 years of Emma. Long after the novelty of Alicia fetchingly crying "As if!" wears off, the allure of the thoughts behind the heroine lingers.

As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast and the Crew by Jen Chaney
Touchstone
ISBN: 978-1476799087
336 pages