‘Clueless’ turns 20: Watch an 18-year-old Alicia Silverstone describe Cher in 1995

17 Jul 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

20 Life Lessons We Learned from Clueless, 20 Years Later.

In 1994, writer and director Amy Heckerling set out to make a modern-day version of Jane Austen’s Emma that reflected, commented on, and even gently poked fun at Beverly Hills-based teenhood.In an early scene in “Clueless,” a close-up reveals the sagging waistbands of a pack of young, SoCal teens, all loping to class in the signature Generation X uniform of baggy jeans, exposed boxer shorts and wallet chains as World Party’s cover of Mott the Hoople’s “All the Young Dudes” blares on the soundtrack. The movie championed young female characters who were simply trying to figure things out while dodging “Barneys,” “fashion victims” and “full-on Monets.” But UCLA slang aside, these women were smart, interesting and compelling to watch.

Then Cher Horowitz’s (Alicia Silverstone) chipper, California Girl uptalk—surely the vocal fry of the 1990s—cuts through the straining authenticity practiced by the pack: “So OK, I don’t want to be a traitor to my generation and all? Has it really been two decades since I fell in love with Alicia Silverstone’s whip-smart, puddle-deep Cher Horowitz on a sweltering July night at a Vermont megaplex? But Clueless, which opened in theaters 20 years ago this week, is a story about realizing you have growing up to do, even if you’re the most put-together girl in school.

Even though the hilarious Jane Austen adaption will be 20 years old as of this weekend, it’s arguably gaining popularity with today’s teenaged fans faster than at any time since back in 1995. Over the years, I’ve rewatched Amy Heckerling’s Beverly Hills reimagining of Jane Austen’s Emma — first on VHS, then on DVD and most recently on Netflix. Despite exterior appearances, there’s a lot in the film that real-life teenagers could relate to – and there still is, even two decades later. 5. ” ‘Tis a far, far better thing to do stuff for other people,” even if that altruism means giving a makeover to the girl sporting a Troll T-shirt and a Kool-Aid dye job. 14. When you’re a high school virgin – er, that is, “hymenally challenged” – there’s a difference between being a prude and waiting for the right guy.

But unlike its successors — “Cruel Intentions,” “She’s All That,” “Mean Girls,” even “A Cinderella Story” — the plot of “Clueless” does not focus on evil, popular girls tearing each other down in order to get the guy. And while the film’s strong aesthetic and witty screenwriting remain key factors in its success, Clueless resonates with today’s young fans for another reason: It represents a beloved genre that’s all but disappeared.

This timelessness prompted entertainment journalist Jen Chaney to write As If!, billed as The Oral History of ‘Clueless’ as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew. Boomers, the logic goes, got all the good jobs and prime real estate, while Gen Y (aka, “the Millennials”) got a renewed sense of earnestness, enthusiasm, and optimism.

Hollywood today has no shortage of movies for teenagers and about teenagers – indeed, we’re living in a golden age of American teen dramas, whether they’re indie love stories that evoke John Hughes or blockbuster action franchises. There are times when the unvarnished truth is just the most brutal thing you can tell someone. (But as long as you’re being way harsh, that raised eyebrow at the end makes the burn hurt all the worse.)

X marks the spot in between—those pissed off at baby-boomers for their narcissistic entitlement and pissed off at the Millennials for not being more pissed off.” Modeled by practitioners of authenticity like Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur and Liz Phair, and writ large on-screen in films like “Slacker” (1991), “Menace II Society” (1993) and “Natural Born Killers” (1994), Gen X preached the gospel of flannel and grunge, of fuck the police and fuck and run, and here we are now, entertain us. Her vivid scene-by-scene recaps, insider analyses of casting decisions and meticulous wardrobe rundowns will bring you back to your own (possibly less stylish) youth. In “Clueless,” the Xer is, of course, represented by Josh (Paul Rudd), a naysaying, overly cerebral college student who is too busy mooching off of his ex-stepfather’s well-stocked kitchen to rage against the machine. Chaney, a former staff writer for the Washington Post, checked in with key players (Heckerling, Silverstone, Paul Rudd, costume designer Mona May, casting director Marcia Ross) as well as an impressive array of artists and experts whose work has been touched by the Clueless legacy.

In 1995, characters like Cher, Dionne and Tai were relative anomalies – especially as they made mistakes and then learned from them to become better friends. Sure, Josh sits around the Horowitz mansion in his sad plaids and Amnesty International T-shirts, complaining about Cher’s narcissism and consumerism and listening to Radiohead. The last great teen movie in this vein was 2004’s Mean Girls, which ate up several decades’ worth of on-screen teen girl cattiness (from Heathers to Carrie to Valley Girl and more) and spit it back up into a smart, satirical pulp.

From Jane Austen scholars to Coolio to Lena Dunham and the Fug Girls, these perspectives shed new light on a movie that paved the way for Legally Blonde and a bevy of other films about shopaholic young women with hidden reserves of grit. Based on the pop-sociology bestseller Queen Bees and Wannabes, the movie – while undeniably funny and irreverent in all the right places – ended up delivering a fairly serious message on girl-hate and bullying.

We learn about the careful crafting of the language, inspired by slang dictionaries, rap lyrics and the teen lexicon; the special effects used to create the movie’s golden lighting despite record rainfalls during filming; and the many actors who were passed over for key parts. (Angelina Jolie as Cher Horowitz? Films like Now and Then and The Baby-Sitters Club championed friendship, sisterhood and forgiveness, sure, but not in a high-school setting, and certainly not when dealing with sex or drugs. As Laura Cohen wrote in a 2014 article for Marie Claire, “To value hair, makeup, and clothing isn’t disempowering, but actually very third wave — they own their interests and don’t feel shame for expressing that.” But Really Important Alaia dress aside, the movie is centered around Cher finding herself — becoming un-clueless, if you will — through her friendships.

Many of the most popular teen comedies that have followed, from Easy A to 21 Jump Street, have similarly tended to parse sexual stigmas, drug abuse and more with a meta, tongue-in-cheek tone. Hard to imagine, but her name was in the mix.) We’re reminded that many of Heckerling’s laugh-worthy moments have become part of life as we know it today. After all, Clueless’s meanest moment is Tai’s assertion that Cher is a “virgin who can’t drive,” which is a moment on par with Molly Ringwald’s Breakfast Club character being forced to admit that she’d never had sex. Is that a nod to the crispy Seattle weather or are you just trying to stay warm in front of the refrigerator?” Indeed, “Clueless” drew a line in the generational sand in the summer of 1995, marking a key transition in the way fictional youth engaged with their world; the moment youth characters went from representing Gen X—a generation of disenfranchisement and slack—to representing the generation we’ve come to know as the millennials, who are associated with hope and action.

It’s the type of painful coming-of-age moment that we’d lost for a while after the John Hughes machine stopped churning, and realized we still needed. Sure, “Clueless” addresses typical teen fare like divorce, drug abuse, premarital sex, cliques and dating, but the bright bubblegum colors of the mise en scene, the peppy soundtrack and Silverstone’s infectiously happy performance offered an antidote to the cynicism our generation was told it must embrace to be “authentic.” If anything, the film pokes fun at the idea of the “slacker” and embraces earnestness and positivity. As someone (one month) older, Cher gives Tai advice about everything from how to look cool at a party to how often it’s acceptable to smoke a doobie (sporadically). Generational thinking—that is, explaining the behaviors and consumption habits of large chunks of a population based on when they were born–is not all that useful, as Rebecca Onion explains: “Overly schematised and ridiculously reductive, generation theory is a simplistic way of thinking about the relationship between individuals, society, and history. Considering 2015 is part of a decade defined by cultural nostalgia, the minutiae of Clueless only adds to its watchability, and either endears younger audiences to it (“Aw, those cellphones are adorable”) or inspires them to interpret 20-year-old trends in new ways.

It encourages us to focus on vague ‘generational personalities’, rather than looking at the confusing diversity of social life.” However, generational thinking can function quite well when we look not at the way real generations of individuals behave in the real world, but at how fictional generations behave in the fictional world of the movies. In other words, although real-life 1990s teenagers displayed a range of preferences and behaviors and attitudes, their filmic counterparts were far more homogenous; popular culture told Generation X that they were slackers and thugs, spectators and hecklers, misanthropists and depressives. You can understand why she relies so heavily on the perspectives of the creators of the film — they’re the experts, after all — but her take is so fresh and entertaining that it would have been nice to hear more from her directly. And whether it was the middle-class bubble depicted in “Reality Bites” (1994) or the inflated sense of urban danger presented in “Boyz N the Hood” (1991), Generation X was obsessed with the concept of authenticity, or not selling out.

It had classic archetypes in the push and pull of a romance between different social circles (Cher and Josh), and the misfit who’s so enchanted by a social circle she pretends to be something she’s not (Tai). Sure, was it was rooted in stereotypical, air-headed portrayals of blonde, shopaholic teenagers, but it was also deeply concerned with timeless girl-world concerns: virginity, relationships, friendship, trying to wrestle with a world that thinks you’re no more than an idiot.

Cher, like Emma Woodhouse before her, does fall in love — but she is only able to do so after her friendships are in order and she’s given her skis to the Pismo Beach disaster relief. Today, those topics are often either secondary sidebars to drama-filled plots in films starring young women (see The Hunger Games and Divergent) or ignored entirely in films that hone in on male leads.

In a Dissolve article comparing “Clueless” to Emma, writer Tasha Robinson explains how Cher and Emma are largely products of their habitats, navigating realities they face in those environments. “Where Austen satirizes the stiff and meaningless forms of her society, Heckerling snickers at teenagers’ self-absorption, self-righteousness, and cluelessness,” writes Robinson. “But both creators are still kind to their creations: Their trials are small, their comeuppances are minor, and they both end in happy places. Films like Boyhood, The Perks of Being A Wallflower, The Spectacular Now, The Kings of Summer, Palo Alto and the forthcoming Paper Towns are nuanced depictions of young masculinity that largely skip tired tropes – but they’re no replacement for Clueless. From start to finish, we watch them grow, change, fail and learn to do better – all while debating cameos at the Val party, or whether to lie down on the pavement during a robbery at gunpoint. Before burying his brother, Doughboy (Ice Cube) concludes, “Shit just goes on and on, you know.” A similar skepticism of capitalism and the American Dream can also be found in the previous decade’s generational, coming-of-age films. In 1980s teen pics like “Better Off Dead” (1985), ”Pretty in Pink” (1986) and “Some Kind of Wonderful” (1987), the wealthy were not to be trusted.

The bright world of films where the biggest problems were facing your school bully, trying to get your parents to remember your birthday, and kissing your crush seemed to collapse after the film’s 1995 release. The late Nineties saw a darker wave of the ensemble teen genre, including Kids, Romeo + Juliet, Election and Cruel Intentions, along with a slew of horror and thriller films like Scream, Jawbreaker and I Know What You Did Last Summer.

Acceptance and celebration of each other’s choices — who to date, who to bone, which immigration laws to support (if the government could just rearrange some stuff in the kitchen…) — are key to healthy relationships. The rich could only be redeemed through contact with the authentically poor or middle class, hardworking teens like Ronald Miller (Patrick Dempsey),who learn the hard way that money “Can’t Buy Me Love” (1987). Then it was off to the 2000s, a land of Moldy Peaches-soundtracked teen pregnancies, heart-warming traveling pants, and Gus Van Sant-directed school-shootings. Her solution to Haitian refugees is the correct one—make do with less to accommodate more—but lacks an understanding of the complex social, political and economic factors required to solve the issue. Cher’s fabulous wardrobe, impossible for anyone but the wealthiest of Americans to afford, highlights her high social status and Beverly Hills area code.

Two decades after Clueless was made, it seems there’s still a powerful appeal for teens in a fluffy, style-over-substance treat – especially one that’s a little smarter than Rich Kids of Instagram. 2015 may not bring everything that Back to the Future II promised it would: flying cars, self-lacing shoes, we don’t see ’em happening over the next 12 months. (Then again, don’t bet against Nike.) But this year will definitely pack plenty of punch when it comes to cultural happenings. Mad Max will roar back out of the apocalypse while Mad Men rides off into the sunset, rock’s Antichrist Superstar and hip-hop’s Yeezus will rise again.

Similarly, Travis (Breckin Myer) only becomes a suitable boyfriend for Tai after donating his bong to charity and finding a way to monetize his skateboarding skills. As Cher helpfully explains, “It is one thing to spark up a doobie and get laced at parties, but it is quite another to be fried all day.” Thus, “Clueless” argues that money—or being within the orbit of the kindly altruistic rich–can truly solve all of our problems. In addition to its relentless optimism and faith in American capitalism, “Clueless” also illustrated the fantasy of diversity my peers and I had been raised on—a blindcasted vision of teen unity in which white, black, gay, straight, rich and poor can help each other through their exposure to difference. In the 1990s, fictional white young adults were searching for meaningful employment or pondering the universe in “Singles” (1992) while black young adults were getting shot at or locked up in movies like “Juice” (1992). In Cher’s blazing orbit skateboarding stoners get their lives on track, nerdy teachers find their soul mates, and grades are, to quote Cher, “just a jumping off point to start negotiations.” The future is no longer doomed and hopeless but bright and malleable.

Cher, with her bright yellow knee socks and can-do attitude told Gen X our generation and its malaise was officially out of touch and irrelevant and, in true Xer style, we sat back and watched to see what would happen.

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