Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Janespotting: Clueless

So about the same time the Austen film renaissance began in the mid-1990s appeared this teenage comedy from writer-director Amy Heckerling, starring Alicia Silverstone as a privileged California teen. Not all reviews acknowledged it (and it wasn't in the credits), but Heckerling freely admitted she stole liberally from the plot of Emma for her film. Standing in place of Emma is Cher: a pampered rich girl who is queen of her high school but is not interested in high school boys, whom she considers "dogs." She skates along on charm, wrapping her daddy around her finger, and when she can't get her cranky debate teacher to change her grade, she tries to fix him up with history teacher. With a little makeover from Cher, the ruse works, cheering her teacher and boosting her grade. Looking on with disapproval—and standing in for Mr. Knightley—is Cher's stepbrother Josh, a college student she calls "granola breath" who is always chastising her for her shallow selfishness.

Feeling cheered by her good deed in matching her teachers, Cher adopts the new girl/Harriet Smith-analog Tai, who is kinda grungy and attracted to a slacker student. Cher and her best friend make Tai over, then try  to set her up with classmate Elton, who admires a picture of Tai Cher has taken. As in the original, Elton is admiring the artist, not the subject, and when the three go to a party he engineers giving Cher a ride home, makes a move on her, then shows he is too snobby to be interested in Tai. After Cher ditches him, she gets robbed and has Josh come rescue her. Cher shows she has a bit of a brain by correcting Josh's obnoxious girlfriend, who is misquoting Hamlet.

The Frank Churchill role is filled by a new boy at school named Christian. He has a rat pack vibe and Cher is  interested in a date although it's clear to the audience he is gay. (This neatly avoids too many characters by cancelling the need for a Jane Fairfax analog.) They take Tai to a party with Josh's friends, where Josh dances with Tai because she looks lonely. Tai is rescued again while shopping with Cher, when Christian rescues her from some pranking boys. Tai's story makes her popular, to Cher's detriment, and things go downhill as Josh criticizes her again and she flunks her driving test.

Making things worse is Tai's request that Cher help her charm Josh, when Cher thought she wanted Christian. Being no demure Harriet, Tai calls Cher "a virgin who can't drive" when Cher hesitates and the two quarrel. Just as Emma suddenly discovered her feelings for Mr. Knightley, Cher has a sudden realization she wants to be with Josh. She doesn't know how to act around him, so she undertakes a "makeover for the soul" by organizing disaster relief. She also makes up with Tai and encourages her to pursue the slacker boy. The denouement travels far from Austen, as there's no question of Josh's Knightley-analog being in love with someone else. With all the bickering between the two, however, it's not clear he knows his own feelings, so instead Heckerling shows the two working on research for her dad's court case. When another lawyer chides Cher for screwing up, Josh comforts her and they confess their feelings—and we have a cute rom-com ending.

Although "Clueless" is built on the skeleton of Austen's plot for Emma, it's totally a typical teen comedy of the time. There is partying and drinking, an emphasis on brand names and fashion (even satirically so), and practically invisible adults. And yet, the dialogue is a cut above what you might expect from a teen comedy, with lots of big words; one character even comments, "Wow, you guys talk like grownups." The reply: "Well, this is a really good school."

As a teen comedy Clueless is fun—especially with Silverstone's charming portrayal of Cher—and maybe a little deeper than the usual raunchy teen flick. As an Austen adaptation, it's an interesting curiosity, showing how many of Austen's themes and even character types are timeless.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Photo of the Week--6/13/11

Now that's what I call a castle--hewn into the very living rock of the Welsh countryside. Caerphilly is the largest castle in Wales and the second largest in Britain (after Windsor Castle, the queen is number one in everything). It was built in the 13th century and has everything you look for in a castle: a huge moat, tall towers, and a little bit of ruins to give it character. I'd certainly rather be defending it than assaulting it, that's for sure.