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With a Bow


I have to give her snaps for her courageous fashion efforts.

In 1995, an indignant sophomore struts down a hallway clutching a Clinton era-sized cell phone to her ear. Her best friend also storms past lockers, mewling equally distraught complaints in her phone. Then suddenly, like paired butterfly wings coming together in flight, the two girls meet, snap shut their cell phones and resume their conversational swagger. Each half of the pair is festooned in plaid mini-skirts, coordinated jackets, and jaunty woolen sweater vests. They walk in unison, but just for a moment. As they part, one intones the reassuring best friend refrain: “Call me.”

This is the moment that Clueless becomes Clueless. In this scene, the movie confirms its position as a stylized beacon of perfection and order. When Cher meets her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash), their rendezvous is perfectly synchronized. Clueless was a restoration of order to the teen comedy after 1988’s awesomely nihilistic Heathers tried to poison any sense of rhyme or reason from the genre.

Skipping into the 1990s with a plot ripped from Jane Austen's Emma, Amy Heckerling’s rendition brought an inventiveness of language and clothing that firmly landed Clueless as a cultural touchstone.  In a moment when the other zeitgeist films waded through angst-ridden waters (1994’s Reality Bites, 1995’s Before Sunrise, 1996’s Trainspotting), Clueless confirmed its adherence to neatness and coordination through its language and costume.

The tied-with-a-bow perfection of Clueless is perhaps what gives its latest revival such a distasteful vibe. In Vamps, out last month, director and writer Amy Heckerling has cast Alicia Silverstone as a girly vampire, the high-school debate teacher from Clueless as her arch-nemesis, and recruited Clueless’s costume designer Mona May for her signature outrageous wardrobe. Though this does not a sequel make, that’s the connection that team Heckerling is pushing, most notably in a Clueless reunion spread last month.

In the upcoming movie, Silverstone’s character, Goody, spends her days focusing on getting a date with a cute boy and bonding with her best friend - the priorities of Cher, a character that has proven a bit of a one-hit wonder for the actress, who seems exceptionally connected with the part. (Not that I buy this, but it was rumored that Silverstone was the one to pronounce Haitians like a San Francisco refugee group, 'Haight-ians,' which does prove some art/life overlap.) Almost fifteen years is certainly a moment for some nostalgia, but not a listless comeback.

Yes, there was a Clueless television show, but that just came across as serialized nonsense caught in the hype, rather than the trickier nostalgia revival or an attempt to recall something that was sort of perfect. It’s also unduly ironic and upsetting that this is a revival using the ‘undead’ as its characters, which itself is a trope that has been declared DOA for the past half-decade. It’s a crutch in the form of pointed canines. But let’s not dwell on the teeth.

Clueless is not really layered, or if it is, it is in the manner of one of Cher's outfits: well-matched, carefully coordinated effort over something with a lively, effortlessly hip life of its own. Below the lip-gloss, there is something to the movie. It’s got substantive appraisal of forgiveness, the glee in youthful hubris, the resilience of friendship, the humor and heartbreak in misconstrued romance, and in true Austen fashion – the comfort of having everything in the right place.

Of all the movies in existence, Clueless has the strongest sense of irrepressible happiness in its hipness. It has a joy that comes from being completely part of its own moment. The following is most likely an instance of movie mythology, but when asked about how the film should look, sound, and seem by various members of the crew, Amy Heckerling replied: “happy.” This is so nice to hear, so awesomely simple and earnest and 90s.

After the dark, crude, or caustic vibe of many teen comedies, this was a momentary restoration of the happy-go-lucky.  The resolution of the film is proof perfect of this - a slightly undercut “marriage plot.”  Cher and her best friend devoted much of their extra-curricular activities to matchmaking two of their teachers, who wed in the final scene of the film. In this finale, each of the main characters is paired with his or her match and the stakes of the scene are who might catch the bouquet.  Other equivalent girl-centric and zeitgeisty high school movies like Juno or Mean Girls resolve sweetly but not perfectly. Not everything neatly falls into place, not every left shoe is paired with its right.

But in Clueless everything matches. When everything matches things get tacky fast, but also it’s also remarkably soothing. There is something deeply simplistic (see 2000) in those complicated outfits. Cher and Dionne always coordinated in a way that didn’t seem like planning, but rather intuitive mirroring. It suggested a neat authenticity to their relationship. Cher’s clothing, from the plaid regalia in the first scene, to a vampy red number she dons for a party in the Valley, matches from head to toe.

The solidest example of Clueless's impeccable perfection is almost ineffable: the idyllic match between the film and its star. Alicia Silverstone, with her sleek blonde hair, annoyed pout, crisply warm enunciation, is an ideally 1990s combination of sass and earnestness. Other similarly manicured teen films fall short - most notably 2000's Bring It On and 2010's Easy A. Though choreography and neatly matching uniforms helped out Bring It On’s attempt at a perfectly synchronized world, Kirsten Dunst had a little too much bitterness behind her smirk. With Easy A, Emma Stone had an endearingly Cher-like aura, but she outshone the subject matter and rest of the cast by being the most winsome person ever. The realm of the perfect is avoided by most lauded high-school movies. They are sprawling and messy, à la American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused, perhaps in order to capture a little more realism.

Realism is not Clueless’s aesthetic. The language in Clueless parades through the film like the coordinated clothing. It’s snappy-sassy, goofy, irreverent, peppy and colorful. It’s certainly of the moment, but it’s also outside from time in an absurd way: did anyone ever say: “as if” or put up their fingers in a  ‘W’ drawing out the middle of “whatever”? This invention of language is a staple of the teen film, even though real-world applications frequently relegate it to quoting the film, rather than cooping it, something meta-acknowledged in Mean Girls with “fetch.” It can never quite be dated, because its exaggeration makes it timeless.

In this timelessness, Clueless accessed the removed world of the American teenager. It is not necessarily dated to the 90s, but to a time idealized by 15-year-olds. The characters are full of pretense of wanting to be older and taken seriously, while also resisting understanding from anyone outside of their generation. Right before her DMV test to acquire a driver’s license that will give her the freedom of an adult, she looks for the image of adulthood: her “most capable looking outfit” thinking this might persuade others of her maturity. When Cher throws her clothes around on her bedroom floor, it’s less Gatsby-style materialism, more honest toddler. So, while the film is certainly a roman a clef of sort, it keeps its characters in a make-believe world outside of consequences. Cher never gets her license, avoiding that responsibility. Unlike in Emma, the film doesn’t end in the commitment of marriage for the main character but rather a happy realm of possibility. The simple perfection achieved by the film is matched to a youthful hubris that everything can be perfectly coordinated and matched. It ends with blissful frivolity.

You’re probably going like, is this a Noxzema commercial or what?

In 1995, a young woman wakes up and pads across her bedroom to sit fresh-faced, in front of her Clinton era-sized desktop computer. Bright images flash across the screen, skirts sashaying across the bottom and tops, blouses across the top. After browsing for a couple minutes and making a few misguided matches, she selects an ensemble that would dress her from head to toe in coordinated perfection. She smiles slightly and nods. A union of perfect happiness.

Maggie Lange is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She is a writer living in New York. You can find her website here and her twitter here.

"Sister" - Joshua James (mp3)

"Wolves" - Joshua James (mp3)

The new album from Joshua James is entitled From the Top of Willamette Mountain, and it was released on November 6th.

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Reader Comments (2)

fantastic stuff Maggie
November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeball
Dionne is Stacey Dash.
November 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAllie

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