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1995. Written and Directed by Amy Heckerling. With Alicia Silverstone, Paul Rudd, Brittany Murphy, Wallace Shawn

Imagine Clueless set not in Beverly Hills but in Scarsdale, Grosse Point, Sandy Springs, Highland Park, or some other enclave of affluence and consumerism. You could still have the rich kids, the malls, the jeeps, the litigator father, the Hispanic maid, etc. But a whole level of self-satire would be lost. Although no character in Clueless has any direct connection with the entertainment industry, the movie is thoroughly of, by and about LA.

LA is, of course, not just a place but a state of mind. Beverly Hills in particular represents the farthest-out edge of American fads, fashions, and ostentatious superficiality (remember George Axelrod's Lord Love a Duck, in which Tuesday Weld plays an L.A. teenager obsessed with cashmere sweaters?). But Clueless transcends the usual dissection of Beverly Hills culture by acknowledging that a movie about the LA scene is by its very nature self-referential, like a baseball game in Cooperstown, a country music song about Nashville, or a painting of the galleries of the Louvre. Clueless cheerfully examines Southern California culture by making itself a prime example of what it's talking about.

The kids in Clueless live such media-obsessed lives that everything about them eems derivative. They wear costumes instead of clothes. They communicate via quotations from movies ("Nice stems") and TV (Honey, you baked!"). Their solution to all problems is The Makeover. The dreamboat guy, Christian, reveals his gayness not through any human interaction, but through his taste in music and videos. Someone tries on a leather jacket and asks, "Is it James Dean or Jason Priestley?" Only marginally more than the rest of us, Cher's crowd imitates, quotes and recycles decades of pop culture. Living in LA, they're closer to the epicenter.

The movie itself adopts this attitude, with lots of quotation marks of its own. Amy Heckerling has carefully observed and wittily reproduced the camera movements, editing techniques, and scoring conventions of countless older movies. They work in themselves, and they also function ironically. For example, Christian is introduced with a hilarious Golden-Age-of Hollywood closeup, complete with lush violin music. And there's the requisite change-of-heart scene where the heroine wanders contemplatively through multiple locations and multiple dissolves while a pop song on the sound track mirrors her dilemma (Cher does her wandering holding a shopping bag). Clueless provides the perfect frame for its wannabe characters.

One of the movie's amusing tactics is its blatant product placement. Clueless participates in this game and comments on it at the same time. It's so full of products featured so crassly that the critique (I wish there were a less pompous word) of commercialism is unavoidable. The camera lingers on a closeup of a candy bar while Cher screeches, "Oooo--Snickers!" In the cafeteria scene, Coke cans and Minute Maid juice boxes are practically shoved into our faces. When a Mentos commercial appears on a TV, Heckerling doesn't try to pass it off as background atmosphere; she has her characters stop and sing along. If movies today have turned themselves into advertising vehicles, what better example of Heckerling's take on modern culture? The subject and the method of Clueless are of a piece.

Working on multiple levels, Clueless succeeds as satire. While it's very broad, it doesn't stoop to cheap shots. Heckerling, an LA insider herself, knows that she means well, and assumes that her characters do too. She redeems the LA scene by using it as a backdrop against which Cher's energy, sweetness, and rock-solid integrity stand out in high relief.



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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein