Sunday, 23 March 2008

On Austen's Clues

Clueless, the 1995 Alicia Silverstone fluff-fest, was based on Jane Austen’s Emma; surprising, but apt you must allow. I never cease to enjoy the expression that comes over people’s faces when I share this piece of trivia, whether they be lit-buffs/Austen fans or just plain Clueless haters.

Let me first note that there has been a long tradition since Clueless for fluffing down various canonical works into teen-aimed flicks, which may or may not have been sparked off by the movie. Most people do not know that Clueless is based on a Jane Austen novel, and it was never marketed that way, not is it ever mentioned. That Ten Things I Hate About You is a version of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew is better known. Less witty modernizations of canonical works are even more publicized, like the dreadful She’s the Man starring Amanda Byrnes, a lamentably predictable excuse for Twelfth Night. Clueless may not be as witty as Ten Things or even as stylish as Cruel Intentions, but I think it certainly shares more with Emma than any of the ones I’ve mentioned, and that sheds some interesting light on the work of Miss Austen, particularly as the relationship between Clueless and Emma is so seldom thought of.

Cher Horowitz is the ostensible contemporary take on Emma Woodhouse, in characterization if not social location; after all modern day Beverly Hills is hardly the most pleasing equivalent for the classes Austen wrote about, who though wealthy and privileged (and not always that) were not really glamorous. Both heroines are blessed with good looks, affluence and social superiority, and marked with the same flaws, although Cher’s vanity and self-regard is less advertised than Emma’s. Both fancy themselves as instrumental in the matchmaking of a teaching figure (Miss Geist in Clueless, Miss Taylor in Emma) with someone else, which inspires an ostensibly well-intentioned pageant of good deeds (and I do mean pageant) which inevitably go wrong. Both have to learn that the inherent flaw in their good deeds is the vanity which underlies them all, and that they are not as socially competent as they had thought themselves (in a word, clueless). Both end up with the one person who is able to criticise them (Josh in Clueless, Mr Knightley in Emma), symbolizing their arrival at humility and self-knowledge.

Why then, is Clueless such a fluff-fest, and Emma a canonical work? What stopped the many that don’t and didn’t know where the plot blueprint for Clueless came from, from applauding the movie the way many received Austen’s works and still do? Is the dressing up really that important? Surely if one has profound significance then the other should too?

I suppose the answer in part does have much to do with the dressing, or the fluffing down. Jane Austen was praised not only for her use of irony and wit but also for her keen observation of a society that she represented very well, all of which in Clueless is naturally dismissed. Consequently the meticulous representation of the manners, propriety, hypocrisies and virtues of a small slice of human experience have been largely sacrificed.

Jane Austen was, fundamentally, a realist writer, and Clueless, for all its amusing translation into contemporary fluff, is a fantasy world. It is not the sort of fantasy that this blog celebrates, but the kind which ultimately yields little more than spectacle and decadent self-indulgence. In doing so, it really makes fun of itself, representing its trivia as exactly that: trivia. Because no matter how polished or trend-setting Clueless was, or how great Alicia Silverstone looked in it, we are meant to laugh at Cher, and never for a moment take her or her trivia seriously. It is ironic, but not the way Austen was ironic. Emma, on the other hand, though every bit as vain and self-indulgent as Cher, is somehow a heroine whose redemption we do take seriously, whose trivia, it seems, we do take seriously.

Why is this? Perhaps the crucial difference between Clueless and Emma is that Emma's [social] cluelessness was never the primary flaw, but her lack of respect for a complex system of conventions meant to serve courtesy and honour, as a result of arrogant dismissiveness. And curiously, in its very irony, Clueless replicates this flaw, by mocking the trivia which emerges with such skill in Austen's novels as anything but. Because if Austen's novels teach us anything, it is that playing justly by society's rules is never trivial if it serves their original purpose to sustain virtue and express compassion.