Clueless: transforming Jane Austen's Emma

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Clueless: transforming Jane Austen's Emma.(Film As Text)

Mills, Jane. "Clueless: transforming Jane Austen's Emma." Australian Screen Education 34 (2004): 100+. Expanded Academic ASAP. Web. 6 Jan. 2011.

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Full Text:COPYRIGHT 2004 Australian Teachers of Media

NSW HSC Advanced English

Module A: Comparative Study of Texts and Context

Elective 1: Transformations

Students choose a pair of texts and consider the ways in which transformations generate reflections on the texts, contexts, and the ways in which texts can be transformed.

Emma (written by Jane Austen, 1816) and Clueless (Amy Heckerling, 1995)

Emma and Cher: similar but different

In the first two scenes of Amy Heckerling's Clueless we discover a lot about what makes its heroine tick. We learn that Chef is a gorgeous, wealthy, American teenager who obsesses about clothes, style and looks. She lives in luxury, in a wealthy part of a large urban sprawl with her adored and adoring Daddy, whom she twists round her little finger and fusses over like a little wife. The absence of a mother could suggest that Cher's parents are divorced, however as nothing seems to give Cher any pain, apart, perhaps, from the thought of colour-uncoordinated clothes, we can probably conclude that her mother died too long ago to affect Cher's sunny outlook. The only downside to her character is that she's obviously a control freak, revels in being an airhead, and is only clever when it comes to getting her own way.

The first few paragraphs of Jane Austen's novel, Emma, reveal most of the key facts about its heroine. She is 'handsome, clever, rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition', and so far has experienced 'very little to distress or vex her'; not even, apparently, her mother's death. Emma's mother had died 'too long ago for [Emma] to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses'. Her father is wealthy and they live together in the most impressive house in a 'large and populous village' where they 'were first in consequence ... All looked up to them'. It is small wonder her father can afford to be 'a most affectionate, indulgent father' who encourages Emma to fuss around him and be the 'mistress of his house'. If there is the slightest cloud on the horizon it is that '[t]he real evils indeed of Emma's situation were the power of having rather too much her own way, and a disposition to think a little too well of herself ...'

Following the clues

Strangely, we feel inclined to like both these over-indulged, spoiled brats. In Clueless, is this because we get the strong suspicion that the film is sending up Cher (Alicia Silverstone)--and perhaps us too? Cher is clearly unaware of having any failings whatsoever, but, from the moment we first hear her ironic voice-over at the start of the second scene--'So OK, you're probably thinking, "Is this is a Noxema commercial, or what?!"'--we realize that it's going to be left to us, the audience, to follow the carefully placed clues to find out what really makes Cher, and the film, tick.

Likewise, with Emma. There is a strong suspicion that we're going to get more than just a story about an empty-headed, vain young woman and, almost despite ourselves, that we're going to care about Emma. Perhaps it's because we realize, from the moment she makes the caustic comments about the failings of her heroine (quoted above), that Jane Austen has dipped her pen in irony and satire.

Irony is notoriously difficult to explain, as it involves saying one thing but meaning the opposite. Cher's very name gives us a clue: in French it means 'dear' or 'expensive', but it is also a term of endearment meaning 'cherished'. There's also irony in the film's title. In the vocabulary of Beverly Hills teenagers in the mid 1990s, the word 'clueless' meant 'uncool, lost, out of touch with what is happening, not belonging'.

So, what is Cher out of touch with, and where or to whom does she belong? Clueless is a very postmodern film about a thoroughly modern Miss who is very much in touch with her needs and desires. But, as we all know, Cher originates in a young English woman called Emma who lived almost two hundred years earlier in an entirely different world, and this definitely affects Cher's characterization.

Clueless picks up on Jane Austen's irony and uses it to reflect upon not only its heroine but upon the whole project of filmmaking itself. The film invites its audience to question the ways that stories are told, and it uses humour to comment upon the teen flick, the genre to which Clueless belongs (and which its director, Amy Heckerling, helped to define in the now classic High School movie, Fast Times at Ridgemont High). Its use of irony and satire and the incorporation of a comedy romance are a couple of the ways in which the film pushes the boundaries of the genre. Jane Austen did much the same thing with her fiction--pushing the boundaries of the novel by daring to focus on the minutiae of female emotional and domestic lives, a topic that had not been thought worthy of the novel before. She then went one step further and, even more daringly, sent her heroines up.

Like and unalike

From the opening pages and scenes of Emma and Clueless, it's clear that the two young women are both worlds apart and also very alike. This is why it is so revealing to analyse them in terms of a comparative study of texts and contexts, and to focus on the topic of 'transformations'. The fact that change and makeover lies at the heart of both narratives is an added bonus because it throws more light on the idea of transformation from another perspective. Emma thinks she can transform people's lives by imposing her tastes and social priorities on those around her. Two hundred years later, Cher does precisely the same thing. As her best friend Dionne (Stacey Dash) perceptively explains, 'Cher's main thrill in life is a makeover, it gives her a sense of control in a world of chaos'.

Listing the similarities and differences between the two texts is the easy part, and there are several web sites that provide lists of comparisons. But most of these web sites miss out on some of the more interesting and less obvious similarities and divergences. And part of the fun of studying these two texts is to find them for your self, and then explain why they exist. Clueless, rather like its heroine, might appear light and frothy at first, but deep down it's very clever in the way it drops clues for us to follow. The film credits its viewers with the intelligence and knowledge to make sense of the links and connections with Emma, as well as with a wide range of other cultural references, including novels, films, plays, TV shows, artists, singers, actors, philosophers and designers. For a film about a young woman who thinks she is the centre of a world beyond which nothing has much significance, it has an amazing number of references that display knowledge about a much larger world than the Beverly Hills district of Los Angeles where Chef lives.

Making sense: from the written word to the moving image

For the power of the pen to work its magic and spark our imagination, we have to be able to read and to understand how a novel makes sense of the author's view of the world. All Jane Austen needed to tell Emma's story, apart from her own talent and skill, was an ability to write words arranged in sentences, paragraphs and chapters, and a publisher and printer to turn her manuscript into a book.

For Clueless to have such an effect, we have to be able to 'read' film language and understand how cinema uses images and sounds to make sense of the filmmakers' view of the world. The medium of film means that writer/director Amy Heckerling needed to work with a large number of creative and skilled collaborators. After writing the screenplay, as director she then coordinated the creative skills of numerous women and men working in production design, cinematography, acting, sound and editing.

In order to describe and analyse how a film tells its story, we need to know the special vocabulary, or jargon, of the moving image to interpret it and explain how it works. The moving image uses a number of basic filmic elements which interpret the narrative (the story) and plot structure (the order in which the story is told). All the visual aspects on the screen are known as mise-en-scene, a French term meaning 'put into the scene' (called 'staging' in the theatre). A scene is usually defined as a number of consecutive shots in a particular time, place or style. Thus the first scene of Clueless is the montage sequence of teenagers driving, shopping, swimming and hanging out together. The second scene starts with Cher in her bedroom and ends with Cher talking to her father (Dan Hedaya) in the kitchen.

All the sounds on the soundtrack (which obviously aren't an aspect of mise-en-scene because they're not visual) are either diegetic or non-diegetic. Diegetic sound is everything that the characters in the movie can hear, such as the conversation between Cher and her father in the kitchen in the second scene. Non-diegetic sound, like the music tracks we can hear in these first two scenes (The Muffs version of 'Kids in America' during the opening montage sequence and David Bowie's 'Fashion' played over images of Chef choosing her clothes) can't be heard by the characters. Non-diegetic sound offers a way for the filmmaker to speak directly to the audience.

Editing hovers on the brink between mise-en-scene and a totally separate element. Editing technique can be highly visual (for example, the dramatic diagonal wipes as a frame is pushed off the screen by another frame with a totally different image in the Star Wars movies). Or, as in Clueless, it can be barely noticeable. Most people think of editing in terms of taking out all the shots that aren't needed or that don't work. In fact, while this is certainly a part of what an editor does, it's more a matter of a highly skilled and creative structuring of the narrative and its plot. A montage such as the opening sequence, for example, is like a mosaic or medley of different shots edited together to convey an impression, idea, mood or feeling rather than carry the narrative along.

Reading the Screen

Mise-en-scene, sound, and the placing of shots next to each other, are all ways in which a film conveys meaning to audiences without using words. Reading the screen more deeply introduces even more ways in which we can learn about the characters and the narrative without a single word being spoken. Reading and analysing film language involves describing what you see and hear, using your knowledge to demonstrate how it was done and, most importantly, explaining why the film text supports your interpretation or analysis. The point is to empower you to demonstrate your understanding of how a film tries to communicate its meaning to viewers and how you, the viewer-analyser, make sense of it.

To show what this means in practice, the next part of this essay goes through each of the basic elements of a film (see the chart at the end of the essay) and applies this form of analysis to the first two scenes. It's worth remembering that everything you see and hear in a film is there because someone has made a creative decision to put it there. (The same thing happens in writing a novel--each word has been chosen by the author because it is right for what he/she wants to communicate to the reader.)

1. Production Design

Setting: Production Designer, Steven Jordan's films include, Rookie of the year, Home Alone 2, The Brady Bunch Movie. The exterior settings in the montage sequence tell us that this is a warm, sunny place where wealthy Americans live--immediately suggesting Beverly Hills. The spacious interior setting of Cher's bedroom and house tells us that this is a very rich kid.

Props: the above impressions are confirmed by many small details, such as the designer label on the shopping bag, the type of car (an action prop) and, inside the house, the chandelier and a large original painting of a woman. (You might like to think about who the woman in the painting might be.)

Costume: Costume Designer, Mona May's films include 3 Ninjas, National Lampoon's Attack of the 5'2" Women. The wonderful computer program that Cher uses to decide what to wear each day tells us that fashion is a serious business for her--so serious that she uses the very technology that the film's costume designer might use! Cher's father's suit probably tells us that he's a lawyer even before she tells us. The maid's traditional blue uniform and white apron tells us about the extreme wealth of this family and their conservative social values.

2. Cinematography

Camera: Director of Photography, Bill Pope's work as director and cinematographer includes numerous music videos. Since Clueless he has shot all three Matrix films but his camera style for Clueless is very different--it's much more obvious and full of light: just like Cher's character.

Shot: shots taken from different distances from the subject are used to say different things. The close-up of Cher at her mirror, for instance, tells us that this is the owner of the voice-over and that she will doubtless be the central figure in the film. A wider shot of the house quickly establishes the social background and income bracket of its owner.

Movement: in the opening montage sequence the camera constantly swirls around, suggesting that these young people are always on the go, constantly restless. This sequence is shot and edited in the style of a music video suggesting that this is the kids' lifestyle: smart, cool and expensive.

Handhold/fixed: the smoothness of the cinematography, for which a camera technique called 'steadicam' is used to give a fluid movement, gives the impression of slick stylishness that is never out of control; a hand held shot would be bumpy and imply a lack of control--as in The Blair Witch Project.

Lighting/shadow: the bright light everywhere tells us that this film will not give us the mean wet streets of a New York crime movie: they seem to shout 'west coast USA' at us.

3. Acting/performance

Casting: at a first glance, Cher is the stereotypical white Anglo Saxon blonde bimbo. In fact, the Horowitz family is Jewish, making the casting of Alicia Silverstone, who is herself Jewish, highly appropriate. This makes the incompatible (because gay) boy (Justin Walker) she falls for even funnier, as his character's name is Christian. Eighteen-year-old Alicia Silverstone had appeared in several movies (including The Crush and The Babysitter) but was probably best known for her appearances in the music videos of the rock group Aerosmith.

The casting of Stacey Dash, an African American actor, as Cher's best friend, Dionne, provides a comment on the social diversity of Cher's world and makes an interesting comparison with Emma's racially homogenous world in Emma (apart from the Gypsies).

Despite both Cher and Mr Horowitz's claims that they care for others, neither of them takes any notice of Lucy (Aida Linares), their maid. The first time we see her, she shrieks and rushes out of frame entirely, and at the end of this scene she can only be seen poking out from behind the fridge. This obscurity aptly reflects the marginalization of Hispanic peoples in Hollywood movies and in American society as a whole.

4. Sound

The music producer and composer, David Kitay, worked on Amy Heckerling's previous film, Look Who's Talking Too. The non-diegetic pop music reinforces the impression of Cher and her friends as insular and ignorant. The words of the song 'Kids in America', as well as telling us what country the film is set in, suggest that these kids think the USA is the whole world, and that LA is its centre. This becomes a strong theme in the film and can be compared with Emma's view and lack of knowledge about the world beyond the boundaries of her village.

Cher's narrative voice-over, as well as ascribing ownership of the story to her, adds a postmodern touch of irony and reflexivity.

Lucy's shriek as the all-powerful (and scary) Mr Horowitz descends the grand staircase reduces her to an emotional and insignificant person whose presence barely registers a blip on Cher's radar.

The dialogue between Cher and her father, while commenting on the relationship between parents and children, is a parody of a relationship between a husband and wife.

5. Editing: Editor, Debra Chiate edited Amy Heckerling's two previous films, Look Who's Talking and Look Who's talking Too; she was assistant editor on Fast Times at Ridgemont High.

The quick, sharp, short editing during the montage sequence confirms the cinematography--the music video approach to life--and also can be read to imply that these kids have short attention spans.

Comparing and analysing

Armed with the knowledge of screen language, you can now apply this analysis to all/any of the scenes in Clueless. There are some key scenes that will help you analyse the movie and compare what it has to say about the social, political, cultural and historical contexts of Cher's world. You will have your own opinions about what these key scenes are, but the following should prove useful when comparing the two texts:

* The photograph scene. Compare with Emma's painting of Harriet Smith for Mr Elton. What does this say about the technology of representation available in the two periods?

* Compare the scene where Cher gives Tai (Brittany Murphy) a complete makeover with Emma's attempts to 'improve' Harriet Smith. Make-up, keep fit videos and shopping play a big role in twentieth century Beverly Hills life--what is available to Emma in her attempts to change Harriet?

* Watch the first date scene, from the moment where Christian arrives at the house (download the lyrics of the diegetic music from the film musical Gigi, when Cher walks down the stairs as a vision of white, mini-skirted loveliness, to see their significance), to where Cher reveals that she's never heard of the celebrated jazz/blues singer, Billie Holiday. Compare the viewers' growing awareness of Josh's (Paul Rudd) developing attraction to Chef with Mr Knightley's developing attraction to Emma. In both cases the viewer knows about the men's feelings before they do.

* Compare the scene after the valley party, starting at the point where Cher fails to get Tai into Elton's (Jeremy Sisto) car, with the carriage juggling passage in Emma. Why is the viewer/reader not surprised that Elton and Mr Knightly have strong feelings for Cher and Emma?

* Compare the scene where Cher rudely discusses Lucy, the maid from El Salvador, with the Box Hill incident, where Emma cruelly insults Miss Bates. What does the scene say about Cher's knowledge of the world?

* Compare the scene in the mall where a bunch of bullies threaten Tai, with the scene in Emma where the gypsies threaten Harriet Smith. If you were writing the screenplay for this scene and setting it in your local shopping mall, what kind of characterization would you use for the bullies?

* Refer to Cher's failure to lose her virginity with Christian. Compare Christian's flirting with Cher with Frank Churchill's flirting with Emma, and examine the different reasons that Christian and Frank have for not falling for Cher and Emma.

* Look at the final two scenes: (1) Cher and Josh on the stairs and (2) the wedding scene. Compare these with the passage where Emma and Mr Knightley recognize their feelings for one another, and with the wedding at the end of the novel.

Transformation or adaptation?

In the last ten years or so, most of Jane Austen's novels have been adapted for the cinema or television screen. Clueless, however, isn't an 'adaptation' in the sense that we usually describe film and television versions of a novel or a stage play. The aim of most adaptations is to reproduce faithfully the story, its world and characters, and try to keep them as much the same as possible. This usually results in filmic recreations of Jane Austen's novels which reduce the differences between the books and the moving image and which reproduce the same ideas, values and world views of the original text. Most adaptations of Jane Austen's novels show us a representation of a very green and pleasant but totally improbable England--a romanticized version of the past, and of Jane Austen's works.

It may be more appropriate to describe Clueless as a transformation of Emma rather than an adaptation. While the film remains very faithful to the novel in terms of the story and plot, it delights in diverging from it in terms of the period and in a number of the details, both large and small. This is what makes it a challenge to explore whether, and if so, how, ideas, world-views and values have changed between 1816 and 1995.

Jane Austen wrote a nineteenth century comedy of manners and a cautionary tale--one that helped change the way in which novels were written in the western world. Amy Heckerling turned Emma into a late twentieth century teen movie, one that changed the way this particular movie genre was to be made and thought about.

All that's left to be said to anyone studying Clueless and Emma is what the love-befuddled Miss Geist instructs Cher's class:

Have fun!

Further research and analysis

Another reason for finding out the similarities and differences yourself, rather than relying upon the information in various web sites, is that you will get to know the two texts better if you give your own study and research a focus. If you concentrate on the social context, for instance, you'll discover what Jane Austen tells us about Emma's class background in nineteenth century, Christian, rural England, and be able to compare this with what Clueless tells us of Cher's self-made, wealthy Jewish background in late twentieth century Beverly Hills.

Other subjects to focus on when comparing the two texts:

* Masculinity and femininity (Clueless is often described--and dismissed--as a chick flick but, like Emma, it actually says some very provocative things about masculinity)

* Virginity and marriage

* Women and marriage

* Men and marriage

* Girl power

* Boy power

* Power and knowledge, information and gossip

* Power and money

* Power and class

* Social status and wealth Wealth and Charity

* Fashion, style and appearance

* Shopping and self-expression

* The urban and the rural

* The boundaries of the world

* Communications (e.g. cars, horses, walking etc.)

* Information technology (cinema, television, photography)

* The arts: painting, theatre, photography, music, novels, cinema, etc.

* Belonging

* Language of courtship and dating

Some useful references

If you type in the words CLUELESS EMMA in the search box of an Internet search engine (such as or you'll find around ten thousand sites to visit. As it would probably take you longer than the time you have to research every single one of your subjects, do yourself a favour and restrict your search to the few that look as if they'll be the most valuable. Remember, anyone can produce a web site and some web sites invite any/every one to contribute. Like a book or a newspaper article, it doesn't make what you read right or useful just because it's published.

I found the following web sites useful: Go to the Clueless page on this web site of the Internet Movie Data Base for detailed information about the movie, bloopers, reviews, etc. This is the best web site for all movies--also check out Emma, starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Amy Heckerling's other movies, and follow up other leads that you want to pursue such as the 'teen flick' or 'high school' genres, for example. This site has details about many movies and an excellent screen vocabulary. janeinfo/clueless.html There's lots of material about the film including articles by fans to digest and add to. AHR/archive/Issue-August1997stern.html You'll find one of the best academic articles about Clueless and Emma entitled 'Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as a remake of the book and the city' by Lesley Stern on this web site. Hollywood/Hills/5342/ Clueless.htm You'll find an annotated third draft of the script at this web site. It's well worth downloading the script and comparing it, scene by scene, with the final movie.

Some other 'makeover' or transformation texts

--Ovid's Metamorphoses

--Mary Shelley's Frankenstein

--Pygmalion (ancient Greek myth and George Bernard Shaw's stage play)

--Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1929)

--Gigi (Vincente Minnelli, 1958)

--My Fair Lady (George Cukor, 1964)

--Tina: What's Love Got To Do With It? (Brian Gibson, 1993)

--Not Another Teen Movie (Joel Gallen, 2001)

--Pretty Woman (Garry Marshall, 1990)


Production Design: Mise-en-scene Setting (interior/exterior) * Props *

Costume/make-up/ hairstyle * Colour

Cinematography: Mise-en-scene Shot: long, mid, close-up * Movement:

zoom, pan, tilt, track * Handheld /

fixed / steadicam * Lighting / shadow

* Colour

Acting & Performance: Mise-en- Casting * Male/female * Race *

scene Star/unknown * Movement

Sound: Diegetic/non-diegetic Dialogue * Effects * Music * Silence

Editing: Length of shots * Pacing (i.e. long

or short shots) * Plot structure *

Transitions: wipe, fade, dissolve

Jane Mills is Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Film, Television & Radio School and Honorary Associate at the University of Sydney. She trains teachers in cineliteracy for the NSW DET and is currently enjoying a scholarship at the University of Western Sydney exploring the relationship between global and local cinemas.

Gale Document Number:A118675006

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