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May 31, 2016

ReFocus: The Films of Amy Heckerling

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Edited by Frances Smith and Timothy Shary
Edinburgh University Press - 2016

Color me clueless. Until I read this study on Amy Heckerling's films, I had no idea that there were several critical books about "teen movies". I should not have been surprised with my own ventures into genre studies. That there is an academic book on Heckerling also caught me off guard. I still remember when, even in the early Seventies, there were those who thought it absurd that the films directed by Alfred Hitchcock should be taken seriously as art.

Unsurprisingly, most of the essays here are about Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, Heckerling's best known and most critically acclaimed work. Regarding Fast Times, what is usually thought of as Heckerling filming Cameron Crowe's screenplay, adapted from his book, is reframed with discussions on how Heckerling changed the screenplay in collaboration with Crowe, to make the film more gendered balanced, as well as changing how female sexuality was presented. The essays on Clueless review how much of the idiosyncratic language and fashion styles of Cher Horowitz and her friends were invented for the film.

Amy Heckerling at a recent retrospective.

The more academic of the essays position Heckerling's films within the context of gender and language studies. There is also a comparison with John Hughes, reminding us that Heckerling directed the Hughes written script, National Lampoon's European Vacation. Heckerling's work in television is also given a brief overview.

In terms of film studies, the point is brought up that female directors making studio films are usually limited to teen films or the kind of comedies that, until recently, have not been given much critical attention. Heckerling's theatrical film output has been sporadic following the release of Clueless. Part of the problem is that there are significantly fewer mid-budget movies produced by the studios, then during the dozen years between Fast Times and Clueless. The other problem is the entrenched attitudes that have limited female directors in Hollywood. At a time when young men who make moderately successful indie films are signed up to film comic book based films with huge budgets, Heckerling has had to fight in spite of the box office success of the first Look Who's Talking ($297 million box office against a $7.5 million budget), or the critics' awards for Clueless.

While Heckerling's work is discussed extensively in terms of gender, what seems to be overlooked is her culturally Jewish identity. Cher Horowitz? Certainly. Dora Diamond of Loser? Could be. But both films are notable for having the young female characters choose guys for their intellect and sensitivity over looks and wealth.

It should be mentioned that a future entry in the ReFocus series will be on Kelly Reichardt, a female filmmaker who has been able to work consistently outside the studio system.

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Thai poster for Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 31, 2016 04:52 PM