The media landscape of the late 1990s looks, in retrospect, blissfully detached compared to today’s post-9/11 digital engagement with reality and immediacy. Reflecting on the films from this time, things look beautifully anarchic and confused, full of peculiarities: I mean, would any producer today give a first-time director a million dollars to make Gummo? Or let Pauly Shore be in any movie whatsoever? It seems like it was a freer, more affable time, when our idea of a terrorist was that of a bumbling henchman in your average Arnold Schwarzenegger movie.
This cinematic period was also marked by a rapid explosion of mid-budget American teen movies, following the success of 1995’s satirical smash hit Clueless, which sent Hollywood screenwriters scrambling to their Powerbooks in order to cash-in on the latest movie trend, aimed at taking as much allowance money as possibly from docile, cargo pants-wearing kids at mall theatres across America.
Before I go on, I should confess that growing up I was infatuated with these movies; films like American Pie, Whatever It Takes, Drive Me Crazy – If it featured even a single frame of iconography of the teen genre, I would watch it – including My Chemical Romance videos, preferably on mute) Therefore I must denote that this will not be the most impartial of write-ups – I will be guilty of bias, and gushing (but I’m sure there are plenty of reviews in the mainstream press by critics who were indifferent to or even hated the source materials)
The saturation of teen movie releases around the turn of the millennium (which would ultimately be rounded up and ripped apart/celebrated by the 2001 spoof Not Another Teen Movie) has also sparked devotion in film writer/critic Charlie Lyne, whose essay film Beyond Clueless takes us on a profoundly poetic odyssey deep inside the heart of these cult movies. In splicing together clips from spiritually-connected films as diverse as Ginger Snaps and Bubble Boy, Lyne creates not a straightforward commentary, with social context and industry backgroud, etc. but a new quasi-fictional narrative altogether – a pure, cinematic event which relies only on the films themselves and the fantasy world in which they immerse us.
Beyond Clueless takes us on a theoretical coming-of-age journey that not only traces the trappings of the genre (the slow-motion hall walks, the house parties) but compounds the films into a singular entity. From first-day trauma to post-graduation hangovers, the piece’s main thematic concerns are the conformist/outsider conflict and the awkward and destructive psychosexual elements engrossing our protagonists’ lives. In particular, the titular demonic ‘hand’ in the 1999 horror-comedy Idle Hands representing the main character’s repressed sexuality makes for a brilliant digression – and these neo-Freudian musings define the films’ tone – often resembling the sort of exhilarating, fragile fever of a stoned epiphany.
Fairuza Balk, star of films from the period in question such as The Craft and The Waterboy, breathes heartfelt life into Lyne’s desperate narration; her delicate, gravelly voice bringing an appropriately tortured, front-of-class read-out quality to the proceedings. The music, composed by indie pop band Summer Camp (who performed the score live during a screening at The Dancehouse in Manchester) lends an dreamy aura to match the visuals and narrative arcs, ranging from violent noise-scapes to triumphantly upbeat montage-rock.
Maybe it’s nostalgia, but Beyond Clueless was a lush, joyous experience – an earnest and deep celebration of a manic and diverse period of youth cinema ranging from the wacky to the gothic to the gross-out. I am left wondering if those who didn’t ‘get’ movies such as Bring It On 15 years ago will gain some sort of newfound appreciation for the genre, and I especially wonder what younger audiences (who perhaps haven’t seen many teen movies pre-Superbad) make of this piece, and whether it indeed does spark a revival of interest in the era. Charlie Lyne has crafted a spectacularly stormy and sensual pop poem of cult cinema – if this is the future of film theory, sign me up.
Beyond Clueless is currently on a limited release across the UK – check the film’s official website for dates/locations.
Check out the trailer below.