1995 Project: Underground, Clueless, and The Usual Suspects

clueless

The 1995 Project continues with a dark (and epic) Serbian comedy, a sunny high school comedy, and a crime movie that’s not comedy at all.

Underground PosterUnderground (directed by Emir Kusturica)
Having gone to school in South America, a big chunk of High School Spanish was dedicated to magical realism and its biggest literary representation: Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’. I must admit the charms of Marquez and the genre escape me, although I understand why they would be appealing. Emir Kusturica’s ‘Underground’ -the controversial winner of the Palm D’Or at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival- retells the story of Yugoslavia in the twentieth century by presenting a darkly comic view of a carnivalesque community capable of surviving all kinds of atrocities and injustices thanks to traditional and ritualistic beliefs. I don’t know much about Yugoslavian history, but I understand Kusturica as a highly controversial figure. Politics aside, I went into the movie awaiting an extravagant and dark comedy, but came out sorely disappointed.

The more subversive ideas of the movie -the people trapped in the bunker believing it’s still WWII, for example- sound like music to my ears, but the execution drains the life out of every single scene. Saying that the movie doesn’t work because it is trapped between wanting to be a farcical comedy and a profound satire would be lying. The movie fails because it isn’t able to excel at either one, and the biggest reason for that is its unnecessarily bloated running time. It lacks in the satire department because it hammers the same points over and over again. It lacks as drama because the characters are little more than mythical caricatures. And it lacks as a wacky comedy because it isn’t funny. It’s loud, carnivalesque, and often shrill, but whatever comedy is there gets lost in the movie’s overwhelmingly measured pace. It’s as if the silence between each line and gesture extended far longer than it’s necessary to work. A scene that could work beautifully in two minutes is extended to five or longer. Even if some of the comedy was lost in translation, I doubt any material could survive such a pace.

The magical realism elements don’t sit well with me. They enhance the movie with a kind of nostalgia for the mythological past that strikes me as uncomfortably Nationalistic. The movie opens with a title card that reads “Once upon a time there was a country…” and ends with a prodigal return to a fantastical Eden where all is forgiven. It is a movie very much concerned with brotherhood and blood-ties. Relationships between brothers, fathers and songs, and best friends are at the center, and they are the biggest emotional focus no matter how despicable the characters are. Beyond my cold response to the movie’s messages, I can only praise the filmmaking as far as its subversive plot ideas and its clever use of music are concerned. I can see how this could have been ‘Duck Soup’ or ‘Dr. Strangelove’, but Kusturica is too romantic. As with those classic movies, complete comedy chaos might have been the most subversive weapon.

clueless posterClueless (directed by Amy Heckerling)
Saying ‘Clueless’ has proven to be a timeless teenage classic would be redundant. I like it as much as everyone else. The question is why, exactly, has it perdured were so many others have faded. Margaret Wappler, of the great podast Pop Rocket, pointed out how ‘Clueless’ embodies the meeting of two generations. Paul Rudd’s Josh represents Gen-X, reading Nietzsche by the pool and trying to be authentic at every turn. Alicia Silverstone’s Cher is the millennial, materialistic and optimistic, concerned with happiness and opportunity rather than sadness and oppression. Opposites attracting has been a staple of the romantic comedy for decades, but the romantic meeting of these two generations signals something fundamental about why ‘Clueless’ is such a blast to watch: optimism.

Like its match-making protagonist, ‘Clueless’ is incapable of pointing fingers and reducing any of its characters to a villainous role. Some of this, of course, comes from the very empathetic Jane Austen, whose ‘Emma’ served as the source from which Amy Heckerling adapted this mid-90s classic. But even in Austen, you will find antipathy for certain characters, especially the greedy ones who prefer upward mobility to truthful passion. Cher is a materialistic girl, and this isn’t the story of how Josh made her better by teaching her how to be a “deeper” person. Cher is a good person from the start. She helps her father, she helps her teacher find love, and she helps newly transfer student Tai (Brittany Murphy) do the same. Some of these doings are fueled by personal interests, but makes her an even more sympathetic character. ‘Clueless’ presents us with a pragmatic philosophy that is invaluable when it comes to analyzing the high school experience: the fact that Cher’s good doings involve personal gain doesn’t mean that they are any less good.

Cher is certainly a unique character in the story of cinema, and a valuable manifestation of the “girl power” post-feminism of the nineties. She is also incredibly charismatic and adorable thanks in no small part to an amazing Alicia Silverstone performance. The key to her success, as Peter Labuza pointed out in The Cinephilliacs, might be in her facial expressions. Not exactly subtle, but more than welcome in the colorful world of this movie. The fact that the world of ‘Clueless’ is populated exclusively with decent people might kill the drama if it weren’t for the fact that the movie is so insightful in the way people relate and affect each other. This is not a satirical critique of materialism, it’s a utopian vision of high school, and a philosophical treaty that proposes empathy as the key to unlocking this colorful consumerist paradise

the usual suspects posterThe Usual Suspects (directed by Bryan Singer)
I already knew the movie’s final twist the first time I saw ‘The Usual Suspect’. As a peer-pressured teenager, I convinced myself that I liked the movie, and that Kevin Spacey’s performance was brilliant. Revisiting it, however, I agree with what has come to be regarded as the critical consensus: once you know the twist, there is little to love about the movie. The very nature of the reveal makes plot the most important element of the movie. It’s not a particularly incredible plot, and once it is rendered useless by the final act, there is little reason to care. It must have undoubtedly been surprising back in ’95 (it did win two Oscars and found thousands of college-aged fans), but there really isn’t much richness to the movie. It’s a surface pleasure if you like this type of movie. I think I’m gonna pass.

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One comment

  1. smilingldsgirl · August 3, 2015

    I love Clueless so much. It came out my freshman year of high school and everything about it rang true of what I was seeing from the fashion to the cliques to everything. The freeway scene leaves me in stitches every time because that happened to me when I was learning how to drive. My Dad took me on the freeway and I panicked. He grabbed the wheel and said “you have to steer at all times!” Ha.
    The writing is so good with so many lines I could sit here and quote. But I agree it has an affection for its characters that you hardly ever see in a teen movie or comedy for that matter especially one with such caricatures. I’ve long said I think Mean Girls is Clueless but with Cher as the villain. Normally Cher would be the villain but I think most people no matter how shallow they may seem are trying to do what is right in their own way. Cher is good example of that.
    Gosh I love Clueless!

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