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Time and the Cities:
Amy Heckerling

 


Introduction: This essay was first composed in 2016 for a book project that would doubtless have constituted the last gasp of the short-lived “vulgar auteurism” movement in film criticism, now (in 2020) entirely gone with the winds, with scarcely an online trace. The idea of the book project was to recognise, appreciate and celebrate certain overlooked film directors whose career was intertwined with often maligned pop genres: action, romantic comedy, teen movie, etc. My eager choice was Amy Heckerling. Alas, the (fully-written) book fell apart due to a flakey publisher who vanished as surely as Vulgar Auteurism did, and all subsequent attempts to get my own text published elsewhere have met with rejection and the same response: “She hasn’t made a new feature since 2012”! Whoever figured that film criticism (as published) was so beholden to what is strictly current? I now present the essay exclusively here on this website. (November 2020)

 

Nicholas Ray, in lectures he gave late in his life, defined movie directing as the job of shaping “a whole piece of entertainment.” (1) It is difficult to imagine many American filmmakers expressing themselves in quite this way today. Perhaps Steven Spielberg, Penny Marshall or Ron Howard might say something of the sort; but Abel Ferrara, Michael Mann or Amy Siemetz, never. And even if any of these figures ever did gesture toward the totem of entertainment, whether positively or negatively, they would probably intend the term in its most restricted meaning: pleasing the mass audience, giving it what it wants.

 

Of all directors working in the USA today, only Amy Heckerling approaches her craft as a matter of shaping a whole piece of entertainment, in the complete sense that Ray gave his expression: balancing all the parts and levels; fulfilling generic expectations but leaving room for a personal element; getting the most out of key collaborators in both cast and crew; offering to the viewer a satisfying graph of mood changes and a economical variety of things to see, hear and experience.

 

Like Monte Hellman or Bob Rafelson, Heckerling is among those directors who constantly faces the career-threat of being reduced to their two or three hits, whether that success is determined in commercial or cult-reputation terms: her feature debut, the teen network-narrative Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982); Clueless (1995), an instant classic that has been frequently relaunched and upholstered in the DVD/Blu-ray era; and possibly also Look Who’s Talking (1989), which has not endured in popular memory as well as the other two.

 

Not every movie Heckerling has managed to so far make in her chequered career is great. Despite their occasional mirthful moments, I shall pass over, in this brief survey, Johnny Dangerously (1984), National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985) and the sequel Look Who’s Talking Too (1990). Her scattered TV work (on Gossip Girl, Suburgatory, The Carrie Diaries, Rake and Red Oaks among others) is, by her own admission, more professionally solid than uniquely inspired. In 2020, she directed all ten episodes (none over nine minutes) of the Royalties musical series designed for the short-lived Quibi mobile-streaming platform. But once we expand the ledger of her achievement to include, at the very least, Loser (2000), I Could Never Be Your Woman (2007) and, most recently, Vamps (2012), we begin to build a coherent picture of an important, inventive and neglected filmmaker.

 

The signature touches are evident. Situations recur, or are turned around to be viewed from a different angle from film to film: the plot premise of a woman’s masochistic tie to an uncaring man, while a nicer guy lurks in the wings, helplessly looking on, structures both Look Who’s Talking and Loser. Actors reappear from film to film, even down to the smallest roles (Alicia Silverstone, Wallace Shawn, Stacey Dash, Paul Rudd, and many others). A vein of autobiographical inspiration, back and forth over the times of her life, can be tracked from one plot to the next: teen/school experience, college, difficult relationships, childbirth, single motherhood, care of ailing, elderly parents, working in television. A certain pop-cinephile canon is brandished whenever characters turn on a TV set or hunker down to watch a movie: Vertigo (1958), It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), James Cagney’s gangster movies or musicals … with Billy Wilder (or better, Wilder teamed with scriptwriter I.A.L. Diamond) looming – as for Fast Times at Ridgemont High writer-turned-director, Cameron Crowe – as the ultimate model in aspiring to both artistry and commercial success inside the American system.

 

It is tempting – principally became of the predominance of romantic comedy, and the ubiquitous presence of families – to group Heckerling with at least two other contemporary practitioners of the comedy of manners, namely Crowe and James L. Brooks; plus, inescapably, the large shadow of Woody Allen. Yet none of these guys have ever stretched to embrace, in their generic sampling, the references to The Exorcist (1973) in Look Who’s Talking or the weaving-in of a gruesome vamp-buster killing spree, decapitations and dancing skeletons included, in Vamps.

 

There are affinities, along this sometimes blackly comic, mixed-genre line, with films by Robert Zemeckis (Death Becomes Her, 1992, the memory of which is evoked by the cosmetic surgery opening credits of I Could Never Be Your Woman), Susan Seidelman (She-Devil, 1989) and Danny DeVito (The War of the Roses, 1989) – but these directors have not (whether by choice or by chance) negotiated quite the same consistency of tone and topic as Heckerling, working over roughly the same period from the 1980s until now. A closer match is Angela Robinson, across the daring teen-girls comedy D.E.B.S. (2004), the Disney vehicle Herbie: Fully Loaded (2005), the TV series The L Word (2004-9), the web project Girltrash! (2007) and the more mainstream-friendly group-biopic Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) – but Heckerling got further inside the system, at least for a while, than Robinson.

 

Two themes or motifs assert themselves particularly in Heckerling’s cinema. The first is the presence – once again, a staple of light manners comedy in both film and TV in the Sex and the City era, but given a special insistence and intensity by her – of what we might call city celebration, the eulogy of metropolitan place. This is a matter mainly of New York (Loser) and Los Angeles (Clueless), the two principal cities where Heckerling has lived and worked … even when the former has to be shot in Vancouver (Look Who’s Talking) and the latter in London (I Could Never Be Your Woman). Heckerling’s city symphonies come, within each film, in isolated, compact montage forms (usually accompanied by an appropriate song), and also in diffuse details of local customs, sites and rituals that are spread throughout the piece. This aspect recurs, on a necessarily smaller scale, in her TV work, especially in the Sex and the City prequel series, The Carrie Diaries (2013-14); it is doubtless one of the reasons she is sought out for such work today.

 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is somewhat a case apart: its fictional high school was filmed in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles, but this locale is never named as such; of all her films, it is the one most keyed to a non-specific, lower middle-class suburbia. The interchangeable malls, diners, garage stations, school rooms and corridors of these US suburbs – at least as depicted in much mainstream cinema – rapidly became the iconography (or the semantics, in Rick Altman’s sense) of the teen movie genre in the 1980s, enduring until today via relays such as the internationally popular Canadian TV series Degrassi Junior High (1987-89). Not for the last time, Heckerling here helped launch a trend, a global genre, and even a look conjoining setting, fashion, music, and plot situations. On TV, Suburgatory (2011-14) – the most stylistically adventurous of her opportunities, to date, in that medium – allows her to return to this richly generic suburban setting (in this case, New York suburbs).

 

The second major theme in Heckerling’s work receives a more complex and poignant treatment: time, as in the passing time of years and decades, marked by the succession of cultural fads and historic milestones of various kinds – and by the inevitability of characters ageing. Age becomes an issue for Heckerling’s protagonists – mainly women – beginning with Mollie (Kirstie Alley) confronting her “biological clock” in Look Who’s Talking; the autobiographical reference of this becomes clear when we watch Michelle Pfeiffer in her 40s at the centre of I Could Never Be Your Woman. Vamps, as we shall see, proves to be particularly ingenious in this temporal regard: Alicia Silverstone at once plays herself, her role as Cher in Clueless reprised (and revised) almost two decades on, and a vampire named Goody, preserved in her youth since 1841.

 

Cultural time – which carbon-dates us all in our prevailing tastes so precisely and so mercilessly – is used by Heckerling in a very knowing, self-conscious way. She is very much a late ‘70s/early ‘80s person in terms of formative cultural influences, and she remains publicly proud of that fact. Although her earliest shorts (before and during film school) are not accessible to view today, she speaks of them in terms of a shotgun marriage of Hollywood glamour – nostalgically and ironically revisited – and the punk ethos prevalent at the time. This is true, to varying degrees, of a group of women who, in that period, entered the circuits of commercial cinema through its B genre formats: Susan Seidelman, Penelope Spheeris, Martha Coolidge, Joan Freeman, Marisa Silver, Joyce Chopra – most of whom, sadly, get even fewer chances than Heckerling to make work for the big screen today.

 

It is literally on the song-stuffed soundtrack of Fast Times that we can hear the trace of Heckerling’s particular, tenacious culture war: edgy Oingo Boingo (which she fought to retain) and disco queen Donna Summer rub up against the more comfortably smooth ‘70s sounds of Jackson Browne, Don Henley and Graham Nash. Heckerling’s ear for an unusual mixtape effect that perfectly captures a particular musical sensibility is less fettered in Look Who’s Talking: there, Talking Heads and Australian cult favourite Paul Kelly interlace with The Beach Boys and (in an especially delightful scene) Gene Pitney’s 1961 hit “Town Without Pity”.

 

Wisely, as Heckerling has proceeded through her career, she has not tried (as so many other filmmaker, in vain, do) to artificially update the taste-configuration that formed her, by replacing one hip playlist with another, completely different one. When Kim Wilde’s 1981 song “Kids in America” appears in Clueless in its mid ‘90s cover version by The Muffs, it signals as a gesture by Heckerling declaring her hand: this is where I come from. Subsequently, keen jokes about cultural taste in relation to ageing, the anxiety of no longer being with-it in everyday conversation – especially for women in their intimate relationships with younger men – fill I Could Never Be Your Woman and Vamps.

 

Beyond the two major themes of time and cities, there is a both a particular texture and a special form that structures Heckerling’s films. The texture – of which the music selection is a large and crucial part – relates to pop culture references. The flow of allusions to films, TV shows, songs, performers, clothing, celebrities, dance moves, current events, and so on, is relentless in virtually all her films. No individual viewer can be expected to catch them all on a single viewing (this is why for instance, Clueless has become a repeat-viewing cult classic) – and perhaps very few viewers understand or appreciate them all in any particular film. There is a braveness and a risk element here that, once again, testifies to Heckerling’s punk origin: I vividly remember a 1989 press screening for Look Who’s Talking in which pregnant Mollie’s line, as she studies her breasts in the mirror – “I look like a Russ Meyer movie!” – prompted audible incomprehension and irritation among the suited, senior, male film reviewers present, who noisily grumbled: “Who’s Russ Meyer?”

 

There are quite a few moments in Heckerling’s work where – exactly like her characters – we may feel we are not getting something, that we are not in on the joke. (In Clueless, for instance, Cher assumes that Kuwait is a suburb of Los Angeles.) This is a species of daily humiliation that she presents with great understanding and affection, rather than the cruel, superior tone of elitist, cultural condescension that we occasionally find in Woody Allen or The L Word. In her superb essay “Emma in Los Angeles”, Lesley Stern asserts:

 

Clueless appeals to different audiences who bring to the movie different knowledges and expectations, but what makes it particularly fascinating is that it actually assumes, through the heterogeneity of its references and allusions, that quotidian knowledge is informed by and woven out of a diversity of cultural practices – not distinguishable according to “high” and “low” markers. (2)

 

Just look at the wonderful vignette in Clueless concerning the rapt absorption of Tai (Brittany Murphy) as she sings the Mentos commercial playing on TV – right down to its spoken tag line – and the bemused but forgiving reactions of other characters (Silverstone as Cher and Rudd as Josh) who notice this in passing. Or the fact that smart Josh is a pretty awful dancer: nonetheless, Cher will still include the goofy sight of his flailing limbs in her lovestruck, mental montage of remembered moments. Every sympathetic figure in Heckerling’s films is in the midst of a muddle that is cultural almost as much as it is personal.

 

Cultural detailing dovetails into Heckerling’s favoured narrative form, which I shall call description. Like Stanley Kubrick, Víctor Erice and Chantal Akerman, Heckerling likes to stay on a flat, narrative plateau for as long as possible, retarding the strong moves or intrigues that will complicate and transform the plot. This allows her to explore and investigate a particular social milieu by describing it in all its detail. This sense that Heckerling entertains an often whimsical relation to narrative (and especially the mainstream’s hallowed “narrative drive”) proves irritating to some blinkered reviewers. Clueless is the stand-out example here: almost the first hour of the film (as in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, 1996) enjoys patiently laying out – with the help of an unusually supple and inventive voice-over narration – the world of Cher and her friends. A great deal happens within this first hour – Cher meets and makes over Tai, she interacts at length with her garrulous single-parent layer father, Mel (Dan Hedaya) – but the central motor of the tale in any conventional sense, namely the unlikely possibility of a romantic match between Cher and Josh, takes a remarkably long time to materialise.

 

Fast Times at Ridgemont High, at the start of Heckerling’s feature career, is once again something of an exception: the sheer proliferation of characters and their story lines demands greater pace and action in the narrative construction. Yet here, she finds an alternative way to slyly undermine convention, and it was a soft subversion she handed to many subsequent teen movies: taking advantage of her material’s speed and breezy tone, she rides swiftly past the moralistic weight that would normally be placed on the morally or ethically “bad” actions of characters, and instead reintegrates them in a cloud of almost instant forgiveness – or forgetfulness. It is thus that even the callow Mike (Robert Romanus) who gets Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) pregnant can be welcomed back into the communal fold by the time the final rousing montage (set to Oingo Boingo’s “Goodbye”) arrives.

 

Frances Smith, co-editor with Timothy Shary of the only academic book on Heckerling, suggests: “It is perhaps a consequence of Heckerling’s increasing sense of precarity as an ageing woman in Hollywood that her most recent work has staged a meditation on the politics of ageing and femininity”. (3) To get the full measure of the professional and personal anxiety that such precarity can prompt, let us perform a necessary reality-check. At the moment of publishing this piece, Heckerling is 66; when she was shooting I Could Never Be Your Woman, she was in her early 50s. While a good number of men (including Manoel de Oliveira, Clint Eastwood and Jean-Luc Godard) continue to be celebrated for directing films into their 80s and sometimes well beyond, the examples of women directing big-screen movies (or even TV) beyond even their early 60s are much rarer: there’s Agnès Varda (died at 90 in 2019) and Kira Muratova (died at 83 in 2018) who worked right to the end of their lives, and the somewhat freakish case of Leni Riefenstahl making a personal deep-sea doco at age 100, but precious few others.

 

Heckerling’s films invent striking ways to cinematically materialise these personal and social anxieties about gender and age. As Smith notes, Paul Rudd at the biological age of 37 can be cast as 29 in I Could Never Be Your Woman – and then, in the embedded, fictional You Go Girl teen TV series, be cast as 17! – as distinct from Rosie, who is afraid to admit she is 40, and is in fact played by an actor (Pfeiffer) closer to 50. But it is Vamps that goes furthest, and most imaginatively, in this direction. The film seizes on vampirism as its central metaphor: to be a vampire means to never get old, to be frozen (at least for some of the characters) in their eternal youth. Heckerling uses this trope as a way to allegorically reflect, under the story’s surface, on both her own life, and the nature of her difficult career, forever associated with the teen movie successes of Fast Times and Clueless – just as the latter’s star, Alicia Silverstone, also found her career stalled after being typed as Cher.

 

In Vamps, which is unusually politically progressive for a contemporary Hollywood movie – the celebratory references to the New York City’s past are captured in moments of social justice and injustice, civil rights and reform movements – the dream of eternal youth is more a curse than a blessing, as it was for the lone, disgruntled citizen in the fantasy-paradise of Vincente Minnelli’s Brigadoon (1954). Where Stacy (Krysten Ritter) manages to escape from her vampiric state and be saved by love with a normal guy, adjusting without too much pain to her real, 40 year old body, Goody must accept that, at the end, she will simply crumble into dust, being (as she has kept hidden throughout) so old – and this she does happily, gazing at the phantom history-parade of Times Square as Heckerling’s own daughter, singer Mollie Israel, performs “Give My Regards to Broadway” on the soundtrack. Few endings in contemporary cinema are so beautiful and touching, especially for those spectators on the wavelength of the filmmaker’s gesture.

 

In I Could Never Be Your Woman, Heckerling manages to conjure what is surely one of her dearest, nostalgic, Old Hollywood dreams: to have the other-worldly character of wise Mother Nature (Tracey Ullman) figure prominently in the fiction, just as a male Guardian Angel (Henry Travers) did for George Bailey (James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful Life. Yet Heckerling has her cake and eats it, too: after all the supposedly timeless, universal, humanist wisdom served up by this Mother about gender roles and bodily functions, Rosie simply rejects – in a quick, screwball retort as the camera rises and the final music plays out – the advice.

 

What better and more triumphant way for Heckerling to affirm her spirit of independence, and sweep us up in what Stern called the “utterly engaging impulse – an impulse at once utopian and comic – to remake or refashion the world”? (4)

 

NOTES

1. Nicholas Ray, I Was Interrupted: Nicholas Ray on Making Movies (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 78. back

 

2. Lesley Stern, “Emma in Los Angeles: Clueless as a Remake of the Book and the City”, Australian Humanities Review, issue 7 (August 1997), [http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/archive/Issue-August-1997/stern.html]; Reprinted in James Naremore (ed.), Film Adaptation (New York: Rutgers University Press, 2000), pp. 221-238. back

 

3. Frances Smith, “Femininity, Ageing and Performativity in the Work of Amy Heckerling”, Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media (special issue on “Women and Media in the 21st Century”), number 10 (2016). The book referred to is Smith & Shary (eds), ReFocus: The Films of Amy Heckerling (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). back

 

4. Stern, “Emma in Los Angeles”. back

 

© Adrian Martin June 2016 / August 2017 / November 2020


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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