'Emma', Cher, and the Maze of Unknowing

David Kelly

Abstract


When the movie Clueless first appeared audiences seemed at once to know that it was a free contemporary adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma. Yet at a time when cinema was cashing in on its up-market connections – with Francis Ford Coppola insisting he was filming Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Branagh that he was producing Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and with Jane Austen herself as sure a thing at the box office as Schwarzenegger – Amy Heckerling chose not to mention the fact anywhere in her film. Perhaps she felt that Clueless was indebted to many sources and didn’t feel the need to mention any one in particular. Certainly it owed a debt to popular film genres like teen comedy and family satire such as European Vacation, Heckerling’s own wickedly satirical picture of the American family abroad, or Fast Times at Ridgemont High, her brilliantly anarchic teen comedy from the early eighties. But her reticence to credit Austen in any way becomes mischievous when we notice in the endtitles that the featured song “All By Myself” is credited to both Eric Carmen and Serge Rachmaninov. Carmen’s maudlin anthem to the fear of solitude was not trumpeted on its release as being the product of a creative partnership, no doubt because acknowledged creative borrowing was not a part of the seventies pop aesthetic, imbued as it was with a kind of vulgar romanticism that disdained the “derivative” and yet, in retrospect, seemed to churn out much the same sound year by year. Calling Rachmaninov to account for something he may well have wished to disavow, in any case, suggests a somewhat fussy deference to authority and propriety, especially when set against the film’s silence on the Austen connection, but, as I suggested, perhaps this was a piece of mischief on Heckerling’s part, designed to set this text in ironic play between two opposing principles: on the one hand, an awareness of and attribution of authority, and on the other hand an ignorance of and indifference to it.

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