Wednesday, January 28, 2015

'Beyond Clueless' (2015) directed by Charlie Lyne

Who would have thought the sight of a fresh-faced Freddie Prinze Jr could conjure up such nostalgia? There's a lot of him in Beyond Clueless, as well as his teen star cohorts: there's Seann William Scott! Mena Suvari! Matthew Lillard! Seth Green! Jason Biggs! Everyone is so young, hopeful and fancy-free, sure that these days of wine and roses will never end. Oh you sweet summer children, such naïvety...

Beyond Clueless is a docu-collage knitted together from US high school movies, examining their fashions, psychologies and ideological underpinnings. It's worthy of attention: year on year Hollywood cranks out high school movies, always pieced together from the same basic building blocks. You've got your jocks, skaters, nerds, preps and cheerleader cliques. You've got mean gym instructors, awkward transfer students, sexy French teachers, bitchy popular kids and dorky stoners. We troop through school theatre, the big game, debate club, SAT exams and, that all conquering social colossus, the Prom. Having grown up in Britain, I have no first hand experience of US high school, but I've lived thousands of simulations.

In its parade of semi-forgotten faces toothily grinning under regrettable haircuts, Beyond Clueless presents us with a vision of neverending adolescence. As Matthew McConaughey memorably said in Linklater's Dazed & Confused "That's what I love about these high school girls, man. I get older, they stay the same age." The film congeals hundreds of slightly different cinematic high schools into an omnifictional megaschool where Cady Heron can rub shoulders with Peter Parker, Cher can warily eye up Kathryn Merteuil and Rachel Lang can telekinetically tussle with Nancy Downs.

With Fairuza Balk as dispassionate narrator, we're led through the showers, classrooms, gyms and playing fields of hundreds of schools, constantly zeroing in on the common elements. This culture is approached with a rigorous anthropologists eye, giving us examinations of the role of the 'new kid' and the clique system, the consequences and dangers of not fitting in, explosions of violence and frothy oceans of teenage lust. 

Though there's hundreds of films here a few are singled out for closer inspection. Watching critical analyses of The Craft, The Rage: Carrie 2, Euro Trip and Idle Hands was like catnip for me. These films are trashy, but Beyond Clueless gives them totemic significance; Rosetta Stones for understanding the teenage psyche (or what old white studio heads imagine the teenage psyche to be).

Charlie Lyne's editing goes a long, long way towards elevating these films to cultural artefects. I wouldn't recommend anyone actually watch the execrable Carrie 2, but slicing out the few genuinely interesting bits and presenting them to us in montage makes it feel worthy of study. This kaleidoscope effect echoes Adam Curtis' style, the images may not logically fit together but they do work subconsciously, fractured moments building up to a meaningful jigsaw. This woozy effect is further underlined by a truly excellent score from Summer Camp, current champs of retro-flavoured, sunkissed synth-indie. 

Excellent pacing and scoring allows Lyne to gently ratchet up the pace, culminating in a terrifying litany of violence set to relentless electronic pounding. It's a hell of a sequence, a blizzard of bloody blows and children waving guns at each other. In moments like these, with all extraneous narrative distraction stripped away, Beyond Clueless achieves Herzoggian ecstatic truth. Individual films futilely grasp at that indefinable teenage emotional intensity, capturing brief flashes here and there. Here, in concert, that intensity is realised, and it makes for breathtaking cinema.

That said, there's some slight friction between the critical and aesthetic ambitions. Analyses of, say, puberty in Ginger Snaps, are right on the money but a little obvious. Similarly, a lengthy probe into Euro Trip's latent homoeroticism is cleverly observed, but the argument peters out towards the end. 

This criticism applies to the film as a whole, it's strongest when delving into psychology and subtext but lacking when tying it all together into a conclusion. I was reminded of the Žižek Pervert's Guide to... documentaries: both they and Beyond Clueless search for meaning in mainstream cinema, yet while Žižek successfully grounds his analyses in a wider sociopolitical/ideological context, this largely eludes Beyond Clueless. 

That aside, this is a brilliant piece of playfully subversive and archly funny analytical cinema that's tuned right into my sensibilities. Where the hell else am I going to see unjustly ignored classics like 2001's Josie and the Pussycats given the attention they richly deserve? But Beyond Clueless's real strength lies on the visual/auditory level: to watch is to step into a pop-inflected hyper-real dream of the past.

If you're even remotely interested in digging beyond the surface of pop culture you'll dig this.


Beyond Clueless is on limited release now.

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