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Why ‘Clueless’ still matters: Jen Chaney explains in ‘As If!’

As If!

The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew

By Jen Chaney

Touchstone. 322 pp. Paperback; $16.99

How can "Clueless" celebrate its 20th birthday this summer? Has it really been two decades since I fell in love with Alicia Silverstone's whip-smart, puddle-deep Cher Horowitz on a sweltering July night at a Vermont megaplex? Over the years, I've rewatched Amy Heckerling's Beverly Hills reimagining of Jane Austen's "Emma" — first on VHS, then on DVD and most recently on Netflix. And with each viewing, I'm struck anew by the prescience of "Clueless" and its relevance for viewers of all ages.

This timelessness prompted entertainment journalist Jen Chaney to write "As If!," billed as "The Oral History of 'Clueless' as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew." Let's face it, an oral history is the ultimate mark of a pop-culture icon — and Chaney's homage does not disappoint. Her vivid scene-by-scene recaps, insider analyses of casting decisions and meticulous wardrobe rundowns will bring you back to your own (possibly less-stylish) youth.

Chaney, a former staff writer for The Washington Post, checked in with key players (Heckerling, Silverstone, Paul Rudd, costume designer Mona May, casting director Marcia Ross) as well as an impressive array of artists and experts whose work has been touched by the "Clueless" legacy. From Jane Austen scholars to Coolio to Lena Dunham and the Fug Girls, these perspectives shed new light on a movie that paved the way for "Legally Blonde" and a bevy of other films about shopaholic young women with hidden reserves of grit.

We learn about the careful crafting of the language, inspired by slang dictionaries, rap lyrics and teen lexicon; the special effects used to create the movie’s golden lighting despite record rainfalls during filming; and the many actors who were passed over for key parts (Angelina Jolie as Cher Horowitz? Hard to imagine, but her name was in the mix). We’re reminded that many of Heckerling’s laugh-worthy moments have become part of life as we know it today. For instance, three family members at the same dinner table, talking on cellphones? Once hilarious, now business as usual.

Chaney weaves a glittery web, one that’s hard to walk away from once you’re drawn in. But by far the most compelling sections of “As If!” are the ones in Chaney’s own voice. You can understand why she relies so heavily on the perspectives of the creators of the film — they’re the experts, after all — but her take is so fresh and entertaining that it would have been nice to hear more from her directly.

But as Cher herself would no doubt say: Whatever! For us middle-aged Gen X-ers and our adolescent offspring who still watch “Clueless” at sleepovers, “As If!” is a must. In fact, it’s phat! Which is high praise, indeed.

On Saturday, July 11, at 6 p.m., Jen Chaney will be at Politics & Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW.

, the books editor at Glamour, is the author of the novel

“A Window Opens,”

which will be published next month.

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