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BEYOND CLUELESS

January 27, 2015

Film + EntertainmentInterviewReview | by Francesco Cerniglia


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One main thing was immediately apparent two years ago, when I learned that Charlie Lyne had launched a Kickstarter campaign to finance his feature film debut, the teen-tastic documentary Beyond Clueless: if there was anyone capable of crossing over from film journalism to filmmaking it sure was this young, salacious, skinny boy whose irreverently entertaining film blog Ultraculture had become such a cult read in the UK.

After all you don’t wind up a columnist at the Guardian and a writer for Little White Lies and Vulture (among others) if you don’t have a strong voice and an infinite passion for cinema hence it’s no surprise that Charlie, albeit barely in his early twenties, and without a University degree, has built such a reputation to the point of even becoming a member of the London Film Critic’s Circle.

Spelled out in its title, Lyne’s documentary on the fascinating and more-complex-than-you-think beast the teen flick is, aims to unearth and analyze a genre that encapsulates way many more titles than the ones grabbing the spotlight with their cult status such as Amy Heckerling’s Clueless (1995), starring Alicia Silverstone.

The film is practically a visual essay organized in specific chapters (including a prologue and an epilogue) exploring the classic elements and themes at the core of teen cinema. It does so by focusing on the explosion of the genre through the 90s and 2000s and by taking into consideration the different facets and subgenres of teen cinema rather than limiting its range to plain romance and comedy.

Maybe we tend to forget that teen films are often thriller, horror, supernatural and sci-fi and how those genre elements can turn a high school setting with its typical proms, jocks and teen rites of passage involving sex, drugs and rock’n roll into something uniquely entertaining and even compelling, despite the inevitable duds that wind up filed as B-movies.

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Lyne reminds us about it right from the start, kicking off his ultimate guide to the American teen flick with Andrew Fleming’s The Craft (1996) and understandably so, given how Beyond Clueless is actually narrated by teen cult star Fairuza Balk who played one of the film’s teen witches and delivers Lyne’s script with a soothing, warm, enveloping tone.

Filled with nostalgia, this collage of film clips might rightfully turn off some, especially if they’re not the slightest enamored with teen cinema. But Lyne goes beyond presenting a mere academic audio-visual thesis and not just through narration but especially thanks to the cohesive power of the pop-a-licious score composed for the film by Brit indie pop duo ‘Summer Camp’. Their melodies are infectious and promptly hum-inducing, especially in song form.

What emerges more than anything from Lyne’s effort is his love for cinema and how the films he puts under the microscope have something to offer that’s worth checking out, even when the substance lacks. Also for someone who was a teenager in the 90s like your truly, it’s impossible to avoid the trip down memory lane and jaw-drop at how time flies, especially when you are reminded of films you chose to watch mostly because your favorite teen crush from television was in it, trying to make the big leap to the silver screen and most likely failed to do so, at least consistently.

I couldn’t help but smile seeing again Dawson’s Creek’s James Van Der Beek in Varsity Blues (1999), Party Of Five’s Neve Campbell and Jennifer Love-Hewitt respectively in The Craft (1996) and I know What You Did Last Summer (1997), Roswell’s Brendan Fehr in Disturbing Behaviour (1998) and so forth. And surely it was great to find out about other titles I either never had a chance to see because they never reached me in Italy or being reminded of the ones I knew of and never found the time to catch up with.

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Surely Beyond Clueless feels like a film-studies student’s wet dream and Lyne himself agreed during a lovely phone conversation we had about his film as he commented: “It’s really nice that both film critics and film academics can now consider this a tool in their arsenal. It’s been a thing of the last few years that you’ve been able to make a film like this on a small scale. Previously only a few would’ve been able to access a million libraries and get permission from authors and all that kind of stuff so it’s clearly democratized the way that people can make visual criticism. It’s a form that I completely adore although I don’t think it’s right for every kind of project since there are cases where writing about a film can (against all odds) be a more optic way than actually showing it. Yet the teen genre is so intensely vivid and visual that was a perfect fit for something like Beyond Clueless.”

I was also curious to hear about Charlie’s process in sifting through such a mole of work and select what he needed in order to make his points. The whole idea seems like an overwhelming titanic enterprise and he agreed: “I felt I had a fairly extensive knowledge of all those films and then I started working on it and realized how many I didn’t have any familiarity with at all. I started with a list of a hundred films drawn up from memory and before long that I expanded to 300 films, literally through talking to people, hearing their favourites, spending too much time on Freddie Prinze Jr’s IMDB profile to see how many films he’s made I’ve never even heard of, so it ballooned incredibly rapidly. All of the films that are featured in any way are the results of me re-watching them and taking extensive notes in the process of developing the film.

I teased him a little bit on the never ending diatribe of film critics vs. filmmakers and he candidly confessed: “It took me so long to start writing about films to the point of calling myself a film critic or feel comfortable saying that and I think it’s because I try to not think it too much and just do whatever feels right for the idea. In thinking about Beyond Clueless, I had this idea about teen movies and the strange kind of conflicted feelings I had about them and of course my initial impulse was to do some sort of written thing, whether a long-form article or a series of articles or a book but then thinking about it more and more it seemed this idea lent itself to being told visually. I wanted to make it clear that while I was criticizing these films, I also have a real affection for them and the best way to do that is being immersed physically in their world. I hope that above anything else it just feels like the right way to make this idea and not like I’m trying to self-consciously move into filmmaking. But also I think it’s great there’s more and more cross over between those worlds, as long as it suits the idea and the medium is good for it.”

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He also underlined how this transition is starting to happen also in the opposite direction and mentions a website called The Talkhouse where filmmakers write about other films: “I think it’s important that filmmakers exercise criticism over the form they’re working in whilst often they’re too quick to assume they made a film so now they have to be nice to everyone’s films and being uncritical in the way they view them, and that’s a shame to me since these are people who dedicate their lives to filmmaking and so it could only be interesting to hear their thoughts.

When I ask whether documentary was the first choice as his first foray into filmmaking or he was maybe flirting with a narrative feature idea, Lyne has some really good points: “In all honesty it wasn’t that calculated. It was a project that ended up becoming a film. I’m very much against that sharp distinction between those two worlds. I find it kind of ridiculous that there are still funding organizations and awards organizations that will exclude documentaries as a first feature and only consider a narrative one to be your first film. And it’s a shame since we’re in a day and age where we’re really getting back to narrative and documentary filmmaking having so much crossover that it seems unnecessary to draw a line between these two things. If I make another film, whatever form it takes, I imagine it will contain some elements of reality. It’s the same with that whole thing about film critics and filmmakers. I think this distinction is destined to become less and less pronounced.

Finally I inevitably ask about the collaboration with the talented music duo ‘Summer Camp’ (pictured above) who definitely add the flavor to the film and he reveals: “It was the ideal scenario for me cause the whole film was such a work of construction rather than anything else, so it seemed kind of pointless to make the film and then at the very final stage have someone come in and write music to go on top of it. I was much more interested in finding someone who would be willing to get involved throughout the process and have as much input on the whole shape of the movie as I was having. I would say we’re very good friends now but I was very much firmly in the fan position when I first approached ‘Summer Camp’ and I was just really lucky they’d been wanting to try writing a film score and have some kind of impact on a movie like that. So they came on board and it was indeed the moment when suddenly it felt like it finally was a real film and there was this collaborative spirit behind it. Every little step of the way when I would be developing an idea, I would send it to them and they’d send it back with notes and vice versa so it was really nice and I felt kind of spoiled in a way cause as a first experience I got to work with composers that were so in depth and long term conducive to creativity.

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There’s no doubt this is merely the start of a potentially unique career for this eloquent, smart, humble yet confident and extremely sociable British young talent (pictured left) and you bet we’ll keep our ears on the ground for his sophomore effort, whenever it might arrive, because indeed I agree with him, Beyond Clueless is most definitely Charlie Lyne’s first film.

Beyond Clueless is now out in UK cinemas

To find a screening near you, check out the film’s official website.

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor