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Spotlight on Women Filmmakers: Amy Heckerling and Penelope Spheeris


by Eli Sentman

So often when we talk about women filmmakers, we tend to focus on foreign films (and this column is no exception) and arthouse films. Part of the problem, of course, is that these do seem to be the types of movies made by women that are most readily available. It’s much more common, due to a variety of systemic problems, for women to break out into indie film rather than mainstream film. Amy Heckerling and Penelope Spheeris are both examples that buck the trend. They directed two of the 1990s most beloved comedies — Heckerling directed Clueless and Spheeris directed Wayne’s World.

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If you haven’t seen Clueless in a while (or if you’ve *gasp*, never seen it), it’s most definitely worth re-watching. Heckerling’s reworking of Jane Austen’s Emma is not-so-secretly one of the smartest comedies ever made. And if that statement wasn’t bold enough, here’s this: Alicia Silverstone gives one of the best comedic performances of all time. It’s easy to be hyperbolic, but Clueless is influential and well-remembered for good reason. There’s even a chance that the movie is more enjoyable now than when it was first released; now, it works simultaneously as a great movie and a trip back in time to 1995. Perhaps no other movie captures the styles, the clothes, and the way-of-speaking of the mid-1990s better than Clueless does, making it something of an unintentional period piece. Just go watch this movie.

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Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World is another comedy that defines the decade. Like Clueless, it’s a movie that’s so much a part of the pop-cultural pantheon that it’s hard to say anything new about it. All there is to remark is that it holds up. But maybe you want to dig a little further into Spheeris’ catalog? She’s directed a few other comedies you may have heard of, sure, but perhaps you haven’t seen any of the entries in her documentary trilogy, The Decline of Western Civilization. Each entry in the series tells the story of a different music scene; for example, Part II focuses on the Los Angeles metal scene of the late 1980s. Even if you have no particular interest in metal or punk, these are must-see documentaries. The people they capture are such characters with such outrageous stories that sometimes it’s almost hard to believe they’re real. Similarly to Clueless, each movie in the trilogy serves as fascinating time capsule.


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