Saturday, September 18, 2010

The DNA of Easy A: 7 literary and cinematic allusions

As in the case of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Easy A alludes to so many things, one can take almost as much pleasure unpacking the literary and cinematic references as in watching the film itself. Here are seven allusions I have found:

1) Take the overt literary reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter--a good choice by director Will Gluck since most teenagers have been obliged to read the novel (or look over the related SparkNotes). Olive (Emma Stone) jokes about having some integrity because she watched the original movie, but her English teacher Mr. Griffith (Thomas Haden Church) knows that she's read the book. Once Olive accidentally launches a rumor that she's slept with a college student the previous weekend (even though she hasn't), soon, thanks in part to the speed of texting, everyone on campus knows about it.

When she stokes the rumor mill by pretending to sleep with a gay friend Brandon (Dan Byrd) so that he can avoid getting beaten up every day, she decides to embrace her shame, as it were, by sewing a red A on the front of a black bustier and strutting around campus flaunting her new reputation. (She also wears black Wayfarers, aligning her newfound notoriety with Madonna in her seminal video "Lucky Star.")

In Hawthorne's 1850 novel, one can find some correlations and key differences. Yes, Hester Prynne kind of defies and taunts the hypocritical society of 17th century Puritan Boston by sewing an elaborately decorated scarlet A to wear, thereby turning an object of scorn and shame into something beautiful, but Hester also carries objective evidence of her "crime," a child. In contrast, Olive (spoiler alert) never loses her virginity throughout the movie. For all of Olive's performances as a "skank," etc., the audience knows that she remains as blameless as Clueless' Cher (Alicia Silverstone) or innumerable other teenage romantic comedy heroines. Olive doesn't initially mind playing the scapegoat by showcasing a classic virgin/whore double standard for the hypocritical (read Puritan) Christian teens, but her crime is her own media fabrication that masks an essential and convenient innocence.

2) Indeed, one wonders how well Easy A with its glib, knowing, and postmodern irony could have handled the heroine actually sleeping around. It reminds me of the difference between Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) and Clueless (1995). Fast Times had everything--promiscuity, drugs, and abortion, whereas Clueless, like Easy A, floated along with the knowing but also essential "purity" of Cher. In a moment of pique, Brittany Murphy's Tai tells Cher "You're just a virgin who can't drive." Cher responds with "That was way harsh, Tai," but by keeping her Valley Girl heroine innocent, Heckerling could keep the film as chaste as a Doris Day film that ends with a kiss. Clueless could play at innuendo without getting dirty, and Bert V. Royal, the writer of Easy A knows this. He draws so heavily on the former movie's example, he even includes a scene where Olive suffers sexual harassment, abandonment in the night city streets, and a rescue by the "right" guy, just as Cher did in Clueless. In the same way that Clueless foresaw the cell phone revolution, so does Easy A exhibit the high speed social impact of texting. For all of Olive's talk of John Hughes' films, Clueless could have influenced Royal the most.

3) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Funny how Leslie Fiedler's scandalous 1948 essay "Come Back to the Raft Ag'in, Huck Honey," with its theory about the homoerotic side of the relationship between Huck and Jim, becomes a light joke in Easy A when Brandon runs off with a black lover. We see a clip from the 1939 Mickey Rooney Huckleberry Finn where Jim (Rex Ingram) offers Huck help on the raft. In this way does yesteryear's literary scandal become the new movie's subversive sight gag. Still, Easy A's efforts at integration seem perfunctory. Olive has a young adopted African American brother Chip (Bryce Clyde Jenkins) whose presence provides Olive's dad (Stanley Tucci) with some affectionate jokes, but otherwise he as well as Brandon's lover seem inserted into the movie for political correctness' sake.

4) Mean Girls (2004). Another witty, well-written film that comes to mind in part because Emma Stone closely resembles Lindsay Lohan. Both movies feature a highly marginalized heroine who looks around for a way to stand out in a new high school, only in this case a group of "Plastics" is the source of all the friction instead of a Christian group run by Amanda Bynes (Marianne). Both films feature unusually sympathetic adults, with Tina Fey playing the "cool" teacher as Church does in this film.

5) John Hughes' 1980's films, especially Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986). Frustrated with crass attention she gets from the guys at her high school, Olive says she wishes that her life was more like a John Hughes film, evoking Jon Cusack holding up his boom box as he woos Ione Skye in Say Anything (1989). Olive also points out that she admires Ferris' musical number in Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), and even forms a mohawk in the shower just as Bueller does. Lastly, Easy A uses Bueller's confide-in-the-audience directly device that also oddly reminded me of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" clip from Don't Look Back when Olive holds up explanatory messages on sheets of paper.

6) Amusingly, Malcolm McDowell plays the unhinged high school principal Gibbons, so I guess we are to associate his performance here with his character shooting up a high school in If . . . (1968) and his sociopath Alex in A Clockwork Orange (1971)?

7) As the Christian organization increasingly goes on the rampage against Olive, I couldn't help being reminded of the lynch mob that appears near the end of Night of the Hunter (1955).

Any other allusions that I missed?


Simon said...

I'm not so sure the Mean Girls reference is valid. I mean, they do have similarities, but I never really got the vibe. She wasn't new in her high school, her popularity wasn't completely on purpose...I don't know, mostly details.

Otherwise, I think you covered it.

Hokahey said...

FilmDr -

You are quick! You beat me to it!

Nice work on the allusions, which I loved. I especially loved the reference to the Demi Moore movie version of The Scarlet Letter. As an English teacher who has taught this novel, I always loved the fact that watching the Demi Moore version was going to be no substitute for reading the real thing.

The shot of Olive's gay friend and his lover watching the scene from Huckleberry Finn was hilarious.

Can't think of any allusions you missed.

Anonymous said...

I thought the Dylan print message succession was a scene from Pennebaker's documentary of Dylan "Don't Look Back"?

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Simon. I agree that Mean Girls does not have any obvious influence, but the films seem too similar to me to not bring it up.

Thanks, Hokahey,

I never saw the Demi Moore version of The Scarlet Letter, but I also liked Olive's quick put down of the film ("Moore takes lots of baths"). Weirdly, in the course of researching the 1917 version of the book (which does not appear to have any on-line videos, but does appear briefly in the movie), I found a scene from the 1926 version with Lillian Gish:

Then, Lillian Gish shows up again 19 years later in the Night of the Hunter clip--an odd coincidence.

I was also thinking how Easy A follows Clueless as another adaptation of a work of literature, even though the more recent film stubbornly sticks to American lit (Clueless borrowed from Austen's Emma.) Funny, too, how these two literary movies dumb themselves down with titles about mindlessness and easy grades.

Thanks, Anonymous, for that correction. I'll revise the post.

Castor said...

Yes, I appreciated that Easy A stayed off the path of the crude and raunchy teen comedy so many have taken before. It's nice to see for once that Olive doesn't have as much as a kiss on screen.

FilmDr said...

I agree, Castor, although I also wonder about Easy A's tendency to keep the harsher aspects of teenage life on an imaginative, pretend level. I had a hard time accepting that Olive would willingly allow others to think she was trading sex for money, just because she felt sorry for some guy. The "cleanness" of Easy A somehow allows the rumors to be surprisingly degrading.

Like Olive Plants said...

I'm awfully late weighing in, but I just saw the movie for the first time tonight. One allusion you missed: at the very beginning Olive says something like "The rumors of my sex life have been greatly exaggerated." Mark Twain, of course, said, "The rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Like Olive Plants

eric b said...

Forgive me, but my inner pedant demands I point out that "Say Anything," although under the John Hughes sub-heading, is a Cameron Crowe film (as was "Fast Times at Ridgemont High"). Granted, you didn't explicitly say that it was, and it was the movie's mistake for suggesting it, but...

opaul said...

another ferris bueller allusion/reference is when she plays an instrument (i think it's a guitar?) and says "never had one lesson" which is exactly what ferris says when he (badly) plays the clarinet.

Anonymous said...

The glass menagerie is one , when the mom is joking about her having a gentlemen caller :) haha im 17 and I caught that smh !

Kelly W said...

When Anson asks Olive out on a date, he offers to bring over 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath, and Olive jokes that they could skip the book and just put their heads in the oven. On February 10, 1963, poet and novelist Sylvia Plath killed herself by carbon monoxide poisoning and was found with her head in her oven.