Lost in the Movies: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Perhaps even more fascinating than the way our world changes is how the eyes that perceive it change too. Take, for example, the teen movie. It's been exactly thirty years since Fast Times at Ridgemont High hit multiplexes. Culturally a lot has changed, even to the point of coming full circle: the 80s fashion sense (brand new but fully blown in '82) went way out-of-fashion and then rather remarkably came back, albeit cloaked in irony and nostalgia. Meanwhile, those pixelated arcade games in the Sherman Oaks Galleria (itself a fallen victim of history's merciless march) have morphed into slick computer graphics that are close to convincingly emulating the very flesh-and-blood of the bored high-schoolers who play them. Meanwhile, those original teenagers, of course, are now well into middle age with kids the same age as they were in this movie.

But of course some things don't change - or haven't yet. Take the butterflies-in-stomach interplay between cute girl and geeky guy (we still don't see much of the reverse in movies, do we?). Or the yawning gap between authority figures who know the nature of the world (Mr. Hand, the sardonic lecturer, portrayed by "My Favorite Martian"'s Ray Walston) and indifferent kids who just want to have a good time (Spiccoli, played by Sean Penn in a star-making performance). These types and themes have been with us, by rough estimate, ever since one Mesopotamian knocked up another or the first Egyptian student skipped lessons to nibble on a pleasure-inducing leaf.

More narrowly too, teenage culture - which did not exist in its present fashion much before the dawn of rock 'n' roll - has actually remained fairly consistent in its outlines since the summer of '82. Sure, the tools of communication have transformed, with iPhones replacing those old red clunkers with the tangled cords. This is less true of what is actually communicated: initially nervous, eventually bold hints of sex and drugs, a sense of belonging to a mass tribe connected by scholastic rituals and pop culture touchstones, the uncertainty of whether one belongs to the world of childhood and adulthood.

The teen movie itself, however, the way this experience is communicated on movie and TV screens, has changed. The tropes are no longer as fresh as they were when Fast Times helped invent them, and nowhere near as raw. True, Cameron Crowe's screenplay is often broadly comic, yet director Amy Heckerling brings the truth to the surface of potentially cliched situations. She (and to be fair, Crowe's story) foregrounds the characters' work and school lives rather than just treating adolescence as a liber-teen party. Meanwhile, sex is demystified as "Surf Nazi" graffiti hovers over Stacy's (Jennifer Jason Leigh's) orgasmless deflowering, and later a hot-and-heavy sex drive doesn't make it much past kickoff.

And while today's teen movies make feints toward rebellion but seldom let controversy impede on commercialism, Fast Times has characters grappling with abortion, gleefully fellating bananas (more shocking for Phoebe Cates' childlike matter-of-factness than all the violated apple pies in the world), and uttering profanities still juicily provocative because the teens seem to know they're barely getting away with it - back then, there was no PG-13 compromise between family-oriented PG and the big R.

Most importantly, Fast Times at Ridgemont High lacks 21st century slickness. Scenes kind of bump along until they're over, the movie lacks the TV-commercial artificial polish of contemporary mainstream comedy, and Leigh's performance in particular has moments of emotional honesty that still cut. It also doesn't hurt that many of the characters - the girls, at least - look like they could plausibly be in high school instead of getting ready for their tenth reunion.

Fast Times is, don't get me wrong, a whole lot of fun, full of comedy, sex, and yes, even melodrama. But it tempers these with a spontaneity in character, a poignancy in situation, and a refreshing looseness and openness in the style. Thirty years ago, Jeff Spiccoli - with his entertaining but off-center frivolity - was one character in one hit teen movie. Today, one gets the sense he's writing, directing, and dominating all of them.


Sam Juliano said...

"More narrowly too, teenage culture - which did not exist in its present fashion much before the dawn of rock 'n' roll - has actually remained fairly consistent in its outlines since the summer of '82."

Indeed. Despite the modest disclaimers I can certainly agree with most of what you say here. The entire thrust of things changing or not changing enlightens the context of your focus. So much has changed in a cultural sense, but the teen movies parameters have mostly been constant. Anyway, I rather like this particular teen film.

Joel Bocko said...

Me too (obviously). I'd only seen it once, years ago, before this recent viewing and I remembered it as being fun fluff. There was more substance to it than I remembered though, especially in Leigh's performance and Heckerling's direction of the actors (and some very nice moments in Crowe's screenplay).

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