35th re­union at Ridge­mont High

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - Fast Times at Ridge­mont High. Email: pmartin@arkansason­line.com blood­dirtan­gels.com

“The whole movie is a fail­ure of taste, tone, and nerve — the waste of a good cast on er­ratic, of­fen­sive ma­te­rial that hasn’t been thought through, or maybe even thought about.”

— Roger Ebert, re­view of Fast Times at Ridge­mont High, Jan. 1,

1982 Now we can ad­mit it — high school was hor­ri­ble.

Not just for you, for ev­ery­one. For the cap­tain of the foot­ball team, for the home­com­ing queen, for the squared-away straight-ar­row class pres­i­dent with the ap­point­ment to a ser­vice academy locked up, and even for the ap­a­thetic stoner in the back of the room with the base­ball cap pulled down low over his eyes.

How could it not have been? Ado­les­cence is hor­ri­ble. Your half-baked brain is awash in crazy-mak­ing hor­mones, trapped in a body that’s spurty and tran­si­tory, mak­ing you un­couth and

self-con­scious and given to over­com­pen­sa­tion. If so­ci­ety re­ally had its chil­dren’s best in­ter­ests at heart, it might de­vise a sys­tem where boys and girls from ages 14 to 18 are ed­u­cated in iso­la­tion from one an­other. In­stead, we pen them in to­gether on a cam­pus and make nos­tal­gic sex come­dies about the ex­pe­ri­ence.

Amy Heck­er­ling’s di­rec­to­rial de­but Fast Times at Ridge­mont High is nei­ther the truest de­pic­tion of the Amer­i­can high school ex­pe­ri­ence ever com­mit­ted to film nor gen­uinely good so­ci­ol­ogy, but it is re­mem­bered fondly by many of us who saw it upon its re­lease in 1982. Spe­cial screen­ings to cel­e­brate the film’s 35th an­niver­sary will be held at se­lect the­aters around Arkansas to­day and on Wed­nes­day. For lo­ca­tions, times and tick­ets go to Fath­omEvents.com.

The film launched many act­ing ca­reers. It was the first time many of us saw Sean Penn, For­est Whitaker, Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh, Phoebe Cates, An­thony Ed­wards, Judge Rein­hold, Eric Stoltz and Ni­co­las Cage — who was billed as Ni­co­las Cop­pola — in a movie.

Heck­er­ling went on to a for­mi­da­ble ca­reer, high­lighted by writ­ing and di­rect­ing the sparkling Clue­less (1995), an­other film that has man­aged to lodge it­self in the Amer­i­can col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.

But what’s prob­a­bly most in­ter­est­ing about Fast Times at Ridge­mont High is it is based on a work of “new jour­nal­ism” by then 22-year-old Cameron Crowe who, went un­der­cover as new kid Dave Cameron for a year at Claire­mont High School in San Diego to re­search the lives of high school stu­dents. The book was pre­sented, some­what bizarrely, as a non­fic­tion novel, which

led to is­sues of au­tho­rial trust — it’s not en­tirely clear how much if any of the book is Crowe’s in­ven­tion or spec­u­la­tion. Some of the in­ci­dents — in the book and the movie — seem like things no one would ever con­fess to any­one.

Crowe, now a fa­mous writer-di­rec­tor known for his heart­felt if oc­ca­sion­ally awk­ward ro­man­tic come­dies, started his jour­nal­ism ca­reer at 15 writ­ing pro­files of rock ’n’ roll fig­ures for Rolling Stone, Play­boy, Creem and other pub­li­ca­tions. (Crowe’s most suc­cess­ful and ar­guably best film, 2000’s Al­most Fa­mous, was an ide­al­ized me­moir of this pe­riod of his life.) Fast Times at Ridge­mont High rep­re­sents his first long-form non­fic­tion, and read to­day — if you can find it, it’s out of print and com­mands a premium on the used book mar­ket (a quick in­ter­net search re­vealed a first edi­tion hardcover go­ing for $500, a mint con­di­tion trade pa­per­back priced at $379 and a “fair” con­di­tion copy selling for $77.98) — it feels vaguely clin­i­cal and stiff, es­pe­cially com­pared to the movie.

Still, while the book is in­fe­rior to the movie, it’s still a quick and in­ter­est­ing read, and al­most every in­ci­dent that oc­curs in the movie is de­picted in the book. Crowe at 22 was a bet­ter screen­writer than writer. The filmed scenes based on the book’s anec­dotes are in­vari­ably zip­pier and fun­nier than the same scenes on pa­per.

In the book, the char­ac­ter Jeff Spi­coli is an un­lik­able dolt. Penn trans­forms him — via an ir­re­press­ible smile and charm­ingly va­pid surfer-speak — to, if not quite the hero of the piece, at least its most en­dur­ing archetype. Penn’s Spi­coli is sun­nier, more sym­pa­thetic and wit­tier than his lit­er­ary coun­ter­part.

Also, the de­pic­tion of star foot­ball player Charles Jef­fer­son (Whitaker) is more nu­anced and darker in the book. In the movie, Jef­fer­son is a black shadow, a man among boys with seem­ingly lit­tle pa­tience for his child­ish peers. He ex­ists to men­ace those who dis­re­spect him. The movie makes him an un­will­ing dupe of Spi­coli who, while joy-rid­ing with Jef­fer­son’s younger brother, wrecks the ath­lete’s prized Ca­maro Z/28. While the kid brother freaks out about the re­venge Jef­fer­son might seek, Spi­coli has the bright idea of park­ing the ru­ined car in front of the school with racial slurs sup­pos­edly writ­ten by Ridge­mont’s big ri­val Lin­coln High.

When Ridge­mont plays Lin­coln, Jef­fer­son takes his anger out on the Lin­coln play­ers, and Ridge­mont wins the game.

But the book’s Jef­fer­son has a sen­si­tive side. He’s de­ter­mined to be no one’s “black friend.” He leaves the team be­cause of racist taunts and is lured back by the coach. There’s an in­cred­i­ble story about his hi­jack­ing a city bus to get home when his Z/28 is in the shop, which gets him banned from city buses. He ends up get­ting ar­rested for break­ing into a Ra­dio Shack. Ob­vi­ously this ver­sion of Charles Jef­fer­son doesn’t fit com­fort­ably into the high school sex com­edy mode.


High school is a rel­a­tively re­cent de­vel­op­ment. Up un­til the 1920s, most Amer­i­cans lived in small ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties that might be served by a sin­gle school. Once chil­dren reached high school age, many if not most of them had ac­quired adult re­spon­si­bil­i­ties. They had du­ties on the farm; they may have been ap­pren­ticed to a trade.

High schools re­ally started to de­velop dur­ing the 1930s as pro­gres­sive ed­u­ca­tors like Maria Montes­sori and John Dewey sketched out the ba­sic model of the Amer­i­can pub­lic school sys­tem. Then the eco­nomic boom in the af­ter­math of World War II cre­ated a new con­sumer class called “teenagers.” (See “rock ’n’ roll,” “rea­sons for.”) By the ’40s there were oc­ca­sional movies set in or par­tially in high schools, such as 1940’s High School, a B movie in which a rough-hewn rancher’s daugh­ter (Jane Withers) is sent to a large San An­to­nio high school where, af­ter some ini­tial set­backs, she wows them with her au­then­tic­ity and moxie. .

By 1955’s Black­board Jun­gle, fa­mous for fea­tur­ing the mu­sic of Bill Ha­ley and the Comets, the high school film seemed to have been cod­i­fied. Black­board Jun­gle had the oblig­a­tory ide­al­is­tic

young teacher (Glenn Ford) com­ing into a rough school, the threat of peer-on-peer vi­o­lence, a hu­mor­lessly in­flex­i­ble school bu­reau­cracy and an up­lift­ing end­ing. It also had Vic Mor­row in his film de­but as switch­blade-wield­ing delin­quent Ar­tie West.

Mor­row’s daugh­ter, Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh, made her film de­but in Fast Times at Ridge­mont High as Stacy Hamil­ton, a 15-year-old sopho­more anx­ious to lose her vir­gin­ity.


Leigh’s Stacy is one of the film’s ma­jor char­ac­ters. Af­ter los­ing her vir­gin­ity to a 26-year-old stereo sales­man who in­stantly ghosts her, she be­comes in­volved in a ro­man­tic tri­an­gle that even­tu­ally drives a wedge be­tween close friends Mike Da­mone (Robert Ro­manus) and Mark Rat­ner (Brian Backer).

Mark — known as “Rat” — has been crush­ing on Stacy, who works at the pizze­ria across the mall from the movie theater where he works, but he’s too shy to ap­proach her. So he seeks ad­vice from Mike, a fast-talk­ing would-be oper­a­tor who con­fides his “se­crets” for pick­ing up girls. This em­bold­ens Mike to ask Stacy out, but when she tries to se­duce him he loses his nerve. Stacy then turns her at­ten­tion to Mark.

Mean­while Stacy’s older brother Brad (Judge Rein­hold) is look­ing for­ward to grad­u­at­ing and mak­ing the fi­nal pay­ment on his 1960 Buick LeSabre. He has a job at a burger place along­side his girl­friend, Lisa (Amanda Wyss,) and ap­pears to be rooted and sta­ble. But he’s fired from his job af­ter an en­counter with an ob­nox­ious cus­tomer, which sends him on a down­ward spi­ral. Lisa dumps him and he is re­duced to work­ing at Cap­tain Hook Fish & Chips, where he’s re­quired

to wear a hu­mil­i­at­ing pi­rate cos­tume. (He quits this job af­ter be­ing forced to de­liver food in cos­tume.)

Mean­while Spi­coli, some­times ac­com­pa­nied by his “stoner buds” (Stoltz and Ed­wards, whose char­ac­ters didn’t even rate names though they get far more screen time than fu­ture Os­car win­ner Cage/Cop­pola, who’s only briefly glimpsed as an ex­tra work­ing the grill in Brad’s burger joint), ca­reens through the film, ban­ter­ing with dic­ta­to­rial Mr. Hand (Ray Wal­ston) and drop­ping the oc­ca­sional zen bon mot.

Watched to­day, it’s a lit­tle sur­pris­ing how frankly and mat­ter-of-factly real­is­tic the movie deals with (spoiler alert) Stacy’s abor­tion. Heck­er­ling han­dles the scene and its af­ter­math with sen­si­tiv­ity while al­low­ing the sit­u­a­tion to speak for it­self. It’s em­bar­rass­ing, mis­er­able and scary — like high school — but she doesn’t wal­low in the sad­ness or posit it as a life-de­stroy­ing event. It’s a ter­ri­ble thing to go through, but Stacy (and all the movie’s char­ac­ters) ends up all right.

It helps that sev­eral of the per­for­mances are ter­rific, es­pe­cially those of Leigh and Penn. Rein­hold is ter­rific too as the sort of Everykid most of us might re­mem­ber our high school selves as be­ing.

It’s not a great movie, but 35 years on Fast Times at Ridge­mont High seems re­mark­able for the re­spect it paid its core au­di­ence — kids the same age as its char­ac­ters. Crowe and Heck­er­ling suc­ceeded in pro­vid­ing that au­di­ence with a mildly flat­ter­ing mir­ror that, over the decades, has turned into a fa­vorite snap­shot of the way they were.

An­thony Ed­wards (from left), Sean Penn and Eric Stoltz star in Fast Times at Ridge­mont High.

Jen­nifer Ja­son Leigh is among a num­ber of stars whose ca­reers were launched by ap­pear­ing in

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