Sunday, February 20, 2011


I was in middle school the first time I saw FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. It was a Friday or Saturday night and I was flipping through the channels, looking for a worthy late-night time killer like Monster Vision, Nite Flix, or USA's Up All Night. I stumbled onto the second half of FAST TIMES and was instantly mesmerized by the film's delicate balance of rowdy humor and serious drama. What really hooked me, I think, was the abortion scene. It seemed to belong to a completely different movie. It wasn't overwrought like the abortion scene at the end of THE LAST AMERICAN VIRGIN, which was weirdly accompanied by the pulse-pounding U2 anthem "I Will Follow." The matter-of-fact tone of the scene was somehow even more affecting.

Since TBS had the movie in constant rotation, I recorded the entire thing a few nights later... and realized that FAST TIMES could manage abrupt tonal shifts so effortlessly because the characters seemed so real. I felt like I could have gone to school with these people... Some of them I knew well and some of them I would never know, but all of them were familiar. That's a strong testament to the storytelling abilities of writer Cameron Crowe, director Amy Heckerling (who, by the way, was allegedly hired only after David Lynch turned the movie down!) and a cast of future celebrities including Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Phoebe Cates, Forest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Nicolas Cage and Anthony Edwards.

It's easy to talk about the powerhouse actors who brought the film to life, but - as a big fan of Cameron Crowe - I'm more inclined to talk about the characters, all of whom were based on real teenagers that the writer knew personally. Crowe, a 22-year-old rock journalist, wrote the FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH novel after spending a full year "undercover" as a 17-year-old senior at Claremont High School in San Diego. His goal was to tell the story of high school life from the perspective of the teenagers themselves. His thesis: "The only time these students acted like kids was when they were around adults."

In the introduction to the book, Crowe says that his "research" wasn't going so well at first... until he met Linda Barrett. He writes, "Somehow all roads at Ridgemont High led to Linda Barrett. Everyone knew her. She left an indelible mark on most students who came in contact with her. She was chronically exuberant, usually in a relentlessly good mood. She knew how to dress, and she knew how to walk."

In the film, Phoebe Cates plays Linda Barrett - and no one is likely to forget the way she walks. An entire generation of American men entered puberty at the exact moment that Phoebe Cates exited Stacy's backyard swimming pool in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH. Unfortunately, the TBS version edited that scene down to nothing. For about a year, I had no idea that Phoebe had gone topless in the scene. (It wasn't even clear from the television edit why Judge Reinhold had disappeared into the house so quickly.) The TV cut did, however, include two scenes that are NOT in the theatrical version - both of which use slightly more subtle means of characterizing Linda Barrett / Phoebe Cates as a sex goddess:

I should add that, on the night I set my VCR to record the movie, TBS followed FAST TIMES with another early Phoebe Cates movie called PRIVATE SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. (God bless 'em.) PRIVATE SCHOOL is a fairly routine PORKY'S rip-off, but I love it anyway. And because it features both Phoebe Cates and Ray Walston, I've always associated it with FAST TIMES. I heartily recommend it to connoisseurs of the great American teen sex comedy.

The first chapter of Cameron Crowe's novel revolves around Linda's younger, more inexperienced friend Stacy Hamilton, as she is getting laid by a slimy older guy on the last night of her "Summer of Wild Abandon." Stacy, you see, simply can't bear the thought of starting high school as a virgin. This chapter I knew by heart. Knew the girl. Heard all the maddening details of her awkward encounter with an older "townie." To Stacy, being seduced by an older man was romantic. To me, the idea of a college-age guy seducing a high school freshman wasn't just utterly creepy... it was (more to the point for a 14-year-old guy) hopelessly unfair. How could a guy in high school possibly land a girlfriend when all the girls his age were being zoomed by frat boys?

Crowe sums up: “It was one of the cruel inevitabilities of high school, right up there with grades and corn dogs. After thirteen, girls tended to mature at a rate of two- to three-times faster than boys. This led to a common predicament around Ridgemonth High. Two kids were in the same grade. The girl was discovering sex and men. The boy, having just given up his paper route, was awakening to the wonders of gothic-style romance." This was the author's setup for the character of Mark "The Rat" Ratner, the socially-inept romantic who's confined to a soulful but terminally platonic relationship with Stacy. (Unfortunately, I could relate.)

In the book, it is Rat who takes Stacy to the free clinic to have an abortion. Mind you, he is too naive to realize that's what he's doing. Stacy - confronted with the responsibilities of adulthood before the Rat has any real concept of what people around him are doing in the local baseball dugout - suffers through a depressingly clinical procedure that leaves her thinking, "I wish men could experience this." The abortion scene in the movie is equally melancholy, if not quite so bitter:

In the movie, it is Stacy's brother Brad who drives her to the clinic, and reassures her afterward. That's appropriate, since Brad has been forced to do a lot of growing up in his senior year. Crowe explains Brad's coming-of-age as follows:

“All year long Brad had delayed making any decisions about his life beyond senior year, though somehow he knew he would end up in college. To him the thought was like a dentist’s appointment or a visit to a crotchety relative – he could always put it off another month. This, after all, was to be his Cruise Year, and he had intended to consider life beyond high school only after he had a maximum amount of fun. Now everyone was going around talking about college applications and essay questions, and Brad hadn’t even gotten his Cruise Year into gear… After College Orientation Week, Brad Hamilton began to get a nagging image in his mind. In it he was forty years old, wearing an apron and working in a burger stand. He was surrounded by junior high school kids, telling him his fries were still the best.”

No high school senior can fail to identify with this sentiment. There is one particular scene in the film -- which also appears only in the television edit -- that captures the character's anxiety perfectly:

For the sake of comparison, here's another deleted scene that features Brad at the beginning of the school year and the height of his nonchalance. (The scene also features a young Nicolas Cage delivering his only line of dialogue in the film.)

At the opposite end of the spectrum, far from Brad's world-weary concerns about the responsibilities of adulthood, is Jeff Spicoli. In my opinion, Spicoli is not the most engaging character in the film. He operates more like a mascot for the proceedings than part of the actual story (and that's exactly how the film's distributors have always portrayed him in previews and posters). That said, there is something that keeps the character from becoming a punchline: In this role, Sean Penn is utterly, brilliantly earnest. When Spicoli says "All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I'm fine," he means it as sincerely as Gandhi meant "You must be the change you want to see in the world."

And that is the essence of high school as most of us remember it. It was a time when we could get away with floating through life on new experiences... though many of us were too anxious or insecure at the time to take advantage of it the way Spicoli does. Here's a deleted scene that features the character at his most mythic, talking about a souvenir given to him by Mick Jagger:

There is also one other deleted scene that features Spicoli and his buds (played by Eric Stoltz and Anthony Edwards), but it seems almost too hostile for the character and is the one scene that I think comes close to betraying the tone of the film:

Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling say, in the DVD commentary on FAST TIMES, that they were inspired by an earlier coming-of-age movie called OVER THE EDGE. At first glance, FAST TIMES and OVER THE EDGE don't have much in common other than the age-range of the main characters. OVER THE EDGE is about a group of characters who are brimming with violence; the characters in FAST TIMES are as sunny as the film's Southern California setting. Inevitably, OVER THE EDGE veers into "after school special" territory, but it is saved by the same thing that consistently buoys FAST TIMES: The characters wear their hearts on their sleeves, without ever quite realizing it. They are nothing if not completely earnest.

The FAST TIMES movie ends with final exams and the final dance of the school year. Cameron Crowe's book ends with an even more appropriate rite of passage: the annual trip to Disneyland. (Apparently this is a ritual among high schools in Southern California...?) Who could imagine a more gloriously absurd way to sum up the experience of high school than pouring a few hundred teenagers into Disneyland for a day? Crowe writes (presumably based on real-life experience) that the theme park workers are extremely intense about guarding the family-friendly magic of the Magic Kingdom, so it's no surprise that the filmmakers didn't get to shoot there. Still, I would have liked to have seen Linda and Stacy, Brad and The Rat, Damone and Spicoli pretending to act like adults while a guy in a Goofy suit poses beside them.

Even more than that I'd like to see a true "special edition" release of FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH that includes all of the scenes deleted from the theatrical version. To me, the movie just isn't right without all these character-building fragments... and I can't imagine why Universal has released the same DVD two or three times and not bothered to add these extras. Show me a petition and I'll sign it.

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