Fast Times At Ridgemont High is apparently the proverbial teen pic, the go-to example of that lewd and crude genre of films especially popularized in the late 70s and early 80s. Perhaps the most popular icon of the film is Sean Penn’s Spicoli, the surfer dude who exaggerates everything dense and lazy about the stereotypical Californian beach bum. Expectations will be dashed on the rocks, however, if one goes into Fast Times expecting Spicoli to be the central character of the film. Watching this movie consecutively with American Graffiti is a helpful exercise, since it does well to hold Fast Times in perspective. It may have been an important film for what it was, but its originality fades a bit when viewed next to that earlier teen movie that also aimed to depict the raucous frivolities of youth next to its harsh, all-too non-nostalgic realities. Both films, of course, end with on-screen postscripts of “where are they now?” updates. These bytes are curious, since neither film was a “true story” in any meaning of the term.
The supposed “innocence” of early 1960s youth that George Lucas was shooting for actually works when one sees Fast Times just prior to American Graffiti. Still, nostalgia never exists without naivete, or worse, a fundamentally voluntary ignorance (memory-murder, really) of the past. Lucas effectively balances his nostalgia with the pathetic realities of youth. Amy Heckerling also attempts this, but her attempts feel confused and regressive. She was attacked, it turns out, for her depictions of female nudity in the film; being a woman, how could she? Her lame defense is that her attempt to include a man in all his glory was rejected by the studio. (This is bizarre logic on Heckerling’s part, though obviously the studio as well.) Certainly as a woman, Heckerling had an opportunity her to do something more innovative with a traditionally mindless genre. Most critics believe she did move things forward with an abnormally intelligent film. Fast Times is cohesive, consistent, and funny; it has the right ingredients to be a good movie. Her appeal, however, to the male fantasy blisters the film just as consistently as its humor sustains it. When she positions the spectator to a female character, the camera moves all too quickly back to a distinctly male position, a la Mulvey. At the encounter that leads later to an abortion, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character is the focus, but she is framed from a male point-of-view. Judge Reinhold’s fantasy of Phoebe Cates is even more shameless, and even following his humiliation, she is ignored and he is vindicated. Fast Times: one step forward, three back.
A fascinating congruity between Fast Times and its predecessor American Graffiti is the cetripetal space of youth culture. In Graffiti, the kids cruise, picking up and being picked up. Mel’s Drive-In is the meeting point and the strip is where the kids race, trash-talk, and ritualistically seek their mates for the evening. In Fast Times, the mall is the strip and the diner inside is the meeting point. An evolution takes place in the twenty years separating the eras of the two films, which gives birth to the mall, that extraordinary social space and the commercialism that keeps people together. It was inevitable that something more efficient than “the strip” come to be, and it is (and still is) the mall. Though these spaces are centripetal, there is a slingshot effect to centripetal youth spaces to which both films must concede: graduation and college. Eventually, high school ends and the next step must be taken, a step which, thanks to the educational system, means centrifugal movement. Naturally, in Graffiti this means moving to school on the east coast. Ron Howard’s and Richard Dreyfuss’ characters wrestle with this fate and come out on different ends. The slingshot effect can be resisted, and at times beaten. In these films and the world that they depict, “home” is a centrality that the youth both love and hate, embrace and reject. There is the unspoken understanding inherent in nostalgia that once the center is left, return is impossible; the centripetal gives birth to a permanent cetrifugal.