Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Rite of Passage: Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Back in fifth grade (1983), I had a wealthy friend I'll call "Ed." Well, I just assumed he was wealthy. See, he had multiple video game systems (both an Atari 2600 AND a Colecovision!), multiple action-figure franchise playsets (both a Star Wars Dagobah Action Playset AND a Masters of the Universe Castle Grayskull!), a waterbed, a swimming pool with hot-tub.... so, you tell me.

Do the math, people.

Further affirming his relative affluence was the strange little box that appeared one day atop his massive, wood-paneled television. A pay-TV box. Pandora's box. 
For illustrative purposes only. I can't remember what cable system Ed actually had. (image source)

Cable TV was a relatively new phenomenon in my Phoenix suburb. Who would pay for television when there were already a dozen channels you can watch for free over the air? 

Rich folks, that's who.

There was ON-TV, a scrambled signal broadcast over a UHF channel, which you could watch for free if you didn't mind that wide, vertical stripe wriggling down the middle of the picture like a stretch of bad road.  
Baseball, I think?

There were also these things called HBO and Showtime, cable channels that played movies, "uncut and unedited".  My parents explained this meant they left in all the cursing and nudity.

The bad parts. 

All the best movies (Star Wars, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Rescuers, etc.) didn't have any bad parts to cut, so I still didn't quite get the appeal of this whole pay-TV thing.

But it wasn't long before I began to appreciate the forbidden fruits of Ed's little set-top genie, the first being this crazy channel called MTV, where, as Ed explained, you "watch the radio"... against often provocative imagery.

This ain't your grandparents' television! Literally.

Videos by ZZ Top ("Gimme All Your Lovin'"), Duran Duran ("Girls On Film"), and even Elton John ("I'm Still Standing") demanded our absolute prurient attention when they popped out of the video jukebox, their suggestive images so fleeting that we couldn't quite absorb what we were seeing in real-time, their perceived explicitness magnified later in our imaginations.

One morning, my wealthy friend Ed arrived breathlessly at school in his tuxedo and top hat with exciting news: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, the Amy Heckerling-directed high-school sex comedy whose trailer had caught our eye the year prior, was going to be on cable that Saturday night. 

At this point I had never seen an unedited R-rated movie, the closest thing to a "teen sex comedy" I'd ever seen was, I guess, Grease (1978), (which doesn't count at all), and the only "full-frontal" scenes I could reference were shadowy glimpses of that unfortunate "Summer girl" from the opening scene of Jaws (1975).

A sleepover at Ed's was immediately scheduled.

Complications. The cable was only wired to the living room television set, and Ed's parents were planning to watch the film. With all the bad parts we were anticipating in Fast Times... there was no chance we would be allowed to view it with them (besides, that would be kind of... erm, awkward). 

Instead, we would have to watch surreptitiously from the neighboring rec-room, two rooms adjacent.
Simulated vantage point of the family television for our Fast Times at Ridgemont High viewing adventure (recreated using a frame from Strange Brew, 1983.)

We would have to be on high alert throughout the 93-minute run time. If Ed's parents caught us sneaking a peek, we'd be banished to his room for the night. This meant ducking out of view whenever Mom or Dad went to the adjoining kitchen for a snack.

And that's how I first saw Fast Times At Ridgemont High, squinting long distance from around a corner, over two shoulders and between two heads.  Achievement unlocked.

At fifth grade, my impressions of high-school were informed entirely by pop culture (My Bodyguard [1980], mostly.) Fast Times... would end up completely recalibrating those expectations, and it became my model for what high school would be like. 

Of course, reality would later shatter a lot of these expectations, but that was years away.

Some of the life-lessons learned by Fast Times...:

1. Sex is everywhere

The kids are thinking about, talking about it, doing it, talking about doing it, trying to do it, practicing it, and decorating their living spaces with it. Even the designated "nerd" character, Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) has sex thrown at him (in an awkward scene with Jennifer Jason Leigh's Stacy Hamilton). That teenagers are openly, unapologetically preoccupied with sex should perhaps be filed under "Well, Duh", but this was quite the revelation to fifth-grade me. 

2. Parents are nowhere

Ridgemont exists in an alternate reality where the only adults are teachers and fast-food restaurant managers. Parents are nowhere to be found, and seem to have very little involvement in their children's daily lives. Even in the few scenes where parents are present, they are usually off-screen. 

For example, Jeff Spicoli's (Sean Penn) tortured younger brother Curtis shouts for his off-screen Dad, who we never actually see. Stacy (Leigh) talks briefly with Mike Damone's (Robert Romanus) Mom on the phone, also never seen. The only parent with any screen-time is Stacy's mom, briefly appearing for a few seconds to obliviously tuck her fully dressed daughter in to bed, only for Stacy to immediately sneak out the window for a rendezvous with an older man (see lesson #1). 

Even when confronting serious matters like being fired from work, getting in a car accident, or having to deal with an unplanned pregnancy, the parents are never involved.

These teenagers were managing their personal lives completely without adult influence or supervision. 

3. Work is serious
"I will serve no fries before their time."

When we are introduced to Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) working at All American Burger, the first thing he does is dump a basket of fries into the garbage. He's decided they were sitting out too long and no longer acceptable to serve. No manager tells him to do this. He knows his job, takes pride in his work, and has made the assessment, entirely on his own.

This, to me, was remarkable. It's just a crappy fast-food job... and yet, he cares.

Later while training the new hire, Arnold (Scott Thomson), he asks about the secret sauce recipe at Arnold's former employer, Bronco Burger, because he's actually interested. "Ketchup and mayonnaise. Gotcha". I imagine he files that bit of captured industry intelligence away in some notebook.

This may just be a short-term, minimum wage fast-food job, but its HIS job, and he treats it with the seriousness of any other professional trying to build a career or master a craft.

Stacy (Leigh) and Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) work at Perry's Pizza in the mall. Unlike Brad, they don't see their job as a career and are just hanging in there season to season, but they too take their job seriously and are never seen goofing around at work or acting unprofessionally.

Business, it seems, is serious business.  

4. Bullying is apparently no longer a big deal

My previous high-school pop-culture model being 1980's My Bodyguard, I was relieved to discover that bullying was so-o-o-o two years ago. The stoners and geeks and athletes and cheerleaders and skaters of Ridgemont all seemed to be co-existing without shoving heads in toilets or extorting each other's lunch money. 

There are a few brief shots of first-day-of-school hazing (one kid gets toilet-papered like a mummy) but it feels more like a good-natured rule-breaking prank than targeted cruelty. 

And finally...

5. Phoenix is one-up on Ridgemont!

We may not have a beach, but at least we have cable!

Well, the rich* among us do, anyway.

(*Ed, it turns out, was not actually wealthy, he just had a few different toys than I did.)