Fast Times at Ridgemont High

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The teen film genre first flourished in the 1950s, when Hollywood discovered that its slimmed-down, post-TV audience consisted primarily of teenagers and young adults. The leading writers, directors, and producers of the fifties were middle-aged and beyond, but nevertheless the film industry began to make teenpics. Notable titles of the period include The Wild One, Rebel without a Cause, The Blackboard Jungle, and Rock around the Clock, as well as the films of Elvis Presley and Frankie and Annette. Though ostensibly about antisocial rebellion, the teen film is usually pulled between a desire for independence and a need to belong. For example, the ''rebel without a cause'' in Nicholas Ray's 1954 film turns out to be searching for the guidance of a strong, patriarchal family. As Jon Lewis puts it, ''The cultural function of the teen film has always been primarily one of reassurance.''1

With American Graffiti (1973), George Lucas set off a new round of teen films, this time in a nostalgic mode. The films of the 1950s are a take on contemporary reality, but Lucas's film looks back from the early 1970s at a simple, idealized ''teen culture'' set in 1962. This date is significant as the last possible year of teenage innocence before the assassination of President Kennedy, the beginnings of the Vietnam War, and the various social movements of the 1960s. The year 1962 is really the tail end of the fifties, in social and cultural terms, and so Lucas is looking back at the original period of the teen film and reshaping it in a wistful, nostalgic way. This formula was soon adopted by a wide variety of 1970s teen films, including Cooley High (i975), Grease (1978), and Animal House (1978).2

The story of American Graffiti focuses on a fifteen-hour stretch — a night and a morning—in the lives of a group of friends in Modesto, California.3 Steve (Ron Howard) and Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) revisit their high school for the beginning-of-school dance; both are due to take off for an East Coast college the next day. Steve pushes his steady girl Laurie (Cindy Williams), a high school senior, to have sex with him just once before he leaves, though he is too embarrassed to say exactly what he wants. Laurie rejects him, and they break up. Steve loans his old Chevy to Terry the Toad (Charles Martin Smith) for the school year, thus immediately making Terry a person of some substance in the teen culture. Terry proceeds to pick up Debbie (Candy Clark), a pretty, blonde girl from a neighboring school. Curt, a brainy kid, visits with an English teacher, sees an old girlfriend, and then gets entangled with a local gang, the Pharaohs. All of the characters eventually are drawn to the Friday night ritual of "cruising" (a promenade of cars down a specific street in town). Chief among the cruisers is John Milner (Paul Le Mat), the local drag racing champ, who will eventually take on the visiting Falfa (Harrison Ford) in a race.

The film economically develops a series of teen stereotypes, including the good boy (Steve), the good girl (Laurie), the brain (Curt), the nerd (Terry), the bad girl (Debbie), the bad boy (John), and the gang (the Pharaohs), but treats them with a rare egalitarianism. Steve the class president hangs around with nerdy Terry; Milner finds himself driving around with thirteen-year-old Carol (Mackenzie Phillips); Curt passes the Pharaohs' initiation by pulling the rear axle off a police car. Everything intertwines, and the teenage scene acquires a surprising density; it seems to be a complete world, if only for fifteen hours.

Much of this density is created by a rock-and roll score of about forty songs, taken from the period. All of the characters are listening to the same radio station, and this station is playing "Rock around the Clock,'' "Ain't

American Graffiti universal pictures.

Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams), the nostalgic teen couple of the early 1960s. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

American Graffiti universal pictures.

Steve (Ron Howard) and Laurie (Cindy Williams), the nostalgic teen couple of the early 1960s. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art/Film Stills Archive.

That a Shame,'' ''See You in September,'' ''Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,'' ''Why Do Fools Fall in Love,'' ''Do You Wanna Dance,'' and so on. The disc jockey is Wolfman Jack (playing himself), who becomes a kind of sage of the teenage culture—in fact, Curt visits the radio station in the early morning hours to consult the Wolfman. The music was, from the start, crucial to the film's conception; George Lucas was confident that the musical selections would establish the setting and involve the audience.4 The carefully chosen, wall-to-wall rock score is similar in impact to the score of Easy Rider, but there is one important difference. In Easy Rider, the score at times suggests a transcendence, a religious dimension of experience which goes beyond the joys and travails of the moment. In American Graffiti, on the other hand, the musical score stays focused on the joys and rituals of the nostalgically re-created teen culture.

Permanence/impermanence is actually the central motif of American Graffiti and of most (perhaps all) teen films.5 One dynamic of the film is that both Steve and Curt are very reluctant to leave the town, their friends, and (by extension) their adolescent years. Through most of the film Steve is steadfast about leaving, whereas Curt hesitates. Contributing to Curt's be-fuddlement is the fleeting vision of a blonde (Suzanne Somers) in a white Thunderbird, a materialization of the yearning and promise of the teenage years. Eventually Curt the brain finds the independence of spirit to leave, whereas Steve cannot break his ties to Laurie. But clearly, this teenage world itself is fleeting and now vanished, as the 1962 setting makes clear. According to Dale Pollock, the title American Graffiti is meant to evoke ''memories of a bygone civilization.''6 Within the film, John Milner, slightly older than

American Graffiti universal pictures.

College-bound Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) hangs out with the hoodlum gang the Pharaohs. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

American Graffiti universal pictures.

College-bound Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) hangs out with the hoodlum gang the Pharaohs. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

the other characters, suggests that the golden age has already passed. Milner remembers when the cruising strip was much longer, and he visits a car graveyard full of totalled dragsters. Also, the day of leaving for college is a major turning point; either you break away, or you don't. To all these meto-nyms of impermanence, one must counterpose the film itself. In a certain sense, it is still and always 1962 (or Lucas's idealized version of 1962), as long as people are watching American Graffiti.

American Graffiti is also a reaction to the new emphasis on sex, violence, and profanity in Hollywood movies which began in the late 1960s. The American studios met a challenge from foreign competition and catered to the ''new morality'' of their increasingly young audience by relaxing the standards of acceptable conduct on screen. The scrapping of the Hollywood Production Code in 1968 is more an effect than a cause of these changes. But there is no explicit sexuality and very little violence in American Graffiti. Further, teenage rebellion in this film is decidedly muted: Terry the Toad's drinking episode with Debbie ends in embarrassment, tough guy Milner is saddled with a mouthy teenybopper, and even the law-breaking Pharaohs don't do any serious harm. Despite its emphasis on change and decision making, American Graffiti ends with very little alteration to the teenage culture. Steve will stay, Curt will go, and otherwise life goes on.

This conclusion is modified by printed titles which tell us what happened to some of the characters after the film. Steve became an insurance agent in Modesto; Curt moved to Canada (presumably to escape the draft) and became a writer; Terry was missing in action in Vietnam; Milner was killed by a drunk driver. Things did change in important ways for these characters, but not on-screen. Nineteen sixty-two was, indeed, a fleeting moment. Curt is the only one who successfully manages to leave Modesto and establish a new life; this is prefigured in the film's last images, where Curt looks down from his plane (he's flying ''Magic Carpet Airlines'') at the receding California farmland and highway. Conventional, weak-willed Steve ends up in a conventional profession; whether he marries Laurie is left to the viewer's imagination. Milner's death, arbitrary though it may be, suggests the limited horizon of a small-town drag racer. Terry's (presumed) death, on the other hand, brings the teen culture of American Graffiti into contact with the broad social issues of the later 1960s.

In a decision Lucas was later to regret, none of the women characters in

American Graffiti is given a postfilm trajectory. Scriptwriters Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck argued that the women should be included, but Lucas maintained that ''It's a movie about the four guys'' and that an additional title card would slow down the film.7 The relegating of the women characters to secondary status may be justified for Debbie and Carol, for each appears in mid-film as an adjunct to a male character (Terry and Milner, respectively). However, Laurie is in the film from beginning to end, she is Curt's sister as well as Steve's girlfriend, and she is featured in several scenes without Steve. Further, Laurie is clearly smarter and more strong-willed than her romantic partner, a point interestingly anticipated by the film's casting. Ron Howard was eighteen when the film was made, with a background as a child actor; Cindy Williams, on the other hand, was twenty-five, an adult in bobbysoxer clothing! Laurie deserves a title card of her own— for example: ''Laurie Henderson moved to San Francisco and became a TV news reporter.''

American Graffiti provided a number of important plot conventions for teen films that followed: adults are either absent or ineffectual; the story is compressed into a short period of time; the story involves several characters of more or less equal importance; the film cuts back and forth between subplots; long-term outcomes are presented via end titles; the story focuses on a nostalgic, even mythic, vision of teenage years. American Graffiti did not invent any of these conventions, but its highly successful synthesis of elements was much copied, by numerous feature films as well as by television shows such as Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley. One should not forget that American Graffiti was highly successful in a commercial sense: production budget of $500,000, box office return of $50 million. This kind of return was in itself enough to set off a new cycle of teen films.

Cooley High (1975) is a high school film with an ensemble cast set in Chicago in 1964. Produced by B-movie company American International Pictures, it is to some extent derivative of American Graffiti. The film chronicles the high school experience, with a great deal of action crammed into a short period of time—several days, in this case, instead of American Graffiti's less than twenty-four hours. The teenage world of Cooley High includes school, parties, pranks, even a high school hangout—Martha's soda fountain (equivalent to American Graffiti's Mel's Drive In). The musical score is mostly Motown, including songs by the Four Tops, the Temptations,

Stevie Wonder, and so on. Motown is a wonderful choice, for two reasons: (1) it strongly evokes the mid-1960s; and (2) Motown's black/urban sound was appreciated, even loved, by a broad spectrum of Americans. The American Graffiti influence should not be overemphasized, however; the link between the films may be more commercial packaging than primary inspiration. Cooley High was based on an autobiographical script by TV and film writer Eric Monte (creator of the television series ''Good Times''), who had attended Edwin G. Cooley Vocational High School in Chicago.

Cooley High is about a group of four high school boys, but only two, Preacher (Glynn Turman) and Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) are truly the focus of the action. Preacher is a bright, mischievous boy who writes poetry for fun but rarely comes to class. Cochise, a handsome basketball star, is more concerned with partying and girls than with school. We see them through a variety of pranks, including skipping school to go to the zoo, impersonating vice cops to get spending money from two whores, and joyriding in a stolen car. The seemingly harmless joyriding eventually gets Cochise killed. The film ends with a drunken Preacher speaking a soliloquy over his friend's grave.

Though Cooley High is not a great film, it provides a fascinating rearrangement of the conventions of seventies teen comedies. For example, in American Graffiti parents and home life are almost entirely absent (Curt's parents appear in a short scene at the airport). In Cooley High, we see scenes of Preacher at home with his Mama, who works long hours to support the family,8 and two younger sisters. We discover, in these scenes, that Preacher is poised uncomfortably between childhood and adulthood; the teenage years here do not have the autonomy and completeness of other teen films. For example, the question of who will take care of the youngest causes lots of bickering and childish behavior in the Jackson household. Also, in a lovely scene, Mama comes home from work late one night and tells Preacher to go upstairs and get the belt. She's going to punish him for some serious misdeeds (including an arrest). But when Preacher comes downstairs with the belt, Mama is asleep in a kitchen chair. The cocky, mature Preacher kisses his Mama's hair and goes to bed; in some ways he's still a kid.

Another clear difference between American Graffiti and Cooley High lies in the area of sexuality. In American Graffiti the boys are looking for sex, but the film's rituals—the high school hop, cruising—are sublimations of

CooleyHigh american international pictures.

Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) with one of his many female admirers. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

that impulse. This film's teenage world is exciting and complete without the exploration of adult sexuality. Cooley High, on the other hand, presents a far different picture. Ray, a slightly older friend of Preach and Cochise, cheats a white man looking for a black whore. Preach and Cochise rob the two streetwalkers. Cochise the basketball star is often embracing a female admirer, and he has sex with Preacher's ex-girlfriend. Preacher's big sexual moment involves the seduction of the beautiful Brenda in his own bed. But even here, Preacher's boy-man quality comes into play when he and Brenda are caught (after the act) by his two younger sisters. This is one of the transgressions prompting Mama to say ''get the belt.''

A third difference between American Graffiti and Cooley High lies in the consequences of teenage pranks. Curt in American Graffiti, guided by the Pharaohs, attaches chains to the underbody of a parked police car. When the Pharaohs then come speeding by, the police car pulls out at full

CooleyHigh american international pictures.

Cochise (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs) with one of his many female admirers. Courtesy of Museum of Modern Art /Film Stills Archive.

power . . . and loses its rear axle. This prank seems to be free of consequences; no one is hurt, and the police do not reappear. In a similar scene in Cooley High, Preach and Cochise go joyriding with two friends, Stone and Robert, who have stolen a big, late-model car. Preacher brags about his driving prowess and is given a chance at the wheel. His unskilled, erratic driving attracts a police car, leading to a high-speed chase. The chase ends when Preach drives over the arms of an in-use forklift, and the police car gets caught in the forklift's upward movement—no one is hurt, but the police car is left dangling in the air. However, this prank has real consequences. Preach, Cochise, Stone, and Robert are arrested. Preach and Cochise are released because of the intervention of Mr. Mason, a teacher at Cooley High. But this release suggests to Stone and Robert that their friends must have ratted on them. When Robert and Stone make bail, they come after Preach and Cochise. They beat Cochise to death, destroying his chance at a college scholarship and a bright future.9 In the inner-city world of Cooley High, adolescent pranks can have tragic consequences.

In technical terms, Cooley High has the rough look and feel of a ''B movie.'' The cinematography is sometimes garish, the acting is uneven, and the editing lacks George Lucas's unerring sense of pace in American Graffiti. As a cultural document, though, this is an interesting film. Cooley High adds, or restores, to the teenfilm recipe family context, sexuality, and real consequences. And via these additions, it shows that the American Graffiti formula can be adjusted to fit a social milieu that is far removed from small-town California.

Animal House is another film at least slightly influenced by American Graffiti, though a more obvious influence would be the TV show ''Saturday Night Live.'' Animal House takes place in the ''innocent'' year of 1962, and it ends with supered titles describing the characters' futures. The setting has shifted from high school cruising to college, but we are still involved in highly organized rituals that separate youth from the adult world. Animal House uses the format of ensemble cast (featuring the men) with several interlocking subplots, and in this film parents are entirely absent. One convention Animal House does dispense with is the tight time scheme. The film takes place over several weeks of the fall semester.

The plot of Animal House is both silly and crammed with events, so it need not be summarized at length. The primary plot involves a conflict be tween a nasty dean (John Vernon) and the dissolute Delta house, a fraternity characterized by drinking, rowdiness, and abysmal academic performance. The dean eventually closes the fraternity and expels its members, and they respond by disrupting and destroying the college's homecoming parade. Among the subplots are: (1) Larry (Tom Hulce) and Flounder's (Stephen Furst) transformation from nerdy pledges to full members of the fraternity; and (2) the conflict between Delta house and the militaristic, "all-American" Omega fraternity.

Animal House is less concerned about plot, however, than about modeling behavior. It is, quite frankly, in favor of sex, alcohol, marijuana, and rock and roll. Where American Graffiti was about creating a complete teenage world, Animal House is about having fun. Some of this fun is trivial and forgettable—e.g., the food fight—but the toga party is genuinely inventive. Young men and women dress up in variously wrapped sheets (with laurel wreaths, ties, and other accessories) and dance the night away. Otis Day and the Knights10 whip the crowded dance floor to a frenzy— at one point, all the guys are writhing on the floor. Ancillary action takes place in a couple of bedrooms. Larry decides not to rape the young town girl he has invited, and Otter (Tim Matheson) gets erotically tangled up with the dean's wife. Animal House reminds us that the teen film is at least potentially Dionysiac.

Bluto, played by John Belushi, is the leader of the revels.11 After seven years in college, his midterm average is 0.00. His interests seem to be drinking, eating, breaking things, and spying on sorority girls. In a second-story Peeping Tom scene, Bluto pauses to turn and raise his eyebrows at the spectator before falling, awestruck by the vision in front of him. Bluto is an unrestrained, carnivalesque spirit—he does what he wants, when he wants, with whomever he wants. But the end titles identify Bluto and the sorority girl he kidnaps from the parade as "Senator and Mrs. John Blutarsky, Washington D.C.'' Though wildly unlikely (and poking fun at the end title convention), this outcome suggests that the teen and college years are not necessarily predictive of later success. Spectators looking for an alternate outcome can recall that the actor John Belushi died of a drug overdose at age thirty-three.

As a college professor, I suppose I should be outraged about the drinking and destructive behavior of Animal House. Binge drinking, a very real problem on college campuses, is glorified here. Partying becomes the be-all and end-all of college life; the few brief classroom scenes are introduced only to make fun of classes, teachers, and tests. Property is destroyed, the surrounding community is disrupted, and so on and so on. But Animal House is a satire; it takes the privileged hedonism of college life and magnifies it to the nth degree. Its simplest message to anxious young people is ''Relax; have a good time.''

If we go beyond this level to investigate commission and omission, originality and stereotype, then the message of Animal House is mixed. On the one hand, the community of Delta Tau Chi really is more accepting and more flexible than the big-man-on-campus fraternity. The Deltas welcome overweight and anxious Flounder (his ''fraternity name,'' given by Bluto), after he has been embarrassed and rejected by the Omegas. They really do have a functioning community which helps Larry and Flounder grow from high school boys to college men. The desirability of the hard-drinking, party-all-night college stereotype is another matter. On the other hand, the positive aspects of socialization in Animal House apply almost entirely to men. College women in the film are sexually provocative, easily disrobed, and without distinctive personalities. The sexism of Animal House prepares the way for the teen chauvinism of Porky's. But even on this point there is an exception. Katy (Karen Allen), the on-again off-again girlfriend of Boon (Peter Riegert), a Delta senior, finds the fraternity house parties juvenile and predictable. She disapproves of her boyfriend's habitual drunkenness, not for moral reasons but because of a sense of waste. Katy also sleeps with a charismatic English professor (played by Donald Sutherland, in a cameo role), as a gesture of independence. The character of Katy suggests that Animal House is not entirely an exploitation-of-women film.

Like some other teen films of the late 1970s, Animal House is unusually direct and participatory. Animal House invites its young audience to have fun, get high, throw a toga party. Saturday Night Fever (1977) both responds to and fuels the disco craze; it advocates a style of dress, dance, and behavior. Grease (1978) brings back the fifties in a simple, glossy, easily digested form; audiences often sing along to Grease's lyrics, familiar from both play and movie performances. The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1979) has become a midnight cult film with participatory rituals which invite young people to consider (in a safe context) alternative sexualities.

Barry Levinson's Diner (1982) transports the George Lucas teen formula to older characters and a more serious mood. Diner, set in Baltimore in 1959, is about six young men in their early twenties who are still negotiating the transition from adolescence to adulthood. The film features ensemble acting, interwoven subplots, and a restricted time period—in this case, the week between Christmas and New Year's Eve. Popular music of the period fills the soundtrack, and the characters even debate the virtues of their favorite musicians. Much attention is paid to the customs and rituals of the social setting, in this case a middle-class, largely Jewish neighborhood. Diner does, however, dispense with the American Graffiti convention of end titles describing the future.

Writer-director Levinson has argued that the American Graffiti connection is more apparent than real. His film was perceived by MGM, its distributor, as a teen film, but when it was test-marketed to a teenage audience it failed. Levinson prefers to see Diner as a film in the line of Fellini's I Vitelloni —a comparison which reveals both the film's complex tone and Levinson's cinematic culture.12 The Fellini film is an autobiographical meditation about the young men of Rimini. These "wastrels" in their early twenties are out of school, not fully involved in the world of work, not quite ready for marriage. The film presents a nostalgic but bittersweet view of late adolescence in a provincial town. Diner is similar to I Vitelloni not only in subject but in visual style and mood. Diners muted color (Baltimore in winter) is much closer to Fellini's subdued black and white than to the garish colors of American Graffiti or Cooley High. The teen film conventions are there, and they provide a narrative frame, but Diner is about a different, more somber moment of growing up. Vincent Canby describes the difference like this: "The characters in American Graffiti still had several years to go before experiencing the angst that hangs over the young men in Diner like not entirely unpleasant, greasy griddle smoke.''13

Diner begins at a dance in a high school gym on Christmas night, but the main characters are far past their high school years. Shrevie (Daniel Stern) is already married to Beth (Ellen Barkin). Eddie (Steve Guttenberg) will marry Elise (Sharon Zinman) on New Year's Eve, but only if Elise passes a football quiz. The troubled Fenwick (Kevin Bacon) has "sold" his date Diane to another guy for five dollars. Boogie (Mickey Rourke), the womanizer in the group, smooths things over between Fenwick and Diane. Modell (Paul Reiser) is also hanging out at the dance. After the dance the women are dropped off, and the guys meet at the diner for coffee, food, and conversation. In the early morning, Shrevie, Boogie, and Fenwick go to the train station to pick up Billy (Timothy Daly), who is in grad school in New York and is coming in for his best friend Eddie's wedding. Then it's back to the diner for more conversation.

Barry Levinson comments that one of the keys to the movie is an ''amazing naivete'' about women, ''the guys' inability to understand them, their neglect of them.''14 Most of the incidents of Diner are about courtship but also about the estrangement of the protagonists from women. Shrevie cannot talk to his wife for five minutes, and yet he can chat for hours at the diner. Eddie admits to sexual inexperience, and to not knowing much about Elise. Boogie notes Fenwick's immaturity, yet he wants to place bets on his own ability to seduce a young woman. But the strongest and funniest variation on this theme in Diner is clearly the football quiz.

Eddie has required, as a condition of marriage, that Elise pass a detailed quiz (true and false, multiple choice, short answer) on the Baltimore Colts football team. Perhaps he is clinging to his boyhood, to his man-without-woman identity. Shrevie and Fenwick and Elise's father witness the quiz, in Elise's wood-paneled basement. Questions are asked and answered, judgments are made, fine points are discussed, all without on-screen recognition of the outrageousness of the situation. Further, Elise never appears in this scene; she is behind a wall somewhere, and we only hear her voice. The mise-en-scene underlines the barrier between future spouses that is the whole point of the scene. Will Elise really be welcome in the all-male world of the football quiz, or of the diner? Very doubtful.

An interesting question here is whether Diner repeats the sexual chauvinism of American Graffiti and Animal House, or whether it critiques the male-dominant position. I would support the second explanation. Levinson is sympathetic to his characters, yet he understands their weaknesses. The director's attitude is not at all equivalent to the characters' limited view. Thus, the quiz scene, a serious matter within the diegesis, is absurd and funny to the audience. Even more outrageously, the week covered by Diner includes a National Football League championship game played in Baltimore, and the characters attend—but Levinson never tells us who won! In retrospect, this football subtheme becomes even more memorable, because the Colts left Baltimore in 1984 and moved to Indianapolis. Thus Diner, like American Graffiti, becomes the tracing of a vanished world.

Many of the subplots of Diner are somber. For example, Billy discovers that Barbara, who slept with him once in November after several years of friendship, is now pregnant. Also, Boogie spends much of the film desperately trying to escape a large gambling debt. But the film is broken up by occasional moments of joy. In one extraordinary scene, Eddie and Billy visit a tawdry bar on Baltimore's Block (the adult entertainment district) and observe a tired stripper and a desultory saxophonist and drummer. After complaining about the music, Billy goes to the piano and lays down a strong boogie-woogie. The musicians pick up the beat, Eddie starts dancing with the stripper, and the bar's patrons cheer the spectacle. Billy has broken through the indifference of strangers and created a momentary community. This is underlined in the next scene, when Billy, Eddie, and the stripper go out for hamburgers and she says, ''You guys are all right. You made my day.''

The film ends with Eddie and Elise's wedding. All the guys are there, Shrevie with Beth, Fenwick with his date from the opening dance, Boogie with a gorgeous rich girl he saw riding a horse one morning. But the wedding is also a family and a generational affair, with people of all ages dancing, mingling, having fun. The narrow age group (a teen film convention) begins to dissolve into the wider social milieu. At one point, Modell grabs the mike and begins reminiscing about Eddie and the guys; his monologue is a synecdoche for the entire film. When Elise throws the bouquet, the unmarried girls bat it in the air a few times and it falls at the feet of the diner guys. The image then fades to sepia. This lovely moment concludes the film by making a common ritual both particularized and poignant. The young men confronted by the bouquet are delayed adolescents going nowhere. The bouquet challenges them to take the next step, to become adults, to understand and fully respond to women. On the other hand, the bouquet is just a bouquet.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) takes the American Graffiti teen-film conventions and places them firmly in the present. This film is about 1982, not some nostalgic past, and it features a familiar teenage landscape of shopping mall, video arcade, fast-food restaurant, and so on. The soundtrack is contemporary rock. As with other films in the cycle, parents are absent and the challenges and relationships of the film are within teenage society—al though a few teachers do play minor roles. The suburban Los Angeles setting leads to occasional distinctive moments, for example scenes set around a backyard swimming pool. However, for the most part Fast Times is about generic teenagers—the mall and the high school could be almost anywhere.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High is based on a nonfiction book by Cameron Crowe—then a young journalist for Rolling Stone, now a screenwriter and film director.15 Crowe actually attended Ridgemont High in Redondo Beach, California, for a few months, posing as a student. His book, like the film adapted from it, is thus based on current field work, not nostalgic memory. But this distinction is to some extent erased by the self-conscious approach of the film. Tom Doherty uses Fast Times as an example of ''a new kind of calculated and consciously reflexive teenpix.'' Doherty sees a ''double vision'' in Fast Times and Risky Business (1983); both films have a teenage subject matter but also an irony and distance aimed at adults.16 Consider this example. When Mark (Brian Backer), taking tickets at the local movie theater, says, ''All the action's on the other side of the mall,'' his remark can be taken in two different ways. First, it's an unremarkable comment from an insecure teenager. Second, Mark's line has an irony addressed to the spectator, because we know that the other side of the mall must be very much like this side (malls are homogeneous). The double consciousness described by Doherty accomplishes approximately the same ends as the nostalgia of American Graffiti— it makes the film accessible to a broad range of spectators.

Much of the critical comment on Fast Times focuses on gender and sexuality. The female characters here are given equal weight to the men; indeed, if there is one primary character, it is Stacey (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Even more remarkable is the film's matter-of-fact treatment of teenage sexuality. High school freshman Stacey is eager to learn about sex. Her older friend Linda (Phoebe Cates) counsels her about male sexuality, pushes her to go out with an older guy, even gives a demonstration of fellatio—using a carrot. Stacey experiments with sex without losing her attractive, nice-girl qualities. After a couple of bad experiences, she decides that ''Anybody can have sex, I'm looking for a relationship.'' At the end of the film, she is courting Mark, a nice guy who is not ready for adult sexuality. Fast Times might be considered a ''post-sexual revolution'' film—sex is considered a part of life, but not the be-all and end-all of teenage society. This is a quite different attitude from the male-centered sexual competition of Cooley High, Animal House, and Diner (American Graffiti might be a ''pre-sexual revolution'' film). Robin Wood attributes the change in attitudes to the presence of a woman, Amy Heckerling, as director of Fast Times.17 However, the matter-of-fact treatment of sex, with equal attention to men and women, is already present in Cameron Crowe's book.

A fascinating departure from the American Graffiti model in Fast Times is the greater isolation of the characters. The four films discussed thus far in this chapter are about groups, and close friendships within groups. In Fast Times, there are a couple of friendships, each problematic in its own way, and no well-defined groups. Stacey and Linda are friends, but by the end of the film it is clear that the bond of sexual expert-sexual novice is based on a lie. Stacey understands that Linda's fiance; is imaginary; how this repeated lie will affect their friendship is an open question. Mark and Mike (Robert Romanus) are friends, but Mike's selfishness has attenuated if not ended the friendship by the final scene of the school dance. Brad, the character played by Judge Reinhold, has no close friends, just a former girlfriend; the fact that the actor is much too old for a high school film exacerbates the isolation of his character. Brad does comes through in a big way for Stacey, but this single act of kindness actually underlines the loneliness of all the characters. Finally, Spicoli (Sean Penn), the pothead, has a few pals but seems to live in a narcissistic world of his own.

The greater isolation in Fast Times vs. American Graffiti et al. might indicate an ideological shift—from the group-centered idealism of the 1960s and 1970s to a more self-centered narcissism of the 1980s, the yuppie period. But it might also be a function of Cameron Crowe's participant-observer reporting. Isolation and narcissism are familiar parts of the teenage experience, but they do not easily fit the social forms of drama and comedy. Crowe and his film adaptors have found a way to make teenage isolation a major part of a story that remains vivid, funny, and moving.

Affirming its connection to the American Graffiti subgenre of the teenpic, Fast Times at Ridgemont High ends with titles describing the futures of the characters. Brad becomes assistant manager at the Mi-T-Mart, Mike goes to work at 7-11, Mr. Vargas (the biology teacher) switches back from Sanka to coffee. Stacey and Mark are having a passionate affair but still haven't gone ''all the way.'' These futures are remarkable because they indicate no change. Nobody grows up to be a writer, or even an insurance agent; nobody grows up at all. The teenfilm world is immanent and infinite.

However, let us not forget the ''double vision'' of Fast Times. On the one hand, the teenage world really will last forever; Fast Times is about good times, bad times, moments of experience that remain valid even if the film's characters and its audiences do grow up. On the other hand, a spectator can certainly see an irony in changes that equal no change. Brad and Mike have dead-end jobs, appropriate for teenagers but not for adults. Their ''futures'' represent the diminished horizon that is very much a part of contemporary American life. Mr. Vargas doesn't change, but he is already an adult. And Stacey and Mark get a true, though evanescent, teenage romance. American Graffiti's idealized teenage culture here begins to seem bland and unsatisfying: ''All the action's on the other side of the mall.''

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