by Paul Deeter
Coming in at a Spine #1075 addition to the esteemed Criterion Collection, when Fast Times at Ridgemont High was announced for the collection there was certainly a mixed response. This project falls into an era of nostalgia for both films and music; the 1980's would introduce us to some of our most prolific (and even serious) actors and would be looked back upon fondly for its indelibly poppy neon-stained style. It's a successful movie, both commercially and financially. As far as the film's success goes it more than recouped it's 4.5 million dollar budget to gross over 27 million dollars worldwide. So what made the Criterion Collection gravitate towards a well known and culturally relevant film from the 80s? Their catalogue usually focuses on films of older generations, often of less popularity, instead more in tune with early Hollywood classics or arthouse independent features that don't have the same reputation or limelight. Fast Times at Ridgemont High has seen a couple of releases on physical media, where a film like Taste of Cherry on the collection would qualify as a limited release given the light of day thanks to Criterion. But that's not to say Fast Times doesn't fit in on its own merits. Each Criterion case has the tagline as follows: "The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films", and this is an arguably important feature.
Let's dip back into the mood of the 80's which is pretty impossible to sum up in a paragraph or even a whole article. Let's just say the word that comes to mind immediately is: horny. The 70s had Animal House another culturally important release in 1978. Produced on a low budget, it was so enormously profitable that from that point onward for the next two decades, the name "National Lampoon" applied to the title of a movie was considered to be a valuable selling point in and of itself. Just as the words National Lampoon branded themselves on numerous 80s comedies, Animal House would also be considered a beginning to the "raunchy sex comedies" that would usually land in between high school and college. And in my opinion the genre itself was more of a curse than a blessing. Most of these comedies inspired a sense of shock value with its sexuality and/or used the male gaze to attract men to the theatres. It was common to see a return to old stereotypes in classic Hollywood, including the use of female bodies as sex symbols without fleshing them out as individual characters. These films were overwhelmingly directed by and for white males, and titles like Risky Business (1983) and Porky's (1981) were quite successful and garnered their popularity largely from objectifying young female characters. Porky's and the film Revenge of the Nerds have aged awfully, and the behavior of the male characters in these films promote and accept elements of rape culture that are in shockingly poor taste. So it should be noted that this is a genre not unlike other more problematic periods in Hollywood that is not really worth exploring or garnering as "important". So what makes Fast Times at Ridgemont High unique?
There's definitely a sense of female perspective that would take years to perfect in other entries to the sex-comedy coming of age narrative. Shows like Sex Education (2019) for example, nail the sexual confusion of highschool and the different levels of experience or interest each student has in exploring their own identities. In 1982, this approach was taken by aspiring hit-filmmaker Amy Heckerling. Heckerling made her debut with this film, to incredible success. It was a great success for the genre, but an outlier for its approach to the lives of its protagonists. Heckerling was undoubtedly working in a field dominated by male directors, and made a movie that would be considered a film made for horny, male viewers. She made some waves at NYU as an aspiring writer and filmmaker and yet hit some turbulence with the college culture of young directors. It took her unique direction, along with the support from a young Cameron Crowe, who wrote the Rolling Stone piece that set the groundwork for the film. The piece was an investigative article which Heckerling read and ended up following through in her own undercover research on the topic of the lives of Beverly Hills teenagers. The two melded their writing and directing talents to the highest quality, and honor the lifestyle of the 80s teen with humor but also empathy. With the attention of Universal Pictures and the talent of Crowe at hand, Heckerling jumped into a field that was at the time (and still is) male domineered. She's quoted on the fact that only 5% of films were directed by women: "It's a disgusting industry. I don't know what else to say. Especially now. I can't stomach most of the movies about women. I just saw a movie last night. I don't want to say the name – but again with the fucking wedding and the only time women say anything is about men." This movie might not pass "the bechdel test" on paper which can be passed when two female characters share a conversation about something other than men, but the female interactions are so sexually confident and open that its a breath of fresh air from the normally 2D female characters in these scripts. This test does have its variants, and given the presence of Heckerling as a director, should make this feature an exception.
And the film makes strides to approach the sexual emergence of its characters tactfully and without exploiting the actors. Porky's has a sequence of voyeuristic porn where a young teenage male looks through a peephole at showering students in a really skeezy moment in 80s film history. Where on counterpoint, Fast Times has an unusually sympathetic scene of a female protagonist losing her virginity with discomfort and undewhelmance as she watches a spot on the ceiling and does not share the ecstacy the male feels. This was not a common move in a film of this style, and it would be admired from a wider audience perspective than say viewers of Animal House. The one problem I still have with the film, and this has not changed on second viewing, is the one male gaze moment the film uses: the famous dream sequence of a young Phoebe Cates taking off her top in slow-motion. This is a fantasy scene of course, it doesn't justify itself outside of the imagination of a character named Mike. While this moment is kinda satirical to the 80s music video appeal of slow-motion and sensuality (sex sells!) to get viewers, it seems to outlive its irony and has become something of a selling point in memory of this movie. I know people who only remember that scene, and don't appreciate the film's take on unexpected pregnancy or male inadequacy that are much more delicate.
So as time has passed, the film has garnered a cult classic feel. It's not just a topless Phoebe Cates to be fair, it's a film with a phenomenally ridiculous performance by Sean Penn as Spicoli, a bumbling jokester student who thinks it appropriate to show up late to class or order a pizza mid-lecture. The movie often gets remembered as a comedy, which it is, but it's much more than that. It is a time capsule, from its classic soundtrack to the little touches of detail in outfits or storefronts from eons ago. Yet it still came as a surprise to me that the Criterion shined interest on a bluray release of this film... until I rewatched it. The movie was not what I remembered as a teenager, and perhaps even though I was primed audience for the S&M appeal of the film, I wasn't old enough to understand just how smart its approach to high school was. This isn't a problematic John Hughes release of cult similarity, it doesn't need to be picked apart but instead admired for its modern mentality. It may seem to amateur viewers like Heckerling is appealing to the male gaze or worse, playing in the boy's club of raunchiness to make a profit in the genre. This simply isn't true. The movie is a carefully wrought yet liberally funny tale of awkward sex, desires for popularity and the stumbles of young high schoolers without throwing judgment at their lives. I rewatched Fast Times and I loved it. I think it's perhaps the exception to the rule of the genre, or even better maybe the stepping stone for the genre to be fleshed out for a more feminist angle in future films. With the presence of Olivia Wilde as a moderator on a special feature, it shows that projects like Wilde's similarly feminist Booksmart came fby with initial inspiration from Heckerling. Fast Times at Ridgemont High fits comfortably in the Collection and even defines itself as an essential purchase, and I hope you will return to this picture with the same respect as I did.