Tuesday, April 25, 2017
Better In Your Head?--FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH
SPOILER ALERT, writing about a book that's basically a bunch of short chapters without a centering plot is harder than graduating high school.
Cameron Crowe started writing for Rolling Stone at the tender age of 15, not long after graduating from the University of San Diego High School, a Catholic prep school that didn't really count as the high school experience. But what did Crowe care? The Seventies had just basically started, he had four years left of adolescence, and as a representative of America's premiere music magazines, he was out on the road spending quality time with rock royalty.
The editors of these magazines were obsessed with appealing to, selling to and being accepted by one demographic above all others: "the kids." Not the snot-noses who watched Sesame Street; the ones who bought records and attended shows, who wore the shirts and spread the word. Teenagers. The Powers That Were (and Are) didn't care about the parents. Go for the kids.
With a new decade looming, the 22-year-old Crowe decided to finally have the real high school experience--and write about it. With everyone all enthralled by the kids (not to mention his resume), Crowe wouldn't need to twist any arms to get published. He convinced the principal of Clairemont High School in Redondo Beach, CA to let him spend a year undercover as a senior and the result was Fast Times At Ridgemont High.
The book is "a true story," albeit one that has been fictionalized to avoid lawsuits and hurt feelings. Names were changed to protect the adolescent and poetic license was probably taken since we are after all dealing with something in excess of 200 pages.* How much did Crowe himself actually witness? How much is exaggerated, and by how much?
Decent questions; and like all questions, ultimately pointless.
Crowe wisely removed himself from the teenage wasteland, focusing instead on six students: self-styled ladies man (and Philly transplant) Mike Damone; Damone's best friend, the reticent Mark "Rat" Ratner; blonde and curvy sophomore Stacy Hamilton, with whom the Rat is smitten; Linda Barrett, a worldly senior with a fiance, the mentor to many younger female students, but she considers Stacy her dearest protege; Brad Hamilton, Stacy's big brother, a Super Senior with the choicest fast food gig in town, flipping and dunking for Carl's Jr.; and Jeff Spicoli, a blonde surf-rat whose immaturity and insolence is impressive even by 15-year-old standards.
Throw in a wealth of minor characters and voila! High school in all its dick-measuring, sex-haunted, semi-glazed glory. Crowe jumps foam one coarse vignette to the next, everything from yearbooks and class rings to overdoses and abortions. The threads are sparse, but two stand out.
Stacy is the first character we hear from, and in many ways hers is the most interesting year. She lies about her age to lose her virginity to a 25-year-old veterinarian, then consents to a date with mild Mark. She invites him to her bedroom to pore over photos, but when push comes to shove he can only manage a meek cheek-kiss. She gives up the goods to Mike Damone and winds up having an abortion on her mother's birthday. Mark finds out, but the drama is brief, and we sense that the sensitive pair might have a future together.
Then there's brother Brad, whose journey from fake tragic hero to actual hero is so great. I hope that guy grew up to manage at least two In-N-Outs.
The longest chapter is dedicated to the events of Grad Nite. From 10 pm to 5 am, juniors and seniors in formal dress descend upon Disneyland to have some a good time free of sluggables, smokeables, or snortables. Nothing spectacular happens. I can't deny the disappointment the chapter left me feeling, but then again, I have to credit the writer for clearly resisting the urge to fabricate. (Although, if Crowe had acted on his great idea just a year earlier…)
Do I recommend this book? Sure, if you've got $85 to drop on a used paperback. Used hardcover, close to double that. Or you can be like me and download the EPUB file. You can tell someone has more money than they deserve when they refuse to put their book--a book that birthed a wildly popular film, a book that would doubtlessly sell millions--back into print. It's admirable and dickish in equal measure.
Fast Times At Ridgemont High hadn't even hit shelves when it was optioned for a film. Universal Studios didn't flex much promotional muscle, resulting in mediocre box office. The critical notices were mostly positive, however, and when Fast Times began airing on TV and appearing in video rental stores, the plotless, raucous comedy found the audience it deserved.
"We Got the Beat"! (Fuck Elvis Costello, y'know? Watch this, dick.) A montage is only as good as its music, and the opening montage of Fast Times At Ridgemont High is killer. New Wave crashin' against the classic rock. The pizza cheese bubbles, the arcade beeps and bops, and everyone wonders what's tightest--the jeans or the asses? Teeming with energy and feathered hair, this is our introduction to all the king shits and pot scrubbers who populate the classrooms and corridors of Ridgemont.
Ah man, the early Eighties. Innocent times. Quick sex, soft drugs and classic rock 'n' roll. The days before Silence of the Lambs took "American Girl" on the last ride of her life.
There's Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold, 25), a senior merrily serving up trans fats to help pay off his sweet ride. There's little sister Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh, 20) and her friend Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates, 19). How Stacy can be so eager to give up the goods to a dude when Linda's right there is beyond at least me. Girl's got a stomach to dye your pubic hair for.
Stacy's so goddamn hopped to have it popped that she lies about her age just to score with a stereo salesman who stops in at the mall pie parlor where she works. Meanwhile theater usher Mark Ratner (Brian Backer, 26) pines from afar, the blend of sweetness and sweatiness emanating from his pores, creating an odor of year-old dashboard. He seeks the counsel of Mike Damone (Robert Romanus, 26), a ticket scalper and scene-scanner who if he were to suddenly turn into a pizza, would be greasy and oversauced. Poor "Rat" opens his heart to that sleazeball and in return is blessed with the knowledge: the five secrets to picking up a girl. A fistful of tactics and techniques guaranteed to have any chick eating out of the palm of your hands, the tops of your feet, whatever your thing happens to be.
Last but not close to least is Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn, 22), the stoner-surfer nemesis of martinet history teacher Mr. Hand (Ray Walston) and the breakaway star of the show, thanks in no small part to Penn's surprising sustained tolerability.
Statutory rape, interrupted candle waxing, unplanned pregnancy, car crashes. Citizen Kane had only one of those things! The 1980s had a glut of vulgar, picayune teen comedies ("romps," for fuck's sake) whose heart existed solely to send blood to its crotch. Directors and writers like Crowe and John Hughes showed a rare understanding of, and empathy for, that time in a person's life. The flaws in their films were forgivable as emblematic of the era or as misdemeanors of passion. Their movies also tended to be uproariously funny, keeping them from being classified as true nostalgia.
I went to high school on the East Coast from 1991-1995. When I run my fingers over it, bend an ear to it, and give one final deep breath, Fast Times At Ridgemont High feels familiar. Sociological revelations are best left to sociologists. High school is a shape-shifting organism. The Perks of Being a Wallflower keyed in on the triangles and octagons. Fast Times At Ridgemont High is content to feature the circles and squares we can all draw whilst slumbering.
BETTER IN YOUR HEAD?
Most faithful page-to-screen adaptation ever? Because pretty much every little thing so magic about the film…came from the book. Damone's "five-point plan" for scoring with chicks, "100% Guaranteed Breakfast," Debbie Harry cardboard cutout, Linda barging in on Brad, crashing the Camaro. Tell me your favorite line of dialogue from the movie and I promise you it is in the book. The only changes of real note are the banana being replaced by a carrot for BJs 101, and Mark taking Stacy out to German instead of seafood (since anyone DTF knows wurst is superior to any fish dish).
Cameron Crowe proved less a screenwriter, more a sous chef. The Big Six from the book all make the trip over, while the majority of the minor players were left on the curb. (The movie didn't need the casual misogyny of Steve Shasta atop the general casual homophobia.) The biggest difference is the focus on Jeff Spicoli, who's little more than a pitiable figure in the book--he's not even the student who ordered a pizza during class!-- but presented in the movie as a gnarly rebel who couldn't spell "cause" if you spotted him the c, a, u, s and e.
The events of Grad Nite comprise the longest chapter in the book--and also take place, mostly, on the grounds of Disneyland. So scratch all that. Doesn't make for a lesser film, but rather for a better book.
As cool as the Linda/Stacy relationship is onscreen, the text gives both girls additional depth. And still, I wanted to learn more. That's one reaction that I didn't get from the film, which is, lest you believe me contrarian, wonderful.
Brad's hilarious fall down the fast food hierarchy is somehow just funnier when read. I blame the face of Judge Reinhold.
Relegating Charles Jefferson to "angry black athlete" is almost a kindness when one considers his fate in the book.
Stacy's mom (she does not, incidentally) is a brief, unforgettable presence in the book. I cannot believe Crowe passed on the chance to graft "smelling like a marijuana factory" onto Mr. Hand's dialogue.
The filmmakers failed to secure the rights to any music from Led Zeppelin IV, but were able to use a song from another LZ LP (in this case, "Kashmir" from Physical Graffiti), thereby creating one of the movie's best jokes accidentally: Mark is so mush-brained and jittery over a date with Stacy that he sticks the wrong album in his car's tape deck.
Few issues are stickier or trickier to write about than abortion. Crowe manages to show the proper respect for the profound effect that even agreeing to undergo the procedure can have on a young girl. Only the book illuminates how the sights, the sounds, the pains and the shames touch Stacy (all of 15 years old, mind). She doesn't collapse into a heap of misery and self-recrimination, disavowing fleshly pleasures and decrying the carefree debauchery of her peers, but nor does she proceed in life exactly as before.
(The book also gifts Stacy with some magnificent get-back, sniping and swiping at meatball Mike's character flaws in a Public Speaking class.)
Crowe clearly loved going back to school (for the first time). His words treat everyone--student or faculty--with fairness and even affection. That fondness is a gigantic part of what makes a coming-of-age story successful.
Wow, this is close.
Hmm. Lemme think.
The movie flows smoother. Hearing teenagers speak is still the less-hellish option.
The book did not subject me to a crappy prom band.
10-9 to the source, good buddy.
MIND THE GAP
Back-to-back reviews of books featuring dudes with more eyes than legs.
"I like sex" is the stupidest three word sentence in the English language.
My parents were never collectively seized by the longing to make more than one annual car trip in excess of five hours, meaning that while I visited the city of Hodgenville, Kentucky five times between ages 7 and 12, I never stepped foot one in the Happiest Place on Earth. (Adventureland had nothing on my dad's dad spitting chaw juice in a semi-circle around his feet as wood slivers fell on the legs of his faded coveralls, I'm sure.)
What's worse? First sex or first job?
"Girls decide how far to let you go in the first five minutes." Two, actually.
How many men of a certain age still get dick twitches upon hearing the first notes of "Moving In Stereo"?
Oh, Phoebe Cates gave you the stiffest boner ever when you were only 11? Nice. She ruined Santa Claus for me when I was only 7.
Every high school, regardless of size, will have minimum six legendary figures every school year. You wanna know how old I am? I brought a weapon to class my freshman year, got busted, and was back at school five days later.
The girls at Ridgemont High aren't shrinking violets, though some of the guys are shirking skunk cabbages. Abortion is "no big deal," Damone insists--and, speaking for himself and his day-to-day, he's right on. Doesn't make him any less of a prick. Consider: he apologizes to his buddy Rat for rocking the boat when Damone himself is prone to seasickness, but doesn't apologize to Stacy for his failure to man up on multiple levels.
Mark Ratner was based largely on Andy Rathbone, future author of several volumes in the "For Dummies" series of books.
For all the whiz-bang about Cameron's Gordie Howe jersey in Ferris Bueller's Day Off, where's the ruckus concerning the (road!) Canadiens jersey won by nameless ticket seeker in Fast Times?
"I think I came" is up there for four word sentences. Let's don't talk about sex, baby.
Don't think Fast Times At Ridgemont High is the American Graffiti of the Eighties? Count the Best Actor Oscar winners: Penn, Whitaker, and Nicolas Coppola.
The phallocentric mindset pervades. That's the way things be. But Linda and Stacy don't have time for penis envy. They have so much to learn, but are still mature enough to recognize the folly in mooning over those poor "high school boys" who think they know it all (sure, if by "all" they mean "fuck-all"). They want to enjoy having sex, every bit as much as any guy does. That means, no misusing sex as a bargaining chip, a game piece or a weapon. Linda and Stacy are cool chicks, and if you doubt that? As late as the Fifties, they'd have been abducted, chloroformed, and thrown into a basement for "domestication" by a saucer-eyed, acetone-reeking cadre.
*"If she can't smell your qualifications, forget her!" is attributed to Mike Damone in the book. That's actually a slight alteration of advice young Cameron Crowe received from Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. Any writer knows: a great line is a great line and obeys no rules.