By complete coincidence I ended up watching Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Friday (each for the first time) back to back this week. I watched Fast Times because it was being covered by Paul Scheer and Amy Nicholson were covering it on Unspooled, their film podcast. As for Friday, well, that’s a slightly more convoluted story. Five Iron Frenzy, one of my most consistently favorite bands, was doing a Kickstarter for their new album. As part of promotion for the campaign, Reese Roper appeared on Mike Herrera’s podcast, The Mike Herrera Podcast. Herrera is the lead singer and songwriter for MxPx, a band I’ve been listening to off-and-on since 1996ish. The Roper episode led me to lookup MxPx’s latest release, MxPx. There’s a song on there called Friday Tonight that had some lyrics that didn’t make sense to me:
So I went to genius.com’s page for the song and found out it was this scene from the movie Friday:
So I decided to check out the movie. It was an interesting couple of movies to watch back-to-back for the first time.
In the first season of the Unspooled podcast they covered the movies on the AFI Top 100 list. For this season they are looking at movies that perhaps should have a place on the list (although the stated fate of the season 2 list is to be sent into space) and are exploring the movies by category. The first category is high school movies. I’d never seen Fast Times at Ridgemont High because it came out when I was too young and, for some reason, I never happened to catch it on Comedy Central, TNT, or any of the other cable channels that used to just show TV edits of movies before they started having shows in their own right.
I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, but from the trailer and various bits of the movie that had become part of the culture/memes/etc, I was expecting a zany film. Or at least a film that operated on the level of reality of Ferris Bueller, which came out four years later. Or maybe something like Grease, but without the music. Instead we got a movie where, when we reached the scene with Spucoli taking a joy ride in the football player’s car, I turned to my wife and asked, “What’s the point of this movie? I’m not getting a plot.” Instead it’s almost a series of vignettes that takes us through an entire school year at Ridgemont High. I learned afterwards (while listening to the podcast) that this is because it was based on a non-fiction book written by a Rolling Stone writer who studied the senior class at a high school. (Incidentally, Mean Girls was also based on a book, but that one ended up having a much more conventional plot) Plot-wise this movie seems to be at least one of the seeds that leads to most of the movies from Kevin Smith’s View-Askew-niverse – particularly Clerks and Mallrats. It also wasn’t nearly as comedic as I thought it would be. There are funny moments, but it’s more of a drama with funny moments – like real life.
Mostly we follow Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) who puts in an amazing performance as a 15-year-old who falls for the trope of having an unexplained need to lose her virginity; a trope that persisted until the 1990s when we finally started taking AIDS and other STDs seriously. What Ii mean by unexplained need is that Stacy seems not to want sex simply because of her teenage hormones, but more because it seems to be expected in her peer group if she doesn’t want people to consider her a baby. I even remember a Fresh Prince of Belair episode where Carlton is very embarrassed to be a virgin. By contrast, by the time I was in High School in the last 90s there wasn’t really any pressure to graduate without one’s virginity. It was more of a personal choice that people made – at least among my non-church peers. They’d been scaring us about STDs and the almost 100% chance of teenage pregnancy for so long that I was shocked when, as a married man, we didn’t get a baby on the first try. Anyway, her arc ends up being the most realistic movie depiction I’ve ever seen of the disappointment of teenage sex from the girl’s point of view. (The podcast clarified this was one of the director’s messages) First attempt is the famous dugout scene. Second attempt, she gets thwarted in a humiliating way. Third attempt, the dude is a one-minute man. By contrast, movie sex is usually from a male perspective. I also loved the way she handled talking to Damone once she got pregnant, not taking his attempt to shift blame onto her.
“No, take that back.” Man, that was really great writing of a strong character. A different writer might have made her cave there, but Stacy isn’t playing victim, she’s just trying to get Damone to be fair by paying for his part in it.
That’s the clearest arc in the movie. Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn) is merely comic relief. Linda Barrett (Phoebe Cates) is simply there to give bad advice to Stacy. Mark Ratner (Brian Backer) seems like he’s going to be the main character, but he’s mostly just a foil to Damone (Robert Romanus) and a second attempt at sex for Stacy. And Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) is almost certainly the basis of Kevin Smith’s long-suffering Dante Hicks (Clerks and Clerks 2). Despite a good work ethic, capitalism just beats him down over and over throughout the film. None of of the usual plots are in evidence – no one is in danger of not graduating (maybe Spicoli is, but he’s merely a comedic element, not a real character), no one is trying to get into the big party, no male or female is in a “she cleans up nicely” trope, even Ratner isn’t trying very hard to get with Stacy. Yet, somehow this movie really hits for me. Perhaps it’s the more documentary-ish story telling due to it being based on a book. In the hands of our director (the same director of Clueless), the characters and situations aren’t heightened. As someone who worked in high school (selling shoes, as a lifeguard, in a movie theatre, and a bank teller), that aspect of the story really worked for me compared to the newer movies where the kids just have cash without needing to do anything for it.
A few odds and ends before moving on to Friday:
I have to give kudos to the to the set designer for selecting oversized chairs in the restaurant during Ratner and Stacy’s date. They look ridiculously oversized, emphasizing that they are kids playing at being adults.
My wife and I are fond of remarking on something we’ve noticed in movies from the late 70s and through the 80s (and I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it on the blog at some point). Movies from that time period will inevitably have precocious kids using profanity (the “worse” the word, the “funnier” it seems) and you will see lots of gratuitous breasts. Fast Times at Ridgemont High is no exception. (Judge Reinhold’s fantasy is completely without consequence to the plot). During the Unspooled episode about the movie, the director mentioned that during the 80s, the amount of breast shots required in a movie was a requirement for securing financing for the movie. So it’s not just something we’ve noticed, it’s an actual thing that was going on. (Frankly, on seeing how things were handled in Fast Times at Ridgemont High with bare breasts, I’m surprised we don’t end up seeing Cameron naked in Ferris Bueller)
Speaking of nudity, the director mentioned that during a screening, in the scene where Damone and Stacy have sex – she originally wanted to show full frontal nudity of Damone becuase there was already a bunch of full frontal female nudity in rated R movies at the time. She was told no because the male anatomy is automatically an aggressive organ while a female is passive, so it would have been rated X. Of course, the sad part, thanks to Hollywood being so silly that we have the term Hollywood-ugly to describe someone that the characters consider ugly but who is beautiful by normal standards, during a preview screening someone yelled out “fat chick” at Stacy’s naked body. I’m going to link to the image (rather than posting it in this post) in order to keep this post safe for work. (SO This LINK IS NOT SAFE FOR WORK) Yeah, I noticed that I was surprised Hollywood let a woman look like that in a movie, but she is definitely NOT fat.
One last thing – does Stacy’s boyfriend in Chicago exist? I thought he didn’t until she started crying at the end of the movie because he wasn’t coming to graduation. My wife thought he was real. Paul Scheer was sure he was fake and Amy Nicholson thought he was real, but was maybe convinced by the end of the podcast that he wasn’t.
While Fast Times at Ridgemont High takes place over a school year, Friday takes place over the course of one day. My wife had seen it enough times to be able to quote lines as they were happening. I never saw it because it was rated R and my parents were very strict about seeing movies rated higher than our ages. And later I was into very different movies, so I never thought about it until MxPx brought it back to my attention.
Interestingly, even though both of these movies ostensibly are without traditional plot structures, this movie just didn’t quite do it for me as well as Fast Times at Ridgemont High did. Perhaps this is because Friday only takes place over the course of one day, so there isn’t even a character progression. Yet Ferris Bueller also takes place over a single day. I think the big difference is that Bueller and friends are out on an illicit adventure (and, near the end, the need to avoid getting caught) while Ice Cube and the rest of the cast are simply sitting outside. Perhaps a more successful movie for me would have involved Ice Cube and Chris Tucker sitting outside for a normal day only to end up dragged on some sort of quest or to have things go insanely wrong. Instead, there are only two desires our main characters have. Chris Tucker wants to get Ice Cube high for the first time. This is accomplished midway through the movie and doesn’t have any consequences. He doesn’t do anything or cause anything to happen from being high – it doesn’t even mess up Ice Cube’s chances with the girl across the street. And that’s his desire, but it’s not as though he is a nerd who’s never had a girl – he CURRENTLY has a girlfriend. (Although, for all her protesting at Ice Cube interacting with other women, my wife noticed that she has a guy in her bed when she called Ice Cube on the phone). Instead we get an SNL skit-like day where the same folks keep stopping by over and over.
Why isn’t anyone working or in school? I was at a loss to figure out what age anyone was supposed to be, partially because Hollywood tends to cast way older (something they’ve started to fix), afterall, except for Jennifer Jason Leigh, no one in Fast Times at Ridgemont High looks like they belong in High School. Well, one potential plotline could have been the fact that Ice Cube lost his job because there is video footage of him stealing. Ice Cube says the guy in the video isn’t him. A few characters say different things about the robbery, but by the time the movie is done, I have no idea whether or not it was him. A different movie could have had him proving that it wasn’t him or trying to get another job and either succeeding or failing in comedic ways. But this paragraph is where I state something I’ve been thinking of as I’ve worked on this essay a little at a time over the past week. Maybe all of this makes sense if you grew up in a neighborhood like the one in the movie? Maybe there are some people for whom the plot – with some folks just sitting on the porch and others stopping by over and over makes sense. But for me it just fell flat when combined with the lack of a traditional plot motivation for any of the characters.
It also seemed to take a wild swing at the end when it went from a mostly goofy movie to DEADLY serious when Zeus gives Felicia a black eye and then hits the girl Ice Cube would like to get with. It’s suddenly about whether shooting a gun is worth it. And while we did literally have Chekhov’s Gun, it was some real tonal whiplash. Then again, I remember some Fresh Prince of Bel-Air episodes doing that, too. So maybe it’s just an expected trope.
A couple stray thoughts:
I finally got to see the origin of the meme “Bye Felicia”. However, the character of Felicia didn’t make sense to me. Throughout the first ¾ of the movie she appears at Ice Cube’s house asking to borrow things that don’t make sense to borrow – like a microwave. She looks and acts like she’s probably a homeless addict. Yet, near the end you find out that she’s the sister of the girl Ice Cube has been after. So, does this mean she’s just mentally ill? And if she is, does that make all the jokes at her expense worse? (Although my question does imply it’s OK to laugh at an addict. But we do have a male character who’s a homeless addict who is 100% just played for laughs)
Why is Bernie Mac a shady preacher both in this movie and a shady judge in Booty Call? Was it part of his standup at the time or is he just really good at that role?
In the end, I think it’s interesting that I watched both of these cultural touchstone movies back-to-back without any foreknowledge of the plot and they both happened to be movies without traditional plot structures. Fast Times at Ridgemont High turned out to be really enjoyable while Friday turned out to be a dud for me. The next episode of Unspooled is going to be Dazed and Confused, but I don’t know if it’ll merit a blog post on its own. Time will tell.