There is a scene in the Seinfeld episode “The Foundation” where Jerry mentions a line from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan concerning the death of Spock; to which George responds: “It was a hell of a thing when Spock died.” Jerry replies: “Yeah…” This is followed by a funny silence where both men are miles away; lost in thought; instantly whisked back to that emotional Trekkie moment; before breaking out of it and gathering themselves. It’s one of my favourite Seinfeld moments. It speaks to that unique strain of Fandom that runs deep and dissolves time and transports you; and whether you’re a Star Trek fan or not, you understand what the guys are talking about. (And if you are a Star Trek fan, then you understand further that it was a hell of a thing when Spock died. In fact, you probably sat there for a few seconds looking a bit like Jerry and George; seeing Spock’s radiated Vulcan hand on the glass of your mind’s eye. Poor Spock. But, alas, the needs of the many…yada yada yada.)
It all comes down to timing, I guess. We each have films that can stop us in our tracks and bring about the immediate symptoms of acute adolescent nostalgia. Depends when you were born, and which movies were around when you were 14, 15, 16. The word ‘impressionable’ means nothing to you when you’re a teenager, but as you get older, you come to understand it’s meaning quite profoundly. As a teenager, the films you saw and the songs you loved take on a reverence that is hard to articulate to an outsider or even to yourself. You just love it. And it’s mainly because it hit you at an age where you were raw and receptive and ready for it. (We may like to think we were already fully self-aware in our late teens-‘Hey man, I’ve always been cool’-but I tellya, no amount of Nirvana/ Mudhoney/ Sonic Youth and Butthole Surfers CDs can explain Martika’s “Love Thy Will Be Done” cassingle that sits in the box with them. Other than: It was the era. It was the time. I was just the classic little sponge, soaking it all up. You probably had Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is In The Heart” cassingle, which history (and hindsight) has allowed to be cooler. Even MC Hammer’s “Can’t Touch This” would have great comic value as something to pull-out-for-a-laugh-at-the-party. But Marty won’t help you there much. [And no amount of post-modern Prince pontifications are gonna save you either.] Just have to hope your friends are of the same vintage, and at the very least, one of them is a dag like you and confesses to buying her album Martika’s Kitchen on the strength of that single, and joins you in a drunken sing-a-long. They’re known as ‘Homeboy or ‘Homegirl’ for the rest of the night.)
All it takes is someone or something to remind us of a film or a song we used to love and we’re immediately awash in a bottomless pool of personal experience and idiosyncratic detail. Instant time-travel.
Like all popular culture, movies have the ability to stamp themselves onto an entire generation. One genre that continues this generational tagging process is the ‘Teen Movie’. (Your parents probably called it: ‘A young person’s movie’.) This makes obvious sense, as the prime demographic of any film-going audience is teenagers and it’s (arguably) the age when one is most engaged with pop culture. So making films that target teens is just sound marketing strategy. Give ’em what they want. Which is basically: Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll…and maybe a timely Fuck-You to the establishment.
One of the originators of this particular genre was Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times At Ridgemont High. Any guy (or girl, as the case may be) born in the early 70s will get glassy eyed and stare off into the distance if you mention Fast Times at Ridgemont High. That’s because they’re seeing an apparition form in front of them. A vision. Usually, what they’re seeing is Phoebe Cates slowly emerge from a swimming pool in a red bikini. And they’re waiting for what comes next. Yep, you know it: Boobies. That image was branded into a billion brains back in 1982 and the years that followed with the advent of video and the late night TV circuit. The first batch of boobs you see on the screen tend to stick with you. Revenge of the Nerds, Risky Business, Bachelor Party, Zapped!, ah, yes, the list is long and scantily-clad. We are marked by popular culture, no two ways about it.
But it wasn’t just Phoebe Cates’s boobs that made this film memorable. (No, seriously, it wasn’t.) It was definitely packin’ some Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll, but the film aimed for something more than the usual T & A clichés. The film became an unofficial springboard for many long-term film careers. Just get a load of the cast for starters: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Forrest Whitaker, Eric Stoltz, Anthony Edwards, Nicolas Cage, Phoebe Cates. (If he was so inclined, Robert Altman could have cast this film). And who could forget Sean Penn, as Jeff Spicoli; who, despite the ensemble cast, steals every scene he’s in. He’s the lovable surfing stoner delivering his lines in a laconic nasal drawl that spawned countless clones both on the screen (Bill & Ted anyone?) and off (I’m sure). There’s probably room to argue that Fast Times was also one of the first ‘stoner’ films that wasn’t an overt ‘stoner’ film. The drug references with Spicoli are just props really; and it skirts any heavy-handed moralising or educational subtext. They aren’t glamorised, or even focused on; the drugs are there simply because they are a natural part of the teenage landscape. Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused learned a lot from this film in that regard.
The story, revolving around the lives of a number of characters, was written by Cameron Crowe, who would go on to write and direct Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry McGuire, Almost Famous etc. Crowe had taken leave from his Music Writing at Rolling Stone and come up with the (almost Gonzo) idea of enrolling at a High School and writing a book incognito from the inside-out. And his insights into the self-conscious world of adolescence still ring true today. Boyfriends/girlfriends, awkward sexual encounters, unrequited love, peer-pressure, hormones, facial hair, zits, drugs, bullying, crap jobs, cars, fashion, and the endless striving to be ‘cool’. What horrible fun adolescence was/is. In fact, the only thing dating it is the absence of computers, mobile phones and MySpace. Which are nice things to bury and forget about for 90 minutes. OK, the outfits and hairstyles and music may give the game away a bit too.
But, in the end, it’s the humanity that makes this film timeless. The sweetness and innocence of Mark Ratner’s and Stacy Hamilton’s courtship. And likewise, the brother/sister relationship of Stacy and her older brother, Brad, rallying together when she falls pregnant to Damone. Nothing seems contrived. Often, these days, ‘Teen Movies’ reek of construct. One can easily tell the script was written by middle-aged hacks completely out-of-touch with their subject, trying to cash in on the market without really offering their audience any substance. Everything is geared around the cliché. Insert generic meathead Jock here…insert industry-standard nerd here…gratuitous blonde bimbo scene here…unpopular-girl-makes-good scene here…the parents-who-don’t-understand scene here…humiliation from militant teacher (who turns out to be a dominatrix) here…you know the drill.
It all drips with that plastic 21st Century irony. We’re constantly spoon fed winks from the film-makers. Everything is reduced to a camp joke. Every scene comes imbedded with “Applaud Now”/”Laugh Now”/”Cheer Now” watermarks that are about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Personally I prefer my teen feasts served ungarnished. I prefer things at least attempting to portray some sense of realism. Even if it doesn’t work, you know they tried. And that’s where Fast Times succeeds. It tried to deal with ‘the teen thing’ on its own terms. It tried to meet ‘the teen thing’ half way. Sure it’s a bit daggy now, but the thing it had was heart and soul, and…and…hang on…ok…I’m zoning out…I better go…sorry…Yep, Phoebe’s coming out of the pool again…I think that’s Spock handing her a towel…Excuse me while I go surf this nostalgic wave again…