Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Film: The Last American Virgin vs. Fast Times at Ridgemont High :-/

We all know about those dirty teenage sex comedies of eighties, many of us grew on them. We know that over nineties, they progressively developed into gross-out comedies, turning the center of attention from sex to physiological processes. We know that as the first of such comedies is usually considered “Animal House”, produced by National Lampoon and directed by John Landis, later known as director of many mainstream comedies and films of other genres (including, if I’m not mistaking, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video). “Animal House”, among other things, projected John Belushi into a stardom, and set many stereotypes of the future genre, among which: lots of nudity, less of teenage sex, horny teenage boys and objectified teenage girls, and unavoidable female shower peeping scene. Oh, and some might even know that all this draws a line from much more prude, so called beach films of sixties.
Those who’ve read through this blog and remember some of it, might remember that I have a soft spot for various kinds of teenage comedies, specially stupid and corny ones. Among many trash and exploitation genres from 70ies and 80ies, these comedies are one of a few that wasn’t glamorized, re-hashed and then also beaten to death by “artistic” Hollywood. They, at least, remained as cheesy as they always were and no “Something about Mary” will prove otherwise.
Actually, I had a comment that I had more respect for films like “American pie” than films like “Titanic”. “American pie” was, in my view, closer to problems some of us actually feel, examining them from a more realistic and less romanticized point, and really “Titanic” is a big daydream, while “American pie” is still a result of someone’s life experiences.
After all, main character of “Titanic” is one huge ship! Can you identify with a huge ship? How about feel for its problems? “Help! Help! I’m sinking!”
Not saying that I think that “American pie” is some big achievement, but that’s how it is, if I’m going to watch something to kill a few hours.
Which reminds me of “Porky’s”, one of the more popular films of the kind, which is actually a good example of how those films can get messy and weird. “Porky’s” was known for it’s misogynistic attitude; it’s obligatory shower peeping scene was notorious for it’s extended part, during which girls not only don’t mind being watched in the shower, but actually accept the idea and get to enjoy it rather easily. Cheerfully, yes, but film gave the idea that girls never really minded being objectified. On the other hand, “Porky’s” took precious time to make points about anti-Semitism and similar social messages; One of important storylines features a guy at the end successfully fighting anti-Semitism that his violent father planted into him. And somehow this socially-positive attitude stands wrong and inconsistent in a film that doesn’t allow any female character to grow out of the role of body on display.
But that just goes to show what kind of mess of ideas jumbled one upon the other these films were. Very often it seemed like ideas were being thrown as they came, and that filmmakers worked hard not to leave anything unused. I think it kind of sets the tone for my story about how potentially good movies turn sour, and potentially bad movies have an unsuspected sharp, cold edge.
“Fast times at Ridgemont high” has some names to support them. It’s directed by Amy Heckerling who later had some success with various romantic comedies, and based on a documentary book of novelist turned director Cameron Crowe, who directed some of the loveliest understated films. Jannifer Jason Leigh, Judge Reinhold, Sean Penn, all make early roles in this film. So it’s supposed to be good, yeah?
Well, it is considered one of the better films of the genre. It’s said to explore some of problems of teenage sexuality, including a loss of virginity, sexual inadequacy and even unwanted pregnancy, in a more analytic (and less exploitative) way. Even today, you’ll hear about it as the nobler representative of the unrepresentative genre.
I hated that film. I was seriously annoyed by film’s was of exploring mentioned subjects. Why so? Because film has no guts. Because it takes some serious themes, and then treats them with lightness and causality that’s just annoying. I think that film was liked by public because it didn’t go over the top in raunchiness, because it was mild. If the genre is attacked for extreme, then mild = good? But when “Porky’s” makes an indirect statement that women like to be objectified, at least it makes some sort of statement, unlike “Fast times...” which just uses bad events to spend ten more minutes because film has to last hour and a half.
Cameron Crowe’s book must’ve been shocking, showing adolescents indulging in sex at very young age, because of peer pressure rather than because of feelings or needs, taking it casually until the consequences strike. In film, even when consequences strike, everything turns out ok, and film seems to work so hard not to appall, shock or disturb anyone, that it makes me wonder why taking a book whose content is shocking and disturbing in the first place? Just go and make another Elvis movie, for Christ’s sake!
So, for example, in the scene near the beginning, one 12-years old girl explains to the other how to perform a blow job, using a carrot as a substitute; it’s happening in the full lunch room, with younger kids following with eyes open. The mere description of this scene seems somewhat unsettling, inappropriate and, hm, disappointing? But director handles this scene in a light tone, turning it into just another little joke among friends. Director doesn’t want to disturb us with too serious tone, forgetting that the fact that two 12 year olds talk in such manner is disturbing itself.
The approach reflects later near the end of film, when one of main characters goes through the abortion after getting pregnant while losing virginity with Mr. Wrong guy. As this film sees it, everything’s ok, nobody’s hurt, she eventually gets together with Mr. Right guy, and all the bad things are forgotten. Of course, anyone who doesn’t live in a sugar-coated land knows that abortion is very stressful, hurtful, that it endangers both psychological and physical health, that said girl might never have a baby again, and that, bottom line, one baby that was just about to became, was killed. Yet in the film, the whole segment about abortion lasts about five minutes. As if Mr. Doctor snapped his fingers and unwanted baby is gone. It’s all handled with air lightness and there’s never a word about moral repercussions of the act, not for the young mother, not for the eloped young father. Director, instead, concentrates on romantic side, which means that for her it’s more important that in the end the girl is in arms of the good guy who loved her all the time, nya nya nya,
The thing that annoys me, I guess, is that this might’ve made a powerful film if it was directed by a serious director and how this director’s treatment underestimates audience.
There’s another film of the same genre that curiously reminded me of this one: “The last American virgin”. This film is at times, schematic and, together with anonymous cast, it takes no more than one paragraph in film encyclopedias, mentioning that it has a likeable cast and is, at least, amusing. It also deals with the girl falling in arms of mister wrong, getting pregnant and aborting with support of Mr. Right.
Gary is Mr. Right and he is desperately in love with Karen. Karen is, unfortunately, snatched in front of his eyes by his best friend, womanizer Rick. First chunk of the film is filled with misadventures of Gary, Rick and their overweight friend David, trying to score at every possible occasion, with only Gary failing all the time, thus staying the titular “virgin”.
It’s a good deal of cliché, for one, cast is very usual for the genre: one macho guy, one fat guy, and the third one, main character, fragile and geeky one. But that’s ok, that’s actually a kind of thing I watch these movies for. There is an obligatory scene in which David mistakes Gary’s mother for a girl who previously told him to go to balcony and count to hundred. And when the three are in the home of busty wanna-be-Mexican woman, you simply know that her sailor boyfriend is going to show up early. This can, of course, be done with more or less timing, but never mind, it’s what you watched the film for anyway, not for a moment it pretends to be better than it really is.
It’s interesting to note that “Virgin” doesn’t have that light social message about tolerance that we’re used to see. It’s not “nice” like “Porky’s”, and it definitely doesn’t go keep side to outsiders like “Revenge of the nerds”, for instance. In fact, regular nerd of the film, Victor, is regularly beaten up and harassed, in which main characters participate mercilessly.
Anyways, things do get serious after a while. Rick deflowers Karen on a football field, I guess as gracelessly as it could be, and after she remains pregnant, he backs up. Gary who went through the whole event hurt but reluctant, steps in and not only holds Karen’s hand through the abortion, but scraps money to pay for it too. He takes her to his late grandmother’s house on a fake skiing vacation, to recover from abortion.
Returning from the fake skiing all happy he buys the ring, intending to give it to Karen on her birthday party. On the party, then, he finds Karen in kitchen, back in Rick’s arms. A quick conversation with eyes somehow tops what you’d expect from such films, as their looks manage to communicate just what writers didn’t write in, thanks them. The film ends with Gary getting in the car and just driving around.
The ending is quite unexpected for such light-toned film, even as the whole unpleasant mess around abortion is going on, you are certain that everything is going to end with a romantic happy end. This abrupt end colours everything in such dark colours and, even more, leaves you thinking. No real resolutions were made, plotlines are tangled as ever, and you really keep wondering what these characters will be doing in a month, three months, a year...? The strength of such open ending is that it leaves you thinking about that, and through thinking, analyzing how highschool society, and society in general, works. Thoughts with which I was left after credits are probably the whole reason for this blog entry.
Now, it is surprising how different approach of this film is to the previous one. Sure, this film will be shelved with bulk of other sex farces, because it damn right contains rather cliché elements of many of those, but when it deals with serious things, it lingers on characters and lets you watch how they feel and what they do. They don’t just shrug off problems and move forward to happy ending like those from previous film.
And then there are characters we could talk about. There’s no doubt that director is on Gary’s side, if nothing, romantic power-pop that plays to moments of his sadness testifies of that. Yet looking from distance, perhaps distance of my age, I can’t help but look at him more analytically. He’s less than a hero on white horse. He wants to be one, saving a maiden in second half of the film, but his belief that he lives in a world in which such stereotype works, is naïve. He’s also not all that good; through his numerous attempts to lose virginity with just about anything that wears a skirt, he’s more of a horny teenager than a romantic lead; For good measure, we see him harassing resident nerd along with the others. One could wonder why notion of formal friendship with Rick is more important to him than what we’re presented with as true love (which is the whole reason why he never approaches Karen while she’s dating Rick, why he never confronts her about what Rick’s like – though we know that that probably wouldn’t help much). But that’s all ok; we see that character and realize that that’s what teenagers are like. Can we expect teenagers not to be recklessly horny, prone to peer-pressure and, in a way, shallow? If we do, we rip them off of important part of their youth and growing up process.
Then there’s Karen. At least we who were shy and geeky boys got used to this kind of girl. When I was of that age I believed that girls were naturally attracted to jerks. When I got a bit older, I realized that I was all wrong and that reasons for lack of my contact with girls were pretty much on my end. When I got even older, I realized that older me was wrong and that girls, after all, are attracted to girls.
I said this, of course, as a joke, half-serious joke if you will, but it’s a broad generalization all in all. The serious side of it is that there are girls who are continuously attracted to bullies no matter how much they suffer from that; people are somehow doomed to repeat same mistakes. Do such girls want to be subjected to standard patriarchal roles? Or do they equate good manners with insincerity? I don’t know. I remember I’ve heard arguments about how nice and polite guys are no good, because they’re jerks anyway too, only they cover it good. In any case, we know such girls from high school; they were often a subject of adoration and disappointment. If you had friends among them, they’d always complain about how their ex-boyfriend was a jerk, but never did a single effort to change their choice of men. And then, guys who were pushy, intrusive, always had it better than those who were shy and introvert. On recount, it wouldn’t’ve killed us all if we acted more out of characters: we shy guys could’ve been more open to communication; girls could’ve tried to make an advance on a guy once in a while; and then those other guys could’ve... but then, I may be expecting too much.
Back to Karen: through the film, I considered that returning to Rick was the most likely ending. Why? Well, thinking about it, we may blame Gary for never talking about Rick to her; But then we can blame her as well, for dating someone for a while and never figuring out what he really is like. We can blame her for falling into old cliché of being taken to a football field to lose virginity. We can consider that if she liked Rick, she liked him for what he is, selfish, rude and shamelessly macho, and that she simply wouldn’t satisfy for a total opposite of him, Gary. Her blame is, I guess, for falling into every cliché of that kind of girl (which is far from average, but it’s a kind of girl all looks are turned to, no doubt) and never bothering to step out of that cliché, not even when she gets a chance. When Rick returns to her, once the obstacle of pregnancy is gone, she leaves Gary for the better pick, she feels bad about it but a girl has to do what a girl has to do – that final look says it clearly.
All is not well, but it’s as expected. As in real life. Noone is perfect, but they don’t deserve to be so unhappy regardless. Yet they are.
What will happen next? We want to believe that Gary will get some sort of satisfaction. Perhaps he’ll find a girl nicer than Karen is. Perhaps he’ll gloat looking as Rick breaks Karen’s heart again. Perhaps but more likely Gary will get over and satisfy with the less; Karen, growing some thick skin, won’t be so fragile any more; Their relation might even work out once there’s no unwanted pregnancy; Everything will work just like it doesn’t in film: no conclusion, no moral satisfaction, no good guy wins.
Which happens a lot, I believe. Not too often in films though.

P.S. Gotta note that film often fails on humor parts. Timing is rarely good, and there are just too many cases where joke builds up but then never gets to the punchline. For instance, the whole setup where guys get crabs build up to the scene in which they simply buy medicine in drugstore and that's about it.


At 10:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

you should check out The Hurt, The Horny, The HighSchool Nerd on amazon , borders, or barnes and noble after seeing your writing.


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