• U.S.

Cinema: School Daze

4 minute read

FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH Directed by Amy Heckerling Screenplay by Cameron Crowe

CLASS OF 1984 Directed by Mark Lester Screenplay by Mark Lester, John Saxton and Tom Holland

In the nether reaches of some mystical land—call it California—there must be a high school that inspires the sort of shenanigans that pop up in just about every R-rated teen movie these days. Call it Contact High. There you will find no teachers, only agents; no exams, only screen tests; no graduation, only the picking up of options. The boys are feral carnivores out of The Blackboard Jungle; the girls are pert Circes out of a sophomore’s wet dream. The nice guys surf, smoke dope and screw around; the bad ones torch autos, walk with a surly Gestapo swagger and carve their initials in the nearest human flesh. There is never a dull moment, never a suspension of disbelief, never a security guard around when the rowdies are methodically tearing the place down. Everybody at Contact High, from prom queen to thug, is dazzlingly photogenic. Nobody ever cracks a book.

To be sure, both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Class of 1984 claim a basis in fact: real events, real people, only the names changed to make everything seem so awesomely bogus. Journalist Cameron Crowe, then 22, spent the 1979-80 school year undercover at “Ridgemont High” in Southern California, then sculpted his observations into a book. Crowe’s screenplay reunites his familiar cast: Brad (Judge Reinhold) is the lazily macho chef at the best fast-food joint in town. Damone (Robert Romanus) is the greaser who is about two-fifths as cool as he thinks he is. Spicoli (Sean Penn) is a premature beach bum with a glutinous Valley Boy drawl; he believes that “surfing is a way of life, man—a way of looking at a wave and saying, ‘Hey, let’s party.’ ” Linda (Phoebe Cates) and Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are sweet-faced sexual adventurers on the prowl for men and finding only boys.

The attractive performers move at a sprightly pace to the requisite two-record album of last year’s hits that functions as the music track. But the vignettes that percolated between Crowe’s soft covers are ironed into decal cliches on the screen Director Amy Heckerling has failed to provide the raunch or poignancy that would interest young moviegoers, all of whom have seen American Graffiti and its 467 imitators. Ridgemont High? A nice place to visit, but who would want to transfer there?

Go from bland to bludgeon: Class of 1984. Mark Lester, who has put some zing into his earlier melodramas (Truck Stop Women, Stunts), here borrows from George Armitage’s cult Gothic, Massacre at Central High, to create an adolescent colony as teeming and desolate as an American Gulag. The principal is a blinkered hypocrite; the biology prof (Roddy McDowall) teaches chromosomes at gunpoint. And the school toughs—moral crustaceans dressed in swastika T shirts and the very latest leather—are led by no ordinary psychopath. Stegman (Timothy Van Patten) is also a musical prodigy: as he directs a gang rape of the hero’s wife he whistles the first bars from Johann Strauss’s giddy Voices of Spring waltz. All this is enough to make even the mildest of men, Music Teacher Andy Norris (Perry King), reeeally mad, mad enough to set one of the gang members aflame, smash a second with a tire iron and drive a buzz saw through the spine of a third.

An atrocity festival like Class of 1984 no longer terrifies, or even disgusts, the moviegoers for whom it is made. They appraise the carnage as dispassionately as coroners, occasionally nodding in approval and murmuring, “Hmm, haven’t seen that before.” The violence in this vigilante farce is too preposterous to make anyone wince, or to remind teen-agers of the real high schools they will be entering this week. Life is different outside the cartoon corridors of Contact High. And nobody but a connoisseur of trash ever got an education from a bad movie.

—R. C.

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