Reevaluating Crowe’s earlier, more chill filmography.
Earlier this month, Fast Times at Ridgemont High turned thirty-five, an accomplishment which puts it next to such latter-day classics like Flashdance and Risky Business. The eighties, how tacky! The movie has been justly celebrated as better than many of these, holding supreme as one of the best films of all time about growing up, a movie that is quintessential in its portrayals of teenage concerns. But forcing Fast Times into this category, teenage films about teenagers, meant to be enjoyed by those nostalgic for decades past or remembered, does the movie a disservice. The debut of both Amy Heckerling behind the camera and the voice of Cameron Crowe in front of it, Fast Times was the most artistically arresting film either would ever make, a pursuit whose gestures were more closely aligned to the neorealist cinema of the decade before than any piece of high school cinema that would follow.From the One Perfect Shot Database
So, let’s imagine that: a hit movie about angst and sex and being alive in the modern world in 1982, in the decade after Star Wars and Heaven’s Gate had killed Art and made cinema into a colorful garbage bin full of Reese’s Pieces, etcetera. Crowe’s ambition, a well-known figment of his own lore, as it is known, was to capture the youth he never had, the fun he missed by chilling with the Allman Brothers instead of going to prom and cutting class. This ambition separated Fast Times from the cycles of retroactive teenage farces like American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused and further infinitely lesser entries. There is an absence of reverence or, if there is, it is everywhere, distributed equally to every moment, from a reflection on mortality outside a morgue to a much-celebrated masturbation sequence scored to a deep-ish cut from the Cars debut. Heckerling’s camera is interested in all of this, flattening experience into something that feels lived and not remembered.
Fast Times takes place over the course of a single school year, a narrative distinction that is neither quaintly modernist nor sentimental—not a forced day narrative nor charting any overly particular romance. He chooses the school year, a block of time that would make instant sense to anybody actually in high school, the sun whose progression was eagerly and collectively watched by all. But it was its ambling plotlessness that was its most admirable conceit, both Crowe and Heckerling were curiously uninterested in the flavorless plots or bawdy heroes they would dedicate the remainder of their creative lives circling. Heckerling’s camera, as our own Sheryl O observed, rests on scenes of quiet, often unspoken, amity between students suffering under a mean-spirited teach or unsatisfied emotional angst.
Crowe’s writing was Dickensian, the work of a social realist eager to spin his observations about society into a self-contained fable for a larger society. High school students were not golden-specked memories made to carry heavy messages from the future about growing up, but instead represented Crowe’s reportage on American youth culture, utilizing character studies to highlight issues like teen pregnancy and the growing generational cultural divide. For some, the absence of sentimentality was visceral; describing the film in his initial review, Roger Ebert lambasted its interest in teenage life as “offensive vulgarity,” full of “unnecessary detail” about the sexual lives of teenagers. Ebert could not fathom why “someone as pretty as [Jennifer Jason] Leigh have to have her nudity exploited in shots where the only point is to show her ill-at-ease.”
Crowe’s interest in high school life would define the first phase of his career as Hollywood scribe: his next script was for the underrated curio that was Art Linson’s The Wild Life, giving Eric Stoltz a more extensive role as Bill, a high school graduate obsessed with moving out of his parent’s home and employing Sean Penn’s brother, Christopher, as Bill’s odd-couple roommate. Like Fast Time’s final, punishing romance, it is a flimsy farce, but Linson’s unfussy direction permits the hectic noise of youth to obscure over bad comedy writing. Crowe’s characterization of Tom, Christopher Penn’s character, underlines the ultimate obsession of Crowe’s career, the unifying characteristic between his work as a Rolling Stone guitar-chaser and his seemingly unrelated pursuit of pedestrian strivers: an obsession with pinning down exactly what makes a figure cool, bottling its essence for outside observation.The Wild Life (Universal Pictures)
He could find it in rock stars like Neil Young and even Steely Dan (Donald Fagen, by Crowe’s account, “pull[s] up in a black sports car” and Walter Becker “emerged with Fender in hand; wordlessly.” The only thing missing are shades.); he could find it in Gerald Ford’s son, in a very lengthy profile, the otherwise and entirely unremarkable blonde who merely smiles and waves at an endless assault of admiring women that Crowe is able to populate nearly eight thousand words with. When Crowe finally went to high school, he didn’t feel like an alienated nerd (Hughes) or an incorrigible bad ass (Daniel Waters), he was, instead, a captive audience with no desire to subvert the picture, only to capture it. That Crowe’s official fansite, he regularly answers queries from the site, is called theuncool is telling: he was both aware of the hallway divides and content with their deeper meanings.
He would graduate, of course: figuratively and literally, Say Anything…would force itself out of the secure vestments of high school kicking its narrower run of heroes, Lloyd Dobler (John Cusack) and Diane Court (Ione Skye), out the door. The grim narrowing of focus (both Fast Times and The Wild Life were ensemble affairs) was both symbolic and a slow taste of things to come: away from the collective action of the classroom and into the solipsism of the office desk, the setting where Crowe would end up making his most bank, in ‘96’s Jerry Maguire.
It was also Crowe’s first effort commanding the camera as well, permitting him to not only dress Cusack like Joe Strummer but force him into a Clash t-shirt while at it. These were movies that were now, in the words of Scott Tobias, about the pursuit of happiness, which meant they weren’t about anything else. They were about idealists who would live in order to get battered, whose sense of coolness would be observed but unexamined. In the decades that followed, Crowe would create a ceaseless litany of characters like Cusack’s Dobler, who existed in order to look like Joe Strummer, who felt trapped in an adult world—barely able to enjoy cool automobiles or bangin’ tunes anymore instead ceaselessly confronting the selfishness of their worldview.
The confrontation, the crux around which every Crowe movie since is built around, is narratively meaningful but aesthetically uninteresting: it gives you the movies their fundamental point but it tends to blot everything else. “Happiness,” Crowe determined in a later interview about Vanilla Sky, “is earned joy,” an observation that jars with memories of Jeff Spicoli’s doped up surf philosophy, a happiness that is inhabited, cited by literary critics discussing philosophy. Maybe it is natural that human existence would, eventually, become less mesmerizing, that the rock journalist’s glowing view of the world would fade. Maybe it never gets as good as the first time.