Broad Cinema: Amy Heckerling’s Generation Leap

How the director defined two decades.

From Alice Guy-Blaché to Ava Duvernay, women have been integral to cinema for the last 120 years. Broad Cinema is a new column that will feature women who worked on films that are playing this month at the Alamo Drafthouse. From movie stars to directors, from cinematographers to key grips, Broad Cinema will shine a spotlight on women in every level of motion picture production throughout history.

For January, we’re talking about Amy Heckerling and Penelope Spheeris. Live in an Alamo market? Get your tickets to Clueless and Wayne's World!

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“Hey bud, let’s party.”

“As if!”

With Amy Heckerling’s unblinking approach to high school drug use and sexuality in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, she announced herself as a director with her finger on the pulse of that demographic most mysterious to Hollywood execs: American teens. It’s a magic act she pulled again thirteen years later with Clueless, featuring an entirely new set of juveniles with new slang, new clothes, new vices. It’s worth acknowledging that a 30-year-old woman so perfectly represented the mystifying world of high school once – that she did it again at 43 is remarkable.

Especially when you consider the difference in those worlds – the teens of 1982 and 1995. Though the students of Ridgemont High and Bronson Alcott all live and smoke and shop in Southern California, they might as well be on different planets. Buzzfeed articles and VH1 shows are based around these differences – you might be an ‘80s kid if you cried over Baby Jessica; you know you love the ‘90s if you owned a Tamagotchi. Among my group of friends I see the difference, this generational gap that separates my barely older buds who turned teenager in the ‘80s from those of us who graduated high school just before the turn of the century. (Although, truth be told, I both cried over Baby Jessica and owned a Tamagotchi. I’m a woman out of time.)

Here’s where Heckerling most succeeds: in the utter authenticity distinguishing each decade. Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless share some universal themes - the lifesaving qualities of female friendships in high school, the lasting appeal of the nerdy but kind guy over that flashy cool dude, the value of a good makeover or a great mall – but in all of their particulars, these are two films singularly of their time.

Summer jobs are huge in Fast Times. Where you work defines your social standing. Can you image any of the teens in Clueless working – even at “the best food stand in the mall,” like Stacy (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and Linda (Phoebe Cates)? Naturally, there’s an income disparity between Fast Times’ Stacy and Clueless’s Cher (Alicia Silverstone), but Linda is probably a closer analogue. Linda’s the hottest and most popular girl at Ridgemont High, but she still throws on an apron and slices salami with a smile. There’s a fascinating reverse snobbery that rings true in Fast Times – the cheerleaders are the nerds, and the goofy kid who drives an old Buick and works at All-American Burger is the big man on campus. Cher and Dionne (Stacey Dash), with their posh ensembs and brand new cars, would be eye-rolled away from the cool table at Ridgemont. It’s a dynamic made manifest in most every John Hughes film, too: being rich was a bore in 1982. In 1995, it was the surest path to popularity.

But then Cher and Dionne are given a sexual autonomy not offered to Stacy and Linda. It’s easy to say that sex was simpler in the early ‘80s, a time before hang-ups and neuroses in those years just preceding worldwide acknowledgement of AIDS. And it does feel like Linda and Stacy are more cavalier about sex than their later counterparts. It’s certainly true that Fast Times at Ridgemont High’s reasonable approach to abortion – Stacy has one, and it doesn’t ruin her life or consume her waking hours with regret – is one that’s difficult to imagine taking place in a teen comedy of any other decade.

But Heckerling knew enough to understand that the sex these girls were having in high school wasn’t always a statement of sovereignty. They were expected to have sex or be written off as prudes. Linda’s matter-of-fact advice to Stacy takes on the tone of inevitability – just lose your virginity, go ahead and get it over with. Stacy does, at first to a much older man who at least sends her roses after the fact, but then to Damone (Robert Romanus), the little prick who bails on her immediately afterward and can’t even be bothered to give her “seventy-five dollars and a ride” to the free clinic.

There’s an evolution that happens between Fast Times and Clueless, between Stacy and Cher. Cher’s choosy about losing her virginity, and it’s a point of pride for her: “You see how picky I am about my shoes, and they only go on my feet.” The power has shifted from the boys to the girls in 1995 Los Angeles. Cher can afford to shrug off every high school boy that slobbers on her or to jump out of Elton’s car when he makes unwanted advances, and she knows she isn’t going to get a reputation as an ice queen for standing her ground. It’s a luxury that Stacy’s lacking. She throws herself at Mark (Brian Backer) on their first date not necessarily because she wants to, but because she seems to think it’s expected of her.

And of course there are the more superficial differences, as well: "Pat Benatar” is the reigning look of Ridgemont High, while the girls of Bronson Alcott go for a preppy Gwen Stefani thing. The slang moves from surfer dumb to alarmingly articulate over the span of a decade. The high school dance in Fast Times features a Sam the Sham cover band, while the Clueless kids party at a warehouse – who goes to high school dances anymore? – played by The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. The students cheat in Fast Times, but they negotiate in Clueless. Stoner culture is celebrated in 1982 but frowned upon by 1995 – when Travis (Breckin Meyer) gives away his bong we cheer for him, as much as we cheer for Spicoli (Sean Penn) for refusing to change a damn thing about himself.

All of this feels real and right for these respective decades and films. Although there’s an air of the heightened to both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Clueless, Heckerling’s most assured gift is in the authentic. It's a quality that's unteachable and unfakeable, and it's the reason she's the very best at what she does. 

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Get tickets to see Clueless and Wayne's World at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.

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