The disparate three: Fast Times At Ridgemont High, The Music Man, The Player

Movies watched:  Fast Times At Ridgemont High  (home – 90 mins.), The Music Man (home – 151 minutes), The Player (home- 124 minutes).

Total cumulative time:  4 days, 12 hours, 2 minutes.

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I don’t know what possessed me to re-watch Fast Times At Ridgemont High.  Having seen Ferris Bueller again in the theater over the summer, I think I was interested in doing a comparison of sorts.  They are two of the smartest and funniest teen movies of the 80’s, but their approach to subject matter is dramatically different.

Over the course of the movie, we follow the exploits of several high school students, including jocks (Forrest Whitaker), stoners (Sean Penn, Eric Stoltz), shrinking violets, eager to experience teenage love but unsure how to proceed (Brian Backer, Jennifer Jason Leigh), and others who pass of their inexperience behind braggadocio (Robert Romanus, Phoebe Cates).

The cast are all quite good;  Sean Penn’s Spicoli is probably one of the most remembered, and quoted, characters from 80’s comedies.  Judge Reinhold is very good as Jennifer Jason Leigh’s older brother.   And Ray Walston, who quietly built a very solid and long-lasting career as a character actor, is perfect as teacher Mr. Hand, Spicoli’s comedic foil.

The movie takes a very frank and realistic view of sex, and yet the most memorable scene in the movie is a fantasy.  Of course I’m talking about Phoebe Cates’ topless scene, which is masturbatory fodder for Judge Reinhold’s character.

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This movie was made by a woman director (Amy Heckerling), a rarity in the 1980’s, and her touch is all over the film.  The very unromantic scene in which Jennifer Jason Leigh loses her virginity (we see her POV as she is lying on the bench in the baseball field dugout, an older guy on top of her, and she is reading the graffiti on the ceiling) is something that more than a few women can relate to, in emotional tone if not in specifics.  And yet, Amy Heckerling still has the obligatory topless shot.  That’s an interesting tightrope to walk, but Heckerling demonstrated that she belonged in the “man’s world” of directing.

The mall scenes in this movie were shot in the Sherman Oaks Galleria,  which was nestled in the San Fernando Valley.  It is now long gone.  I visited that mall several times when I was a kid, and seeing the mall scenes, places I walked, shopped, ate, takes me back.  I can almost smell the Galleria when I watch those scenes.   Everyone who experienced high school  can find something to relate to here.

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I could expound on the joys of The Music Man all day.  It is my favorite musical, bar none.  I’m not a musical fanatic;  most of Rogers and Hammerstein’s stuff just doesn’t grab me, although I make an exception for The Sound of Music because, well, it’s just so darned good, no matter how sappy.  My introduction to this movie was the soundtrack.  My grandmother had a large vinyl collection, which I was allowed to play from a very early age, as long as I promised to handle her records with care.  I played all almost all of her records, some only once.  But others I grew to love, and The Music Man soundtrack was one.  Meredith Wilson, the author, has a unique way of writing, both musically and lyrically, and I took to it immediately.  So when I saw the movie on television when I was 8 or 9, I already knew all the songs.  It was so amazing to see the glorious visuals that accompanies the music, surpassing everything I had imagined in my mind.

As a child, I had the biggest crush on Shirley Jones as Marion the Librarian; I wanted to be the brilliant, dynamic Robert Preston, wooing her, singing to her.  The movie deals with a traveling salesman calling himself Professor Harold Hill, who is a shyster.  He comes into town, sells the townspeople on the idea of a boy’s band, collects money for instruments and uniforms, then leaves in the dead of night.  But in River City Iowa, he has met his match.  He forms a bond with Marion the Librarian (Shirley Jones) and her younger brother, Winthrop (played by a young Ronny Howard), and is forced to look at his choices in life, and make a change.  Will it be a change for the better?  I’m sure you can figure that out.  After all, this is a big Hollywood musical.  This movie might not be for everyone, but if you’re at all a fan of musicals, you could do worse than to spend a couple of hours in River City.  This is a movie I watch at least once a year, and I never tire of it.  It nourishes my soul.

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Finally, I re-watched Robert Altman’s The Player, because The Criterion Collection released it on blu-ray.  It looks fantastic, better than ever.  This movie is a very cynical look at Hollywood, and the making of movies.  It is just as relevant today as ever.

Some reflections:

The first shot of the movie goes on for several minutes, a bold opening which introduces many of the central characters, and gives us a sardonic look at the movie pitch process.  First of all, we see Buck Henry pitching The Graduate 2.  The fact that Henry wrote the screenplay for the original makes this joke really work.

I also thought it was really ballsy of Altman to have Fred Ward’s character reference Orson Welles’ tracking shot from Touch of Evil and Hitchcock’s uninterrupted takes in Rope, within his own uninterrupted tracking shot!  And he pulls it off, the clever bastard.

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This is a self-referential movie that is in on the joke, winking to the audience as it tells the story of studio executive Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins), who may be on the way out.   He’s also receiving death threats at work in the form of post cards.   Griffin confronts the man who he believes is threatening him, and an accident occurs in a movie theater parking lot.  Or was it an accident?

Soon Griffin Mill is a murder suspect, dating the girlfriend of the dead man, and trying to keep his job.  In the Hollywood of old, the murderer never gets away with it;  justice must be served.  But the Hollywood of the early 90’s was all polish, all glamour, and times were changing.

When this movie first came out, seeing all the Hollywood celebrities who play themselves in this movie was very cool. Many of them are not even cameos;  they are extras, populating the background of various scenes.   Now, many of those people are no longer with us.  They are ghosts, haunting the background, adding a slightly more somber tone to the proceedings, and somehow making the movie even more effective.  There’s Steve Allen and Jayne Meadows.  Gone.  Jack Lemmon.  Gone.  James Coburn.  Gone.  Rod Steiger.  Gone.  Peter Falk.  Gone.

Let’s not forget director Robert Altman.  He’s gone too.  But he left behind one hell of a body of work.  Far from perfect, but every bit his own.  If you’ve never seen an Altman film, this is perhaps the best place to start.

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