The Movie Club

Why Fast Times at Ridgemont High Is a Movie Landmark
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 9 2009 11:55 AM

The Movie Club

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Dear Dana, Lisa, Jessica, and Jeannette,

Jeannette, though I didn't feel as you did about Revolutionary Road, your response to it speaks to everything I care about in movies—sometimes they just reach you, for whatever reason. And you have to go with your gut.

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I will say that I don't see the movie (or the book) as unsympathetic to Frank, making him out to be the weak one in the marriage. I think neither April or he is a coward. As much as I dislike the movie, I'll concede that what we're looking at (albeit through Mendes' too-polished lens) are two people in pain whose wants and needs and expectations are jarringly at odds with each other. Frank feels tenderness and responsibility toward his unborn child. Would we like him better if he were sitting there with a martini in his hand saying, "Yeah, why not, get rid of it"? Then he'd really be a cad. He accepts the pregnancy as his responsibility; he's unimaginative, all right, but at least he can support a family. I can't see weakness in that—though there's no triumph in it, either. Part of the reason Betty Friedan wrote The Feminine Mystique was that she saw the traditional setup (husband going to work and shouldering all the financial responsibility, wife staying at home to raise the kids) as being frustrating and constraining for women—but she also saw that it was killing men. Obviously, the ending of Revolutionary Road is a literal reversal of that—though I think we're left to think that something in Frank is dead, too.

The one thing I'll say about the abortion scene is that Mendes totally blew it with (SPOILER AHEAD) that arty blood splotch. That fucking arty blood splotch. To me, that's reducing a character's pain to a choice of art direction. Unforgivable.

I've sometimes been looked at as a traitor to my sex because I liked both Knocked Up and Juno. But it troubles me that we can call ourselves pro-choice—and then profess outrage that a fictional character made the "wrong" choice. Now look—if Diablo Cody had written a screenplay in which Juno backed away from that abortion clinic because the Virgin Mary appeared to her, weeping over the fate of the poor unborn babe, I'd be right there with you, decrying this movie as piece of spurious pro-life propaganda. But Juno isn't about the "choice" that's made—it's about Juno and the way she looks at the world and what she wants out of life. Similarly, the chief complaint I've been hearing about Knocked Up since it came out is that Katherine Heigl's character—beautiful, smart, together—shouldn't have to settle for a schmoe like Seth Rogen. And that she really shouldn't have a baby with him. But again, for me, Knocked Up is about the way we do all kinds of things that we shouldn't, for reasons we can't often explain. Those stupid mishaps and inexplicable choices are the things that cause our lives to unfold, and usually not in the way we planned. Also, the schmoe may end up being a really great partner and dad. Or maybe not—the ending of Knocked Up is ambiguous and doesn't promise any miracles.

In no way am I saying that there shouldn't be American—or North American—movies that deal openly with abortion. And it's strange that with Fast Times at Ridgemont High we finally got a movie that was so truthful and forthright about it—and then, after that, nothing. But I think viewing Knocked Up and Juno as a dangerous trend that means every filmmaker is afraid of dealing with abortion on-screen is a little premature. And as someone wrote somewhere—I'm sorry, I can't remember who it was—nine months of pregnancy quite simply makes for a longer story arc. The main thing is to trust the character's choice—even if it's not the same one we would make.

Oh, God, I'm now realizing time is running out—it's like being up there on the podium, at last clutching that bald, naked statuette, and realizing you don't have time to thank every electrical-tape wrapper and caterpillar wrangler …

Cadillac Records: Welcome back, Darnell Martin!

Kit Kittredge: An American Girl—Lisa, thanks for reminding me of this one. Like almost every other critic, I was dreading having to go see a movie based on a DOLL, for Christ's sake. What I found was a movie that treats history (specifically, the Great Depression) as a reality, not as an abstraction—and yet something that's not beyond the grasp of kids. It's a smarter movie than a lot of people gave it credit for. Charming, too.

Jessica, regarding the dearth of woman critics: At this point, yes, I, too, am more likely to steer young people (men and women) toward something they can actually make a living at. Though I also feel a commitment to keeping the craft alive, so I want young people to learn it and to be able to do it.

If there are any heiresses out there with loads of money to throw around—and lose—please start a general-interest magazine. With all the unemployed talent that's out there, it could be like Esquire in the '60s!

And so, my friends, we move forward into the new year. Love to you all.

Stephanie

Jeannette Catsoulis writes about film for the New York Times, Reverse Shot, and Las Vegas CityLife. Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic at Entertainment Weekly. Dana Stevens is Slate's movie critic. Jessica Winter is the film critic and senior editor at O, the Oprah MagazineStephanie Zacharek is a senior writer and film critic for Salon.

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