Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) is one of my favorite Christmas movies. It is one of my favorite movies in every category to which it even remotely applies. I realize it’s not a Christmas movie per se, but part of it is set at Christmastime and those scenes are sufficiently festive as to make the whole movie a Christmas movie to me. There are some other reasons too.
The film opens on the exterior of the Ridgemont Mall. It is actually Santa Monica Place. The audience is positioned as outsiders, freshmen. When we go inside, the interior of the mall is crowded and noisy. It’s really the Galleria in Sherman Oaks. The discrepancy between the exterior and the interior most likely reflects an aesthetic and/or practical choice by the filmmakers, but it also resonates with meaning in the film. When you’re in high school, inside and outside have heavy connotations. And it’s a different world on the inside.
Ridgemont is a place of fine detail and paradox. Director Amy Heckerling (Clueless) uses very subtle bits of information in service to the storytelling with a precision that puts Fast Times in a class by itself. The film takes place over the course of a year, summer to summer. Christmas is a recognizable marker of time, orienting the audience as to where we are in the year. About twenty minutes of the film’s runtime takes place during the holidays, and a lot happens to the characters.
Stacy Hamilton (Jennifer Jason Leigh) decides to move on from smarmy Audio Consultant Ron Johnson (D.W. Brown), and accepts a date from Mark Ratner (Brian Backer). Charles Jefferson (Forest Whitaker) wants to buy Earth, Wind and Fire tickets from Mike Damone (Robert Romanus). The tickets are for Jefferson and his little brother (Stanley Davis Jr.), who turns out to be good friends with Jeff Spicoli (Sean Penn). Current All-American Burger Employee of the Month Brad Hamilton (Judge Reinhold) gets fired and Lisa (Amanda Wyss), his girlfriend of two years, breaks up with him. Spicoli has a dream of being interviewed by Stu Nahan.
An under-cooked breakfast prefigures Brad’s downfall. When an irritable businessman (Sonny Davis) demands his money back for his “100% Guaranteed” breakfast, his petulance is enacted in front of a big, red bow painted on the window behind and above his head. The mise-en-scène makes him appear even more small, petty and ridiculous. The audience is on Brad’s side. Between losing his girlfriend and his job, he is a victim of hubris and circumstance. His indignity is compounded when he is sold out and fired by his manager, Dennis Taylor (Tom Nolan)- a name he once dropped with pride.
Back at the Ridgemont Mall, which is resplendent in early eighties Christmas atmospherics, Damone shares with Mark his Five-Point plan for success on a date. The final, most important point is to put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV “when it comes down to making out.” There is an immediate cut to Mark and Stacy on their date. Led Zeppelin’s churning, ominous “Kashmir” plays on the car stereo. “Kashmir” is not on Led Zeppelin IV; it’s on Physical Graffiti. Clearly, Mark did not internalize Damone’s advice.
That detail probably only stands out to Led Zeppelin fans, but either way, it is part of the coding of the scene and the ironic song choice contributes to the distinct impression that things are off to a shaky start. And sure enough, at the cavernous German restaurant where Mark takes Stacy for dinner, he realizes that he doesn’t have his wallet. He calls Damone and asks for help. Damone says he is busy. What he’s busy doing is watching TV. What he happens to be watching is a 1961 episode of Leave it to Beaver in which Beaver gets himself stuck in big bowl of soup on a billboard and needs his friends’ help to get down. Damone brings the wallet. It is an act of genuine friendship that foreshadows betrayal.
Similar to the scene where Brad gets fired, Mark and Stacy’s date is shot in a way that diminishes and infantilizes certain characters. The restaurant is dimly lit in murky red and green. Their waitress is huge and intimidating. The table and seats dwarf Stacy and Mark and accentuate their youth and inexperience.
In 1982, the film’s original audiences might have been more familiar with Led Zeppelin albums and Leave it to Beaver episodes. Those details might have been more apparent and recognized as meaningful in the film. In 2014, it’s catch-as-catch-can where finding meaning is concerned. But that feels like another essay.
We can infer from the lights on Van Nuys Boulevard that the party Spicoli and Jefferson’s brother are going to is a holiday party. It seems like they know each other well as Spicoli dangerously whips Jefferson’s Z28 through traffic. Their interaction is personal, nuanced and funny. Incidentally, “Jefferson’s Brother” is how he’s referred to in the credits.
Christmas isn’t an explicit plot point in these scenes, yet Fast Times at Ridgemont High packs more charm into twenty minutes than there is in the entirety of White Christmas (1954), a bona fide Christmas movie.
Fast Times ends where it began, summer at the mall. But, now it’s closing time. The place is empty. The movie is over and another year has come full-circle. For all the wrecked cars, hurt feelings, bad sex, and humiliation there is always a flip-side for the film’s characters, and for us. Karma is pretty quick, and the end is always the beginning.