Some of you may be wondering why I chose to review two such different movies, Patton and Fast Times at Ridgemont High last month. Maybe I should explain. The point is, these pictures mark the beginning and the end of the best era of American film-making. Stick to movies that came out between these two.
Patton upped the ante on psychological insight. After Patton (1970) came The Conversation, Five Easy Pieces, Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver, Dog Day Afternoon, Two Lane Blacktop, Dirty Mary Crazy Larry, movies with crazy heroes, sick individuals with real beating hearts. Compare their heroes with Mr. Tibbs in In the Heat of the Night (1968). In the Heat of the Night is a great movie, with a great score and the always entertaining Rod Steiger, but Sidney Poitier's hero is totally inhuman once you get to know him. Likewise Steve McQueen's Thomas Crown (1968) is a super cool zero. Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) is another good example. Heroic, but too pure, too simple. There's no aha! this is real life! You have to go back to the 1950s, say to Marlon Brando's Terry Malloy to find to find a high level of complexity in a central character. But On the Waterfront was a rarity. Even genre movies in the 1970s had substance and psychological complexity.
At the end of the decade came Fast Times. Like a 1970s movie, it's serious about journalistic integrity and serious about taking on the tough issues. There's an abortion. All the characters have depressing part-time jobs at the mall or in convenience stores, other than the one who scalps concert tickets. But it's also funny. The history teacher says Aloha all the time. And it's sexy: Phoebe Cates reveals her chest to great effect, especially on poor Judge Reinhold. Hollywood learned the wrong lessons from the seminal Fast Times. The teen movie industry that blossomed in its wake told touching stories of early romance, but rarely would a viewer recognize what he saw. The independent Dazed and Confused came the closest. But in general, the movie makers copied the Fast Times surface: show sexy kids in sunny climates triumphing over their own foolishness and some mild adversity. Hey I loved those movies as much as the next guy, but they were not sufficiently challenging. The imitations delivered pleasures but didn't leave an impression and don't hold up. War Games was fun, but Matthew Broderick, like Tom Cruise, is a piece of cardboard. He's a smile in a pair of chinos. Compare them with sweaty Mike Damone in Fast Times. Things just got saccharine.
I recommend Smile, written by Jerry Belson, and directed by Michael Ritchie. A beauty pageant in the California hinterlands. A sophisticated ensemble story about the politics of how to play in rigged games in a small town. It came out in 1975, five years after Patton and seven years before Fast Times.
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