Youth-oriented films give high schools a warped image
The history teacher is annoyed by the interruption of his class. The student with the long hair in the front row, a problem from the start of the term, has just paid off the pizza delivery man and is about to settle in for lunch.Skip to next paragraph
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''What do you think you're doing on my time?'' asks the teacher, glowering at the boy.
''I like to think of this as our time,'' comes the reply. Angered, the teacher grabs the pizza carton away and distributes the slices to the rest of the class, demonstrating that he is the person in charge.
What's unusual about this scene from the movie, ''Fast Times at Ridgemont High'' (1982), is not the challenge to the teacher's authority. Such challenges have been occurring on film since at least 1955, when Glenn Ford faced down a roomful of delinquents in ''The Blackboard Jungle.'' This scene stands out because the teacher, played by Ray Walston, is allowed to retain both his dignity and his authority.
The past several years have seen many films geared to the teen-age market centering on high school. Someone trying to judge secondary education on the basis of these films would become very confused, to say the least. Some examples:
* ''Massacre at Central High'' (1978) is a gothic revenge story featuring students murdering, maiming, and blowing each other up. It doesn't feature any adult authority figures, at home or in school.
* ''Rock 'n' Roll High School'' (1979) tells the story of how a group of students overthrow a dictatorial principal.
* ''The Last American Virgin'' (1982) shows students engaging in a variety of illicit acts from drug use to car theft and solicitation of prostitution.
What distinguishes this current spate of high school films from older ones like ''The Blackboard Jungle'' or ''To Sir, With Love'' (1967) is that, except for a few moments in the otherwise undistin-guished ''Ridgemont High,'' no education takes place in school.In older films, teachers help delinquents overcome poverty and parental neglect by showing them that an education is the way out.
Today's picture of high school is quite different. The school, usually in an affluent suburb, is a well-equipped physical structure.
The students themselves spend little time on homework or even going to class. This is true not only in the films previously mentioned, but in films geared to a larger audience as well. In ''E.T.'' (1982), the boy takes time out from caring for his alien friend to go to biology class. There he rebels against amphibian vivisection (out of deference to E.T.) by freeing all the frogs. In ''WarGames'' (1983), the bright teen-age hero is bored by a droning teacher, but then rushes home to his bedroom computer, where he can be really challenged by hooking into a national-defense computer system.
These days teachers, principals, guidance counselors, and other adult school personnel are lucky if they appear at all. Ever since George Lucas bypassed school authorities by setting his quintessential high school film ''American Graffiti'' (1973) after graduation, the classroom has lost its allure for Hollywood.
Two recent films stand out against the trend. ''Fame'' (1980) tells the story of a group of students over four years at a fictionalized version of New York's High School for the Performing Arts. No excuse is made for the inadequacy of the school's physical plant; this is what an urban high school looks like. (The 1980 film ''My Bodyguard'' does show its central characters in an urban high school, although schooling is not the focus of the film. It is also emphasized that the main character's father manages a Chicago luxury hotel, explaining the necessity of his attendance at a city school.)
While ''Fame'' does focus on gifted, rather than ordinary, students, it strikes a chord because it shows that the students' lives are affected by the educational process. Teachers are shown setting standards, as when Anne Meara, as an English teacher, tells a young dancer that neglecting his basic studies can lead to his expulsion. In the manner of the old high school films, she eventually succeeds in reaching him by showing that his education is not merely her job but her concern.
Where ''Fame'' is different from the older films is that education is no longer the solution to everything, as it once was. Sidney Poitier could convince his slum students in ''To Sir, With Love'' that eduction was the ticket out. In ''Fame'' three friends nearing graduation eating lunch notice that their busboy is the star actor from a previous year's senior class. Clearly, success in high school no longer carries any guarantees.
Bill Forsyth's ''Gregory's Girl'' (1981) is from Scotland, but other than the delightful lilt of the characters' speech, it could be set in any American town. The story concerns Gregory, a teen-age boy wanting to go out on his first date. He has a crush on the girl who has replaced him on the soccer team.
What distinguishes this film from, say, ''Fast Times at Ridgemont High'' is that here the high schoool is part of the character's life. It isn't simply a holding pen until he can get to the shopping mall.
The classroom scenes ring true as well. Socializing may go on during the individual classwork in home economics, but in English class it is the teacher who is in charge. In one scene the English teacher does allow a brief interruption, but instead of a pizza delivery man it is a former student, now gainfully employed, who is the visitor.
While some may be taken aback by the occasional frankness of language, ''Fame'' and ''Gregory's Girl'' stand out as the only recent films to look at high school as a place where students, teachers, and administrators gather each day to attempt the process of education. In a hopeful fashion, they show that sometimes the process can even be enjoyable.