The three Torrance High School seniors were giggling in spite of themselves: People they knew so well from everyday-school bustle looked so . . . different in a movie.
"Can you believe that's Jeff?" said one, pointing at the screen. "No way. He looks so grown-up now."
Another looked away from the screen. "Look in the mirror sometime," she murmured.
Director Keva Rosenfeld, whose 60-minute documentary/memento "All American High" the seniors were watching, had felt the passage of a decade since his own high school days (in Van Nuys, at Birmingham High) and wanted to see, among other things, if the high school experience was as he remembered it--so he made a film.
"Everyone, including me, has such a fondness for that time in our lives," Rosenfeld said wistfully. "I remember feeling buoyed by all of the innocent ritual that went on then--the pep rallies, the massive parties, the dances."
It's no surprise, then, that much of "All American High" is taken up by the goofy, hang-10 aspects of wiggling through a largish public high school--in the film, it's Torrance High--and is mostly an examination of how one can slide on by those years with a minimum of (educational) friction. (The film opened this week at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles.)
"I didn't have any big social agenda, like 'Doesn't public education stink?' or 'What's wrong with kids today?' " Rosenfeld said. "If anything, I wanted to pay homage to that system, which it seems to me has gotten a lot of dirt heaped on it recently."
But the three Torrance seniors--Melissa Campbell, Diane Pennington and April Brooks--felt that the film, while basically true-to-life, rather short-changed the stressful, competitive side of life at Torrance High. They gathered at Melissa's house to watch Rosenfeld's film on a videocassette supplied by its distributor, Direct Cinema.
"You're competing against hundreds of other kids for those few really good colleges, and you have to work all the time," said Melissa, shaking her head. "I don't know about the other students, but I don't have time to take surfing class or read magazines during lecture"--as Torrance High students do in the film.
"(The film) makes it seem like one big party," added April, an extraordinarily self-possessed blonde who's studying to be an engineer. "And there is that, but only when I have time for it. The work of school comes first . . . and second, and third sometimes."
"I'd like to go to that school," said Diane, laughing. "It might save a few wrinkles."
But it was the ritual part of school days--the social reinforcements of status, desirability, even achievement--that Rosenfeld said he wanted to capture in "All American High." Hitting the books is another kind of ritual, certainly, but it's a personal one.
"I chose to focus on the student leader group because it was the one most involved in the big events," he said in a separate interview. "I didn't include the 'outsiders'--or what the kid in the film calls the 'punkers'--precisely because they're not involved in that process of socialization. They were also, surprisingly, the most camera-shy."
Unsure exactly what story he was going to tell (or how he could afford to tell it), Rosenfeld shot thousands of feet of film during the 1984 school year. He and co-producer Linda Maron became such a well-known couple around the campus (and were young enough not to stand out) that Rosenfeld said the students ceased to pay attention to them, whether a camera was present or not.
"The way it looks in the film," Rosenfeld commented, "is that some of these scenes were staged--the one at the end (where the foreign-exchange student who narrates the film goes home to Finland) especially. But they weren't. I hadn't exactly become invisible--anybody walking around with a boom mike is a little conspicuous--but the kids weren't guarding themselves anymore."
Indeed, the three seniors marveled at how natural things in the film seemed to appear: laughing over particularly colorful (that is, Mohawked) students, chuckling over teachers, sighing over particularly cute guys. And being embarrassed about it.
"I can't believe they're talking about that on camera," Diane moaned as four party-going girls in the film defined the term "walking orgasm" (an extraordinarily cute guy). "It's weird enough to talk about it just by yourself."
"They must have had a few beers before they filmed that," commented April.
If there were beers, they certainly weren't on Rosenfeld's budget for "All American High." He said that almost everyone on the crew worked on a deferred basis--meaning they'll make money if the film makes money--and that he used mostly "short ends" (leftover film).
"Luckily I got an NEA (National Endowment of the Arts) finishing grant, or there would have been no movie," Rosenfeld said. A film editor and video director by trade, Rosenfeld had never worked on such a shoestring before. "I'd gotten used to working with the best stuff, best (film) stock, the whole bit. But with this . . . I found out why 'necessity is the mother of invention' became a cliche."