Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

RIP John Hughes

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 14, 2009

“So, what would you little maniacs like to do first?”

As I’m writing this, writer/director/producer John Hughes died one week ago. I know there have been tons of online tributes and obits (while the mainstream media, sadly, has mostly ignored the story) in the seven days since, but I’d feel remiss if I didn’t throw in my two cents. I was actually pretty devastated when I first got the news, much more so than when I heard about Michael Jackson (no offense, just a personal reaction), and it’s taken me this long to sort out my thoughts and feelings and figure out exactly what I wanted to say. I don’t usually write these things, but the simple truth is that the work of John Hughes meant a lot to me, as it did to many others. It’s common language to say that one “grew up on” one artist or another, meaning that they were kids at around the time they were popular, but I feel like I literally grew up watching Hughes’ films. I think a lot of people of a certain age may have felt (consciously or not) that an important part of their childhoods died when Hughes did, and I’m not exaggerating or being hyperbolic.

I’m sure some people won’t understand this feeling, and that’s OK. If you weren’t a teenager between the years 1984-1987, you probably won’t relate to any of what I’m about to say, and that’s fine. For others, it simply wasn’t their thing, and that’s fine too. But I feel the need to explain why some of us from that generation feel this way, as well as pay tribute to a man who I genuinely believe was a phenomenal talent. I don’t intend to go through his entire filmography or anything like that; when I refer to his films, I’m mostly referring to the six “teen comedies” he made between Sixteen Candles and Some Kind of Wonderful. That’s when most of us feel he was at his creative peak, and those are the films that meant the most to us (though he did make other films, before and after those, that I’m quite fond of). By the way, the quote on my main page was put up a couple of weeks ago, total coincidence (yes, I know the character’s name is Allison. I guess I was just trying to be ironic or something).

The reason I’m writing this is mainly because John Hughes was one of the four of five people responsible for my lifelong obsession with film. Again, not exaggerating or being hyperbolic; his films came along at just the right time in my intellectual and emotional development (OK, I was 14 when Sixteen Candles was released in early 1984, and turned 15 later that year, if we have to put an exact timeline on it) to really have an effect on me. Of course I loved Spielberg and Lucas and all that 80’s blockbuster stuff, but it was those six films that really made me think about the world I lived in for perhaps the first time. I once described The Breakfast Club to an acquaintance as “the first movie I ever saw where the people on the screen were just like the people around me”. Which doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment now, but for a kid raised on a steady diet of Walt Disney and Star Wars and Indiana Jones, that was a real eye-opener.

You also have to remember, it was a very different time then. Not better or worse (I’m not one of those nostalgia-driven people), just different. It was pre-Internet and pre-irony. It was before everything was instantly available, before our entertainment had to be put in “quotes”. The Atari 2600 was the height of recreational technology. We took things at face value then, there wasn’t a high level of snark and cynicism surrounding the things we loved. There was no reality TV, no 24-hour news, no one commenting on things every minute of the day and then commenting on the other commentators. And I don’t know about you, but where I lived we didn’t exactly have access to foreign films, or even many classic Hollywood films. So most high-schoolers didn’t exactly have much of a frame of reference when it came to filmmaking (nor did most adults I knew). We knew Spielberg and Lucas, some of us knew Hitchcock, and that was pretty much it. The very idea of a “film geek culture” was pretty much foreign to us. So a filmmaker had to make a really large impact on us to really know his work, and by the end of 1985, we all knew John Hughes. By the time Pretty in Pink came out in the spring of ’86, John Hughes was our Movie God.

The first time I encountered the name was, naturally, with the release of the first produced film based on one of his scripts, the rather infamous flop National Lampoon’s Class Reunion (1982). It was intended to be a slasher-movie parody, but the final film (directed by someone named Michael Miller, whose only other major credit was the Chuck Norris vehicle Silent Rage) was a chaotic mess where the laughs were somehow lost in translation. Still, I managed to see it theatrically during its brief run (back then I would watch just about anything, especially if it was rated R and I was able to sneak in) and I was fascinated by this crazy thing. I hadn’t actually seen the movies it was attempting to make fun of, so it made no sense at all to me, and it wasn’t particularly funny even at that age, but I wound up enjoying it anyway just because it was so bizarre and so different from anything else I’d ever seen. Most people would have written off Hughes right then and there (as well as everyone else involved with it) but I suspected that anyone who could write something so insane was destined for greatness. I’m usually right about these things, and I definitely was that time.

Then came the hit Mr. Mom (1983), a very funny film that sadly has become a bit dated as traditional gender roles have broken down, but it worked at the time and helped make a star out of Michael Keaton. The big one for Hughes turned out to be National Lampoon’s Vacation (also ’83), directed by Harold Ramis, which I consider to be one of the absolute funniest movies ever made. The epic tale of the Griswold family’s trip to Wally World became an instant comedy classic and catapulted Hughes to the A-list of screenwriters, allowing him to start directing his own material relatively quickly in his career.

“Could you describe the ruckus, sir?”

That’s where the teens came in, and Hughes’ legend really started. Looking back on his career now, it’s difficult to remember that he only directed eight films, given that he was responsible for so many more as a writer and producer. He only directed four of the six teen films for which he’s best known (Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful were helmed by his protégé Howard Deutch), and his biggest box-office hit, Home Alone, was actually directed by Chris Columbus. Still, the Hughes brand became as big a draw as the man himself – just his name somewhere on the film was enough for people to buy tickets.

It’s one of those rare moments in film history where the term “From the Creator of…” actually worked in putting asses in seats. For awhile, anyway.

It’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated why the Hughes teen films affected people so much. It has become fashionable in some circles, particularly the hipper-than-thou crowd, to denigrate Hughes’ work as being hopelessly clichéd and old-fashioned. What they don’t get, of course, is that Hughes invented those clichés, and that he was the game-changer for the entire genre. You have to remember, this was a time when the “teen sex comedy” was the fad, and movies like Porky’s, The Last American Virgin, Spring Break, Hardbodies, etc. portrayed teens as being nothing but mindless walking hormones on an endless quest to lose their virginity. Hughes knew better. He remembered his own high-school experiences and believed that adolescence hadn’t been accurately portrayed in Hollywood films. He chose to paint his characters as intelligent, sensitive and aware young people who were trapped in a system that unfairly pigeonholed them as simple stereotypes. They weren’t the juvenile delinquents of the ‘50’s films or the “dangerous” hippie kids of the late 60’s and early ‘70s, and certainly not the raging horndogs of the early 80’s. They were simply typical middle-American high school kids of the time as he knew them. If they were somewhat idealized (most teens don’t have someone with the wit and dexterity of language of Hughes writing dialogue for them), it was never to the point where we couldn’t recognize ourselves, or someone we knew, in them.

For my money, Hughes’ masterpiece has always been The Breakfast Club. Still one of my all-time favorite films, this deceptively simple story of five teens stuck in a Saturday-morning detention was literally the film that changed the way I viewed movies. No shit. Beautifully written, expertly directed (which Hughes doesn’t get enough credit for), and wonderfully performed by an ensemble of five terrific young actors (some of whom never got another role anywhere near as good), The Breakfast Club became an iconic 80’s film not because of studio hype (there was very little) or box-office grosses, but because it spoke to people of that age group in a way that nothing else had before. I actually never saw the film theatrically (blasphemy, I know) but when I first saw it on VHS a few months later, I became instantly obsessed with it and probably watched it 20 or so times over the next few years. Even though I haven’t watched it in its entirety in years, I practically have the whole damn thing memorized (were I an actor, I could probably do it as a one-man show), and to this day lines and scenes will pop into my head, seemingly at random. And I wasn’t the only one: it seemed like everyone my age loved The Breakfast Club (well, anyone who actually had half a brain), and some of my few good memories of high school involved trading lines from the film with the other kids who “got it’. Not just because it was meaningful, but also because it was extremely profane and drop-dead hysterical. The perfect combination for a high-school cult classic.

I’ve always been mystified by fans of the film who ask each other, “which one were you?” It’s as if they missed the point of the entire film – and it’s not like Hughes didn’t spell it out for us with the voiceover at the very end! The whole point of the film is that people are more than the stereotypes assigned to them by their peers, their parents or by fate itself. The point is that we are all “a Brain… and an Athlete… and a Princess… and a Rebel… and a Basket Case” (I’m paraphrasing here). To a 15-year-old viewer, especially one who grew up in the outskirts of nowhere, that’s a pretty revolutionary concept. “Wait… you mean… this is all bullshit? And everyone knows it?” Whoa. Nor have I ever wondered what happened to the characters after high school, where they would be now, etc. That’s beside the point, isn’t it? Those characters, for me, exist in that film and that’s where they belong. Anything before or after that is irrelevant. There was always talk about Hughes writing a possible sequel, but I’m actually kind of glad that it never happened. I honestly can’t imagine a sequel working or living up to the original, and it would be foolish to even try. Don’t mess with perfection.

“It’s pretty childish and stupid, but then so is high school.”

Hughes excelled at bringing the laughs, but even more so he excelled at writing about modern teens the way no screenwriter ever had. That’s why those of us who were in that age group at the time related to his films so much. When you’re that age, you feel like nobody really understands you – not your peers, not your siblings, and certainly not your parents. Hughes’ films spoke to us, and what they said was, “I know what it’s like. You’re not the only one.” That’s an important thing for kids to hear, whether they realize it consciously know it or not. Even if we hadn’t been through the exact situations the characters had, we could still recognize the essential truth in them. It wasn’t necessarily the plots they were living through, it was the way they felt that we saw ourselves in. No previous “teen films” before Hughes had really portrayed that intense sensitivity, that bruised feeling where every minor slight felt like being set on fire. He understood the pain of growing up, the torment that came with the realization that the world was not what we thought it would be. The burn of learning that the whole deal pretty much sucks.

And if he wanted to put a salve on that burn, to make us feel better, at least temporarily, who could blame him? Hughes has often been criticized for his happy endings, where the geeks get the girl, the poor girl lands the rich boy, etc. Yeah, those things really don’t happen in real life, and we knew that. We dealt with that reality every day. There was no Kristy Swanson waiting for us at the prom, and we couldn’t conjure up Kelly LeBrock with our Commodore 64s. No shit, Sherlock. But Hughes was all about transcending all the bullshit that limited us in our everyday lives. He loved his characters, and he wanted them to be happy. What’s so horrible about that? The guy wasn’t Ingmar Bergman. If there was a level of wish-fulfillment fantasy in all of his films, what’s the harm in that? I wonder how these curmudgeons wanted those films to end? Lifelong depression? Drug and alcohol abuse, maybe suicide? Would you really wish that on poor little Molly Ringwald? Christ, what did she ever do to you?

Of course, that’s the Jeffrey Wells argument, that everything that happens in movies should happen exactly as they would in real life, and anything else is bullshit. I’m really very glad I don’t believe that. It’s because real life generally sucks that we need movies in the first place. If Hughes was at times a shameless fantasist, it was because his audience needed him to be. We got enough of cruel reality in everyday life. The last thing we needed to see was Anthony Michael Hall shooting heroin or Ally Sheedy getting an abortion. This was the 80’s, remember? Fantasy was the order of the day. At least his fantasies were a reaction to the way the world really was. You can’t say that about most of the Hollywood films of that decade (and I should know, because I saw pretty much all of them, if not theatrically then on VHS or cable). Let’s face it, most of those movies were total bullshit, and most of them have been justifiably forgotten. Hughes’ films have not been, because they gave us something more than just escapism.

“The kids haven’t changed, Dick. You have.”

One thing that Hughes doesn’t get enough credit for is how genuinely subversive his films were. They weren’t political at all, but they always had an air of rebellion to them, a subdued anger at the way the system worked, the way parents treated their kids, the way kids treated other kids. He was willing to explore the class system in ways that other teen films weren’t even smart enough to consider. Hughes saw through all the Norman Rockwell bullshit that the Reagan era tried to sell us. He knew that high school could be a living hell, that families could be a nightmare, that rich people were generally snobs and assholes, and that love hurts more often than not. You didn’t see that kind of content in the likes of Secret Admirer or Mischief. But he also believed that if you were smart enough and strong enough, you could get through it all with at least some of your sanity intact. That no matter how humiliating or embarrassing high school was for you, it wasn’t the end of your life. That was also something we desperately needed to hear. It seems very far away now, but I remember a time when I thought high school would literally never fucking end. It was one shitty day after another, the longest four years of life, and if some of us are still “Basket Cases” at the end of it all, I totally understand why. I can only speak for myself and the people I knew then, when I say that Hughes’ films played a large part in getting us through.

Something else that’s been unfairly forgotten about Hughes is his soundtracks. He was several years ahead of the alternative-music boom. When most mainstream movie soundtracks were full of pop fluff, Hughes was introducing the kids of America to the eclectic sounds of bands like The Smiths, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, Oingo Boingo, OMD, Yello, Big Audio Dynamite and Flesh for Lulu, among others. It took quite awhile for the rest of Hollywood to catch up to what he (and his music supervisors) were doing. Long before the grunge wave hit and alternative rock took over the music scene, Hughes’ kids were already hip. He also introduced us to “older” music ranging from Otis Redding to David Bowie, and helped influence a whole generation of music geeks.

As with any success story, Hughes had his share of copycats and wanna-bes, but none of them really seemed to get what he was all about. They copied the profanity and the “geek” status of the characters, but they didn’t have his heart. They didn’t see the humanity behind the stereotypes. That’s why Hughes’ films have endured and been rediscovered by new generations of kids, while the literal tons of other teen films of that decade have been pretty much forgotten. He was a known influence on writer-directors ranging from Kevin Smith (who paid homage to his fictional town of Shermer, Illinois in Dogma)to Judd Apatow. It’s safe to say that teen films would never have progressed without him – even the films that were an opposing reaction to his wouldn’t have existed if he hadn’t come along. Without John Hughes, there would be no Heathers, no Clueless, no Mean Girls, no Juno. Few filmmakers have had that kind of wide-ranging influence.

“Well Brian, it doesn’t sound like you’re doing any business”.

It was inevitable that Hughes would want to leave the teen films behind, and after the relatively less successful Some Kind of Wonderful, he mostly did just that (though he would sort-of revisit the genre with 1991’s mostly forgotten Career Opportunities and 1998’s little-seen Reach the Rock). He made some terrific “adult” comedies, with Planes, Trains and Automobiles by far the best. In a way, the smash hit Home Alone (far and away his biggest box-office success) kind of ruined him creatively, as the studios demanded the same kind of lowbrow comedy without the nuance of his previous work. It was only natural then, that he would turn to making family films, and spent most of the 90’s cranking out screenplays for films like Beethoven, Flubber and Dennis the Menace. (His last credit was on 2008’s Drillbit Taylor, which was based on an old idea of his; he was not involved in any way with the production.) As he moved on, so did we. Some of us discovered other films and filmmakers that captured our interest; others just simply “grew up and out of it”. But we never forgot him either, and even after he disappeared completely from Hollywood some of us held out hope for an eventual comeback. That, of course, will never happen now.

But we still have his films, to be discovered and re-discovered, and most of all to be enjoyed. Just before writing this, I re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for the first time in years, and it’s still hilarious (though I will always maintain that the film is really about Cameron). Just a few months ago, I gave my 11-year-old niece a copy of Pretty in Pink for her birthday. She loved it. My 12-year-old nephew recently discovered The Breakfast Club. That pretty much says it all about the lasting influence of John Hughes. A lot of things have changed for teens since the 80’s, but the feelings really don’t. Kids will be discovering the work of John Hughes for decades to come, and finding something to relate to in it.

For those of us who lived through it, John Hughes did a very important thing, something that’s been lost among all the whiz-bang CGI Michael Bay Hollywood bullshit. John Hughes made us care. And that’s something you just can’t fake.

Thank you, John. In the language of your characters… you kicked fuckin’ ass. Totally.

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