Saturday, October 10, 2009

A Very, Very, Very Late Appreciation of John Hughes

Yeah, so I fell off the posting wagon, if you can use that phrase like that, and there were some things I wanted to blog about that I never quite got to. Like the Generation X Celebrity Icon Death Spree of Summer 2009, which claimed Farrah Fawcett, Michael Jackson and John Hughes in the space of...seems like a week or two, but it's been so long now that I'm not even sure.

All three of those people occupy a strange space for me. Take Michael Jackson. I was in my early years of high school when Thriller dropped, so I remember the hype and hysteria pretty clearly, but it was never something that personally connected with me. At the time, I was pretty much all about Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, and had no real interest in any music that didn't have hammer-on guitar solos and lyrics about the devil. So when Michael died, I spent a lot of that week watching old footage of the guy on YouTube, and kinda getting to know this important figure that I'd never paid attention to. He was pretty damn impressive in his heyday, but in the end, I felt the same as I always had--that the only song of his I could really get into was "I Want You Back."

Farrah was a similar thing. I was never really into her, but she was so much a part of the cultural landscape of my childhood that she seemed like an important part of my life. I used to watch Charlie's Angels, but it was Jacqueline Smith that I thought was just incredibly beautiful. Farrah just didn't do anything for me. And when she left the show (did you realize she was only on there for one season?), they replaced her with Cheryl Ladd, who was like 10 times more smokin' hot.

And then there's John Hughes. And I am definitely of the John Hughes generation. No, seriously, I was a senior in high school when The Breakfast Club dropped. In fact, our class song was "Don't You Forget About Me." Even in facter, I recall my girlfriend having to do a play for her theater class, and she and the rest of her group sat down and transcribed The Breakfast Club in order to perform it as a play. That's how fucking of the John Hughes generation I am.

It's probably not surprising that, among people my age, views on the movies for which John Hughes is most well known, the "Brat Pack Cycle", are pretty polarized. I wasn't at all surprised to find the facebook status updates from my high school and college friends displaying an outpouring of emotion as if a close friend had died. These movies inhabit a special place in the hearts of my peers. But I also know there are a lot of people who hold a seething hatred for them. The word "dishonest" comes up a lot. And while I was never a particularly huge fan of those films (in fact, I just got around to seeing Pretty in Pink about a decade ago), I don't think they're at all dishonest. Oh, sure, they're hollywood movies, and they deal in fantasy. They're slick movies filled with beautiful, well-groomed actors. But I think in the basic emotional beats, they're quite honest about the internal lives of teenagers. It's a perfect Hollywood mix of projected teen wish fulfillment with the internal angst of real teen lives. Come to think of it, it's a lot like Spider-Man.

And in that respect, how lucky was he to find Molly Ringwald? She's so perfect for those movies: pretty, but in kind of an odd way, so that she can simultaneously be the nerdy outsider and the most beautiful and stylish girl in school. Plenty of guys had huge crushes on her, but her biggest appeal was surely in how her female audience could project both their angst and their fantasies on her.

One thing that was nice about those movies was the music. At the time I didn't think much about it, because when you're soaking in Butthole Surfers and Meat Puppets records, the Psychedelic Furs don't really seem like much of a big deal, but for that notoriously conservative period in mainstream music, it was pretty neat how he'd score his films to music that was a bit more edgey than what was floating around on radio and MTV. Although, I still hate "Don't You Forget About Me."

But what about the guy's chops as a director? I put it to you that John Hughes was not a hack in any sense of the word, and I offer evidence. This first one is a bonus, because I just found out while researching this that Hughes wrote, but did not direct, Pretty in Pink. This one and Some Kind of Wonderful were both directed by John Deutsche. But I reckon most of the credit can be split between Hughes for writing the scene into the movie, and John Cryer for what he did with it. Tell me this isn't a great piece of cinema:

OK, you're unconvinced. Then watch this. 2:30 of exquisitely staged and edited cinema from Planes, Trains and Automobiles:

And how about the art museum scene in Ferris Bueller's Day Off? How strange, in the middle of this boisterous comedy, to take 5 minutes to show the main characters staring at paintings. Just conveying that experience in a cinematic way is enough of a challenge, but he actually manages to advance the characters while giving us a visually pleasing series of shots of famous works of art.

Ferris is such a strange character, in that it's impossible not to immediately like him, and at the same time immediately hate the little shit. He's your fantasy projection of yourself and at the same time, an embodiment of the people you have the most resentment for. I remember having a great sympathy for Ferris' sister and the principal for being so pissed off at what the guy was getting away with, while at the same time cheering for him to get away with it. The teenage mind is complicated. Which brings us to The Breakfast Club.

So like I said, I don't think these are necessarily "great" movies, but I do enjoy them. And The Breakfast Club in particular, I think is quite good. Oh sure, it reduces it's themes to the simplest possible elements--I don't think anybody in the real world fits so easily into one of the five categories of teenagers that the movie presents, and I don't think any assistant principal is quite the perfect embodiment of authoritarian douche that we see in Paul Gleeson's character, but there seemed to me to be a general truth to it: that sometime, late in your high school years, you realize what bullshit it is to pigeonhole people based on these social classes. And it's not just the jocks and princesses that do it. Being the brain, basket case or delinquent, you probably spend a lot of time complaining about that social system without realizing how much you participate in it. As difficult as it is for a jock to recognize the consequences of bullying a nerd, how much harder is it for a social outcast to realize that the internal life of the football captain and homecoming queen are just as fucked up as theirs?

The most brilliant scene in that film is the opening credits sequence, where you see each character being dropped off at school. You learn everything about their characters from their interaction with their parents in this very brief scene, which unfortunately I can't find on YouTube. And doesn't that make perfect sense? Isn't that how our personalities are formed?


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