The John Hughes Canon
Reconsidering the man who best chronicled 1980s America.
By Greg Beato
The first rule of Breakfast Club is that you totally talk about Breakfast Club. And then you shout some about Breakfast Club, and do some truly awful dancing about Breakfast Club, and then you cry.
But mostly you talk. In 1985, when The Breakfast Club was originally released, this was a fairly radical notion. Throughout the early 1980s, in movies like Porky’s, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and dozens of similar knock-offs, Hollywood depicted teens as raging hedonists devoted to the pleasures of the body. They practiced oral sex on carrots, they hired hookers, they got stoned before class, they drank themselves into happy oblivion.
Even in John Hughes’ sweet-as-frosting Sixteen Candles, debauchery hovers in the margins. In The Breakfast Club, however, he broke completely with contemporary standards. Sure, there’s a scene where everyone gets stoned, and a couple of chaste kisses at the end, but the pursuit of pleasure is no longer the narrative engine driving this movie. Nor is romance, nor even the desire to assume grown-up responsibilities. Generous humanist that he was, Hughes was that rare adult who took teenagers just as seriously as they take themselves, and the result was a movie in which the five main characters – the brain, the jock, the princess, the criminal, and the basket case — pursue nothing more compelling than self-awareness and the public revelation of thoughts and feelings once consigned to diaries and psychologist offices. Stuck in a high school library that resembles both a theater and the sort of high-security prison where one is always on display, they sit around in a circle, disclosing secrets, analyzing each other, and exploring how very very difficult it is to be them. They are, in short, the linchpin between touchy-feely 1970s-era encounter groups and whiny-shouty 1990s-era reality TV.
The visual highlight of The Breakfast Club involves Emilio Estevez in a cartwheel-heavy dance number that makes Zac Ephron look like Rudolph Nureyev. The most memorable slang it spawned was the phrase “neo-maxie-zoom-dweebie,” which exactly zero real-life teens ever uttered. Its candid depiction of the real understanding that can take place when a handful of straight white teens can get past all their superficial diversities and focus on what ultimately unites them was, well, not all that daring actually. And yet in 2005, MTV honored the movie on its 20th anniversary with a Silver Bucket of Excellence. In 2006, Entertainment Weekly named it The Best High School Movie ever. This was an insult to high school, movies, and ever, and yet, paradoxically, The Breakfast Club has not received the recognition it deserves for pointing us toward the future of entertainment.
MTV’s The Real World dumped seven strangers into an insular environment and encouraged them to yell at each other, but The Breakfast Club got there first. Countless prime-time reality shows rely on tearful self-disclosure and aggressive peer therapizing to deliver the drama once supplied by car chases and gunfire, but The Breakfast Club got there first. It presented extreme self-consciousness not just as a character trait but as a narrative strategy, a form of entertainment, and millions of bloggers across the Web are its spiritual children. “Don’t you forget about me,” its theme song memorably instructed, and we haven’t. Its wounded, oversharing heart is everywhere now.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)
By Morgan Meis
Generation Xers were screwed from day one. It is not hard to understand why. We had to follow the Baby Boomers. The most self-absorbed generation ever to lumber across this solid Earth, the Boomers had massive numbers and the accumulated wealth of their hard-working parents. Locusts with good credit, they descended on the 20th century with naught but plunder on their collective mind. First they wanted drugs and sex and freedom. Then they wanted cars and houses and social order. Now they want health care and bailouts and new pharmaceuticals that will keep them alive decades past their welcome.
So, Generation X gave up early in the game. There was no way to compete. The crafty Boomers had kept our numbers down with birth control and wisely spent up all the money Western civilization had amassed over several centuries of rapid accumulation. Brilliant.
This brings us to Ferris Bueller. Like all Generation Xers, his heroism lies in his anti-heroism. But not in the grand style of, say, a James Dean. Ferris is a master of the little things, sneaking around, grabbing moments. Egotistical and smug, he bears himself, nevertheless, with an essential modesty. He knows that he is living in someone else's world and he is content to pick at the carcass.
Dave Kehr — a critic for the New York Times and a Baby Boomer — noted of Ferris Bueller's Day Off that the “adventures aren't particularly imaginative (they have lunch, see a Cubs game, go to the Art Institute).” Well, that's the whole point, Dave. Sorry, Dave, that Ferris didn't go on a Freedom Ride, or invent aerobics, or speculate on mortgage-backed securities. Instead, he has lunch, goes to a Cubs game, and looks at some art.
In fact, the scene where Ferris, his girl, and his best friend look at some art nails every deep emotion that a Gen Xer ever had. The feeling of betweenness: Ferris and friends enter the scene holding hands with a long line of kids on a field trip. The yearning for experience: Ferris’ friend Cameron stands mesmerized in front of Seurat's famous “A Sunday in the Park on the Island of La Grande Jatte.” The quiet melancholy of it all: The soundtrack is an orchestral version of The Smiths’ “Please, Please, Please Let me Get What I Want.” In the original, the lyrics go:
So please please please
Let me, let me, let me
Let me get what I want
John Hughes was born in 1950, putting him squarely in the Boomer camp. But his heart was always with us. He was a generation traitor. He appreciated the B-side nature of Generation X. He knew that we just want a day sometimes, a few simple experiences that can be our own.
By Jason Wilson
“I can’t believe this,” says Molly Ringwald in the opening scene of Sixteen Candles. “They fucking forgot my birthday.”
We couldn’t believe it, either, Molly. Because we — those awkward teenage boys in the audience, the ones who’d watch this movie over and over, dozens upon dozens of times, over the next 25 years — we would never, ever have forgotten such an important day.
Of course, the character Molly Ringwald plays in this film — the very best of John Hughes’ teen comedies — is named Samantha “Sam” Baker, who endures a day of unending humiliations: being felt up by her grandmother; having a sex quiz intercepted by the hunky Jake Ryan, object of her affection; being asked to bring foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong to the dance; lending her underwear to Anthony Michael Hall so he can show them off to his fellow geeks in the boy’s room.
Strange, but when I heard about John Hughes’ death, my first thoughts were about Molly Ringwald, who is very much alive and recently gave birth to twins. Or perhaps it’s not so strange. Since Hughes remained so reclusive over the past two decades, the memorable roles he created for the pack of young actors like Hall, Judd Nelson, Jon Cryer, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez and others are really our only connection to the man.
Yet for me, it is Molly Ringwald — with her red hair and flushed face and puffy lips and “charismatic normality,” as critic Pauline Kael called it — who brings me back to my youth. Could there have been John Hughes without Molly Ringwald? Or vice versa? Who can tell the dancer from the dance?
When I watch Sam complain about the “single worst day of my entire life” and she pines for a 16th birthday with “a pink Trans Am in the driveway with a ribbon around it, and some incredibly gorgeous guy that you meet, like in France, and you do it on a cloud without getting pregnant or herpes” I am 16 years old again, and hoping to scrape together enough money from mowing suburban lawns to make Sam’s dream birthday come true.
The stunted emotional development I attribute to Sixteen Candles seems to have happened for both sexes. In 2004, Hank Stuever wrote a piece in the Washington Post headlined “Real Men Can’t Hold A Match To Jake Ryan of Sixteen Candles” in which he interviewed women in their 30s about their lifelong crushes on Jake Ryan.
“I’m trying to think of another one that compares to him, and there aren’t.” said one woman. “Maybe that’s why I’m single. Maybe he really has ruined it for all of us.”
“I cannot over-explain or over-emphasize the importance of Jake Ryan and that movie,” said another woman, who also pointed out the popularity of Jake as a baby name, which skyrocketed in the late 1990s and 2000s among mothers who would have watched Sixteen Candles as teenagers.
To be honest, it always deeply disappointed me that Sam ended up with Jake Ryan. I mean, there was considerable evidence that Jake was a total heel. Why, I wondered, did Jake only take an interest after learning that he was the one boy Sam would “do it” with? During his raging party, where he basically allows his parents’ house to be destroyed, he confides to Farmer Ted (Hall) that his popular, blond girlfriend is passed out upstairs and mentions he could “violate her 10 different ways.” Further, Jakes sends the blacked-out girlfriend home with Farmer Ted, telling him, “She’s so blitzed, she won’t know the difference.” He then sees Farmer Ted off, drunk driving in Jake’s parents’ Rolls Royce.
It’s actually hard to imagine a comedy these days that plays drunk driving or date rape or the racial stereotype of Long Duk Dong for such big laughs. Maybe the 1980s — and John Hughes — has messed us up in ways we are only now beginning to comprehend?
As for Molly, by the time we got to college in the early 1990s, most everyone had pretty much moved on. Whether our new crush was Kelly Kapowski or Lisa Loeb or Bridget Fonda in Singles or heroin-chic Kate Moss, Molly had become as old news as that Aquanetted girl you took to the prom in 1987. By the mid-1990s, there was even a new charismatically normal and disaffected redhead named Claire Danes to take Molly’s place — and shows like My So-Called Life spawned the much more humorless explorations of teen angst we now regularly see.But I still love Sixteen Candles. Of course, high school is long over, I’ll be turning 39 in a few weeks, and John Hughes is dead. But these days, I might actually be able to afford payments on that pink Trans Am, as well French lessons and two tickets to Paris. Sam? Molly? Is it now (forever?) too late to say Happy Birthday?
By Stefany Anne Golberg
What is life but a series of inspired follies?
— Henry Higgins, Pygmalion, Act 2
I want her to live, I want her to breath…I want her to aerobicise.
— Gary Wallace, Weird Science
For those who were weaned on ’80s teen movies, the plot of Weird Science makes perfect sense. Gary (played by adorable John Hughes mainstay Anthony Michael Hall) and Wyatt are two unpopular, sexually frustrated nerds living in middle America. While watching the Bride of Frankenstein, Gary comes up with the idea that he and Wyatt (a computer expert) should create the perfect woman. Her first task will be to have sex with them. To their credit, when they discover that Wyatt’s computer is only capable of giving their fantasy girl-bot the I.Q. of a fifth grader, Wyatt hacks into the government mainframe for more juice. With the sass of David Lee Roth, the bod of a Barbie doll, and the brain of Einstein, Lisa explodes onto the scene and Shermer, Illinois is never the same.
Weird Science is Pygmalion for horny dorks. Wyatt is Colonel Pickering and Gary is Henry Higgins. But there’s something unique about Lisa’s Eliza. Most Pygmalion stories — My Fair Lady, One Touch of Venus, Pretty Woman, Pygmalion itself — have men recreating woman as a smart, refined, and sensible life form. More (as Henry Higgins put it) like a man. Lisa doesn’t have to be remade because she was created perfect. She’s a super hot bod wrapped around a genius I.Q. Unlike Eliza Doolittle, her English accent is just fine. For kicks, she is also magical, which only increases her power and her hotness. Turning the Pygmalion myth on its head, she remakes Gary and Wyatt into popular, confident guys who steal the bullies’ girlfriends.
The great theorist of Artificial Intelligence Alan Turing once wrote, “A computer would deserve to be called intelligent if it could deceive a human into believing that it was human.” In the end, it’s clear that Lisa is more than a physical manifestation of Gary and Wyatt’s desires — she is independent of them, a being in her own right. What gives her this power is something more intelligent than Lisa or Gary or Wyatt combined — a computer. So, as Weird Science encapsulates the themes of the classic 1980s teen flick — horny teenage boys defeating bullies, horny teenage boys and their weird fantasies, the power tall Englishwomen hold over males — it is primarily defined by that most ’80s of all ‘80s themes: the power and promise of artificial intelligence. Those with mastery of the computer would in turn be remade by it. In the future, computers would be the Pygmalions of us all. They would fix our lives, make us smarter, better, more popular. And most importantly, relieve our horniness.
By Jesse Smith
Yes, Hughes had a pitch-perfect understanding of teenage suffering in suburban America. Yet he maintained as strong a fascination with the twin banes of all teenagers: family vacations and family holidays.
It started with National Lampoon's Vacation. The movie's central conflict: Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold wants to spend time with his family. This means driving cross-country from Illinois to a California amusement park, instead of flying. As Clark explains to wife Beverly D'Angelo, work affords him little time with his teenage son and daughter; he has the foresight to know that one day he's going to turn around and they'll be gone.
This makes Clark, of course, an idiot — his attempt at a classic, all-American road trip are foiled by a dog that pees on a picnic basket and a family member played by Randy Quaid who asks for a loan. One time they get lost, and another time the car breaks down. And the amusement park? It's closed! Oh, stupid dad.
Hughes sat out Vacation's European sequel, but returned as the scribe of 1989's Christmas Vacation. The movie's central conflict: Clark wants to spend time with his extended family at Christmas. A cat is electrocuted, the tree burns down, Clark gets sap on his fingers, Randy Quaid needs money for Christmas presents, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
The Great Outdoors (1988) takes this plot to the Wisconsin woods and replaces Chevy Chase with John Candy. Candy's character has visions of an idyllic summer in the wilderness, but alas, racoons break into the trash, a bat flies through the house, and a family member played by Dan Akroyd asks for a loan.
To acknowledge these movies as formulaic is not to say they are not funny, or that Hughes himself believes Dad is a moron. Quite the opposite: His attempts may be ridiculous, but his values are not. For Hughes, vacations and holidays can and should be fun, and why wouldn't you spend want to spend them with friends and family? Macaulay Culkin didn't in Home Alone, and look what happened to him. Hughes most affectionate exploration of this desire is 1987's Planes, Trains & Automobiles, in which Steve Martin's Chicago ad man wants nothing more than to make it home from New York in time for Thanksgiving dinner with his family (foiled by John Candy, who at one point needs a loan!).
To be sure, Charles Grodin's Beethoven dad may have been a curmudgeon. But his resistance to the giant Saint Bernard didn't stem so much from a hatred of dogs as from a fear what they'd do to his orderly and clean house and life — I mean, it is a Saint Bernard, after all. (Spoiler: Grodin eventually comes around, of course, or we would today have neither the Oscar-nominated (!) Beethoven's 2nd nor the straight-to-video 3rd, 4th, and 5th: Big Paw.)
Hughes' sympathy for the American parent made him the logical choice to revisit George Seaton's 1947 Miracle on 34th Street in 1994. Life may have been tough for those Brat Packers of his '80s films — what with their joyless suburban high schools and distant, birthday-forgetting parents. Yet Hughes would follow all of those with the story of a young girl who on the cusp of her teen years is gifted by Santa Claus a house in the 'burbs and a new dad.
So celebrate those teen flicks, yes. Hughes had a good eye for the angst and ennui and disillusionment and detachment that makes teenagers, teenagers. But don't forget that the young people of Hughes' other films are quick to roll their eyes, to bitch and moan about everything from stops at roadside attractions (Vacation) to Christmas light displays (Christmas Vacation) to summers on a lake (The Great Outdoors) to Christmas jaunts to Paris and Manhattan (Home Alone and Home Alone 2: Lost in New York).
For all his empathy for the American teen, Hughes was at his core a dad. Like all great dads, he wanted to pal around and be your friend and spend time with you and understand just what you're going through. But at a certain point he would have enough, and tell you to lose the attitude. • 7 August 2009
Morgan Meis is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for The Believer, Harper’s, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Greg Beato writes regularly about pop culture for Las Vegas Weekly and Reason magazine, where he is a contributing editor.
Jason Wilson is editor of The Smart Set. He also edits The Best American Travel Writing series (Houghton Mifflin) and writes the Spirits column for the Washington Post.
Stefany Anne Golberg is an artist, writer, musician, and professional dilettante. She's a founding member of the art collective Flux Factory and lives in New York City. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Jesse Smith is managing editor of The Smart Set.