As you walk on by
“What do they do to you?”
“They ignore me.”
It’s interesting that just barely a week after I wrote a review of Nathan Rabin’s The Big Rewind, and how I felt Generation X had already been left behind in the great race to the next big thing in pop culture, John Hughes, one of the most important figures, a scion, if you will, in Gen X pop culture itself, passed away at the age of 59. Okay, 2009, you can stop making me feel old now, seriously.
As I may have mentioned before, as much of a cliche as self-important navelgazing into what certain songs, movies, books or television shows “mean to you,” particularly those of your childhood or teenage years is, I find myself doing it quite often, even in just my own head. John Hughes’ death shook me up, not just because celebrities seem to be dropping like flies recently, many of them far too young, but because I had almost forgotten how much of an impact Hughes’ movies, specifically those made from 1983 to 1988 or so, had on me in my youth. I hadn’t watched many of them recently, and for the most part I classified them in the same category as The Cosby Show and the music of Rick Springfield, stuff that I liked as a kid, but had little use for as an adult. Also, Hughes hadn’t been around much in the past fifteen years or so to remind me of his talent, choosing to lay low and write films, most of them mediocre at best flops like Drillbit Taylor and Maid in Manhattan under an assumed name. According to this poignant tribute, Hughes apparently made the decision to keep a lower profile in Hollywood after the massive success of Home Alone, both for the sake of his sons and because he blamed the pressure of working too hard to honor contracts and keep studios happy for the premature death of friend John Candy. He had the luxury of knowing when he could stop playing the game and being comfortable enough with his success to do so.
Nowadays, teenagers call the shots. The majority of new music and films, not to mention a considerable portion of books is marketed specifically towards the age 12 to 18 bracket, with adults sheepishly buying Miley Cyrus albums and reading YA literature because, well, there’s just nothing else for us out there right now. This is a far cry from 25 years ago, when teenagers had little to nothing, other than a few fan or fashion magazines, created and marketed especially for them. Back in 1985, when Yr. Correspondent was a chunky, sullen middle schooler with a bad perm, teenagers, particularly as portrayed in movies, were little more than either slobbering pussyhounds, as evidenced in such films as Porky’s, or fresh meat for masked serial killers. They were almost always unconvincingly portrayed by actors in their twenties and even thirties on occasion, and rarely acted as anything more than a sort of symbolic role in the teenage hierarchy–the slut, the nerd, the bad boy, etc. Then The Breakfast Club came out, and it offered a shocking revelation: teenagers had feelings. And when I say “feelings,” I don’t mean feeling tight in their pants when the new Swedish exchange student walked past them in the hallway, I meant they were sensitive, they were lonely, they felt lost and rejected. It seems shocking to say now, but, at least for a very long period in the late 70s and 80s, the suggestion that teenagers may be unhappy and confused about who they are and where they stand in life was almost never touched upon in film, certainly not mainstream films that were created with a teenage audience in mind. Movies where the main character was a teenage girl, unless that girl was being tormented by a crazed stalker wielding a machete or a meathook were virtually nonexistent, while those with teenage boys as the “hero” dealt primarily with the quest to get laid. Watching any of these movies now, it’s a little startling how devoid of personality, of anything resembling real people the characters in them are.
Upon watching The Breakfast Club for the first time, I was immediately taken aback by how deeply sad all the characters seemed to be. At age thirteen, I had already convinced myself that the popular kids had not a care in the world, that as long as you were rich and had all the right clothes and knew all the right people, your life was pretty much free of problems. Now, of course, it seems a little obvious that being rich doesn’t save you from being insecure, or from having a fucked up relationship with your parents, or from feeling like a phony, but at the time it kind of blew my mind a little. Not enough that I didn’t continue to think the popular kids still had it better than me, but still, it did humanize them a little more. I was perhaps a little too cynical to believe that after spending that Saturday together baring their souls to each other, the five members of the Breakfast Club would continue to cross class and status boundaries and remain friends, but now, in retrospect, I don’t think you were supposed to. I believe that the ending was more ambiguous than it originally seems, that Bender’s triumphant fist pump after kissing the prom queen was poignant not because he “won,” but because who really knew what would happen come Monday morning? Would he and Claire be able to walk proudly through the halls of Shermer High holding hands, symbolically saying “fuck you” to their peers and the class divisions that normally would drive them apart? I kind of doubted it, and I suspect that as much as it pained people to admit it, most everyone else did too. We knew and still know what high school is like, after all.
When John Hughes wrote shit, like Dutch and Curly Sue, it was appalling, wretched shit. He very well might have actually written it blindfolded, and that’s why the more richly dimensioned movies like The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off stand out as modern classics, and I really try to avoid using the word “classic” lightly. In the numerous times I’ve watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off over the years, I keep finding new and interesting sub-plots, beyond the standard “likeable wiseass teen goes on misadventure” main plot. It’s also about Ed Rooney, a paper tiger of a principal who is genuinely shocked to discover that teenagers are capable of pulling one over on him. It’s also about Ferris’s sister Jeanie, angry and cynical after clearly spending years overlooked by her parents in favor of the younger, cuter, more charming Ferris, acting out to get attention but flailing around helplessly when it leads to unexpected consequences. And of course, it’s about Ferris’s best friend Cameron, the character from Hughes’ oeuvre to whom I’ve latched on the most closely. I used to say that Cameron Frye, other than being filthy rich, was like me with different plumbing, neurotic, anxious, constricted, mostly left to his own devices by parents who are barely mentioned, let alone seen. Cameron is a born follower, who’d likely go along with Ferris’s plan to drive off the end of the Navy Piers if it meant avoiding an argument. When faced with a problem, he freezes in panic, then essentially throws a temper tantrum. The tantrum seems to offer some temporary relief, and he claims that he is now ready to confront his father with various issues, brave and sure of himself, but again, like the ending of The Breakfast Club, it now seems more ambiguous than it once did. Do we really believe that this is the beginning of a new, stronger Cameron? Is that glint in his eyes the sign that he’s finally growing some stones, or is it merely false hope? Such is the genius of John Hughes: upon second, third, fourth and subsequent looks at his best movies, you see that the loose ends are not tied up nearly as tightly as you once thought.
Now, of course, we’ve come full circle, back to where teenagers in movies are a little too sure of themselves, with the sensibilities, vocabularies and sex lives of thirty year-olds. Even the “real” teenagers, such as the title character in Juno, seem awfully self-assured, quick with a quip rather than a snotty-nosed crying spell when faced with a pressing issue, such as an accidental pregnancy or family problems. It’s been a long time since I was a teenager, but I’m inclined to believe that, in spite of the internet, “sexting” and everything else the media is claiming forces young people to grow up too fast, they really haven’t changed that much. If there’s one thing positive that come out of John Hughes’ premature death, is that his movies won’t just be rewatched by his original audience, but by new members, those who are looking for movies about people who really are just like them.