Commentary: Filmmaker John Hughes fondly remembered
By A. O. Scott
I've reached the age when my children sometimes ask, "Dad, what were things like in the olden days, when you were a teenager?" They mean the 1980s, and it's not so easy to explain. The ancient past never is.
But in a pinch I can turn to "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles" and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." The haircuts, the music, the clothes — it's all there, and also something of the buoyancy and confusion of being young in those days when VCRs were still a novelty, and vinyl records were not yet obsolete, when text was not a verb and the potential of the Internet was something not even the nerds of "Weird Science" could intuit.
John Hughes, who died on Aug. 6 at 59, directed only eight films, of which the four I've mentioned are the best. All but his last, "Curly Sue," belong to the '80s, a decade in which Hughes was also busy as a producer, a screenwriter and a pop-culture embodiment of the age. Historians of cinema may be slow or begrudging in appreciating his achievement, but if auteur status is conferred by the possession of a recognizable style and set of themes, Hughes' place in the pantheon cannot be denied.
Especially for those of us born between the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Bicentennial, the phrase "a John Hughes movie" will instantly conjure a range of images and associations, including the smooth, pale faces of a bevy of young actors. I cringe at the phrase "brat pack," but there they are: Judd Nelson, Jon Cryer, Ally Sheedy, Andrew McCarthy, Anthony Michael Hall.
And above all, of course, Molly Ringwald, the ginger-haired teenager who, from 1984 to '86, was for Hughes what James Stewart had been for Frank Capra at the end of the Great Depression, and what Anna Karina had been for Jean-Luc Godard in the mid-'60s: an emblem, a muse, a poster child and an alter ego.
Especially in "Sixteen Candles" and "Pretty in Pink" (directed by Howard Deutch from Hughes' script), she represented his romantic ideal of the artist as misfit, sensitive and misunderstood, aspiring to wider acceptance but reluctant to compromise too much.
In "Sixteen Candles" she's Sam, the neglected younger sister and social oddball; in "Pretty in Pink" she is Andie, a poor girl in a sea of affluence. That both characters have boys' names is evidence of just how much their author identified with them.
Shortly after I heard the shocking news of Hughes' death, I was talking to a friend of mine, a few years older than I am, who had seen almost none of those movies. The half-decade gap in our ages made all the difference. While I was in high school, in my own private breakfast club, she was a budding undergraduate cinephile, dressing in black and watching Godard movies.
But I don't think I'm alone among my cohorts in the belief that John Hughes was our Godard, the filmmaker who crystallized our attitudes and anxieties with just the right blend of teasing and sympathy. Godard described "Masculin Féminin," his 1966 vehicle for Jean-Pierre Léaud and Karina, as a portrait of "the children of Marx and Coca-Cola." McCarthy and Ringwald, in "Pretty in Pink," were corresponding icons for the children of Ronald Reagan and New Coke.
Which is not to say — I hasten to tell the children of Barack Obama and Vitamin Water — that movies provide a literal or comprehensive picture of that time. A lot of stuff is left out. Politics, for one thing. Black people, for another. And like many other filmmakers who solicit the favor of young audiences, Hughes has been faulted for smoothing over too many rough edges and softening harsh social and psychological realities.
The response, which will never satisfy some critics, is that his films are fables, not documentaries. These comic dramas may seem juvenile, but they have a classicism — an attention to nuances of dialogue, an elegance of narrative design — that places them well within the noble tradition of Hollywood romance. The spirit of Ernst Lubitsch smiles on "Sixteen Candles," and some of Preston Sturges' mischief inhabits "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."
In any case, it is as fairy tales rendered from experience, rather than as blunt records of life, that his mid-'80s movies live on. They capture — with a winning mixture of optimism and melancholy, with a generosity of spirit tempered by a punitive sense of right and wrong — something essential in the experience of youth.
Not only in that specific era, but also before and, I'm guessing, since. Like most artists who are perceived as the voice of a generation, Hughes did not belong to the generation in question. He was a baby boomer, a member of the high school class of 1968 in Northbrook, Ill. And his vision of the classes of 1984 and after was certainly colored by a post-'60s sense of wariness and counter-counterculture suspicion.
A few years ago an article in Slate pegged Hughes as a conservative, even a reactionary, whose celebration of rebellion had more to do with the middle-class resentments that brought Reagan into office than with residual anti-establishment radicalism. The answers to this accusation are: maybe so, and so what?
It is true that while his heroes, most notably Ferris Bueller and the members of the Breakfast Club, are in conflict with authority, they are also stubborn in their individualism and often unapologetically materialistic. Which is part of what makes them authentic, and authentically confused.
The unspecified North Shore Chicago suburb where most of these stories take place is, at first glance and in its own mind, a paradise of uniformity and privilege. And this setting, rather than being the facile hell imagined in movies like "American Beauty," is shown as a genuine expression of the American utopian ideal, a pastoral city on a hill where everyone is comfortable and everyone's the same.
The paradox is that most people feel, and want to be, different. Not to smash the system or flee its clutches, but rather to find a place within it where they can be themselves, even if they like strange music, come from a poorer family or favor eccentric styles of dress. That desire is what motivates Sam, the birthday girl in "Sixteen Candles," and it also drives both the cocky Ferris Bueller and his nervous buddy Cameron.
The great, paradoxical insight of "The Breakfast Club" is that alienation is the norm, that nerds, jocks, stoners, popular girls and weirdos are all, in their own ways, outsiders.
Adolescence is the stage at which this contradiction is most acute, and its possible resolution most tantalizing. And when Hughes moved outside of that zone, into childhood or early adulthood, a sour, hostile undertone crept into his films. You see this in the brutal slapstick of "Home Alone" (which he wrote and produced but did not direct) and the eruptions of misogyny in "She's Having a Baby," and also in the belligerence of John Candy, who replaced Ringwald as Hughes' second self in "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" and "Uncle Buck."
So you might say that, as an artist, John Hughes never outgrew high school. And it's a little eerie that Hughes died so soon after Michael Jackson, another fixture of '80s popular culture locked in perpetual youth.
Their deaths make me feel old, but more than that, they make me aware of belonging to a generation that has yet to figure out adulthood, for whom life can feel like a long John Hughes movie. You know the one. That Spandau Ballet song is playing at the big dance. You remember the lyrics, even if it's been years since you heard them last. This is the sound of my soul. I bought a ticket to the world, but now I've come back again. Why do I find it hard to write the next line?