Thursday, August 06, 2009

Don't You Forget About Him

As a lover of movies, and a child of the '80s, of course I know who John Hughes is, and his passing is one of those benchmarks that makes me more aware of my advancing age.

I have, luckily, been aware that my youth was gone a long time ago. In fact, I was aware that it was slipping away back when I was still a teenager, which was a strange gift of prescience, because I firmly believe that most teenagers are blissfully unaware of their own mortality, but being able to process the fact that youth was brief drove a lot of my wildness, and my crazy antics are something I most certainly don't regret. But his passing makes me reminisce, because some of his movies were -- whether you like them or not -- inarguably cultural touchstones.

They are, without question, drenched in '80s -- both in the fashions/music onscreen, but also in their very construction and execution. Hollywood has its ups and downs, and the '80s, in general, were one of those downs. And comedy can often have a generational divide. I truly don't know if kids today would find Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller funny. They're perhaps not rife enough with texting and twittering refernces to be able to connect. And yet, something tells me that they do endure because Hughes, seemingly so effortlessly, was able to tap into the high school cliques in such a base, archetypal way, that I suspect they still have cross-generational resonance along with some silly gags along the way.

There is the primary setup in all these movies that pits the teenagers against the adult authority figures in some capacity, and that's certainly a theme that will endure for a very long time. But beyond the rebellion angle, the theme that's even more pervasive, at least in the brat packy faves Sixteen Candles and Breakfast Club, is the desire for acceptance and belonging.

And what Hughes did so smartly, so effortlessly, is to portray, within his waspy suburban setting, all the cliques as having this desire. In teen movies, it's very often the misfit against the in-crowd. And there is, of course, more than a dash of that conflict in Hughes's flicks. But these pictures aren't set up as come-uppance pictures so much as coming-of-age pictures, because Hughes generally refrained from villainizing the cool kids. Some of them, of course, get painted with the irredeemable asshole brush. But whether it was smart marketing on his part, or just an insightful sensitivity, he understood and projected to the audience that even the cool kids were searching for validation. And it's at least partly because of this that he ended up with monster hits.

When we watch movies, we root for the underdog, certainly. But when presenting teens to teens, you're not going to "get through" to the widest audience when you alienate a large portion of your audience by presenting them as the bad guys. Because the jocks and the popular kids were represented as just as vulnerable and root-for worthy, Hughes was able to portray all the typical cliques in an inclusionary, wacky way. As Emilio Estevez's character said, "We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it."

And the simplest part of it, the "enlightening" part, was that acceptance came between different groups, but also for each individual, not because they eventually rebelled against their labels, but embraced them, and had their awakening when they realized that they were more than that, that some others saw them as full humans, but were now okay with being what they were labeled as.

It's a very liberating, and hopeful concept for teenagers who are struggling to figure out what they're supposed to be and do and how to grow up in the world. John Hughes, as a director, I don't think he'll ever be hailed as an "auteur." Even as a writer, though he penned many monster comedy hits, I don't know if he's considered a comic genius, either. Perhaps it's a perceived lack of gravitas, or his waspy, middle-America settings, or the somewhat sanitized teenage tales that will keep him off the list of the elite. Or, perhaps, history will bear out and bring about a Hughes appreciation. But I know this. If you're of my generation, you've had, somewhere along the way, something happen to you (or, now, something happend to one of your kids) that seemed like it was right out of a John Hughes movie -- and you know forever exactly what that phrase means.

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