Somewhere out there, I think, there exists a petty and vindictive force that enjoys killing off people I like, so that I have to keep writing about death in this blog. For the record, dear readers, I’m very sorry you have to sit through another one of these posts, but I cannot let this pass me by.
I was sitting at home last night, working on a speech for a wedding I’m playing this weekend, when my buddy Jay Lang contacted me with this missive:
“Tomorrow I demand that you write your blog about the death of John Hughes. I DEMAND IT – that man practically INVENTED the 80s.”
Of course, I agreed (under the condition that I could quote him here).
A little background. I’m not exactly a “child of the 80’s”, at least not chronologically. I was born in ’84, so realistically all the music and movies that happened in the six following years kind of went over my head. I’m much more a child of the 90’s (see yesterday’s post). But I have typically associated with people somewhat older than me (almost all of my friends are roughly five years older), and as a result (and because my friends are all nerds) I’ve been exposed later in life to the admittedly limited cool stuff from the 80’s that I missed because of that whole tedious “learning to walk, talk and argue Socratically” thing.
My first John Hughes movie experience was when my dad brought home “Home Alone” one Friday evening when I was about six. We watched it as a family, and I distinctly remember it being one of the first times I ever saw my father laugh at a movie. It was absolutely great – slapstick fun, probably the last good movie Macaulay Culkin was involved in until “Saved” (because I don’t count “My Girl), and let me just say that Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern as the bumbling Wet Bandits were probably the best onscreen comedic duo since Abbot and Costello. Like many kids who saw that film, I spent weeks afterwards drafting complicated plans for my own household security system – I wish I still had the blueprints I drew up. If I remember correctly, it involved a complex series of skipping ropes, potted plants and hydrochloric acid. Yeah, my version would probably not get the PG rating.
Once I hit high school my Hughes experience expanded significantly, thanks to my aforementioned-nerdy friends, who were incredulous that I’d never seen “Ferris Beuler’s Day Off” or “The Breakfast Club”. So they sat me down and made me watch a bunch of his films back-to-back. Leaving aside the fact that the fashion sense was hideously out-of-date, I have seen maybe one or two other directors who had such a great sense of where to use popular music in his screenplays. Not to say 80’s music was anything to scream about, but I don’t think he could have found a better song than Yello’s “Oh Yeah” for the opening sequence – to say nothing of the brilliant use of the Beatles’ “Twist and Shout” and Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” in the fantastically-absurd parade sequence towards the end. I think everyone I knew tried, at one point or another, to ape Ferris’ famous get-out-of-school card, or at the very least, aspired to be cool enough that a bunch of girls would repaint the town’s water tower in his honour.
I could go on about each of Hughes’ excellent movies from the 80’s and very early 90’s (his later stuff wasn’t nearly as good in my opinion) but fun as it is to wax nostalgic, everybody else is going to be doing that today. So instead I’d like to comment a little more cerebrally on Hughes’ influence.
I think the fundamental thing I enjoyed about John Hughes’ films, particularly the teen coming-of-age stuff like “The Breakfast Club” is that he really understood his core audience. I grew up in an era in which media talked down to kids: it was either the heavy-handed morality of “Degrassi Junior High” or else the mindless puff-pastry of “90210” or “Party of Five” or whatever. The Degrassi stuff treated me like I was stupid (even though it was still a really good show) by hitting me over the head, repeatedly, with their life-lesson-of-the-day, and the more teen-oriented shows were, quite frankly, totally unlike any life I’ve ever lived.
It can be argued that “The Breakfast Club” played up youth stereotypes in order to make a point about friendship and understanding, but I always felt those characters were somehow more real, more tangible, and most definitely more accessible than the cardboard cut-outs of prime time TV. For one thing, they cursed. A lot. They smoked; they came from broken homes; they dealt with so-called “real issues” in a far more visceral way than I ever saw the cast of Degrassi approach them. They were tortured, just like all teenagers are, but they were brought across in such a way that my generation and those before me could actually relate to their pain. They were stereotypes with feet, I suppose, but as an ensemble they represented elements of everyone I knew, and I think that was the biggest thing I liked about the movie. We all knew those people, or pieces of them – we saw them every day in one another and in the mirror. For this reason I think “The Breakfast Club” was probably Hughes’ biggest triumph as a film maker.
But even when he was being silly, he still spoke to us (often directly – witness the prevalence of Hughes characters breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience). Films like “Ferris” and “Home Alone” were more than just mindless entertainment – they were a seamless blend of “family friendly” comedy and a slightly harder edge than you’d find in similar films today. Both Wes Anderson and Kevin Smith credit John Hughes as a major influence, and those directors are two of very few who still know how to be edgy in their comedy. Fact: you’d never see “The Breakfast Club” touted as a movie for kids in this day and age. It’s too gritty. Even “Ferris” wouldn’t be a kids’ flick now – Hughes would have had parents’ groups jumping down his throat about how bad an influence Ferris is, inciting children to truancy and challenging authority and all those other nasty “free thought” things people don’t really stand behind anymore.
I’m not going to harp on this all day, so I’ll just say two things:
Second, we lost a very influential man yesterday. Granted, he’s not done much I’ve liked in the last few years, but he’s still responsible for some of my favourite film characters of all time. I think there’s a lot to be learned from characters like Ferris particularly – “isms” are bad things, remember to lick your palms, and life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.
We’ll miss you, John. Thanks for the good times.