When I learned of the death of John Hughes, director of eight movies between 1984 and 1991 (including Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and the career-flattening Curly Sue and hands-on writer and/or producer of a shitload more (Mr. Mom, National Lampoon’s Vacation, Home Alone, Beethoven, Baby’s Day Out the remade Miracle on 34th Street, the live-actioned 101 Dalamations, and on and on), my first thought was, gee, 59 is kinda young. My second thought was, at least here’s one dead celebrity I won’t be writing about. I didn’t know the fellow, which meant that anything I had to say would be inspired by his work, and who could possibly feel inspired to say anything about a body of work like that? Now I’m sitting here typing away because I feel moved to comment of what people have been saying about it. And I don’t mean the people at the book club who we put up with because their mom bakes us brownies. I mean people who are paid for their opinions on these things by editors who must assume that they have some savvy regarding their chosen area of expertise. In the New York Times, A. O. Scott calls Hughes “our Godard, the filmmaker who crystallized our attitudes and anxieties with just the right blend of teasing and sympathy.” Anticipating the outbreak of mass vomiting this comparison has to set off, Scott quickly huffs that “The response, which will never satisfy some critics, is that his films are fables, not documentaries.”
Silly A.O.! A fable–and I’m a little surprised that I have to explain this to someone whose hiring by the Times was criticized by Roger Ebert at the time on the ground that he had read a suspicious number of books to properly evaluate the work of Jerry Bruckheimer–is a brief morally instructive tale using anthropomorphic animal characters. It’s true that the performances that Jon Cryer and Judd Nelson gave under Hughes’s direction could be cited as evidence that they should not be categorized as fully human, but that doesn’t make them talking animals. (If anything, Nelson can perhaps best be classified as a snorting vegetable.) Nor are Hughes’s movies really useful on the level of moral instruction, because the morals they would teach us are invariably wrong. It is not true that when you grow up, your heart dies. It is not true that a beautiful, intelligent, intoxicatingly freaky geek girl like Ally Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club is making a change for the better if she agrees to have the prom queen give her a hideously unbecoming, personality-obliterating makeover so that she can hook up with the poleaxed-looking Emilio Estevez. It is not true that if you are a boy who dresses like Meg Ryan in high-flying kook mode and you perform an eye-rotting dance number to “Try a Little Tenderness” in a public place where people are trying to shop for records, the sweet pretty girl who tolerates you hanging around her out of pity will still talk to you, and it is not true that she should. It is certainly not true that the sweet pretty girl’s romantic options would ever be limited to this walking embarrassment and a rich cipher who’s like a character who was banished from a Bret Easton Ellis character for never having any coke on him.
What Hughes’s movies, whatever his degree of involvement with them, all are, pretty much without exception, are terrible movies. They’re dim, formulaic, boring, and badly made, and only occasionally redeemed by their performers, by which I mostly mean Molly Ringwald. (Hughes made her a star, but she was on the way there anyway. Maybe if they’d never met, she would have managed to not only become a star but to stay one instead of having the kind of “face of her generation” career that got her callously tagged as a has-been as soon as she was old enough to really take off.) I can understand the attraction to the junk that seemed to speak to you as a kid; God knows I could cite my own examples of same. But most of the supposedly knowledgable observers I’ve seen weigh in on Hughes’s work since last Thursday don’t throw around phrases like “potent junk”; they write, as Dana Stevens does in Slate of “the good ones, those five or six gems” Hughes bequeathed to our shared cultural bounty in the 1980s. Five or six gems? Assuming she’s ruling out Curly Sue and Uncle Buck, she appears to be leaving room for Weird Science and She’s Having a Baby to sneak in on a pass. I don’t mean to be a bully about this, but when you write for a living, you ought to have a stake in whether words mean anything. Calling Hughes’s movies “good” does just as much to devalue the English language as calling Barack Obama a Nazi. And it’s not that I don’t think that intelligent people can disagree on matters of taste. It’s just that calling The Breakfast Club “good” is not so much an expression of taste as an error along the lines of saying that Mount Rushmore is a natural rock formation. It makes you wonder, if Stevens means it, what she thinks of work in other media that are fully aesthetic comparable to these movies. Never mind The Catcher in the Rye, which she is quick to cite–does she think it’s a disgrace that the writing staff of The Facts of Life has never been up for the Nobel Prize in Literature? And if not, why not?
It’s not that I am wholly blind to Hughes’s charms. I remember thinking that Sixteen Candles was pretty funny and kind of sweet; for me, it’ll do as the Portable John Hughes. It has everything that was good about his work–Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall at full strength, the funny use of contemporary, often computer-geek-based slang–and enough of what was coarse and crappy about his work to leave you feeling sure that the guy got lucky this once and there was no need to seek out the rest of his oveure. As it happens, it is also the only movie of his that I’ve seen more than once. One recurring theme from the Hughes obituary essays is that we were all supposed to have wasted great swaths of our lives in the ’80s watching and -rewatching these pieces of shit until our videocassettes shredded themselves in self-defense. But once was enough for me with all of them. I’m grateful that if I had to see one of them more than once, it was Sixteen Candles, but that wouldn’t have happened if my little sister hadn’t gotten ahold of the cassette when it came out. Blessedly, by the time the other stuff started coming out on cassette, I was safely away at college. Incidentally, I feel confirmed by this that the real, hardcore audience for Hughes’s teenpics in their day were tweeners and maybe even younger kids who wanted to look forward to the thrill and moody drama of being teenagers. When I was a teenager what I wanted to see were movies about grown-ups, so that I could get some hot tips on how to comport myself when I got the hell out of high school and my goddamn life could finally begin. Unfortunately, thanks in no small part to Hughes and his influence on the industry, in the 1980s it was mighty hard to find movies that weren’t about teenagers, and those that weren’t tended to star Meryl Streep. And I thought Duckie versus Blaine was a no-win choice…
Hughes’s movies also seem to have been highly attractive to people who as kids wanted, and God help, may still want, to think of themselves as part of a “generation.” This is a hankering that I have never understood in the least. Knowing that my desire, as a teen, to see movies about people older than myself–people who, you know, might live lives exciting enough that there was a reason to make a movie about them–may have already gotten me typed as some kind of freak, I’ll go all the way and say that, even as a kid, I wanted to part of a circle of people who had interests similar to my own and were involved in activities that I found stimulating, and it didn’t take too long–it didn’t take two seconds–to figure out that this meant that about the last reason you might have for feeling a bond with someone is that they happened to have a birth date that didn’t fall too far on the historical dateline than your own. But some bad ideas– and as bad ideas go, surely the idea of self-consciously defining oneself as part of a “generation” is much worse than anything advocated by the birthers or the Flat Earth Society–are here to stay, and people who want to consider Hughes not just as the successful maker of crappy hit movies but as a poet of their “generation” are ready to embarrass themselves as thoroughly as possible to make the case.
To see just how silly this sort of thing looks at full gush, check out an essay at The Smart Set by someone named Morgan Meis, who appears to be one of those jaspers–I knew a few of them back in the day–who felt that it was vitally important that we who were “twentysomething” by the time thirtysomething premiered so that we could all provide a united front and tell the Baby Boomers, “The most self-absorbed generation ever to lumber across this solid Earth,” that we could be plenty self-absorbed ourselves, thank you, and demanded our own stupid false generational mythology that our own kids could regard as just as pathetic as, say, a Dave Marsh riff about how Lollapalooza weren’t nothin’ compared to good old Woodstock. Meis’s essay actually reminded me of something that I was happy to have forgotten, namely that, back in the last pure white-hot summer of Reagan before the Iran-Contra scandal broke, there was actually a generational pissing war over, God help me, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. In this corner, we had George Will, who in a column celebrated the poreless smug dickweed Ferris as an example that America’s youth had come to its sense and, instead of wanting to do bad treasonous things like read books and protest apartheid, they wanted to do red, white, and blue things like date proto-supermodel girlfriends who, like Ferris himself, seemed to have received a smugness transplant from the Moonlighting-era Bruce Willis, and tie up traffic to lead a zombie cult production number set to “Twist and Shout.” In response, critics like Dave Kehr pointed out that Ferris’s activities seemed a little, well, lame. To this, Mies responds: 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.” (Meis argues that Ferris is a “master of the little things,” without dwelling on the fact that the self-admiring douchebag edge to his mastery, which does not preclude his sadly conceding to the camera that his best friend is a pathetic load, marks him as a future market trader who, after his spirit is broken during his prison term for insider trading, will spend the bulk of his thirties pursuing his new life goal of having a national televised spazz attack in front of the studio where they’re broadcasting MTV’s Total Request Live.) Meis, who’s given to such statements as “Like all Generation Xers, his heroism lies in his anti-heroism,” takes this business about uniform generational identity so seriously that it eliminates any reason to even consider the possibility that he’s packing anything in his skull besides resentment and old box scores, but he makes it clear where his twisted heart is when he spells it out: “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.” Back on the farm where I grew up, we had a cat that wandered off from the other cats and started hanging out with the dogs. The dogs did seem to get a kick out of it.
Another essay at The Smart Set, by Greg Beato, actually goes a bit farther in helping me understand why these disposable movies might have meant so much to some putatively intelligent people. Noting that the kids in that snorefest talk too much, Beato writes that, at the time, “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.” It’s interesting that Beato roped Fast Times at Ridgemont High in there, since it, like the director Amy Heckerling’s later Clueless, differs from all of Hughes’s non-Sixteen Candles work in that it’s a good movie. Not is it a movie that depicts a devotion to “the pleasures of the body” as being without danger. Jennifer Jason Leigh has two indelible bad-courtship scenes–one in which the nice boy runs off, the other in which the not-so-nice boy, unfortunately for everyone involved, doesn’t run off–in which it’s made clear that sex for her is hardly a hedonist pursuit but what she’s willing to experiment with as the price of having a boyfriend. She then winds up having to get an abortion, in a remarkably nonjudgmental and still emotionally jangling scene that cuts deeper than anything, not just in The Breakfast Club, but in Hughes’s whole body of work. It’s a balanced movie about all the phases and colors of teen life.
So maybe the special appeal of Hughes’s work for adolescents of all ages is that his view of teenage life wasn’t balanced, and that his slipped his thumb onto the part of the scale that was loaded with what far too many articles about this shit are going to refer to as “angst.” Because when you’re a teenager, maybe a big part of your life is wanting to believe that you’re loaded down with angst, that your pain is deeper than anyone can understand, and that, yes, all the adults are against you because, when they grew up, their hearts died. (But it won’t happen to me! It won’t happen to me!) If you’re devoted enough to that view of the experience, you might even be a little resentful of a Fast Times at Ridgemont High for reminding you that you did have some fun in there sometimes. I’ll even go so far as to say that this attitude might be deepest among some people who were the BMOCs and the cheerleaders in high school and who had a blast in the teenage years, but who’ll never admit it now, and whio may have even repressed those memories and replaced them with scenes out a James Dean meltdown crying jag, because they know that people who turn out to be cool adults are supposed to have found high school to be a miserable experience, tainted by conformity and the bullying of people for whom high school really was the best years of their lives, which leaves them with what, exactly, to say in favor of the decades they have left? This is the attitude that Hughes nursed, caressed, and flattered, but never, ever examined and never again, after Sixteen Candles, satirized. It’s only one of countless reasons why his movies aren’t any good, reasons that can pretty much be filed under the blanket heading that he wasn’t very talented and was too successful too early in his movie career to have any incentive to do anything but repeat himself while allowing such technical skills as he had to visibly deteriorate. But it’s the one that made even the head critic of the New York Times ready to take it outside for him, because he knew that John Hughes…understood, dammit!
Did John Hughes have any special relevance to my life, as someone who always saw adolescence as a chance to keep my head low for a few years, get out as fast as possible, and then never speak of it again? Yes, but in a distant sort of way. When kids aren’t looking forward to the splendid adolescence or adulthood they’re going to have, they sometimes get fixated on the cultural period they happened to just miss out on. For that reason, I and some other geeks of my, well, “generation” have spent a lot of our lives catching up with, and subsequently boring the hell out of everyone else, with the cultural detritus of the 1970s. And for me, a big part of that was the National Lampoon, the beautifully produced, literary yet low-down adult humor magazine that was the place to be for post-counterculture wiseasses from 1970 through 1974. (In a piece on The Simpsons that veered into a mini-essay on the history of the American humor magazine, Comics Journal writer Robert Fiore once suggested that the closest thing we’ve had in recent years to the Lampoon in its glory period might be South Park.) After the mid-70s, many of the stars of the early years, notably co-founding editor Henry Beard, the late Michael O’Donoghue, Anne Beatts, and the invaluable art director Michael Gross, drifted (or in some case, stormed) off, and the magazine went through a period of flux before bottoming out.
But it was while bottoming out that the Lampoon went Hollywood, first in 1978 with National Lampoon’s Animal House. Incredible though it now seems, at the time that movie came out, it benefited some, commercially but especially critically, from the sense that the National Lampoon banner counted for something artistically; it helped promote the idea that the picture itself wasn’t just a collection of gross-out skits and bare titty shots but an exercise in satirical nostalgia, a snarly response to American Graffiti. But the Lampoon had trouble following it up, and by the time it had another hit with National Lampoon’s Vacation, the magazine itself had no cachet left and people were positioned to recognize that the Lampoon banner, attached to a movie, just meant a loud sitcom with R-rated T-and-A. And Hughes was the genius who wrote Vacation, which was based on an article he published in the magazine during its there-must-be-a-pony-in-here-somewhere period. (He had also ground out scripts for Delta House, a doomed attempt to base an actual family-hour TV sitcom on Animal House, and National Lampoon’s Class Reunion, one of the magazine’s intended-for-theaters video-dump abominations.) I have no problem with the actual Lampoon having died a more or less natural death, but thanks to the money that Hollywood was able to squeeze out of Vacation and its umpteen sequels, the name of the defunct publication was revived in 2002 as National Lampoon, Inc., a company that licenses the name out so that it can be slathered on cheesy frathouse comedies and the like. The upshot is that writers and artists who did great work for the real Lampoon are now reluctant to include that part of their careers on their resumes, for fear that prospective employers will mistakenly think they had a hand in National Lampoon’s Van Wilder or Electric Apricot: Quest for Festeroo. It amused me to discover that some of these products are the work of the artist who, when he made his feature directing debut at 22 with 1985’s Better Off Dead, wanted to be called “Savage Steve Holland”, and who, shockingly enough, apparently still does. Savage Steve’s ’80s teen movies were about as bad in every meaningful department as John Hughes’s but were supposed to be wild and anarchic instead of moist and full of sympathetic feeling for how hard it is to be of driving age but still able to depend on mom and/or dad for two hots and a cot. Savage Steve’s movies bombed, proving yet again that if you have to plans to transcend mediocrity, ya gotta have heart.