July 05, 2006


Last week I was interviewed on camera for Don't You Forget About Me, actor Matt Austin's upcoming documentary about the legacy of John Hughes. Now, according to Walter and Alex, I'm a card-carrying Hughes apologist, and I suppose I wouldn't have been inclined to participate if that weren't true, but let's face it: I'm a child of the '80s, and at least part of me did it to be able to say I'm in a movie with fellow interviewee Ally Sheedy.

Appearing in the doc also afforded an excuse to watch all of Hughes' movies (i.e. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, She's Having a Baby, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, Uncle Buck, and Curly Sue) consecutively, something I'd wanted to do for a long time. Herewith, five of the many things I learned (or rediscovered) over the course of this task:

1. With one exception, Hughes' movies are a little like William Inge plays...
In that their narratives span a day or two (The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller's Day Off flirt with unfolding in real time) and usually centre on a gathering, be it a wedding (Sixteen Candles) or Saturday detention (The Breakfast Club). This suffuses them with a humility honoured by a favouring--almost to the exclusion of plot--of character over message, however political the personal might ultimately be. The aforementioned exception is the joyless She's Having a Baby, which bites off way more than it can chew in going, for argument's sake, from womb-to-tomb instead of dawn-to-dusk. It's one of those crazy-quilt attempts to say everything about men and women that wind up saying nothing at all.

2. John Hughes was the Quentin Tarantino of his day...
In that he loots the pop-culture graveyard for tonal cues diegetic and otherwise. Think of how Hughes alternates the themes from "Peter Gunn" and "Dragnet" for Anthony Michael Hall's "Geek" in Sixteen Candles, or the 2001 and Rocky riffs that open and close, respectively, Weird Science. Like Tarantino, he's also unfairly maligned for the many pretenders to his throne that have cropped up over the years.

3. John Hughes is an artist.
You read vintage reviews of Hughes' pictures--which make them sound like the Rob Schneider vehicles of their day--and you think, What am I missing? Hughes has said that working with veteran cutter Dede Allen on The Breakfast Club was like going to film school, and indeed he became more editorially conscientious thereafter. (Ferris Bueller's Day Off carefully layers rhythms into its blocking.) But there's a shot in Sixteen Candles that shows a prodigious talent, whereby Molly Ringwald is stranded on a bus with Anthony Michael Hall, who's clumsily putting the moves on her: on the opposite side of the frame is a young Joan Cusack doing nothing more than staring off into space--but she's wearing a neck-brace. Because Hughes never leaves the master containing the three of them, the sight of Cusack becomes increasingly absurd and transcendently funny. (It's positively Lynchian.) I think of this TV-unfriendly sight gag, or the Dreyer-esque close-ups of Molly Ringwald during the 'group therapy' sequence of The Breakfast Club, or the detours into Dennis Potter territory in She's Having a Baby (a movie notably edited by Alan Heim, who won an Oscar for Potter contemporary Bob Fosse's All That Jazz), and I can't for the life of me figure out why the phrase "sitcom-style" turns up again and again in criticism of Hughes' oeuvre.

4. The '80s: it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
With such corporations as Coca-Cola now in charge of the studios, the suits were eager to make not movies, but products, and research/experience told them that their buying public was the youth of America. Along comes Hughes, screenwriter of the popular National Lampoon's Vacation, expressing an interest in tailoring films to the teen demographic--a marketing exec's wet dream. And he proved a mostly responsible ambassador to puberty, eschewing the era's T&A crutch (there's nudity in the PG-rated Sixteen Candles, but it's used to illustrate Molly Ringwald's Carrie White-like inferiority complex) and, by extension, giving teenage girls a point of entry through female characters who weren't simply there to be coveted. (This is really where the Hughes-scripted Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful enter the conversation.) Alas, Yellow Peril and homophobia reigned back then, and Hughes was no more immune to it than, say, Steven Spielberg, with the grotesque caricature Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe, the Asian Stepin Fetchit) staining the surprisingly sweet Sixteen Candles like Breakfast at Tiffany's' Mr. Yunioshi. But though Hughes' films are generally lacking in minority representation, he makes up for it by taking a quintessentially Marxist view of high school.

5. John Hughes stopped directing for a reason.
While the "rich" and the "poor" always learn to get along in Hughes' films, there's no question that his allegiance lies with the latter. Consider the quietly devastating passage from Uncle Buck wherein the slovenly, unemployed Buck, flipping through an album at the suburban mansion of his wealthy brother, notices a wedding photo that has been folded to crop Buck out of the picture: Hughes keeps the scene subjective by lingering on the photograph instead of on Buck's reaction, effectively turning sympathy into empathy. But even at that point, his identification with the underclass was starting to seem a little disingenuous, and once you get to Curly Sue, the last film with Hughes at the helm, his portrayal of poverty is downright paternalistic. I firmly believe that a fear of looking like a hypocrite drove him out of the director's chair--you can be Ken Loach or you can be a multi-millionaire (as Hughes had become by crassly exploiting his ability to churn out a screenplay a week).


In closing, I'm proud to be a part of this long-overdue project, which is definitely in good hands. My thanks to Matt and producers Kari Hollend and Michael Facciolo for inviting me to take part. You can learn all about Don't You Forget About Me at the film's official website.

Walter's review of Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest is online at last. And if you missed them, check out his piece on the second wave of Anchor Bay's "Masters of Horror" DVDs; Alex's analysis of The Untold Story of Emmett Till; and Travis' take on the clunky cult item Lifespan.


Dave Gibson said...

I've got a soft spot for a lot of the John Hughes stuff--but, I would question your assertion that (Hughes's)allegiance lies with "the poor". Every Hughes film I can think of is set in an upper-middle class, suburban milleu with the requisite gigantic homes and car-owning teenagers (even the "poor" Molly Ringwald in "PiP" owns her own car and wears fashionable "homemade" clothing)I do think that (like Tarantino) he's a genuis with music--which is why I'll probably always prefer to hear the songs again--rather than watch them movies. (even in "She's Having A Baby"--the delivery scene scored to Kate Bush always gets me) The same film that features a twelve room suburban manse as a "starter home"--yuh huh.

Bill C said...

Yeah, I used poor as a bit of a blanket tag for anyone not
"rich," but point taken. And dissertations could be written on the use of music in his movies. They probably have. She's Having a Baby also uses Love and Rockets' "Haunted When the Minutes Drag" to great effect.

The suburban manse is not actually the starter home in that film, by the by--they live in a shoebox when they first get married and then Kevin Bacon gets an advertising job and then they move into suburbia, which is probably still unrealistic but whatever. Also, I think Bacon's parents are supposed to be well-to-do.

And I try not to hold Pretty in Pink against Hughes, because Howard Deutch directed it, and there's a lot of Hollywood horseshit in the production design of that movie--like Ringwald's palatial estate--that I know would not be there had Hughes been at the helm. It's one movie that does fall victim to sitcom conventions.

Jack_Sommersby said...

I read in a Hughes interview that he shot Ferris Bueller in widescreen (the first time he shot in that format) simply because he thought it was the wrong thing to do. I had to admire that in a weird way. And I always thought he should have ditched writing and just stuck to directing, which I think he showed better talent at. 1986 was a good year for films, and while I wasn't the hugest fan of Ferris Bueller (what rebels -- they're playing hooky by doing adventuresome stuff like going to a Cubs game and eating at an expensive restaurant!) I'll freely admit it was one of the best-directed films of the year. Hell, Hughes could've signed on to direct an action flick and I would've lined up to see it.

Ian Pugh said...

Interesting that you should mention your reaction to Deutch-directed Pretty in Pink, Bill, because it relates to a question I wanted to ask you concerning the man's screenwriting career. I'm not the best scholar on the cycle of films that we typically define Hughes by (Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, etc.), but how do you regard the films that Hughes wrote after he left the director's chair? Thing is, even when he's not at the helm, we still have to see Hughes as an iconic name of film -- certainly overshadowing the likes of Patrick Read Johnson, Brian Levant and even pre-Harry Potter Chris Columbus. It sort of depends on your beliefs on the auteur theory, I suppose, along with generally understanding the feeling of watching a genuine film by John Hughes. But there's something about his screenplay era of Rube Goldberg/Feed the Kitty-styled slapstick (the Home Alone films, Beethoven, and Baby's Day Out) that makes me wonder how far a director or producer could extend past the essential idea of booby-trapped houses and the criminals they ensnare. Obviously, they're aimed at a different demographic than his '80s work, but the fact is that Hughes has his name on those works.

I'm pretty torn on the issue. It could be a matter of paying the bills, but it could also be a matter of what you're saying as per why he left directing: minimalizing accusations of hypocrisy, and maybe escaping his own image. I would conjecture that being touted as a man who defined a generation might get a little tiring. (He does continue the same upper-class backdrops here, but they seem to be borne more out of convenience -- the larger the house, the more booby traps; the richer the family, the more incentive for kidnapping the baby.) The fact that he wrote several of these films pseudonymously as "Edmond Dantès" -- wishful thinking towards more intellectual endeavors? -- suggests some feeling of being trapped, but I wonder how he got to that position in the first place. Was he hoping that his greater directorial efforts of the '80s would color our memory? If so, it worked out for the better, and we're left with a fairly impressive rèsumè to look back on, but I still find his post-directorial career hard to decipher.

Ferris Bueller, by the by, is a fantastic experience on the big screen. Not the kind of film you'd expect to be shot with Leone-sized lenses, but damned if it doesn't work.

Jefferson said...

I will admit, as a Hughes-infected teenager, walking out of Some Kind of Wonderful (again, Deutch-lensed but Hughes-drafted). Amazing that Hughes was only five years into his domination of the planet by that point, and yet still able to turn out something so rote and by the numbers. I guess one could argue that he'd so thoroughly conquered teen cinema by that point, he could do nothing but recycle himself.

Bill C said...

Ian: I think you answered your own question(s), and frankly with more eloquence than I ever could. You can actually start to see a sadism creep into Hughes' work circa Bueller (the Rooney stuff) that really blossoms in Uncle Buck, an awesomely sad movie undermined by inexplicable outbursts of anvil slapstick. In the past, Hughes has attributed his abandonment of teen movies (and eventually grown-up movies, such as they were) on wanting to produce entertainment for his children, but he was a much more responsible parent when he was making things like The Breakfast Club.

One movie he almost directed was Career Opportunities, which has all the earmarks of both his early stuff (takes place in one night, pairs up a working-class schlub with a pampered princess) and his for-hire gigs (robbers!)--evidently, an obsession with home invasion metastatized in his writing. I honestly don't have a valid explanation for that, and I'm reluctant to revisit his nineties career in any meaningful way because it really tests my faith in him.

Jefferson: I quite like Some Kind of Wonderful, but more as a corrective to Pretty in Pink than as a fully-functioning movie. The worst thing about it, considering the source, is that it doesn't really have convincing teenagers in it.

Alex Jackson said...

The first movie I ever saw in a theater was actually the Chris Columbus directed Adventures in Babysitting. Also saw Home Alone a couple of years ago on an airplane. I actually found it to be surprisingly good. Columbus is kind of a broad big-budget director and that's effective in accentuating the suburban fantasia apsects of Hughes' stuff. I find the Columbus directed films to be a lot more interesting the sanitary work of Howard Deutch.

Patrick Pricken said...

Re: Bloodrayne
Should anybody want to – I don't know why anyone would, but still –, the "Dinner with Uwe Boll" can of course be found on youtube, in two parts:
Part 1
Part 2

Hollow Man Stuffed Man said...

Columbus ain't all that bad as he is made out to be. I loved the first Harry Potter too.

Jefferson said...

Bill: I think it's true that Eric Stoltz has never actually been any younger (or older) than 30. (Well, except for Mask, but the prosthetics helped.) And Lea Thompson ... she had already played so many teenagers by the time of SKOW, everybody knew she wasn't one, y'know?

Mary Stuart Masterson, however, nearly saved the movie single-handedly. Nearly.

Bill C said...

Masterson's terrific in it. And a way better catch than Thompson's character. Like, what's his damage?

Chris said...

$132 Million. God bless America.

Jefferson said...

Yeah, that's a lotta Pirates booty. The showing I tried to go see was sold out.

I was looking at Not Another Teen Movie the other night. It's a bad film, except for a few standout individual performances, but it is a good barometer of Hughes' impact on film culture. You can tell the creators have absorved every scintilla of every Hughes teen flick ever made, and then just watched the trailers for those that followed. The riffs on Varsity Blues and Bring It On are particularly weak, either because the satirists didn't bother to examine those films or the films offered nothing to satirize in the first place.

Rich said...

Anyone see last Sunday's episode of Deadwood? And they cancelled this? 'Difficult' language or no, I can't see how someone can not be engrossed by the drama of the thing. Such incredible characters, such...fucking coolness.

The cancellation of this coupled with that of Arrested Development is proof positive that there is no God (or at least that Satan works in television - although to paraphrase Bill Hicks: Satan seems to be associated with all the good stuff so maybe I have it backwards).

Chad Evan said...

R.I.P. Syd Barrett.

Shine on you crazy diamond.

rachel said...

Walter, minor tick re: your "Inconvenient" review-- I thought the brontosaurus line was Tina Fey's?

Alex Jackson said...

Just looked up Adventures in Babysitting on the IMDB by the way. John Hughes had absolutely nothing to do with it, he didn't produce it nor did he write it.

Wow. I somehow always tied that into his oevre. Chicago, gradually moving from teenagers to pre-adolescents (Uncle Buck was a mere two years later), class divide. WTF, eh?

Bill C said...

Good point, Alex. Indeed, it's probably what drew them towards one another.

Apropos of nothing, Elisabeth Shue is freakin' gorgeous in that movie.

Brian said...

I have a foreign film recommendation to throw out to all the film nuts out there. Costa-Gavras' Le Couperet(The Ax). Black comedy about capitalism gone amok. Sharp dialogue, witty banter, lots of social satire to twist your noodle around. A rollicking good time as they say in the dailies.

I am interested in what movies everyone has on their radar. For me, as a self-identified civil libertarian, two films are at the top of my "must see" queue: A Scanner Darkly and America: Freedom to Fascism, a documentary about how America is edger closer and closer to a police state under Orwellian Dictator Bush's unchecked rule. Here is the trailer in case anyone is interested and as disgusted with him as I am...

America: Freedom to Fascism