This post is, again, a little 2009, but y’all can deal with it. The other day I found myself re-watching The Breakfast Club for the first time in years, which of course got me thinking about the late John Hughes. Hughes is known as one of the defining writer/directors of the 80’s – Hughes was the driving creative force behind many pop culture classics, including Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Weird Science, Uncle Buck, the National Lampoon Vacation series and Home Alone. When the filmmaker died last year of a heart attack at only 59, I was of course surprised and saddened by the film world’s loss. But I confess that I was equally surprised by the unique response provoked by Hughes’ passing; essentially every awards show of the season featured some sort of Hughes tribute. Even the Oscars, a notoriously chilly group, gave Hughes his own segment of the show, separate from the show’s traditional montage of prominent actors, directors and production crew members who died during the year. I loved Hughes’ films when I was younger, but I had never really re-visited them since I began my “serious” film study phase, and I admit I didn’t quite understand what the big deal was; after all, no one would claim that Hughes was a filmmaker on the level of, say, a Fellini or a Truffaut.
Boy, how much more of a prickish film snob can one be?
If Hughes happens to run into those acclaimed auteurs in the afterlife, I hope he wears a joy buzzer when he shakes their hands. That’s a bit like what his films are to the childhood reflections of the famed European New Wave directors – don’t get me wrong, no one loves The 400 Blows or Amarcord more than I, but both could’ve used a good shock of humor to remove those residual bits of self-indulgence. In any case, while Hughes may lack some of the depth of a director more concerned with high art, he ranks right up there with Fellini, Truffaut, and any other great director, author or artist concerned with the trials of childhood and adolescence, and all because of one key characteristic: he cares.
That is, he cares about teenagers and their problems, their thoughts and dreams. He understands them, and wants to put their lives on the screen. I can’t think of any Hollywood filmmaker working today who demonstrates a similar concern; and even if there are some who come close (off the top of my head, Greg Mottola’s Adventureland shares some of that spirit), it’s never A-list material, something that the studio will market as the must-see film of the week. Hughes’ films were some of the most popular hits of his decade; they were the origins of the Teen Movie genre that has fallen into such mediocrity with products like I Love You, Beth Cooper, the American Pie series, anything starring Miley Cyrus, etc. Why are these films so inferior to Hughes? Because Hughes made thoughtful movies about teenagers that just happened to be popular; today, studios crank out teen films for the purpose of being popular. The teenage demographic has become one of the most robust consumers in our economy, and Hollywood wants that money.
Hughes was raunchy, sure, but he made jokes about sex because (duh) teenagers are obsessed with sex and he was trying to accurately reflect the teenage mindset, NOT because he thought teenagers would pay to see someone make jokes about sex. A fine line that perhaps relies on the intentional fallacy, but I will stand by it to the end, because this point is justified by other factors within his films.
The most important of these factors is Hughes’ emphasis on dialogue. Again, of course Hughes incorporates much slapstick and physical humor, but when it comes down to it, he’d rather make a wisecrack. Also, think back – watching a John Hughes film, where does the emotional climax of the film generally come? Not after a lengthy, overblown car chase where the geeky hero has to save the girl, no; almost always, it’s found in a scene of extended, heartfelt dialogue. Think John Candy and Steve Martin on the train platform at the end of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, or Cameron’s meltdown and subsequent renewal of resolve in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Or, perhaps the best example of all, the discussion at the end of The Breakfast Club. Having a 15-minute sequence of just dialogue is unheard-of these days in a Teen Movie, especially when it’s this high-quality. The ebb and flow in the conversation between these five kids is so engaging, so natural; the tone switches from humorous to heart-breaking in the blink of an eye.
That is expert screenwriting. That is expert acting. That is expert filmmaking.
The lesson here? Give a shit about what you’re filming. Care about your characters, care about your actors. Above all, care about your audience, not just about your audience’s wallets. John Hughes did that. He saw adolescence for what it is: a tumultuous, confusing, formative time in any and every person’s life. Why wouldn’t you want to make a movie about that? More importantly, why DOESN’T Hollywood want to make a movie about that?
Thank you, John. We won’t forget about you.