Well, well, here we are! We are going to try something a little different today. We are going to write an essay. No less than a thousand words, describing to me who you think you are...
Richard Vernon - The Breakfast Club
I was in the third grade when I knew that I would grow up. Some people struggle with lifeʼs big decisions, like how long to wait before getting married and having children. For others, itʼs the small decisions, like how much longer sleep before that snooze button sounds off again. The rest are like you and me, explorers who wants to see whatʼs out there before buying into the standard way of life. As my third-grade teacher Ms. Byrd once said to me about my artwork “radical ideas sometimes spring from unlikely places.”
Like the summer of 1984 when my parents enrolled me in the Boys Club of Greenwich, CT. It was here that I learned about acceptance. I would say that itʼs natural for people to form opinions at first meetings, but that summer I found out that itʼs not who you are. But who you are and where youʼre from. As it turned out, I was the right person, from the right place, just with a permanent tan. We were all different yet the same–and it felt totally normal. The ultimate common thread was Boy Scouts. Whether it was a camp out/ fishing trip to Sheffield Island, backpacking on the Ives Trail in Redding, CT or the annual Connecticut Yankee Councilʼs Pine Box Derby held in New Canaan. The same faces continued to show up in my life throughout my wonder years.
Or take, for instance, the Glass House, Philip Johnsonʼs avant-garde weekend lair in the leafy banlieue of New Canaan, Connecticut, home of WASP family values, the Ice Storm, and, improbably, the Harvard Five. A group of mid-century architects, who, after studying under Bauhaus master Walter Gropius in the late 1930s, landing in Fairfield County. My father, who was a plasterer during the 1980s and 90s, would take me along with him to these finer homes throughout the Tri-State Area; as a way of teaching me to adapt to the environment I was in at the moment. I would discover twenty-years later, that what he was saying is the old Japanese Proverb "A man is whatever room he is in right now", a lesson he instilled as tradition into my life other than the New York Times.
When I was thirteen, I began taking little day trips to towns along the Metro-North railroad lines. One of those trips was up to Purdys, NY (North Salem). My father and I had done some work for a family there and I remembered it had a great hoagie deli. I'll never forgot that day, it was the the second week in October. Dressed in a Ralph Lauren Shetland sweater, Nike Air Pressures, my Jan Sports backpack and a three homemade PBJʼs, I found myself on a train headed 50 miles north to get sandwiches as a means of adventure. It wasn't so much the fact that I was visiting a place anyone was welcomed to visit, it was the fact that I was doing
something none of my peers would ever think of doing.
If I could have bottled the smells, recorded the sounds, and captured the images on Kodak; and share it with my daughters now. Which brings me out of nostagia and back to this post. Last week I re-read Carl Lennertz' Cursed By A Happy Childhood (2004). In it there a phrase I've been reminding Oates of every time we FaceTime:
Look at the little moments as big moments, and that we can and should enjoy our
own stories and take heart in the magic way they have of helping us feel a little closer, a little stronger and a little happier to face each day.
The research for this post was a bit more time consuming due and a little more on the academic side mainly because of the subject matter. With the dog days of summer just setting in, I have decided to pay homage to one of the most gifted writer/directors to ever compete in Hollywood, John Hughes. Need I say more?
Why Do I Feel Like I'm at Summer Camp?
"When I was a boy, just about every summer we'd take a vacation..." scripted words from National Lampoon's Vacation, which never rang true in my household. With parents who put career over family at times, a film was a method of escaping the reality of being alone during those long days of development. The summer of 1984 revolved around drawing, eating Pizza Hut, and making sure I didn't miss a moment of what was aired through Cablevision.
Diagnosed with a severe case of reoccurring migraine attacks at the age of eight, I spent many days indoors away from the traditional childhood of playing outside. Instead of participation in Pop Warner, I would watch Transformers and sought to impress my friends with my drafting skills. In many ways growing up as a black child in Shippan Pointe, a beach community in Stamford, Connecticut, film encouraged me to escape the feelings of obscurity and being isolation.
It was at this time that Hollywood began ushering in a new era of films. Whether it was a horror, science fiction, action, or a thriller, these genres created heroes and villains that developed a life of their own in American culture. Consider the character of Indian Jones from The Temple of Doom, Freddy Krueger from A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Daniel LaRusso from The Karate Kid, each existing within and outside of the film context.
Filmmakers like Spielberg, Lucas, Landis, Donner, Reiner and Cronenberg replaced household names like Kubrick, Coppola, and Friedkin by moving from just telling original stories to favoring sequels, causing an enormous shift in the film artistry expected in Hollywood. Among this new guard emerged a gifted writer and director named John Hughes, who preferred to work in the isolation of snowy Lake Forest, Illinois over the competitiveness of sunny Hollywood, California.
What separated Hughes' approach to filmmaking from the other directors of that decade, was his ability to keep with the idea of original stories, while capturing the coming of age storyline of teens. Hughes also found a way to repackage the over hyper, subversive sexually crass comedic natives that prevailed in teen movies, by electing to craft his stories with a more romantic sensibility, subsequently, crafting it into a sub-genre that revolved around his theories of filmmaking.
Since first viewing National Lampoon Vacation some 30 years ago, the debate over Hughes' legacy as an writer and director has begun to be championed by the Generation X demographic, who believe he never got the acknowledgement from Hollywood or the Academy that he deserved, as someone whose films transformed teen cinema drafting the framework that's used to this day.
He created an A list of teen actors, that played teens and put out great movies consecutively for six years, all while being separated physically from the Hollywood system. A nomination for his ingenuity would only seem fitting if the Academy could only see past that it's a comedy. However, even with such efforts, no approbation was regarded during his lifetime.
So what makes a John Hughes film? The unique skill Hughes possessed as a writer/director combo, was his ability to make his films seem more sophisticated than his competitors. By capturing that youthful, urgent vulnerability that seems undeniably meaningful, Hughes' approach to writing looks like it was written by a teenager, instead of someone trying to think like one.
He decisively focused on removing the immature rebellious components that are featured in films like Revenge of the Nerds, Fast Time at Ridgemont High, and Porky's; replacing it with an untapped observation of teen humor and life's quirks. Leading to many of the teen films that followed "the Hughes format" of featuring a more adult tone in the mid to late 80s, are often attributed to him.
Even though his directorial style is conservative, the filmmaking is not the most pivotal aspect of his films. It is his ability to focus on the comedic sensibilities in his writings that make them work. Whether it's his use of music, his use of character, the slapstick elements, or the duality of friendship, his words connect in a way that's realistic. Films like Pretty In Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful, exposes how synonyms his writing are to him because, many people believed he had directed them, when he had not.
Hughes does demonstrate within the eight films he directed that he is a competent director and that his work is not sloppy but, it does play secondary to his writing. His direction is there to drive the thematic elements of the story and perhaps that's how he captivated his audience. The music selections, editing style, and conventional filmmaking process are there in order not to distract
from the youthful qualities present on the screen.
When asked by William Ham, in an interview for Backstory 5, about his stumbling into the "teen angst" genre and his plan to get a footing in the Hollywood system, Hughes response reflects that DIY spirit that collimated at that time:
I had a very particular strategy for the timing of those movies, which I kind of had to educate the studios about. I told them, "I'm gonna grow an audience," which they didn't think I could do, but I did it. First of all, I tried to line up the release of each new movie with the video release of the previous one. That way, the the first one might not do so well at the box office, but people would become familiar with it by the time the second came out, and so on. That's why my movies would come out every six months or so, and if you look, you'll see that grosses steadily increased with each one. So I grew an audience, and tried to be as true to that audience as possible, play to what they liked and appreciate. You know how, when you're a kid, you love it when you get mail? You feel important, like someone's paying attention to you. Well, we used to do that every time someone wrote a fan letter to one of our cast members, every piece of mail that came in, we'd put their names on our mailing list and mail out huge packages every time a new movie was about to come out; kind of like what Disney does now...(64-65).
For example, his soundtracks may be the most recognizable elements of his films to fans, since many of the songs reflect the youth culture of the 80s, as well as helped in creating it. But, hearing the song selections within the context of it becomes apparent that song choices are one with the scenes, and have been carefully placed to help move the story along. Unlike the films Footloose, Top Gun, and The Lost Boys that thrived on songs written specifically to promote the soundtrack, Hughes with the scoring of Ira Newborn were able to weave original music into the films, combined with other elements of the current media that reflected the conventions of that era's MTV culture.
Again in Backstory 5, Hughes provides insight into this why his process of music selection was not meant as a tool to make his films popular:
The only official soundtrack that Ferris Bueller's Bueller's Day Off ever had was for the mailing list. A&M was very angry with me over that, they begged me to put one out, but I thought, "Who'd want all of these songs?" I mean, would kids want "Dankenschöen" [performed by Wayne Newton] and "Oh Yeah" [performed by Yello] on the same record? They probably already had "Twist and Shout," or their parents did, and to put all of those together with more contemporary stuff... I just didn't think anybody would like it (65).
Looking over John Hughes' filmography, it becomes evident that his directing career can be separated into two categories. The adult-centered films like Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, She's Having My Baby, and Curley Sue and the teen-centered films like Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off, which I'll be discussed in my analysis.
In these five films you have all the themes that are essential to a John Hughes film, the hierarchy issues of teen culture such as cliques, teachers, parents, and the settings of the world of the teenager, high schools, malls, and "away for the weekend" parentless homes. Instead of providing the viewpoint of someone who is rebelling against the outside world, Hughes invites the audience to see the outside world from the teen perspective. An excellent example of this is in Sixteen Candles, Hughes first film as a director, and my favorite piece of writing by him next to Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.
Sixteen Candles is a well crafted, adept snapshot of an era and ideal that I was raised in; that may have never existed if not for the Reagan-ized America of the 80s. Hughes' portrayal of middle-class America is evocative of the spirit of that era, complete with the narrative of commemorating the moral victory of the once underdog character over championing the causes of the underprivileged. However, America's dualistic attitude had become one of good versus evil; traditional television consisted of formulaic themes the created a hodgepodge of violence and family values. While Hollywood capitalized on this trend with films like Red Dawn and Rocky IV, aimed at fostering patriotism to the United States of America.
In an interview with Press.Princeton.com, Gil Troy author of Morning In America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 80s reflects on the atmosphere of the era:
The most prevalent myth about the 1980s is that Ronald Reagan somehow turned back the clock to the age of Ozzie and Harriet. Reagan in fact led Americans "Back to the Future," as the popular movies from the 1980s suggested. Reagan's brand of easy listening nationalism and feel good consumerist libertinism reassured many Americans, and conjured up warm nostalgic feelings while pushing the nation forward politically and culturally, for better and worse (Troy).
Like George Lucas' conception of the 1960s in American Graffiti, Sixteen Candles is a stylized, glimpse into the types and roles lived by many Americans in the 80s. Though it's a romanticized view of teens coming of age in an era filled with consumption and greed, it still contains moments of inspiration, but if looking for depth or pure emotion, it's not there unless you remember it being there.
What John Hughes did accomplish was he gave a voice to teens with serious issues, without pandering to them. More so, he took liberty in expressing those concerns from both a male and female aspect. Up until then most teen features revolved around basic "how to" male prototypes: how to get the girl, how to be the star of the team, how to beat the other guy. But, in Sixteen Candles, Molly Ringwald's character Samantha Baker revolves around a "why" narrative. The film deals with the role of women in Hollywood in an abstract but direct way, by establishing at the beginning of this film that her life story is irrelevant.
Samantha wakes up on her sixteenth birthday to find that her family, including both sets of grandparents, have completely forgotten about the most significant birthday for teenage girls. Her life continues as it did yesterday, rather than driving to school in a new black TransAm with a bow on top, Samantha continues to ride the geek-filled school bus.
Her birthday happens to coincide with three events, the marriage of her older sister, a school dance, and a house party. Of course, she's not invited to the party; such an honor is saved for the popular segment of the high school hierarchy. She has to remain at the dance forced to socialize within the quirky lower-class cliques, fawning over the day in which she'll join the likes of the privileged preppy order.
Her entry into this world lies in her attraction to a guy with two first names, Jake Ryan. Unfortunately, for our would-be heiress, her options are slim. However, she does have a interested suitor by the name of Farmer Ted, the ultimate in testosterone driven lust. Farmer Ted is perhaps the most charismatic nerd I've ever seen on screen. Unlike the characters of Louis and Gilbert from Revenge of the Nerds, who battle with promising elements of their nerd-dom, Farmer Ted's awkward self-assurance, mixed with a bit of delusion, and comedic timing brings a freshness to the film's plot. Hughes strategically places him as link between Samantha and Jake.
The character of Jack Ryan in many ways is treated by Hughes as if he's the Porsche 944 the character drives in the film. A combination of looks, style, and handling, that's easy on the eyes, masculine, and can be colored anything you project him to be. He's the guy who rows singles on the crew team, dresses in this season's line of privileged, and he just so happens to be coupled with the perfect girl, tho the passion is gone. Jakes character is contrary to other lead roles in the "teen angst" genre, in that he respects other groups in the high school for their individuality, even if they don't have the luxuries of being wealthy.
Overall, Hughes direction is solid in Sixteen Candles though at times predictable in its attempt to be noticed as a comedy. He relays on the combination of long takes, quick television jokes, unexpected circumstances, exaggerated characters, and yes, certain plot elements may be conventional. It remains intensely popular and is influential thanks in part to its ambiguity of the central characters, allowing the audience to apply their expectations into this world of fantasy. The film still has an originality that hasn't lost it's sentimental qualities and once again, doesn't pander to its audience.
It's simple to characterize Hughes work as transient but, with each new hit comedy, there is a heavy does of his theories being applied. His films satisfy the audience without sacrificing his artistic decisions. At his best, Hughes balanced the role of a consummate entertainer's relentless pursuit of applause, with an artist's appreciation for diversity of the human carnival that unfolds before our eyes, on screens an in life.
In August of 2009, shortly after Hughes had passed away from a heart-attack, Los Angeles Times reporters Patrick Goldstein, interviewed director Judd Apatow, who many have considered the second coming of Hughes, about his relationship with John in his work:
John Hughes wrote some of the great outsider characters of all time. It's pretty ridiculous to hear people talk about the movies we've been doing, with outrageous humor and sweetness all combined, as if they were an original idea. I mean, it was all there first in John Hughes' films. Whether it's Freak and Geeks or Superbad, the whole idea of having outsiders as lead characters, that all started with Hughes.
The question that remains consistent on the tongues of the Hughes devotees is, "what if Hughes stuck it out?" Would that sense of a wonder displayed in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, have continued? Or maybe, just maybe could he have found his own Fortress of Solitude in Northern Chicago? These questions will never be answered by a man that I consider could have been this generations version of the great Frank Carpa.
In conclusion, Hughes films are at best noteworthy for their memorable lines of dialog, an avant-guard approach to fusing cultural prompt with the ambiance of an affluent Northern Chicago town, and a heaping dollop of sentiment. His work will continue to be researched and developed by many filmmakers, for generations to come.
Goldstein, Patrick. "John Hughes, candle-lighter." Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 25 Mar. 2008. Web. 14 June 2011.
Ham,William., Backstory 5: interviews with Screenwriters of the 1990s. California: UC Press, 2009. Print.
Troy, Gil. "Morning In America: HowRonald Reagan Invented the 80s." press.Princeton.com interview. Web. 11 Jun. 2011.
"John Hughes." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 Apr. 201. Web. 10 Jun. 2011.