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Kevin Smokler

Kevin Smokler

Posted: August 18, 2009 04:11 PM

John Hughes: "The Audacity of Empathy"


Director John Hughes died on my 36th birthday, which means I'm now the age he was when Ferris Bueller took his day off. Hughes reportedly wrote Ferris based on the high school adventures of his best friend, himself, and his girlfriend, whom Hughes married shortly after their graduation in 1968. By the film's release in 1986, when John Hughes was the reigning master of what Courtney Love called "the defining moments of the alternative generation," he was also a father to two young children, a boomer family man and the demographic against which his audience saw their identity as an "alternative".

Following his fatal heart attack at age 59, that audience (now family men and women ourselves) hurried to claim Hughes as ours. Director Kevin Smith called him "Our J.D. Salinger." Jud Apatow: "None of what I do would exist without him." Diablo Cody: "An idol to this magna-zoom-dweebie."

I went ahead and emailed my parents, explaining that this passing meant to me what John Lennon's death meant to them. "We liked John Hughes movies too," my mom wrote back.

Of course they did. The same way they liked American Graffiti and Splendor in Grass as late-youth fables from at a time long ago. My 13-year-old cousin Zoe probably files Pretty in Pink or Weird Science next to Mean Girls and She's all That, befitting the endless now adolescence feels like when you're in the middle of it.

With the petulance then of an overlooked middle child, wedged between Boomers and Millennials, my generational urge to lock up Hughes's children up in the library then stand out outside the door screaming "Mine! Mine!" isn't just a personalization of loss. It's also an endowment of cultural legacy, a declaration that Duckie, Watts, Cameron Frye and Jake Ryan belong yes, to history, but really to us.

Every generation slams the door on the one behind it. We can only grant Tie Dye, The Muppet Show, Pearl Jam or Facebook to those borne of one age by implying everyone else is too old to "get it" or too young to understand. As if by nature, generational identity seems a fierce melding of two unequal parts -- what it is and everything else it isn't.

With John Hughes, this had the unintended consequence of turning appreciations of his work into a nostalgic land grab, relegating it to the same garage shelf as New Coke or the Atari 2600. Michael Jackson, another recently deceased '80s icon, had the benefit of a career with his brothers the decade before and presence in the tabloids until the day he died. Hughes last directed in 1991. It's easy then to confine his contributions to his heyday, the middle years of the Reagan administration, to shoulder pads and Spandau Ballet.

But if that were the whole story, would there have been this kind of outpouring? We return to John Hughes's movies because they didn't just speak to a moment in time -- they also transcended it. Remove the floppy disk jokes and Sixteen Candles is ageless as a Hudson/Day romantic comedy. Ferris Bueller may as well be subtitled Chicago! Chicago! It's a Wonderful Town! Call the Breakfast Club an adolescent Iceman Cometh, a chorus of characters imprisoned and waiting for something to happen who realize they are the only something that will.

Hughes's are not just movies about the mid-1980s, but movies set in the mid-1980s that now live as archetype and fable. I know this because, last year, I threw myself a "Come Dressed as Your Seventh Grade Self" birthday last year and guests from ages 20 to 55 all showed looking like his characters. I didn't ask them to. They assumed "John Hughes Movie" and adolescence meant the same thing.

None of my friends, however, dressed like The Athlete, Brain, Basket Case, Princess and Criminal of The Breakfast Club, perhaps because the lessons of that film are too painful for a celebration: The world wants to separate us with labels. If we look past those labels, at least we have each other. It's garden-variety adolescent alienation, sure, but of a very different kind than the majority of Hughes's work. Which is probably why fans regard The Breakfast Club as his greatest achievement and a generational touchstone in a way that, say, Weird Science is not.

Courtney Love and her cohorts would spend the early '90s glorifying the alienation Hughes offers up in The Breakfast Club. But amid his filmography, it's a rare exception. Overwhelmingly, The Hughsian hero does not question the rules of adolescence but tries to find their place within them. Samantha Baker wants to be cool like Jake Ryan and they meet somewhere in the middle sitting atop a dining room table. The lovers of Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful accept that money and class divide them but make a go of it anyway. Ferris Bueller most likely walked in his high school graduation while the parents he loved applauded, then went to a good college. He most likely did not drop out, form a band and never speak to them again.

If the cinema of the 1990s was all about the created family in absence of the biological one (Goodfellas, Boogie Nights, Reality Bites), Hughes venerated the traditional family in a manner both of and ahead of his time. Remember the mid-1980s was the era of The Parents Music Resource Center, the Satanic Panic and a cinematic alternative to the Hughesian Mainstream (The Legend of Billie Jean, The River's Edge) about generational hostility and its violent consequences.

The message? Parents and kids don't understand each other, don't want to and never will.

But that's not what happens outside of Shermer High School. In rest of Hughes's teenage canon, venerable character actors like Harry Dean Stanton, Paul Dooley, and John Ashton play fathers whose arcs end in sympathy and understanding for their teenage children. John Ashton relents and lets Keith, the hero of Some Kind of Wonderful, not go to college. Harry Dean Stanton gives Molly Ringwald the pink dress she wears to the prom. And Paul Dooley, as Samantha Baker's dad in Sixteen Candles, has one of best parent/teenager scenes in recent memory. "If he can't see all the beautiful and wonderful things I see in you" he tells his grieving daughter, exiled from her room on her birthday and ignored by the popular boy she likes, "then he's got the problem." He finishes by telling her "not to let him boss you around," a proto-feminist idea a half-decade before Riot Grrls.

Jim Baker, Jack Walsh, Cliff Nelson and Tom Bueller represent the value Hughes placed on intergenerational tolerance, where dads like him admitted their mistakes and struggled with empathy over judgment. We don't see much of it in The Breakfast Club, where detention is a lonely island surrounded by adult misunderstanding. Fast forward and we can imagine that long Saturday inspiring the cultural mileposts of the 1990s -- grunge, strong coffee, Quentin Tarantino, and Napster. But it would be the "nice" Hughes families whom would have the last laugh. Another son of Illinois would mirror their attempts at open communication and declare moving beyond the psychodrama of generational warfare his highest priority. It got him elected president.

I'll be married next spring, shortly after The Breakfast Club's 25th birthday, where friends, parents and grandparents will all dance to "Don't You Forget About Me." Perhaps if I were in my early 20s when John Hughes died, I too would have eulogized him as the poet laureate of my youth. But I'm an adult now, maybe a parent someday. Sam, Duckie, Ferris and Keith have all grown up and so have we. Part of that means remembering John Hughes for all that he was instead of just all that he was for us. And what he captured onscreen was an adolescence to be learned from instead of suffered through and forgotten, where parents and their teenagers tried to do right, even though they couldn't always do good, and, in the end, understood that We Are Not Alone.

It's an adolescence I wish I had. Thanks to John Hughes, it is an adulthood I can imagine and make real.

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