John Hughes died today.
Hughes was the writer/director/producer credited with the creation and success of the ‘Brat Pack’ teen films of the 80’s. Although many films fell under this banner, the nucleus of them, the most original, effective and brilliant came from him. And now, twenty-something years later, whilst the complimenting and competing films of that era and genre are carrion for the vultures of kitsch and cheese, his films retain a heart, honesty and in-built self-awareness which render them forever resistant to such debasing and mockery.
He made films for teenagers in the 1980s. In my heart, I believe that nobody has made films for teenagers before or since. People have made films about teenagers and people have made films marketed at teenagers but John Hughes is… was… one of the few filmmakers in the history of cinema who knew exactly who his audience was and he knew how to make them laugh, he knew how to help them articulate their views and insecurities but most of all, he knew how to – in an entirely non-patronizing and mawkish way – tell them that things weren’t so bad and they were going to be OK. He gave dignity to the geeks. He allowed the tough kids to show their hurt, he allowed the artist to bond with the skinhead, the poor girl to face the rich boy with pride, he showed beauty in tomboys and insecurity in the confident kids. He deconstructed social cliche and boundaries and showed us kids of the 80’s that we were all… just kids of the 80’s.
I was ten in 1986 and my sister was thirteen. We had finally reached the age where my parents could happily go out at the weekend and leave us alone with a video and a pizza. I was a film geek even then but, as all nine year old boys at that time, my head was very much in Star Wars and Back to the Future, Spielberg films, Joe Dante, films with creatures and aliens and silly stuff. Janis was not about to watch any such crap, she was a 13 year old girl, she was in charge, she had the money, it was her choice. I don’t think I particularly cared, I looked up to her incredibly and she had only ever introduced me to brilliant things so her choice was alright by me. She chose The Breakfast Club. That film kind of opened the doors to teenage for me. It left an indelible mark. To this day, the Doc Martens I face the world in and a certain amount of my eye rolling disdain come direct from Judd Nelson. He was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Every week, we’d get through another brat pack epic, I doubt I even consciously knew which were the John Hughes ones at that point but they were the ones that always left the greatest impression. The Breakfast Club towers above all else in the genre but Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink gave me a much needed window into the head of the teenage girl and reassured me that it was ok – in fact kind of cool – to be a geek (my destiny had been set early). Ferris Bueller’s Day Off was a revelation. Everyone’s fantasy day – bunking off school and doing amazing things, it was incredibly anarchic yet it said ‘This is ok. Sometimes it’s alright to just go a little crazy, it doesn’t make you a bad kid’. His films showed that the adults didn’t always have it worked out. In fact it showed that they were as flawed as us. Because they had been us, and we were going to be them.
The Hughes film that spoke to me most was one that he wrote and produced but did not direct. It was probably his least famous – Some Kind of Wonderful…
The trailer doesn’t do it any kind of justice. Like a lot of films I fixated on when I was younger, I couldn’t fully recognise or articulate what I really dug about it but, watching it recently, I can see exactly why I connected to it and why it spoke to me. The story is simple, a sensitive 18 year old kid who divides his time between school (where loves art) and his job as a mechanic develops a crush on a girl who is going out with an abusive rich boy. He asks her out and shakes up his whole world, his tomboy best friend reacts badly, his father wants him to concentrate on business school applications and he finds himself locked into a course of action where he will have to prove himself to everybody. I’m not really selling it but the film works on an emotional level. Thematically, it’s about insecurity, pure and simple. Keith (played by Eric Stoltz) is driven by the need to win the prize girl and be respected. The prize girl – played by Lea Thompson is in a terrible relationship with a rich guy to prove she is better than her background. Keith’s father wants to be the last in the family line to work a blue collar job. His best friend Watts, insecure about her flat-chested androgony is all attitude, despite resenting the femininity in others. His sister fears her social standing if her brother is humiliated and Craig Sheffer as the abusive lothario is all empty bravado.
Where Hollywood usually gives us ideals and happy endings and perfection, Hughes kind of revelled in the fact that really nobody is perfect, everybody is a mess, everybody gets it wrong all the time. And that’s fine. That’s what being human is. Imperfection. How nice to be told that, how absolutely reassuring and beautiful. When the other films were telling us we had to be beautiful and popular and cool, his were telling us we’re fine as we are – imperfection is natural and beautiful.
The thing that blows my mind is that, despite his ‘king of the brat pack’ notoriety, he really only made six films of that genre – Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Some Kind of Wonderful. Not many. By the 90s, he was making only kids films – and not really very good kids films – the Home Alone series, Beethoven, Baby’s Day Out, Curly Sue. These were the films he was making by the time I was a teenager and full of righteous indignation, I labeled him a sell-out and got angry at his abandonment of our generation for the next.
I’m sure he had his reasons. Maybe he’d said all he wanted to say, maybe he wanted to disassociate himself from a genre which was fast becoming everything his films were trying to combat, maybe he discovered real joy in making fun films for young kids. It’s funny how you hold your heroes to such high standards and expectations, I never understood why he didn’t revisit our generation. Didn’t he have anything to say about how we turned out? Couldn’t he help us through our twenties and thirties too? Where was he? What was he doing?
He actually did make one last grown-up film – a solid little drama called Reach The Rock about people who are stuck in life. It got no kind of release, nobody ever heard about it, let alone saw it. It took me a long time to track a copy down. Maybe Hughes was testing the water for a return but dissuaded by the film’s performance. We might never know.
That’s the thing about John Hughes. I only even realised today that I have never seen him interviewed, never heard a commentary by him. I’ve never even seen a picture of him since the 80’s. That means that everything I know about him – or think I know – I got from his films. And that’s why he will always be one of the most special filmmakers ever to me, the man transcended his own work and brought a message of comfort and optimism to a generation.
So, farewell Mr Hughes and, genuinely, thank you. Like record shops and smoking in the cinema, he is one more magical thing from the 80’s that we shall never see the likes of again. But how fantastic that we had him at all.
Kinda makes me feel like….