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John Hughes: We were all in his club

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It would, perhaps, be an overstatement to say that John Hughes invented the modern, post-counterculture Hollywood teen comedy (hello, Fast Times at Ridgemont High!). But it still feels as if he did. It feels as if he invented it, patented it, perfected it, abandoned it, then sat back and watched, for two decades, as it imitated (often lamely) what he’d brought to the screen. When Sixteen Candles first came out, in 1984, it so deftly caught the media-wise slang, the music, the “Whatever!” jadedness, the geek chic, the style-conscious you-are-what-you-look-like ‘tude, and — beneath all that surly precocious cynicism — the vestiges of innocence, romance, and longing that gave the then barely named Gen-X its light-and-dark, sweet-and-sour spirit that it seemed as if Hughes must have had an army of secret youth consultants on the set. How did he know all that stuff, and get it so right?

Cameron Crowe, the writer of Fast Times, had drawn on his career as a hip journalist (and was fairly young to begin with). Hughes, by contrast, was in his mid-thirties, a straight family guy who lived in Chicago, but he wasn’t just slumming — he was channeling. His soul seemed to fuse, through some act of cross-generational alchemy, with Molly Ringwald, who turned Samantha, the girl whose sixteenth birthday gets forgotten by her family, into a new kind of reality-based teen heroine — wistful yet eyeball-rolling, an anti-princess princess. Samantha was a junior new-wave thrift-shop feminist, and she had other priorities as well, like always having the perfect cutting remark at her disposal. It was one-upmanship as a way of being. Yet a part of her still wanted that “sweet sixteen” feeling. Through her, and a handful of other characters as well, Hughes not only captured onscreen, but put his own stamp on, the children of Reagan and MTV; he caught the peculiar fusion of romance and indifference, conformity and rebellion, that marked the first American generation to grow up with the consumer culture imprinted on its DNA. (Let’s hear it, too, for what Hughes did with Anthony Michael Hall as the Geek. In Sixteen Candles, he seemed a sweetly appealing, motormouthed, new-style nerd. In hindsight, he’s the guy who was getting ready to take over the world.)

If Hughes made his mark with Sixteen Candles, then he upped the ante a year later with The Breakfast Club — an old script that he claimed he’d pulled out of his drawer, and you could believe it, because the handful of “types” in the movie (jock, brain, depressive raccoon-eyed misfit, etc.) almost seemed to be a variation on the overly schematic teen role-model sociology of something like American Graffiti. Judd Nelson’s mouthy delinquent, in particular, straddled eras; he was one part greaser, one part punk, with one foot in a sitcom. What was new in The Breakfast Club, and so, so fresh, was the way that that library setting looked and felt — like a comfy suburban prison, almost womblike in its concrete spaciousness — and also what happened when the kids sitting around in it one long Saturday-morning detention finally dropped their guards and said what so many kids in high school, deep down, really want to say. Not so much “Can we be friends?” as “How, exactly, did we get to be enemies?” The Simple Minds song “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” may be the single most triumphant, and stirring, use of a pop song in any teen movie. It’s almost shocking in its humanity. And it became John Hughes’ ultimate “statement.”

Maybe that’s why he burned out so quickly as a creative force; it’s as if he’d already said everything he had to say as a filmmaker in his first two movies. I will leave it to others to debate the style-council merits and minor-league charms of Pretty In Pink, which Hughes wrote and produced. Myself, I’ve spent more than 20 years trying to forget the image of Jon Cryer lip-synching to “Try a Little Tenderness,” and unfortunately, that’s still the thing I remember from the movie best. Still, it wasn’t a bad teen flick, and if Hughes already seemed to be repeating himself, there are greater sins for a filmmaker to commit. (He had, in fact, already committed one, and it was called Weird Science, in which Hughes gave in to his splattery arrested id.)

Where I have to part ways with a great many Hughes fans is on Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Sorry, but to me it’s no classic — it’s more like the vengeful fantasy of a brat who can do no wrong, and who lords it over his schoolmates like some combination of Tom Cruise, Sammy Glick, and Eva Peron. In hindsight, Ferris Bueller was Hughes proving that he could touch a chord in his fans by kissing off the real world. And he kept kissing it off. Planes, Trains & Automobiles and Uncle Buck were high-concept insult comedies, with little wit or juice. And by the time Hughes, in 1990, produced Home Alone, that superkid fantasy that turned into a violently sadistic human Road Runner cartoon (not to mention one of the smash hits of all time), it’s as if he’d given up on the very qualities that had first made him a household name.

When I heard that Hughes had died, the news was shocking and a little spooky, not just because he was relatively young, but because, despite working on a few scripts, he’d spent the last decade as such a hermetic, almost vanished figure. In essence, he’d retired from the movie business. Surveying today’s teen culture, with its ever-quickening shifts in fashion and status and technology, he must have felt played out, or even left out. He may well have felt old. Yet for one shining moment in the middle of the 1980s, John Hughes didn’t simply have his finger on the pulse of American teenage life; along with MTV, he seemed to be defining, and directing, it. If that era seems far more innocent now than it did then, that’s in no small part because of how perfectly Hughes mythologized it. He may have flamed out fast, but he will always be remembered as a filmmaker who’s forever young.