[13 August 2009]
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through
—‘Changes’, David Bowie
When the above words introduced thousands of moviegoers to The Breakfast Club in 1985, few would have predicted the impact that this film, and the ouevre of its filmmaker, John Hughes, would have on an entire generation. Hughes’ films, through constant showings on television, became cultural touchstones for Generations Xers and Yers like myself. We could not help but measure our own adolescences with those portrayed by Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall, and Eric Stoltz.
Hughes’ teenagers did not exist in the real world, to be sure, yet their romantic hopes spoke straight to our hearts. What teenager hasn’t pined for their school’s respective Jake Ryan or Amanda Jones? What teenager hasn’t wanted to play hooky and have the best time of their lives? And what teenager hasn’t wished that their own messy and complicated feelings could be related to their peers in such an embraceable fashion?
The lasting popularity of Hughes’ films stem not only from adolescent romantic yearnings. A consistent theme with Hughes from his first screenplay on is the material expectations of Baby Boomers and the damage it inflicted on the classic American nuclear family.
In the ‘80s, the Baby Boomers dried out, suited up, and bought into the Reagan Revolution full tilt. They discovered that, to paraphrase Sally Fields, they ‘really, really liked’ themselves. They invested the same cache in brands like Mercedes Benz, Gucci, and Cuisinart as they had Levi’s, Volkswagen, and thrift stores in their youth. Neil Young supported Ronald Reagan. Tom Wolfe, the Boomer Fitzgerald, wrote The Bonfire of the Vanities. Their ‘revolution’ rolled like a washing machine in its grave.
Hughes’ first screenplays display his preoccupation with the plight of Baby Boomer offspring. In Mr. Mom, Alex and Kenny Butler must show their out-of-touch father Jack how to manage the most simple domestic duties. In National Lampoon’s Vacation, Hughes created his Inspector Closseau, the perpetually ineffectual Clark Griswold. Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold was the kind of idiot with which most of us could identify. Clark’s chronic overcompensation, attempting to replicate the perfect suburban existence for his rotating pair of children, always ended up in disaster and public humiliation.
When Hughes received the opportunity to direct his scripts, he turned his attention directly to the ‘80s American teen. Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful would all contain at least one Boomer-broken kid. Jake Ryan in Sixteen Candles. Steff in Pretty In Pink. Cameron Frye in Ferris Bueller’s. Amanda Jones in Some Kind of Wonderful. These teens had the world by the throat, but inside they were just hollow hangers for designer labels.
The Breakfast Club is undoubtedly Hughes’ Citizen Kane. The conceit behind the film is fantastic. Nothing drove me more nuts as a teen than obligations, being forced to do something I didn’t want to do by adults. The five teens in The Breakfast Club spend a cathartic Saturday detention together, sharing scars earned from their parents and sticking it to the Boomer Man, Dick Vernon.
Hughes’ condemnation shows up in the very first shots of the film, as the parents drop off their wards. The camera sneers at the hood ornament of the faceless Mercedes which drops off Claire. A just as faceless Cadillac Seville drops off Allison.
The blue collar Boomer parents get an even more brutal treatment by Hughes. Bender walks to detention, his father invisible. Brian’s mother and Andrew’s father come off as scary stage moms for overachieving nerds and jocks, respectively.
The film’s heavy is the Principal, Richard ‘Dick’ Vernon. Vernon carries his no-nonsense attitude as casually as he wears his Saturday detention suit. He is the type of authority figure everyone finds easy to despise, practically begging for respect instead of earning it. Before he opens his mouth, we know this guy’s an immense tool.
The other adult in the building this morning is the janitor, Carl. Not only is Carl an alumnus of Shermer High, but Hughes shows us that he was once voted its “Man of the Year”. Carl is the only worthwhile adult in the whole film. His scenes with Vernon highlight the inanity of Vernon’s world view. When Vernon shares with Carl that the thought of these kids taking care of him someday keeps him up at night, Carl levels with him. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
The film’s plot builds to a slow reveal of the reasons why each teen is there. Behind every one of their dumb mistakes lie their nightmare Boomer parents.
Andrew, the star wrestler, sits in detention because of a prank gone terribly awry. He taped another student’s ‘buns’ together. Wow. I don’t know how it pops into your head to do something so incredibly cruel to another human, but Hughes and Emilio Estevez make us feel sympathy for Andrew. Andrew’s father can’t stop pushing him to be the best. Andrew no longer enjoys wrestling, and hopes he’ll suffer an injury.
Claire, the ‘poor little rich girl’, sits in detention because she ditched class to go to the mall. Claire’s divorced parents spoil her rotten in a contest to win her love. Everything about Claire screams child of privilege, from the diamond earrings to the sushi to her eventual attraction to Bender.
Judd Nelson as John Bender in The Breakfast Club
John Bender, the delinquent, sits in detention because he pulled a fire alarm. Pulling a fire alarm is exactly the kind of last-ditch, attention-grabbing stunt a Bender would do in real life. I would know. I shared an awful lot of time with my high school’s Benders in detention. Bender’s father abuses him physically and emotionally. The surprise is that this abuse may be the least shocking.
Allison, the flake, sits in detention because she has nothing better to do. Or so she says. We don’t know if anything she says is the truth, because her character is a serial liar. Allison claims to suffer from neglect at home. She keeps her bag in permanent readiness in case she needs to run away.
Brian, the nerd, sits in detention because he brought a flare gun to school in order to kill himself. This led to one of the more lively film debates of the last couple decades- whether you could actually kill yourself with a flare gun while in school. Wouldn’t you be better off going off to the woods and doing it? Brian’s parents can’t deal with the F he received in shop class and the effect it will have on his future.
Hughes’ films made documentary sense to me as a child. Out of the 27 teens I graduated grammar school with, at least eight were or would be products of divorced parents. Many others did not have what Clark Griswold would consider ideal family situations. Hughes’ films tapped into those experiences. I felt his teens’ pains, because I saw the same thing in the fractured lives of many of my peers.
The Boomers have dominated pop culture from birth. Throughout the ‘80s, I expected nothing less than Boomer self-love everywhere. The Big Chill and Dirty Dancing in film. Thirtysomething and L.A. Law on television. Classic rock on every other station on the dial. It taxed the patience of any young pop consumer.
Hughes’ films were a blast of fresh air. Finally, a Boomer who could relate to us! Sure, some of his films feel a little dated now, but there is no denying that he had a remarkable ear and feel for teens. His last name became a brand for us, a seal of approval which certified the sincerity of the film.
Hughes’ death last week took all of us by surprise. I hadn’t grasped how much I missed his films until I heard of his death. Looking at his resume on IMDB the day of this death, I saw he hadn’t worked on a quality product in 15 years or so. What a shame.
I hope John died content. I hope he died knowing that many of us took much comfort in the care he gave us in his films. And I hope knew that many of us took his lessons to heart.