A Tribute to John Hughes
This is an excellent piece on John Hughes written by David Boyle. You can visit his website here myspace.com/davidbfear
A Tribute to John Hughes
Interior: Bedroom of a middle class home. The year, 1985
A young boy sits on the carpeted floor, entranced by the movie playing on the television screen: John Hughes’s “The Breakfast Club.”
He sips from a can of soda and smiles. Downstairs, his mother and father are watching the Johnny Carson show; his father holds a cigar, his mother a cup of tea. His sister is on the phone in her room chatting with one of her cheerleader friends, twirling her hair and chewing gum. The boy hears his parents burst into laughter, the sound filters up through the floor while he swallows a handful of potato chips and reaches into the bag for more, too engrossed in the film to realize that he has spilled crumbs all over the floor. Next to his bag of chips are three VHS movies: “Sixteen Candles,” “Weird Science,” and “National Lampoon’s Vacation.”
What you’ve just read may sound like the typical weekend of any youth. For me that was an ordinary night spent alone in my room— and I was quite satisfied, believe it or not. I was raised in an average American home and, like many kids my age, had an insatiable appetite for movies and fun. However, when it came to high school, I yearned to finish what I had started eight years previous, just so I could get the crap over with. On the other hand, the mere thought of entering a building full of thousands of strangers caused me to shudder. In some ways I indentified with Cameron Frye from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”— never able to enjoy anything let alone absorb an education, always feeling ill and misplaced in the big world.
When I began high school I felt as though the walls were made of teeth and wanted to devour me whole. For four long years I wrestled with a jumble of feelings: an empty sensation in the pit of my stomach every morning and the urge to faint when I entered homeroom. I feared getting bad grades and failing every class. I compared my state of mind to that of Brian Johnson, the smartest character from “The Breakfast Club,” who was petrified of not meeting or exceeding his parents’ expectations. After receiving an F on a shop project, he said this to his detention mates: “Even if I ace the rest of this semester, I’m still only a B.” Can you imagine the self-inflicted psychological torture I went through not having a gift for class work and studying? I could relate to that character’s lack of self-worth and had fun watching him come to terms with who he was through the film.
I also feared I’d never make new friends or pass the series of mundane tests I was bound to face, and if I remember correctly the teachers were challenging students constantly and rigorously. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? High School, to me at least, was an institution that you would never escape no matter how hard you tried. A place where both the toughest kids and the most well adjusted children could become victims of peer pressure, isolation, rejection, or bullying. Each day the locker-lined corridors seemed longer and more crowded, didn’t they? They did to me. I felt like a lab rat in a never-ending plastic tunnel, curious sets of eyes monitoring my progress and taking meticulous notes, forming quiet assessments without getting to know the real me or even caring about what I had to say. A student’s job was to adhere to the regimens and remain silent unless spoken to. I, like plenty of others, was just trying to make sense of who I was as a student—as a person— and what I was meant to become. Eric Stoltz’s character in “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” Keith Nelson, shed abundant light on my high school hardships and loneliness: He was a quiet, hard-working kid, dealing with isolation except for his best friend, a tomboy. He was also fascinated by art— something that wasn’t popular in his school, especially among jocks and rich kids. His dad constantly pressured him to go to college, but Keith had no desire to follow that path. On top of these difficulties, he was faced with having to stand up to a bully (Hardy Jenns) just to prove to a girl he had a crush on (Amanda Jones) that he was good enough for her or— even better—superior to her heartthrob Hardy . This story, among all Hughes’s tales, cast a spell on me that hasn’t diminished since. His work spoke to me on various intellectual and emotional levels.
When I stop and think about high school, I can count the number of genuine friends I had on one hand. Most of the time I found it to my advantage to just mind my own business and avoid rubbing shoulders with the wrong classmates (troublemakers) or getting on a stringent teacher’s bad side, which wasn’t too difficult back then if you didn’t watch your step. During the 80’s, from my perspective, it seemed as though every teacher and principal in my school had that Richard Vernon attitude from “The Breakfast Club”: strict and brusque. Furthermore, the prettiest, most popular girls never once glanced my way unless they thought I had the answers to a test or a piece of gum to give them. The jocks thought I was a weakling (which I was). Academically I was flawed on every level: I struggled to maintain a C average. Despite confronting these various “coming of age” obstacles, I knew that four difficult years had to be completed—there was no way around it, no other means to circumvent the stress and anxiety.. What I did have in my favor, however, was something—or should I say someone—who kept me company in front of the television and made everything all right. His talents made the most burdensome moments more bearable because I sensed, for once, that a human being understood me and my complex emotional circuitry, what made me laugh or what brought tears to my eyes.
Through his many hit movies, John Hughes became a friend (I never met him, of course) who always knew what to say and how to say it—and precisely how to show it as well. His films reached inside the hearts of young people all over the world, regardless of their upbringing; he showed what it was really like to be a teenager, the joys and conflicts of approaching adulthood. Hughes’s stories had an impact on my generation that has lasted for almost thirty years. Now in 2009, mention his name or his movies to adults of any age and witness for yourself the powerful impression he’s left. Consider this analogy: For decades, college fraternities and sororities around the world have required a pledge to go through endless initiations, tasks they believe make a student stronger and worthy of acceptance. In contrast, John Hughes’s stories were part of the 80’s initiation—the necessary curriculum, a fundamental part of high school life, learning, and adaptation. They prepared you for the inevitable: growing up.
Let’s briefly flashback to 1983: After watching “National Lampoon’s Vacation,” I recall some parents being able to put themselves in Clark and Ellen Griswold’s shoes: the extensive amount of time spent traveling in a sweltering car, the pungent body odor that permeated the interior of the vehicle, the quarreling siblings, the heat, the exhaustion, the crazy aunt, the quirky relatives, setback after setback on the road. My own parents laughed at these images too. Why? Because they had been in that exact situation numerous times and had a sense of humor about the ordeal. Of course, I easily related to Rusty and Audrey. What kid couldn’t for that matter? These characters were—and still are—you and me. John Hughes’s characters were our neighbors, our friends, our colleagues, our classmates, our family members. They were not, by any means, contrived, formulaic, cookie-cutter images typically seen in the majority of television shows and films today. Everyone could identify with them and we laughed together (or cried) at their journeys and took a piece of them with us through life. Their lives paralleled ours.
As a middle-aged man, I often find myself reciting lines from Hughes’s films and enjoying a hearty laugh or a tender moment. I’ve had the good fortune of repeatedly watching his movies on video or when they’re shown on television, and instantly I’m transported back to my roots, the days that have shaped my life, days that I concluded by gleefully throwing a tasseled cap into the air and screaming freedom at the top of my lungs.
As a culture, we often forget to acknowledge the influence art has on our lives, our actions, our beliefs— our psychological and physical health. Yes of course we go to the movies to be entertained and to forget about reality for a while, but without fully realizing it we often discover that few writers are able to put their finger on the pulse of a generation and lead them into more promising days. With all sincerity, I can say that John Hughes understood my teenage foibles and resolved them beautifully and meaningfully in movies such as “The Breakfast Club,” “Sixteen Candles,” “Pretty in Pink,” “Weird Science,” and “Some Kind Of Wonderful,” to name just a handful. I think I had a small part of each of his characters in my personality—still do now in my forties. That’s what made his work so brilliant, so touching, so authentic…so impressively tangible. Hughes taught us that it’s okay to be different, okay not to follow the herd and be proud of it. Good art can teach us invaluable lessons when we open our minds.
When Hughes wrote family, adult-themed scripts (“Planes, Trains & Automobiles,” “She’s Having A Baby,” “The Great Outdoors,” “Uncle Buck”) he proved that he could skillfully tell any tale he desired and pull viewers into his wonderful imagination by weaving engaging story lines and creating heartfelt, believable characters. The Dell Griffith character (played by comedy legend John Candy) from “Planes, Trains & Automobiles” has an unforgettable line that affects me in myriad ways. He says this to Steve Martin’s character, Neal Page: “You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I’m an easy target. Yeah, you’re right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you… but I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings.. Well, you think what you want about me; I’m not changing. I like… I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. ‘Cause I’m the real article. What you see is what you get.” That dialogue is a bold and satisfying insight and another example of what great writing can accomplish: the sum of a character’s essence delivered in a few sentences.
As you can see, Hughes kept his creations simple, accessible, and pure. In my opinion, these virtues are scarce in many of today’s films. As I see it, Hughes’s distinct vision is often imitated but rarely equaled. Maybe, too, that’s because times have changed and so have kids and high school.
I will always respect Mr. Hughes as a genius storyteller and a masterful director. When I watch a teen movie nowadays, I can always discern shades of the John Hughes influence: subtleties that any fan of his can find without having to look too critically. Hughes’s magic touch has undoubtedly inspired writers of recent decades and will continue to enliven the work of artists for future generations. I consider myself privileged to have been exposed to his mastery of craft at an early age, and I still watch his contributions and find myself brimming with fond memories and admiration. Through John’s vigorous and endearing imagination, I will always be a kid at heart. All I can say is: Thanks for sharing your talent with the world, John Hughes. Always know that your creations have profoundly touched many lives.