The late John Hughes will have no shortage of tributes, and there is a real sense amongst many of my generation that he helped define as much as chronicle what it meant to be a white, suburban middle-class teen in America during the 80s. And one of his strongest suits for me was that many of his best films explored the issues of class in a money obsessed decade. Granted that his films completely ignored issues surrounding race and ethnicity—unless you want to call Long Duck Dong a character. And while Some Kind of Wonderful (1987) holds a special place in my heart, his masterpiece is undoubtedly The Breakfast Club (1985), and in no small part thanks to the brilliant performance of Paul Gleason as the assistant principle.
And if there was one scene from any Hughes film I would quote, it would have to be the scene wherein Gleason brings Bender into the closet and threatens to show up later in his life and kick the living shit out of him. It’s a remarkable scene for many reasons: Bender visibly caves as the haunting music starts; Gleason’s character transforms from a buffoon to a truly harrowing menace; the whole question of inevitability as seen through social class rears its ugly head—perhaps more potently than anywhere else in a Hughes film. “When you’re caught up in your own pathetic life, I’ll be there…” It is one of the rare moments in Hughes’s 80s high school films where the comic veil is removed for a second, and the truly agonistic struggle of power and class (with the setting appropriately being a high school) rears its ugly head.
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I also enjoyed TBC and and many other Hughes films, but one of my favorite references to John Hughes, and his films, is from “Dogma”:
Bethany: What exactly brought you to Illinois?
Jay: Some fuck named John Hughes.
Bethany: “Sixteen Candles” John Hughes?
Jay: You know that guy, too? See, all these movies take place in a small town called Shermer, in Illinois, where all the honies are top-shelf, but all the dudes are whiny pussies – except for Judd Nelson, he was fuckin’ harsh – but best of all, there was no one dealin’, man; then, it hits me: we could live like phat rats if we were the blunt connection in Shermer, Illinois. So we collected some money we were owed, and we caught a bus. You know what the fuck we found out when we got there? There is no Shermer in Illinois. Movies are fuckin’ bullshit.
TBC is incredible in a number of ways, this scene is one of them. I also think it was one of the few films at the time that had an ear for teen dialogue and gen x conversational humor. I remember when I first saw it I thought the ending was too Disney, but I loved the flow of the dialogue. It was artful, but it had, as I said, an ear as well.
Compare the wonderful movie Breaking Away with TBC and you’ll see — TBC is really tring to capture speech in a way that BA is not.
Hughes also was one of the first to document the tribalism of early 80s culture. I’ve heard people both younger and older than me say that TBC is bullcrap — that schools were not divided into jocks and geeks and prom queens and stoners. Well, no, sorry, they were. People crossed lines, certainly, but in the days before we got Gapified things were extremely tribal — the early 80s is that historical point where there was enough cultural information flow to feed niche cultures, but not so much that homogenization occurred. It was the peak of modern teen tribalism, and Hughes knew that in real-time, which was an achievement I think.
@Mike Caulfield Hughes focused primarily on upper middle-class white suburban teens in his teen themed movies. WRT tribalism [or class] the 80’s film version of the classes came into being in the 1950’s, perhaps even before.
The 1950’s tribalism depicted in Zemeckis’s 1985 “Back To The Future”, 1980’s tribalism in Kanew’s 1984 “Revenge of the Nerds” and, to a lesser degree, 1960’s tribalism in Landis’ 1978 “Animal House” are evidence that the tribes were well established, gapified and known long before Hughes’ films.
However, Hughes depiction is different from these in that the tribes were not depicted in a comedic role. It was a more realistic depiction of both the benefits and detriments from being members of each class.
I never saw Dogma, I may have to put that on my list. But I have this very strange aversion to Kevin Smith, and it is runs very, very deep. After Chasing Amy I was really turned off, but perhaps it’s time for me to re-visit my issues 🙂
I like the idea of culture flowing more freely before the box stores basically brought everyone into a sense of sameness for a relativly low price. I really haven;t been back to a suburban high school since I graduated twenty years ago, but I do think this tribalism was real and pervasive during my 4 year stint, and Hughes definitely hits on this brilliantly in his films—which is why I think so man y of us might have such a deep seated reaction to his passing.
And as @Peter said, the tribalism may be apparent long before, but high school teen movies really changed in the 90s. Think abotu American Pie, the distinctions seemed far less codified, and everyone was pretty much just rich or middle-class. And that goes for almost all the 90s and 00s high school films, race and ethnicity enter the picture as moments of a brighter, more inclusive Hollywood—but any remote dealing with class seems buried again.
I’m trying to think about High School films from the 50s and 60s, and I am drawing a blank, all I can conjure is Blackboard Jungle, which seems far too over-the-top as an example. And while Dazed and Confused is an excellent re-visiting of the late 70s/early 80s high school experience, all I can conjure is Halloween from that era. This may be a rich genre to explore, high school films from the 50s until now. I’m sure we could trace all kinds of cultural goodies 😉
@Rev: I didn’t care much for “Chasing Amy” either but “Dogma” brought me back to Smith….”Clerks 2″ was enjoyable as well!