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John Hughes, The Eternal Teenager: An Appreciation

A Tribute to the Man Behind The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles

Aug 07, 2009 John Hughes
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What does it mean that the man who defined adolescence for an entire generation has died?

The sudden death of John Hughes todayafter suffering a heart attack during a morning walk in Manhattancreates a void not unlike that left upon the deaths of Elvis Presley, John Lennon or James Dean. Even if his best work was long behind him, he redefined for American culture what it meant to be a teenager.

Every generation gets its own teen films, but a John Hughes movie stood out, tackling the teen years with a sense of honesty and empathy that didn’t often show up on screen either before or after he crafted his most lasting body of work. As such, Hughes created the most significant and lasting teen films since Rebel Without A Cause and American Graffiti.

By and large, the teen movies that preceded Hughes’ core body of workwhich included Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink and otherswere either vapid cash-ins hunting for teen dollars (Gidget, Beach Blanket Bingo, et al) or scare films of sorts like The Delinquents or High School Confidential; movies that depicted teenagers as aberrant, anti-social, drug-addled and generally gone off-the-rails.

But even as the early ‘80s gave birth to the teen sex comedy in films like Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Hughes’ movies were the antithesis of those pictures. Whether it was Ferris Bueller, Brian Johnson or Samantha Baker, the teens that inhabited a Hughes movie weren’t solely sexual animals seeking release. Granted, there were elements of that, butsimilar to real, live, actual teenagersthat was only a fraction of their personalities. They were human, with commonplace dreams and fears: dates, popularity, concert tickets, something cool to do over the weekend.

The relationship between Ferris and Jeannie Bueller remains one of the most lasting and affecting moments in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in part because of the real emotions involvedFerris’s frustration at life’s inherent rules; Jeannie’s jealousy that her brother will likely coast through life on charisma, completely ignoring those rules; their mutual competition for parental affection. Yet there’s also the sense that, beneath their differences, the two siblings actually love one another.

Though he was a filmmaker and not a musician, Hughes’ role as a chronicler of adolescence owes much to his keen use of song. Whether it’s Ferris leading Chicago in “Twist & Shout!” or Duckie’s “Try A Little Tenderness” from Pretty In Pink, Hughes unabashedly understood that sometimesand for teens, very oftentimesmusic provides a more cathartic release than talking ever could, and he wasn’t afraid to commit that feeling to film.

Even the notion of “‘80s music” is in part defined by Hughes’ soundtracks and his understanding of the passionate emotional touchstones music plays in teenage life. And even if the musical moments were occasionally a bit hokeysuch as dancing in the library to Karla DeVito’s “We Are Not Alone” in The Breakfast Clubothers hit their mark with perfection, such as Dream Academy’s rendition of The Smiths’ “Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want” from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Hughes’ directed eight films between 1984 and 1991, but penned dozens of others throughout his career. He stepped away from the camera after 1991’s Curly Sue, but by that time he’d largely moved on from the type of pictures that made him a household name. For much of the rest of his career he often wrote for family films, everything from Home Alone and Beethoven to Miracle on 34th Street and 101 Dalmations. Under a penname he even provided the story to 2008’s cinematic train wreck Drillbit Taylor, a saddening coda to such a meaningful body of work.

But it’s interesting that, after spending so much of his career absorbed in teen culture, the man remained fixated on the curious ways in which childhood and adolescence shape us, rather than delving into what finally comes as a result of all that personal sculpting.

John Hughes is gone and no one’s going to replace him. It says something that few have really even attempted to, though if anyone’s come close it might surprisingly be Judd Apatow. Beneath all the dick and fart jokes, Apatow’s characters contain a Hughesian humanity and vulnerability, most touchingly glimpsed in the short-lived TV series Freaks and Geeks.

For the vast ways in which he altered the landscape of adolescence, it’s fitting that Hughes’ legacy lives on not only in his own films (surely soon to be rushed out in a commemorative DVD-package cash-in), but in records like M83’s John Hughes-influenced Saturdays=Youth, books like Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and television shows like Glee and the aforementioned Freaks and Geeks.

So throw your fist in the air and turn up some Simple Minds for John Hughes, gone off to that great big high school in the sky. Life moves pretty fasthere’s to a man smart enough to stop and look around once in a while so he wouldn’t miss it.


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August 7th 2009

wow. That’s a whole lot of work, though I didn’t think Drillbit Taylor was so bad.

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