Features and Columns · Movies

Culture Warrior: The Triumph of John Hughes

By  · Published on August 10th, 2009

For somebody associated with making some of the most resonant teen comedies in modern cinema history, John Hughes still doesn’t receive enough credit – mainly because, before John Hughes, there really was no such thing as the teen comedy.

Teens have controlled the marketplace for quite some , so it’s hard to believe that before the early 1980s only a marginal selection of films were directed specifically at this audience. By the late 1950s, teen taste had become the largest, most marketable, and most potentially profitable controlling factor in setting music industry trends, cemented by Beatlemania in the mid-60s. The film industry, however, possessed no equivalent. The only films directed specifically and exclusively toward teens around this time were beach party movies like Where the Boys Are (1960), which were nothing more than forgettable, silly, squeaky-clean romps that sold tickets based on the appeal of bikinis and the then-popular subgenre of beach rock, but said absolutely nothing insightful about life as a teen.

On the other end were juvenile delinquent films like Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Such films have become more resonant for moviegoers of later generations than the beach party movies, and served as ham-fisted cautionary tales for a young generation that parents saw as spiraling out of control with their affinity for fast cars, leather jackets, and knife fights. While Rebel is without doubt an essential American classic, the smothering atmosphere of tragedy within which the teen rebellion is framed can be read as a staunch message from the establishment urging for conformity despite the contradictory romanticism within the iconography of James Dean associated with that rebellion. Nicholas Ray’s serious approach to the material (coupled with Dean’s method performance), in contrast to the numbing silliness of beach party films, suggests that Rebel and the many lesser films like it were made largely for adults rather than teens, and were little more than a more polished and layered extension of past propagandistic cautionary tales for teens like Reefer Madness (1936). And, of course, unlike John Hughes’s films, Rebel is nowhere close to being funny, thus creating two polarities in mid-century American teen cinema: dumb beach “comedies” that don’t treat teen life in the least bit seriously and serious, humorless melodramas that focus on only the potential tragedy and none of the joy of the teen years.

The late 1970s offered mainly slasher films for teens after the release of Halloween (1978). Besides that, there was George Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), which was more a work of nostalgia for the early 1960s, and thus a film, like Rebel, made about teens rather than for teens.

The films of John Hughes, however, can be seen as the perfect hybrid between the beach party films and the tragic melodramas of decades before, concocting a necessary balance between silly comedy and profound drama resulting in a portrayal of teen life as the most fascinating of dramedies.

First of all, the silliness factor cannot be emphasized enough. In a culture that jeers as the 1980s just as liberally as it appropriates trends of the same era, Hughes’s movies are certainly enjoyed ironically today. Determined by the popular culture of the decade, certain aspects of taste (from music to hairdon’ts) within these films haven’t aged well, but this is often complemented by Hughes’s trademark (and often abrupt) silliness of tone (e.g., just about everything in Weird Science). But at the center of these movies is a genuine heart that beats for teen life – one that, probably for the first time, respects the intelligence and everyday struggles of its core audience without resorting to tragic melodrama or viewing teen life as an inconsequential moment before adulthood. Thus, Hughes’s teen films remain firmly and unavoidably entrenched in their decade of origin, yet continue to speak volumes to later generations through the obvious respect for teens that Hughes imbues within his films. While his movies adeptly approached some serious territory, they never treated themselves too seriously (there’s a reason Ferris Bueller has outlived St. Elmo’s Fire). This rare combination allows us to love these movies while simultaneously laughing at them when we weren’t being directed to laugh with them, even in encountering the filmmaker’s notable slip-ups in attempting to create an accurate portrait of teen life (e.g., Emilio Estevez’s bizarre and inaccurate reaction to trying marijuana for the first time in The Breakfast Club).

Hughes can be credited as largely responsible for popularizing – if not creating – a great deal of archetypes and clichés that may, at first, suggest his portrayal of teen life wasn’t all that accurate, from the army of clique representatives of The Breakfast Club – the nerd, the jock, the burnout loner, the quiet goth chick, and the princess virgin – to the alcoholic or unemployed father, the oppressive figure of authority (most often in the form of the high school principal), the mysteriously wise white-collar worker (e.g., Breakfast Club’s janitor), and finally (articulated most fully through Duckie in Pretty in Pink), Hughes established one of the most enduring teen character types: the goofy but reliable best friend. Hughes was also famous for following Hollywood’s tendency to use actors well into (or past) their twenties to portray highschoolers. Such characteristics of Hughes’s filmmaking have been bastardized, filtered, and lampooned in teen films since, from the carbon copying of the Hughes formula in the late 90s Freddie Prinze-Matthew Lillard movies to cynical sex comedies like the American Pie series to empty parodies like Not Another Teen Movie. On the other end, some filmmakers have tried to transcend these formulas (to varying degrees of success) by creating allegedly more realist (rather than realistic) portrayals of teen life in everything from Dazed and Confused to American Teen, but such films often ended up unintentionally reinforcing established archetypes and clichés through promoting their narratives as analogous to reality.

So it seems that Hughes’s films can hardly be credited as realistic portrayals of teen life in the strictest sense. A certain degree of suspense of disbelief is absolutely necessary to enjoy any of his films (e.g., once again, Weird Science). However, there’s a significant difference between realism and honesty. The films of John Hughes may not be objective documents of teen life (as if such a thing exists), so while moments of his films may reverberate as false or silly, the heart and feeling behind them is undeniably honest and sincere. While Hughes’s characters may have occasionally been (or become) exaggerated clichés, they still contained enough multidimensionality to be immediately relatable. Hughes’s films can never be accused of emptiness, even if the sentimentality came off as forced time and again. Hughes got incredibly right the feeling of teenhood: the alienation, the pressure, the struggle for status and respect, and the absurdity of living life every day in high school. This is why Hughes’s films have outlived the 80s while other films from the decade fell by the wayside; they were accessible yet profound. Hughes, to me, can be best summed up in the scene of Pretty in Pink where Duckie serenades Molly Ringwald to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness”: it may be over-the-top, but you know all too well where Duckie is coming from.

Hughes only directed eight films within eight short years, but he had so thoroughly established a brand of American comedy in his career that it’s often shocking when one sees the long list of films he wrote but didn’t direct, like Pretty in Pink and The Great Outdoors. Besides his teen comedies, Hughes extended his influence with some of the best comedies geared towards an older or broader audience involving John Candy, Chevy Chase, and Steve Martin. In the 1990s he switched to primarily writing movies geared towards kids, like Home Alone and Beethoven. So, if you were born anywhere from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, chances are you’ve been impacted by a John Hughes movie. But the name John Hughes has been most thoroughly cemented in association with his often imitated but never surpassed brand of teen comedy. He’s responsible for the best of the genre, and for elevating teen films to a higher standard. In this day and age where it seems that every cultural product is marketed towards tweens, we need the cinema of John Hughes more than ever.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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