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John-Hughes-“We’ll never see his like again,” said economist Ben Stein, a close friend of Hughes and one of the service’s speakers. “He was the Wordsworth of the suburban America postwar generation. He was a great, great, great genius and as much of a friend and a great family man as he was a poet.”—The L.A. Times (August 12, 2009)

John Hughes (1950-2009)

One of the most unsung and nearly forgotten cultural critics of the last two decades of the twentieth century was John Hughes. Born in 1950, he died of a heart attack just five years ago, at the young age of 59. Raised in Michigan and Illinois, Hughes began his career writing jokes for nationally famous comedians as well as for National Lampoon. For nearly every person of my age group and generation (ca. age 46), he defined the 1980s. Indeed, he’s as much a part of my memory of that decade as is Ronald Reagan, Rush, and Blade Runner. A friend of P.J. O’Rourke, with whom he wrote but never produced a film script entitled The History of Ohio from the Beginning of Time to the End of the Universe, Hughes successfully captured the contempt that teenagers in the 1980s had for unearned and undeserved authority.

In particular, Hughes understood how utterly hollow and meaningless the 1960s radicals were. They may have talked revolution, but when they attained positions of power, they merely desired to make the world in their own image, all of their supposed liberalism nothing but a sham, a superficial means for gaining authority. Never did they care about peace, love, or happiness. They cared only for power. Hughes’ 1986 character Ferris Bueller expressed the author’s own conservative views of the world rather nicely.

“It’s not that I condone fascism…or any ism for that matter. Isms in my opinion are not good. A person should not believe in an ism. He should believe in himself. I quote John Lennon. ‘I don’t believe in Beatles, I just believe in me.’ A good point there. After all, he was the walrus.”

Hughes’ best movies were The Breakfast Club; Sixteen Candles; Ferris Buehler’s Day Off; Plane, Trains, and Automobiles; and Home Alone. He also wrote a number of Christmas movies as well as children’s movies for Disney and other companies. Some of his movies were simply silly such as VacationChristmas Vacation, and Weird Science.

His movies were equal parts perceptive insights into the human condition, mockeries of unearned and undeserved authority, slapstick comedy, introductions to the best of popular music, examinations of tight friendships, and development of full characters. In addition to these traits and themes, Hughes almost always wrote his stories around creative persons held down by peer pressure and societal desires for conformity. His movies end happily, but not without great struggles.

Possessed of an overwhelming reclusive J.D. Salinger streak, Hughes wrote a number of screenplays, produced and directed a number of films, made lots and lots of money, and then, around 1991, disappeared from public view. While he still wrote and produced—often under the pseudonym Edmond Dantes—he avoided any publicity, preferring as much privacy as possible. By all accounts, he was a serious husband and father who put his family above his career.

The Breakfast Club (1985)

Of his numerous movies, one stands above all the rest as a true work of art: 1985’s The Breakfast Club. Again, to address my age group and my era, it captured my longings, my hopes, and my desires more than any other movie I have ever seen. I don’t mean this in the sense that it’s the best movie I’ve ever seen or ever made. It doesn’t compare to The RopeThe Killing FieldsThe Mission, or even Batman Begins. For movies that deal with real life, though, it’s a stunner. I’ll never forget walking out of the theater in 1985, being so stunned that any adult could understand my peers and me as Hughes did. For all intents and purposes, it was and remains the quintessential movie of the 1980s.

I watched it so many times when it first came out and in the decade afterward that I have the movie memorized (mostly) line by line and scene by scene. The other day, while lecturing in Florida, the movie was playing on the video screen of the treadmill I was using. I didn’t turn up the sound. I didn’t need to. Every line of dialogue was in my head, and the forty-five minutes of exercise flew by as though I wasn’t exercising at all. The whole time, I thought about how much the movie remained a work of art and how much I missed the artistic insights that John Hughes offered the world in his own quirky way.

The Breakfast Club revolves around only seven characters, all meeting at a Chicago high school in a middle-class to upper-middle class suburb (zip code 60062), on one Saturday, March 24, 1984.

Everything is minimalist, from the opening title sequence to the movie itself. Using almost no budget, it could have appeared just as easily as a stage play as it does a movie. Hughes wrote the movie to have almost non-stop dialogue with some action for comedic pauses and breaks from the intensity of the story.

Five students—a weirdo (Ally Sheedy), a jock (Emilio Estevez), a socialite (Molly Ringwald), a stoner (Judd Nelson), and a brain (Anthony Michael Hall)—all find themselves in detention. The only two drawn-out adults in the movie are the vice principal (Paul Gleason), an arrogant and insecure opportunist, and the school janitor (John Kapelos), a loveable guy who was that high school’s “man of the year” in 1969.

Most of the film takes place in the school library as the five students learn to understand one another, mostly by recognizing their own mutual distaste for their teachers, their parents, and the peer pressure of their respective social groups. While the movie plays up a bit too much the sexuality as well as the drugs of the period, it also, in a very Hughes fashion, reaches toward the best of western civilization, the art and the thinkers that allow us to be where we are as a civilization, mixed with a lot of references to popular culture. It is not, after all, accidental that the movie takes place in a library, with the students surrounded by art, books, and statues.

Adversity to Harmony

The movie opens with a quote from David Bowie:

And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their world
Are immune to your consultations.
They’re quite aware of what they’re going through…

The quote explodes in shards of glass and the camera focuses on a public high school, all concrete with a few glass panes, a prime example of Stalin-esque architecture in America. A clock reads 6:56 AM, and a variety of camera shots reveal a school of straight lines, littered and graffitied. Each of the five students appears at the school, just before 7, with parents somewhat frazzled, bemused, or detached. Only the stoner arrives without parental escort.

The vice principal arrives in mock Dirty Harry fashion. “It is now 7:06 and you have exactly 8 hours and 54 minutes to think about why you are here, to ponder the error of your ways.”

From the opening moments, things fall apart for the administrator. “Yeah, I’ve got a question. Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe?” the stoner asks. After a morning of adversity among the students and rather realistic sexuality, a certain harmony begins to prevail in the afternoon, especially as the students begin to sacrifice for each other.

Whatever its faults, Hughes’ movie offers the most realistic story about the youth of my generation and coming of age in the mid 1980s.

Dear Mr. Vernon, we accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was we did wrong. But, we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Sincerely, yours, The Breakfast Club.

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4 replies to this post
  1. “The other day, while lecturing in Florida, the movie was playing on the video screen of the treadmill I was using.”

    You lecture from a treadmill?! Well, that does solve the problem of finding time to work out.

    • I actually really like the image of you giving your lecture from a treadmill. Not only do you get a workout in while lecturing on Burke or Tolkien, you might also be able to use it as a “Myth of Sisyphus” type metaphor.

  2. Thanks, Brad, for this terrific piece! I, too, have fond memories of John Hughes’ movies! I really love what you say here: ” In particular, Hughes understood how utterly hollow and meaningless the 1960s radicals were. They may have talked revolution, but when they attained positions of power, they merely desired to make the world in their own image, all of their supposed liberalism nothing but a sham, a superficial means for gaining authority. Never did they care about peace, love, or happiness. They cared only for power.” That explains so much — like how I felt about Clinton’s 92 campaign, and that stupid, undignified dance they did to the Macarena song! That could have been in one of Hughes’ movies!

    Another of Hughes masterpieces, in my opinion, was “Pretty in Pink.” Have you seen it? In the way that “Breakfast Club” spoke to you, I felt that Hughes understood the challenges of the bright, creative girl living “on the other side of the tracks” who goes to a school where she is surrounded by spoiled and entitled kids— such a great story! That movie captures more of the obtuse, cruel, shallow world that permeated so much of adolescent culture in the 80’s– but is probably still relevant today, and in that way, timeless for modernity.

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