Roz Kaveney (rozk) wrote,
Roz Kaveney
rozk

John Hughes is dead

And here's part of the chapter I wrote on him in 'Teen Dreams'.
Any discussion of the teen movie has to pay proper attention to the films of John Hughes and most especially to both 'The Breakfast Club'. A favourite film of most of those who experienced it as teenagers, 'The Breakfast Club' is at least as influential as 'Heathers' on everything that follows it, and is in many respects the film to which 'Heathers is a retort. Of Hughes' other films for this market, the wonderful and anarchic comedy 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' is one of the best films made for a US commercial market to deal with teen male friendship.

The teen romantic comedies 'Pretty in Pink' and 'Some Kind of Wonderful' are at least important enough to have created some much parodied and imitated cliches. 'Pretty in Pink' and the more problematic 'Sixteen Candles' made Molly Ringwald an iconic enough representative of young love that her appearance as a grumpy thirtysomething cynic in the deeply uneven 'Not Another Teen Movie' is almost funny in itself and in the absence of actual funny lines.

Both films have an obsessive quality in their portrayal of Ringwald as an icon of innocence that has worn badly, but which was sufficiently noted at the time that a decade later Buffy, in 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer', can joke about watching 'part of the Ringwald ouevre' without anyone's having any doubt about why or what she means. Hughes has compared Ringwald to the leggy tomboyish redheads in some of Norman Rockwell's 'Saturday Evening Post' paintings of the smalltown American dream and this is clearly what she signifies for him.

It is easy to attack Hughes for his easy and over-schematic psychologizing, his lack of complication and subtext and his deep sentimentality - much of what followed him in the genre was considerably more sophisticated but there is a real extent to which all of it built on his achievements, if only, as with 'Heathers', by radically dissenting from their style and morality. The mere fact that films consciously imitated him, or consciously subverted tropes that he established, is crucial to the existence of teen films as a genre rather than merely a marketing niche. After Hughes, teen movies would always be knowing, had lost that blandness of affect which is often termed innocence.

The crucial thing about 'The Breakfast Club' is that the film which had such an influence on the genre was not, in a real sense, the film that Hughes originally made. The film he delivered to Universal Pictures was two and a half hours long and it was radically trimmed for release at 97 minutes; it is important to remember this at the various points at which the film's narrative seems incoherent and various characters' arcs under-developed. Since it was made at a point in time where DVDs and Director's Cuts were not especially even being thought of, Universal are believed to have destroyed the negatives of the deleted scenes. Hughes is apparently in possession of a copy of his original cut. In the absence, for the moment, of publicly available further information on this bare set of facts, this essay will proceed on the basis of the version of the film that we all saw and continue to see.

The set up of 'The Breakfast Club' is very stagey - it is significant that the script was rehearsed by the cast as if it were a play before shooting. It is, for the most part, set on a single set, a school library in which five representative samples of high school types are confined for the duration of a Saturday's detention. Normally these are people who would hardly interact at all - their interaction here is partly brought about by boredom, partly because it is a form of transgression. They have been forbidden by the school's principal to talk during the eight hours they are stuck together and the thrill of transgressing this rule is enough to trump the standard rules of high school life.


They are a laboratory sample, subjected to testing and refining; this sort of set-up is often referred to in television as a 'bottle episode'. The film belongs in a category of closed community dramas which explore the tensions of personal interactions and describe a specific subculture or place - though they are rather more important films, 'Twelve Angry Men' and 'Black Narcissus' are equally artificial, equally stagey.

We know the sort of film this is, almost from the beginning. It will be an ensemble piece, something like an opera, in which each character, pair of characters or group of characters will sooner or later express their inner feelings, show off their public selves or enter into clashes and reconciliations. It is almost inevitable, given that the film's exposition establishes the differences between the five principal young characters, that the film's resolution will reconcile them and that much of its action will be devoted to the dialectical personal clashes whereby this reconciliation will be achieved. Hughes' originality here is primarily that he took this sort of schematic structure and applied it to contemporary American teenagers and their problems; it is also impressive that he did this without using adaptation of some previous text as a fallback skeletal structure.

Each of the characters is at once an individual and a type and the reasons why they are in detention are equally a combination of the quirky and the stereotypical. Claire ( Hughes' favourite young actress Molly Ringwald) is a 'princess' spoiled by her father with presents like the diamond earrings she is wearing - she has been given detention because she skipped out of class to go shopping. She is a virgin, a fact that she reveals at one of the film's many slightly synthetic climaxes; virginity is less a statement here about morality or personal integrity as it is about a failure yet to engage with life.

Claire is vapid not because of any particular failing on her part, but because her potential is as yet unexplored. She is someone whose life has been built around consumerism, both as the thing she does and the thing she is for. Bender suggests to her that the logical development of her life is that she become overweight in adulthood: 'There's fat people that were once thin but became fat... so when you look at 'em you can sorta see that thin person inside. You see, you're gonna get married, you're gonna squeeze out a few puppies and then, uh...' Claire is, in a real sense, a figure of America, as are all of her companions with the possible exception of Allison - even her name, with its connotation of light, is potentially a reference to Winthrop's famous 'city on a hill' sermon and its representation of Americans as a light to the world.

Bender (Judd Nelson) is the school's 'criminal' - he is an antisocial cutup who rebels against authority automatically and temperamentally rather than because of any ideological perspective. (The grumpy robot in Matt Groenig's futuristic television cartoon 'Futurama' was named after this character.) He set off a fire alarm and proceeds to accumulate further detentions by constantly answering back to the principal - the element of psychosis in both participants in these confrontations is one of the film's most disturbing aspects.

Both he and Principal Vernon are obsessed with not backing down - Vernon has the power to impose detentions on every Saturday until Bender leaves the school and it is as important to him that he do so as it is to Bender not to care. We experience this as a failure on Vernon's part - he has no compassion and no interest in why Bender is as anti-social and alienated as he appears to be - but Hughes avoids sentimentality to the extent that Bender is genuinely irritating and at times menacing in his behaviour.


Bender is a rebel without a cause, but more importantly without a clue; when Brando, in Lazlo Benedek's 'The Wild One' is asked what he is rebelling, he answers ' What have you got?' For a good liberal like Hughes, this is not so much a boast of nihilism but a symptom of disadvantage and social exclusion. Bender is, as the joke in 'West Side Story' would have it, 'depraved on account of he's deprived.' We spend much of the film waiting for the revelation of why he is as and in a sense, dramatic as his exposition of his personal problems is, it comes as no especial surprise. He has sniped constantly at the happy family lives that he assumes the others have - it is mockery and mimicry of his perception of Brian's life that leads into his eventual breakdown and revelation that he is constantly criticised and beaten by his parents - his showing of a cigarette burn is genuinely shocking, because it demonstrates that this violence goes considerably farther even than he has thus far revealed. The fact that the abuse is merely physical, not sexual, reflects the different pre-occupations of the eighties.

Yet Bender'ss name implies, really simplistically, that he is capable of change because flexible; he is the reed, not the joke. He can joke about his home life - after teasing Claire over the expensive diamond earrings that she got for Christmas, he reveals that this last Christmas was unusually good for him, since his father gave him a carton of cigarettes as a present. Later still, he even acknowledges that the random brutality of his father and the bullying expectations of Andrew's have something in common - 'I think your old man and my old man should get together and go bowling.'

The other possible interpretation of his name comes from the phrase 'to go on a bender', to be involved in blind alcoholic excess. Since this does not seem to be a part of his behaviour patterns, and his delinquency seems to consist of calculated, if ill-considered, moves, I raise this possibility merely to dismiss it.

Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is a member of the school's wrestling team - he is doing detention for bullying a classmate. What is most disturbing about this is that he did it less because he felt any great desire to than because he felt it incumbent on him; bullying is part of his social rule which he felt obliged to live up to. Specifically, it is behaviour he has learned from other jocks including his father.

The act he committed was not merely beating a weaker kid up - it was in taping the other boy's buttocks together - he, and indeed the film's authority figures, seem bizarrely unaware of the sexual implications of this act. Like the far more outrageous bullies of 'Heathers', he is free with accusations of homosexuality, calling Bender a 'faggot'; Bender ripostes in kind suggesting that this is uncalled for from someone whose principal skill is grappling with other boys on the floor and wearing a uniform that includes tights. Still, Andrew's name - and whether or not Hughes intends some of these connotations, they are consciously or unconsciously part of his artistic choices - does link him fairly straightforwardly to masculinity and its discontents since the name Andrew does derive from the Greek for man.


One of the areas in which the film's moral standpoint seems most questionable is the degree to which Andrew is allowed off the moral hook simply by discovering that other sorts of people have feelings and that he might like them outside the standard social roles of school. Any move from that to deciding that bullying is wrong because it hurts actual people's actual feelings is implicit rather than deeply felt. Inasmuch as Andrew is, like the others, a case study in an aspect of the American grain, this is worrying - this tendency to thuggery, as American as apple pie, is not simply a problem to be resolved, it is a sin to be repented. One of the weaknesses of Hughes' analysis is perhaps simply this, that he has a liberal's capacity for noting down problems, but not that capacity of the best liberals to be as stern in their moralism as anyone else.

Brian - whose name seems to have become the stock name for anxious nerds with a high grade point average (Brian in 'My So-Called Life' for example) and whose type pervades the genre - has become anxious about falling grades and contemplated suicide. He is in detention because the only firearm he could obtain was a flare gun, and it went off in his locker. Ironically, he has got himself in academic trouble by doing a non-academic subject for which he has no talent whatever - one of the film's intelligent comments on the problems of American education is that the cult of the grade point average privileges consistent mediocrity over specialized talent:
Brian Johnson: I'm a fucking idiot because I can't make a lamp?
John Bender: No. You're a genius because you can't make a lamp.
If names are important in this film, Brian's is either an ironic reference to the Irish heroes and kings of that name, or, more probably, a reference to his intellect via the standard typo for it.

Brian is at once the least unlikable and the most pathetic of the five - he wants to be liked by people he has no especial fellow-feeling for and tries to argue that the various academic activities clubs to which he belongs are as important to the school as the social and sports elites to which Claire and Andrew belong. Which, of course, in a sane world they would be, but these characters are not living in that world. It is a resolution for him that the others trust him enough to act as the spokesman for the entire group - where the other four pair off, he ends up alone, but it is his voice that ends the film.

The other point that needs to be made here is that Anthony Michael Hall is almost as much an iconic figure in the films of John Hughes as Molly Ringwald, appearing in 'Sixteen Candles' and 'Weird Science' in roles similar in nature to Brian, though rather less sympathetic. Hughes always casts him as the almost pitiably unattractive youth who compounds a lack of physical presence by an obsessive quality both in his intellectual interests and his sexual ones. The decision to pose him as the moral centre here is, given Hughes' tendency to stereotype, an interesting one.

Allison (Ally Sheedy) is a proto-goth with shapeless dark clothes, a hedge of hair to hide behind and masses of dark eye makeup; for much of the film she refuses to communicate with the others save by strange birdlike animal noises and grunts, and even when she does start talking, roughly a third of the way through the film, she is an unreliable narrator of her own life, claiming to a sexual promiscuity that is not in fact a part of her character: ' I never did it either. I'm not a nymphomaniac. I'm a compulsive liar.' We learn about her reason for being in detention last of all - and the answer to the problem posed is, simply, that she is not, and has come in to school on a Saturday simply because she has nothing whatever better to do.

All of the others have social roles that they hide behind as if they were masks; for Allison, the mask is her social role. Bender is defined, which is to say limited, by his delinquency; Allison is similarly defined and limited by her teen version of art school bohemianism. This lack of sympathy for the bohemian is engrained in the more suburban type of American liberalism - the cartoons of the popular Jules Feiffer include as one of the running characters a dancer whose performances as Spring or the decline of the West are at once patronizing and philistine about an American avant-garde which had, in the dances of Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham achieved real distinction.


We never find out what specifically is wrong with her life - she talks about keeping her bag full because of the possibility that she may need to decide to run away. She also describes her home life as 'unsatisfactory'. Her quirkiness extends to her diet, she throws away the meat from her sandwich, replacing it with crushed crisps and sugar. In a more recent film, we would expect it to be explicit that she has an eating disorder, or that she has been sexually abused; two decades after it was made, we experience the more open and innocent 'The Breakfast Club' as refreshingly reticent in its handling of these possibilities. Allison may be 'a basket case' but she is also something rather more, whose options are not closed.

The film has two other named characters. (There are also the largely silent parents who drop their children off at the beginning and who collect most of them at the end, and who set up, in a couple of cases like Claire and Brian, a sense of the pressures they are under which means that we regard their accounts as truthful.) Vernon is a classic example of the schoolteacher who has come to hate the children with whom he works - he is superficially handsome but his insecurities have made him an unpleasant bully without a sense of humour.

He postures in front of a mirror, priding himself on his physique, and yet is physically clumsy, accidentally pouring over his desk the coffee he has brought in from home. Generally, the film sets him up as an obnoxious figure of fun in a way that foreshadows what Hughes was to do in the far more overtly comic 'Ferris Bueller's Day Off' with another officious bully. His first name is Richard, which, of course, enables Bender to refer to him as Dick; he is almost automatically a figure of threatened adult masculinity.

In his interactions with Bender, he comes close to being something rather worse - one of these days he is going to snap and use his full capacity for physical violence against one of the Benders of this world and then his life will be changed forever. He boasts to Bender that he will not use physical brutality against him because of its consequences - 'I make thirty one thousand dollars a year and I have a home and I am not going to throw it away on some punk like you' - before making the bizarre and improbable threat that one day, when Bender is no longer at school. Vernon will find him and brutalize him. How much more likely, we have to ask, is the converse of this?

Vernon offers Bender the chance to retaliate with physical violence and accuses him of being 'a gutless turd' when the smaller youth declines. What kind of man takes pleasure from this sort of petty triumph? There are times when Hughes setting up of the adult authority figure for our mockery and disdain perhaps goes too far - or given actual authority figures in the real world, perhaps not.

Vernon consistently ends up allowing Bender to control the terms of their engagement - by reacting to Bender's insolence - the 'eat my shorts' later to be associated with Bart Simpson and the imputation that Vernon has copied his wardrobe from Barry Manilow - with threats and physical intimidation, he confirms not only Bender's own attitude to authority figures, but looks like a bully to the other adolescents. By constantly increasing the number of detentions Bender will be punished with - to a point where he loses count and has to have his figures corrected by a Brian still eager at this early stage to ingratiate himself with authority - he comes to look petty; this scene with his tiresomely macho 'don't mess with the bull, young man, you'll get the horns' is one of the moments from 'The Breakfast Club' most parodied in 'Not another teen movie’ which brings back Paul Gleason almost two decades again for the purpose.


Similarly, when Bender closes the door and sabotages it, Vernon's attempts to keep it open are almost as destructive as Bender's original act, spilling magazines from the rack he tries to use to jam it open. Bender suggests that he is blocking the exits and contravening the fire regulations 'unwise at this juncture in your career' and Vernon has to be reminded by Brian that there is in fact a firedoor at the other end of the library of the school of which he is principal. Both in their confrontation in the gym, when Bender uses basketball control to evade him, and in Bender's escape from the closet in which Vernon illegally confines him, Bender creates a situation in which Vernon makes himself look silly. One of the film's strengths is the combination of neurosis and authority that Paul Gleason brings to the part - it asks the valid question of whether the delinquent is as dangerous as the authority who is trying to control him.

Vernon is contrasted with the happy-go-lucky figure of Carl the Janitor (John Capelos) who drifts through life and in and out of the plot of the film without either passion or commitment. In an establishing shot, we learn from one of the photographs on the wall that he was, when younger, one of the school's sporting heroes; he is a reminder of what is at stake - people who make a mess of their lives at school may well end up becoming janitors - and that it does not necessarily matter all that much - as we see him, Carl is a far happier man than the over-achieving Vernon and less likely to explode. He is also a realist about what can be expected from the younger generation:
Richard Vernon: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. That when I get older, these kids are going to take care of me.
Carl: I wouldn't count on it.

Rather more telling is the other moment when Carl has Vernon at a disadvantage and exploits it. Vernon has gone into the basement and is going through confidential files, discovering, it seems, that Bender has been diagnosed with incipient mental illness, a fact he is clearly considering using in their next confrontation. Carl points out to him that the files are confidential and extorts fifty dollars for his silence.

The occasional interventions of Vernon and the occasional appearances of Carl are in the film primarily to break up what might otherwise seem like a very simplistic three act structure in which the five adolescents are introduced, come to personal epiphanies through conflict and start trying to resolve their personal problems with the help of their co-detainees. These acts are also broke up by sequences like their attempt to get back to the library after a group departure without crossing the path of the prowling Vernon, their consumption of Bender's joint and their subsequent breakout into wild dancing, or in Andrew's case spectacular gymnastics In its deeply structured layout, and its assumption that all problems can be cured by facing up to them, 'The Breakfast Club is a deeply Apollonian film, but it does at least have an occasional place for the Dionysiac.

One of the critical problems created by the knowledge that the film has been so ruthlessly trimmed is this - what can look like serious imbalances in its structure may simply be points at which scenes necessary to that structure were removed. In a film as stagey and artificial as 'The Breakfast Club' is, it is a serious weakness when situations once established have no pay off. For example, except for his discovery of Brian's essay in the library in a single establishing shot that leads to Brian's concluding voice over, Vernon disappears from the film for its last third


Some of the workings through of the personal issues between the five may be among what ended on the cutting room floor. At first, for example, Andrew responds to Bender's verbal aggression with an altogether over-reacting amount of physical aggression: 'If I lose my temper, you're totaled man!' and with insults based as much on their respective positions in the school's social hierarchy as anything else. He is genuinely outraged as well as non-plussed when Bender indicates that he finds such considerations laughable. Later on, they sit around smoking dope with together with Brian and Claire as if this had never happened. Watched naively, it perhaps does not occur to us that this is a radical shift; considered, and in the context of the film's often laborious working through of its issues and relationships, the jump may have been a good decision by the studio about pacing.

Again, possibly as a result of cuts, there are what seem like inconsistencies in the film's resolution. At quite a late point in the film, Claire expresses serious doubts that any friendship they may have achieved is going to last past the day among the social peer pressures they encounter, that she and Andrew will continue to ignore the others in the halls. Further, she argues that it isn't just the case with the socially successful kids. She says to Bender 'What would your friends say if we were walking down the hall together. They'd laugh their asses off and you'd probably tell them you were doing it with me so they'd forgive you for being seen with me.'

Brian is appalled at what she said but it is significant that, when he says he is not like her, his example of someone to whom he would be seen talking is Alison and not Bender. Bender gets very angry with Claire and his anger and her tears are the closest the film comes to foreshadowing their later pairing. In the event, the issue of peer group pressure, which is the whole subject of 'Heathers', is dropped when the dialogue takes a sideways turn into Brian's trauma about grades and the reason why he is in detention. It is implicitly addressed by the shared dancing and by the election of Brian to speak for the whole group, but it remains an issue that the film as it stands fails to resolve at a level of force equivalent to that at which it raised it.

The eventual pairing off of Claire and Bender, and of Alison and Andrew, looks, in the film as shown quite arbitrary and almost an afterthought. These are the pairings you would not expect, but this breaking of the natural order of high school romance is not earned by preparation; the odd lingering glance cast by Alison in Andrew's direction hardly counts. Claire's interest in Bender is even more sudden; their earlier antagonism is, quite simply, not flirtatious banter but expressive if genuine, considered dislike. The fact that their eventual pairing off is preceded by Bender's sexual fondling of Claire when hiding under her desk is more indicative of Hughes' sometimes Neanderthal sexual politics than it is of a growing relationship between them.

Sometimes, of course, the growing bond between the five is represented in terms of the sheerly anarchic and it is this sense of carnival that almost allows these pairings to become plausible. As the film wears on, the other young people become complicit in Bender's rebellions; they cover for his escape from the cupboard in which Vernon has locked him even when he molests Claire. They join him in smoking his dope, even after he has hidden it from Vernon in Brian's underpants; they play loud music and they dance. Andew does gymnastics and Alison gives out a high scream which literally breaks down barriers in the shape of a glass door. If the five are here on a Saturday to learn discipline, then Vernon has clearly failed altogether.

At the beginning of the film, Vernon tells them to write an essay about why they are here. Their eventual refusal to do as he has ordered, and instead to delegate a joint statement to Brian is one of the most hopeful aspects of the film's portrayal of their growth and development. Sometimes deciding to disobey orders is the right thing to do.


The encounter between the five has enabled them to transcend the standard divisions of high school even if a peer-mandated 'normality' of strict social division eventually re-asserts itself beyond the confines of the plot. It was seriously considered that there would be later films which picked up these characters down the years and showed whether the interaction between them had lasting effects, which presumes that it did; none of these films, however, ever moved, as far as it is known, beyond the pipe dream stage.

One of the film's weaknesses is that its assumption that all of the problems of its five iconic teenagers have quick and simple fixes, that the sudden commitment involved in Claire's giving Bender one of her matched set of diamond earrings will reassure him to the point where he becomes a better and saner person, and is an act of self-sacrifice on her part which will simply transform her. The makeover that Claire performs on Allison is symbolic of this whole approach - it is at the same time entirely superficial and entirely reductive; she pushes Allison's hair back and secures it with a white band, and removes the heavy eye-liner replacing it with softly feathered eye-shadow. Suddenly, we are supposed to believe, boys see Allison in an entirely new light, and suddenly she has discovered the wonderful world of femininity and feminine solidarity : Claire: You know, you look a lot better without all that black shit under your eyes.
Allison Reynolds: Hey, I like all that black shit... Why are you being so nice to me?
Claire: Because you're letting me.
And almost immediately, Allison and Andrew are a couple, simply because she changes her look. This is even more trite than the stock trope of the intellectual woman removing her glasses and suddenly becoming a ravishing beauty.

On the other hand, some of this obsession with the neat and the potentially meretriciously pat pays off. The payoff to Vernon's demand that the five write him a thousand word essay on who they are and why they are here is a good example of this; they delegate Brian to speak for them and he delivers the film's culminating message:
Dear Mr. Vernon: We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong, but we think you're crazy for making us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Does that answer your question? Sincerely yours, The Breakfast Club.'
It is attractive that at the end of the film the five of them have transcended the stereotypes into which school society and Vernon as the principal who determines the ethos of the school places them. It is, however, somewhat dishonest of a screenplay which has made a point of establishing them as representatives of types to then tick off the adult world for doing so. One of Hughes' besetting sins as writer and director is a desire to have his cake and eat it.
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