Friday, August 14, 2009

A cranky rebuttal to every misty-eyed John Hughes obit

Okay, guys, enough self-congratulation and mooning over one’s lost youth in the empty, oh so very, very empty decade that was the 1980s. John Hughes’ death has occasioned a veritable horde of “god, was he a great moviemaker” homages, and I’ve just gotta step in and say the guy was talented, and made two, maybe three original and enjoyable pictures, but otherwise he was really a true product of the Eighties: all surface and no depth.

Let’s move to the facts of the man’s career. He started out as a fairly amusing writer for National Lampoon. He was not a Mr. Mike, a Doug Kenny (read: a humorist with an edge), but his pieces were funny and one in particular has stood out for most folks: the short story that spawned Vacation, which ended not with a cutesy fade-out but with the angry dad shooting the Walt Disney figure. Good ending, fun story, but the movie that was made from it really was not good (that’s me being kind, it’s a piece of crap). From scripting that hit comedy, Hughes turned to teenage life for subject matter and made two admittedly cute, good movies, Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club. And then all inspiration was gone, babies. It was all over. He rewrote the script for Sixteen Candles not once but fucking TWICE as both Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. I was college-age when these flicks came out, but I was fresh from the high school experience, and could see that what was once a “connection to the teenage mindset” was now a guy wringing what he could out of a single plotline (one person, choosing between a creepy richer person and the friendlier down-to-earth option they should’ve chosen all along). In the case of myself and my friends, we kept on seeing Hughes’ increasingly awful movies because they were pleasant and the girls in them were cute-looking and we wanted to see what everybody liked about them so much. Let’s not revisit them now and say they were the rebirth of screwball comedy and Rosetta Stones of American culture, huh?

Ferris Bueller was a smug piece of ain’t-I-cool douchery (yes, this is not one of your ordinary Hughes obits) that was simply a series of episodes, some of which were amusing, most of which were keyed into the greed-is-good Eighties mindset (and wee Matthew Broderick leadin’ a parade, singing rhythm and blues? Painful!). After the decent buddy comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (again, not a comedy classic, but pleasant — “pleasant” is the key word here), Hughes tried to do something “sophisticated” for his output, a young adult romantic comedy, She’s Having a Baby. This appeared to have been the linchpin of his whole career, because it flopped (Baby was, again, pleasant). And after that film flopped, it appeared that the gent who shamelessly rewrote one of his two most beloved scripts two more times wasn’t going to ever again touch characters who could exist in the real world. He became a scripter of live-action cartoons that were in-your-face, wasted talented performers (like John Candy), and were populated by ridiculous, usually screaming, “types.”

I should throw in here that, from all accounts, Hughes was a decent human being, an all-around nice guy, and a pleasure to work with. That’s all well and good, and should indeed be remembered when the man dies at a premature age. HOWEVER, let’s be honest about the guy’s filmic legacy, and let’s not forget that when he had finally the ability to make whatever he wanted to, he made the worst tripe imaginable as writer, director, or producer: from Curly Sue (his final directorial effort, which reeks) to the mega-hit piece-o-shit Home Alone to the dreadful Baby’s Day Out and sub-watchable items like the Miracle on 34th Street remake, Beethoven, Flubber, Dennis the Menace, Beethoven, Maid in Manhattan, Drillbit Taylor, and the ill-advised remake of a French farce, Just Visiting.

A few of Hughes’ obits have mentioned The Bee, his unproduced gag-filled sounds-abominable screenplay about a wacky bee that drives everybody crazy. This was the evolution of the man’s career: from accurate depictions of teens, to recycled accurate depictions of teens, to goofy adults getting hit several times in crotch, and then screaming, mischievous kids (not forgetting a protagonist who's a crawling baby and another that's a big ol' dog). If The Bee had been produced (they discussed Jackie Chan as the main victim for the titular insect menace), he would’ve finally had nothing but a crappy gag-mechanism in place with *no* human or animal protagonist — sort of a dream-come-true for a guy who was writing by rote, just pickin' up a paycheck.

Thus, the problem I have reading misty-eyed tributes like the one written by a hyper-nostalgic A.O. Scott — who really has to, has to, has to (!) take the final step and become a literary critic once and for all, as he writes excellent reviews of books for The New York Times Book Review, but seems to exhibit his love of mainstream crap in his movie reviews (is Spielberg really “the Best American Filmmaker,” A.O? Really? Honestly? No shit?). It can be found here, and one of his dopiest contentions is that Hughes was the Godard of his era, that JH did with The Breakfast Club and (gulp) Ferris Bueller’s Day Off what JLG did for mid-’60 youth in Paris with Masculin Feminin. Yeah, right. So A.O. is really sad over the death of a guy who made films he liked in his youth; I can completely relate, as several Deceased Artiste entries in this blog attest. But Hughes as the Reagan-era Godard? Does Scott realize that if you say he was, he embodies the spirit of an empty, soulless time in our history? Oh well, if he’s okay with that, then I am too — but I think he was simply going for the lazyman “crutch” that pop culture critics use when they need a quick comparison to juice the reader’s interest: “he’s definitely the new Dylan,” “she’s is soooo the new Marilyn,” and my recent dumb-ass favorite, "Michael Jackson was the Jackie Robinson of MTV!” It’s a clunky, shorthand method of writing that attempts to endear the reader by comparing something they can't yet understand with something they're all too familiar with (or something they should be familiar with). Granted, Scott digs himself in deeper by bringing up Godard's quote about the youth of the Sixties being the "children of Marx and Coca-Cola" just so he can get to "the children of Reagan and New Coke." When you got a crutch, don't forget to lean on it — that's good for at least an additional 'graph or two....

Scott also defends the fact that the teens he identified with in Hughes’ films (and Ferris Bueller is all about this sorta bullshit) were perceived by one critic as remarkably unrebellious kids who just wanna belong and be popular and have friends and money and, well, you know, be seen with a cute date. He answers, “so what?” (telling answer, that — “hey, they’re empty, but I liked their emptiness… it spoke to me…”), and then goes on to explain Hughes was, in essence, a chronicler of the era — and what was he chronicling with the plentiful bilge he made after his sextet of teen pics? The fact that the average moviegoer found crotch-slamming riotously funny?

John Hughes made two really good teen pictures, was involved in the creation of a few mediocre comedies that were at least watchable brain candy, and wrote some funny pieces for National Lampoon. The rest is all sentiment for one’s own youth as viewed through the prism of Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and … Judd Nelson? Now *there* is someone who has made some marvelously, intensely watchable bad movies. I myself will be sad when Judd hits the great divide….

Oh, and as for the cute-girl factor, did anyone go to see Hughes' awful Career Opportunities if they weren't a male lusting after Jennifer Connelly?


Costello said...

The most accurate reviews I've read of John Hughes' films are Dave Kehr's capsules for the Chicago Reader here and here. Hughes' characters are too broad and too sloppy (as Kehr says "[the National Lampoon generation] wanted to be Chekov and Mel Brooks) to speak for anyone specifically, at least you would think, but it seems like the majority of people who grew up in the eighties (and 90's, for that matter) regard his films as documentaries of their time in high school...

Media glut said...

Well I like Some Kind of Wonderful.
But mostly because of the two lead women.

Media glut said...

Unfortunately Jennifer Connelly is squished.

Unknown said...

Yeah, I read the AO Scott piece very differently.

You ask if Scott realizes that by calling Hughes a Regan-era Godard, he's saying that Hughes "embodies the spirit of an empty, soulless time in our history? Oh well, if he’s okay with that, then I am too —" but go on to assert that you don't think that's what Scott meant.

Actually, that's exactly what Scott means -- he's just not quite as condemnatory of the 80s as you are. Scott calls Hughes a "pop-culture embodiment of the age." And while Scott may not go so far as to call the 80s "empty and soulless, "he does characterize the 80s generation as being one that is materialistic and which "has yet to figure out adulthood."

So Scott is not saying that Hughes made great movies -- just that Hughes' movies spoke to him when he was an adolescent, continue to speak to him in his extended adolescence, and vividly captured some aspects of a certain time and place.