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Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns

Mark Simpson on director John Hughes’ pristine legacy

(Arena Hommes Plus, Winter 2009)

So here’s the pitch:  A Hollywood teen movie in which nothing happens.  All day. In a school library. Introduced by a pretentious quote from David Bowie’s ‘Changes’. Or how about this: A boy bunks off High School to take his friends to mooch around an art gallery, to the strains of something especially delicate by The Smiths.

What do you mean you’ll call me? Don’t you want to invest your millions in these sure-fire hits??

When the director John Hughes died this August, aged 59. much was made of how ‘influential’ he has been for today’s generation of movie-makers. But it’s difficult to conceive of almost any of his classic mid-80s teen films, which included Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being made in Hollywood today. Unless you re-wrote them to include slo-mo amputations.

John Hughes movies had great scripts, they had great characters, winsome, quirky actors: all these years later young Molly Ringwald with her red hair and angsty complexion still looks to me like the prettiest, loveliest girlfriend I never had. (While Emilio Estevez looks a lot like a lot of the boys I have had – at least in my mind’s eye).

Hughes movies had feelings, they had intelligence, they had heart – all of which tend to get in the way of films being made today. They also had a view of the world that, while often-times wise-crackingly cynical – ‘Does Barry Manilow know you raid his wardrobe?’ – wasn’t afraid to be lyrical:

‘Life moves pretty fast. You don’t stop to look around, you could miss it.’

Just like, in other words, the best British pop music, with which Hughes peppered his films liberally. In fact his work, although celebrated now, often by a forty-something crowd crying over their spilt youth, looks like fragments of a lost America. A much better one than the one we ended up with – with much superior taste in pop music.

Precisely because of their humanity and wit, Many of Hughes’ movies are as startling, twenty years on, as the Union Jack on the back of Ferris Bueller’s bedroom door, the posters on his walls for Blancmange and Cabaret Voltaire – and a glam Bryan Ferry puckering up over his bed. Matthew Broderick’s intoxicating mixture of all-American, unblinking, huckstering confidence and very Anglo, coquettish flamboyance is inconceivable in a lead Hollywood actor in a teen movie today. It would be loudly dismissed as ‘TOO GAY!’.

The famous parade scene where he jumps on a parade float and mimes to a 1961 recording of fey Wayne Newton crooning ‘Danke Schoen’ like a Vegas Marlene Dietrich, and then to the Beatles’ deliriously, adenoidally sexy ‘Twist and Shout’ (from the previous Britpop invasion of John Hughes’ own youth) – and everyone in Hughes’ hometown of Chicago, black and white, male and female, young and old, falls in love with him, is nothing less than a dreamy pop cultural epiphany.

It was a false one, however. The future, as we now know, belonged not to sentimental, art-loving, anglophile, androgynous Ferris in a stolen red 1961 250GT Ferrari Spyder (which apparently, and quite appropriately, was actually a glass fibre fake, with a British MG sports car underneath). But rather to ruthless career-planner and Reaganite Republican Maverick in an all-American F-14 Grumman Tomcat. Top Gun and Tom Cruise were launched into the stratosphere by steam catapult the previous year, in 1985 – the  same year as The Breakfast Club were chewing their fingernails and wondering, oh-so-deliciously, what they were going to do with their fucked-up lives.

Despite success with the warm adult comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987), which once again spoke of a better, kinder America than the one that actually happened – one full of belly-laughs rather than today’s comedy cringe, snobbery, and sadism – Hughes’ Hollywood career didn’t quite make it into the 90s, never recovering from the frightening success of annoying kiddie comedy Home Alone in 1990, for which he wrote the script. He later left Hollywood and became a farmer. Growing things for people to eat was the perfect riposte to today’s terminally toxic movie business.

As Ferris in his dressing gown put it, raising a quizzical eyebrow at us: “You’re still here??  It’s over!  Go home!”

Postscript: Jan, 2022

My chum Jason alerted me to this charming and moving account of how, at the height of his success, Hughes found time became a pen-pal to a 15-year-old girl smitten, like thousands of other teens, with The Breakfast Club. He turns out to have been everything we hoped he was –needed him to be:

“I can’t tell you how much I like your comments about my movies. Nor can I tell you how helpful they are to me for future projects. I listen. Not to Hollywood. I listen to you. I make these movies for you. Really. No lie. There’s a difference I think you understand.”

“You’ve already received more letters from me than any living relative of mine has received to date. Truly, hope all is well with you and high school isn’t as painful as I portray it. Believe in yourself. Think about the future once a day and keep doing what you’re doing. Because I’m impressed. My regards to the family. Don’t let a day pass without a kind thought about them.”

4 thoughts on “Don’t Mess With the Bull Young Man, You’ll Get the Horns”

  1. Great tribute, Mark. These were the days before American pop “culture” was taken over by Black gangsta rappers and their messages of hate, misogyny, and ignorance.

    These John Hughes films could never get off the ground today because they don’t feature retarded black rappers like Jay Z or P Doofy grunting into the camera and flashing their “bling.”

  2. Moreso even a more insightful critique of how the movie industry has nose dived very rapidly from an ebuliant aesthetic which audiences loved to one which is so censored as to make the change look like moving from the soulful writing of Hugo to what seemed to me to be flat experimental structuralism of Levi-Strauss. Now the “coming of age” films seem like a commentary on how flawlessly tedious life is for people growing up in the world we inhabit. Only what happened in the time elapsing into Hughes retirement was very short.
    Art seems always imitated life and Mark , in his own inimitable way demonstrates how, just as American culture has flatlined, so have the lives of people. This is further the result of an inhuman and uninspired culture. There is some sort of ubiquitous paralysis of imagination which Hughes sensed happening in Hollywood which caused him to feel more real tending a farm that pushing the tedium that Hollywood demanded, which has passed the time for experiments in trying to present existential angst and instead has become that very unselfconscious representation. Sadly, many people don’t seem to know better– which is why theatres make all their money on popcorn.
    Just imagine if they had to rely on the films!

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