Thursday, February 11, 2010

John Hughes

I just finished watching Don't you Forget About Me a documentary about a group of Canadian filmmakers who head for Chicago in order to snag a rare interview from iconic but reclusive filmmaker John Hughes who more or less disappeared from filmmaking in the late 90s and wasn't heard from again until his unexpected death last year. The documentary itself isn't a great one. It really has no background on Hughes as a person or a filmmaker and only really focuses on his 80s teen comedy work neglecting his best film Planes, Trains and Automobiles or his later, lesser quality screenwriting efforts under a pseudonym, and of course, ends in anti-climax as Hughes does not accept the invitation to be interviewed. However, one thing about the film struck me. The weight of the material comes from a combination of interviews with some of his actors, other filmmakers who he inspired (Kevin Smith, Jason Reitman), critic and fellow Chicagonians Roger Ebert and Richard Reoper and a bunch of high school kinds in an effort to show that contemporary teenage comedies are vapid and shallow and don't reflect what it is really like to be a teenager. "I've never had sex with a pie," one kid says. "But I've defiantly skipped class before." Smith, Reitman and Howard Deutch (who directed Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful) along with all the kids interviewed throw the term realism around a lot in relation to Hughes' work. They say that Hughes was so influential because you could go to his movies on a Friday night and see yourself projected up on that screen. Some people claim they knew and were friends with kids like the ones in Hughes' movies, and that no one has ever gotten that formula quite right again. I'll agree with the second point: no one indeed has ever gotten it quite right again (although I think there is maybe more truth to some of the more tender moments in American Pie than the kid in question is letting on). Indeed, teenage comedies over the years have become shallow, juvenile, gross and stupid and do not reflect what it is truly like to be a teenager in the midst of growing up. There aren't movies about kids just hanging out anymore, having fun, wandering aimlessly, trying to find themselves when they can muster up the energy to do so, and so on. That was Hughes at his best within those teen films. A lot of people in the documentary say things like The Breakfast Club could never have been made today or people like Molly Ringwald could never be stars: it was too talky, too boring and she was too average, too ordinary; that her persona didn't come with enough baggage to be flaunted in public. They are probably right. All of that is fine and dandy and, most of all, true. But I wonder just how much closer John Hughes actually got to reality than any other filmmaker ever does? My high school experience never mimicked anything like what is depicted in those films and this brings me to my reservations about using the word reality in regards to film. Simply put, realism in movies doesn't exist. Critics talk about it all the time. Andre Bazin constantly touted realism in film and dismissed anything that came with even the slightest hint of artificiality (Jim Emerson posted a good article on this topic over at Scanners earlier today). However, the realism that Andre Bazin and other critics talk about is not the realism of the everyday. It is cinematic realism. It's about finding something realistic within the context of a given film. Is the story plausible? Do the characters act in the ways we believe they would act in such a situation? I didn't believe a moment of The Dark Knight as creating a plausible, realistic world, but the film creates the aura that these people would genuinely exist in such a world and act in the exact manner in which they were acting. That's cinematic realism. This brings me to a question that was posed to me in a grade 11 Media Studies class. The question was whether art imitates life or life imitates art. It seems like one of those impossible questions with no right answer, like what came first, the chicken or the egg? But then it becomes clear. The answer is that it's a two way street: each are a reflection of the other. In other words, we'd like to think we talk and act like they do in the movies and the movies would like to think they talk and act like we do in real life. There's no doubt that, in those teen films, John Hughes was channelling people and places from his life and his youth; using something real as the template to cast his film against. However, are the films realistic in any sort of every day sense? I don't think so. Yet, the reason they are so affecting and people connect with them, enabling them to continue to live on these 20 years later, is because they offered an ideal portrait of what we wished out lives were like. To be as unique and innocent as Molly Ringwald, to be as hopelessly in love as Ducky, to be as rebellious...and so on. John Hughes' method was then to create characters that represented types. They weren't typical teen characters: they were amalgamations of every kind of teenage archetype there was, and then put them into situations in which any teenager could possibly be confronted with: love, heartbreak, detention, an irate teacher, etc. However these things represented the ideals: the love was sweeter and more innocent than real life might be, the heartbreak more searing, the friendships more long lasting, whatever you will. These kids were the people we wanted to be, the friendships we wanted to have, the lives we wanted to lead, the things we wanted to stand for. John Hughes' films didn't so much create a portrait of reality because, let's face it, if the movies really presented accurate visions of reality we would never go to them. We go to them to see things as better than they are, funnier, more exciting, more tragic, more anything other than what we know in the day to day. John Hughes just so happened to present those things within a world that didn't feel as if it was completely unattainable; that it just existed outside the grasp of human possibility. That's what Hughes did at his best. That's what made him special. That's true cinematic realism.


  1. Wow. This is a really great post. I seem to try and find a way to convince you of the opposite, but you make such great points. I tend to lean towards optimism and want to think moments in life can be like the cinema.

    Take, for example, 'Juno.' The scene where she breaks down crying her van is a real moment.
    Your post gives us a lot to think about. It started out about John Hughes but became more existential. A lot to ponder.

  2. I agree, van scene in Juno is just about the best in the movie and it's no coincidence that Jason Reitman is interviewed in the documentary. What I love about that scene in Juno is that it's the moment when she realizes that she's gotten herself into a situation that she can't control and that, for the first time she is seeing that we play on the universe's terms and not the other way around.