As part of our upcoming I ♥ John Hughes season, we've invited Park Circus Ambassador and Plymouth-based writer Nick Ingram to reflect on the filmmaker's influential mid-80s output.
Nick's essay explores Hughes' status as a mainstream entertainer, as well as a chronicler of teenage experience in suburbia and life in conservative America more generally.
A BBC report dated Friday, August 7, 2009 reads: "The US film director and writer, John Hughes, who created some of the most famous comedies in the 1980s and 1990s, has died at the age of 59. The director died after a heart attack in New York, his spokeswoman said."
Reading through the comment threads of various versions of this story you could come to the conclusion that a generation was mourning the loss of a father figure. John Hughes and his films are a formative text for an audience of a certain age. There is an attachment here. Something that some people born around 1970 cannot seem to let go of. It is as if the films he made talked directly to them, reflected them, and put them up on the screen at the local cinema.
John Hughes wrote, directed and produced a vast number of films during his career. His films were always unashamedly popular. They were always aimed directly at the mainstream. Maybe, even, popular filmmaking at its best. There are no pretences in Hughes’s films. He paints with broad strokes. Yet he always hit the emotional mark for his audience. The films he made connect to a common experience for those who watch, and because of this one should not underestimate the achievement of these films.
The films from Hughes’ vast output that makes this connection tend to be the four that he made over three years in the mid-80s: Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986). Films that represent the middle American suburbs and the teenagers who are growing up there. In theory, these films should not have the universality that they do. They talk of America at certain time, place, and in a certain language. But they speak of a reality that we all share. In both Britain and America, a suburb is a suburb. It is a general experience of our modern existence.
It could be argued that most of Hughes’s characters are clichés. And if we take, say, Clair Standish (Molly Ringwald) and Ferris Bueller (Matthew Broderick) we find that both of these characters and, in fact, most of Hughes’s creations are highly conservative. They are not the rebels one would expect teenagers to become. Yes, they attend detention, or they take a day off school. But they are unlikely to ever end up in trouble with the police. They are very much like those who watch the films – members of the conservative middle class. And this is what Hughes does incredibly well. He shows us the hearts and the passions of those who will not rebel against the system. There is no need to. The majority of people are more than willing to accept the world as it is. Hughes salutes these people in these films. What they are fighting against is exactly what these teenagers will become – their parents.
A weakness of these films tends to be the adult characters. Although the teenagers are well rounded, the adult characters – the teachers and parents – fall in to caricature. They are normally represented as fools, such as the teacher overlooking the detention in The Breakfast Club. Or they are there to be duped, as in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. It would seem that the adults are not in control while their teenagers are on a quest to find out who they are, or what exists in their hearts. Little do they know that they are to turn into the very adults who hold the reins of power.
This is what is at the core of John Hughes’ characters and the suburb they inhabit – in the end, they will end up giving birth to the millennium generation. These teenagers are going to become bank managers, lawyers, accountants, husbands and wives, with two kids, living in a detached house. Their kids will watch these films when they become teenagers and then they will do the same as their parents did. These films represent the conservative perpetuating life of the suburbs. A place where the middle classes go to exist rather than live. Such is the rhythm of life in the western world.
The closer you come to these films the more you notice that they are very much a document of mid-80s America. The conservative America of Ronald Reagan. These teenagers will let the system educate them, and they will move on to the next stage of life – careers and babies. The next group of teens will then go through the same process. You can claim that John Hughes is the chronicler of the stable lives of the conservative middle classes. An image that many of the cinematic audience connect with and hold these films with esteem and affection. They see themselves up on the screens, and the image on the screen reflects back.
After all there was only one person that John Hughes was writing about – and that was you.
Nick Ingram is a writer and poet from Plymouth, England. He has published two books: Dionysius Williams & Other Southwest Observations and the more recent Some Notes from A Small Dent of an English City. Over the years, he has also written columns for the local press on various subjects, including film and culture and politics. Nick Ingram is also a founding member Plymouth’s WonderZoo, which promotes poetry/spoken word/performance/music/comedy events around Plymouth and the Southwest of England.
- Read more about our I ♥ John Hughes season
- Take a look at all of the films in the touring programme
- Follow Nick Ingram on Facebook