Friday, July 30, 2010

Life Lessons from John Hughes

"I always preferred to hang out with the outcasts, `cause they were cooler; they had better taste in music, for one thing, I guess because they had more time to develop one with the lack of social interaction they had!"

-John Hughes

Roger Ebert, while speaking about the longevity of the classic film, stated "we're living in a time when for most people cinematic history began with Star Wars." While I do agree with most of that blanket assessment, I do believe there are many other examples of film that have influenced the lives of audience members who were born after 1970 or so.

One that readily comes to mine is the cinema of John Hughes. I know I can't accurately speak for everyone, but I'm pretty confident that most anyone under 40 was touched by at least one Hughes film. Although only directing eight films, he crafted dozens of other movies by either writing them or producing them. All of his cinema had a sincerity that was instantly identifiable.
His characters, no matter how spoiled or nerdy or boorish they may outwardly appear, were all empathetic and accessible to scores of different audiences. Hughes' cinema wore its heart on its sleeve, and its soul was always on full display.

Most of his works focused on the awkwardness of the teenage years, but most all of his characters had to overcome a state of adolescence or arrested development. The films were populated by various outcasts, precisely because their stories were more relevant. For those of us who saw these movies during our own teen years, no other films felt so real. Sure, Luke Skywalker may have been fun, but watching a Hughes character was often like viewing ourselves in a mirror. We paid attention and felt for them more because we hoped they could find some answers; making the best of the life we are all dealt.

Personally, I was not a teen when Hughes hit his stride. But his films were no less influential on me. In fact, I learned plenty of life lessons from his filmography. Some are genuine, some are slightly snarky, but all left their mark. Here, I present six distinctive films from his career.

National Lampoon's Vacation

Who doesn't love this? Seriously.

This was my introduction to John Hughes (he wrote the screenplay), and it was an instant classic for me. I recall seeing it theatrically in 1983 when I was seven, and I think the only person I was aware of was Chevy Chase at the time. I don't think I had watched Saturday Night Live by then, but Chevy had been in several movies. The more adult aspects of the humor alluded me, but I still thought it was hilarious.

Little did I know, however, was how accurate the movie's depictions were until the following year, when I (as a fresh 8-year old) went with my parents to California for a Disney vacation. It was... distinctive. I will say that.

One day, when I have kids of my own and take them on a family fun trip, I'm sure Vacation will be brilliant in a whole new way. Until that day, here's what I took from it thus far.

  • Never tie a dog to the bumper while packing the car.
  • Don't ask pimps for instructions in the ghetto. On the other hand, rolling up windows is a way to bulletproof one's car!
  • Always stir Kool-Aid with proper utensils. (Admit it, the Cousin Eddie stuff is gold. That's why they kept placing them in as many of the sequels as they could).
  • Speaking of which, I guess you don't need any meat in Hamburger Helper. Wait. Yeah, you do.
  • As Audrey Griswold said herself, "don't die unless somebody's home!"
  • Enjoy the little moments between children and their parents. you never know how fast they grow up, after all (or are simply recast).
As an addendum, I should point out that there is actually a term that my family uses that is derived from this movie. You know this scene? Well, because of that very scene, whenever anyone in the family encounters a soggy sandwich (like being packed away too long, too saucy, or cold and wet) it's referred to as an "Aunt Edna sandwich." True story. Blech.

Weird Science

Not really one of my favorites. In fact, it's not very good. However, it was a seminal movie nonetheless. Even as a kid, I knew something was just... odd. Two lame dudes make a chick with their computer?? Really? Kinda like Bride of Frankenstein but without substance? When viewed through the prism of '80s cinema, where teens did wacky things and got into improbable situations, it does get a slight pass. I mean, there were no werewolves , or time travel, or crazy scavenger hunts, or any other weird things Michael J. Fox did in his movies during the decade.

All I know is that:
  • Bill Paxton's career was shaped by this very movie. I'm sure of it.
  • This movie is the template for duos where you know one guy but not the other.
    Like Wham. That had George Michael in that other guy (Andrew Ridgeley). This was Anthony Michael Hall and... some dude. I'm too lazy to even google it right now.
  • Michael Berryman is always a perfect choice to play a mutant or imbred person. Don't remember him? It's this guy.
  • Most of all, Kelly LeBrock definitely left an imprint on the 9-year old version of me. Back then, I couldn't comprehend how, but I'm pretty sure it raised expectations a tad too high for most of my dating years. After all, gym teachers NEVER looked like this.
Not that there weren't other things of note in Weird Science. This was the first time I saw Robert Downey Jr. in anything. Between this and Back to School, it's hard to believe he's now Iron Man, isn't it? And damn if Oingo Boingo's music isn't just the best in infectious '80s music. Danny Elfman's always been great.

Uncle Buck

Dude, I loved John Candy.
He's certainly one of my all-time favorite comedic actors. No matter how small of a part he played, from Stripes to National Lampoon's Vacation to Splash to Home Alone, he was always hilarious. I'll admit he consistently shined mostly in supporting roles, because the scripts he got where he played the lead usually were awful. Who even remembers crap like Who's Harry Crumb?, Summer Rental, and Delirious? I sure as heck don't, and I'm a fan of Candy.

In John Hughes' hands, though, John Candy transcended. Uncle Buck is a perfect example of a movie that shouldn't have been as good as it really was. Outcast uncle is called upon to watch his nieces and nephew in an emergency? Sounds typical on paper. But again, because of Hughes' heart and Candy's endearing personality, the combination works. Plucky children and a bitchy teenager can't even make us stop loving this movie (although the teen comes close. Mostly you just wanna slap her).

But what I came away with is:
  • Clowns are always a bad idea for a birthday party of any age.
  • Beware the lonely single neighbor.
  • Lambada dancing is never a good idea. Not dancing like that in front of the dog is just a red herring.
  • No matter how charming John Candy is, the 5-year plan on smoking does not sound like a good idea.
  • Don't test the boundaries of unbreakable china.
  • Why the hell would anyone name their kid "Bug?"
  • Bowling is awesome.
  • Flipping a toothpick around in your mouth with your tongue is not sexy. It's lame.
  • Giant pancakes look awesome! Can I get some of those at Magnolia Cafe or Kerbey Lane?
  • Always carry a hatchet in your car. You know, for drunk drivers.
  • Most importantly of all, I learned what melanoma and contempt for institutionalized education were. At the same time, no less.

The Breakfast Club

For most, this is John Hughes' signature film. It certainly is his most influential. Personally, I do like another better. But more than any other, I wish I had been in high school when I saw it the first time. I didn't see it until my college years, and I think I would've felt a lot better knowing everyone else in high school was uncomfortable in their own skin too. Regardless, it is still a modern classic.
  • Even a classic character like John Bender doesn't guarantee a film career. Ask Judd Nelson.
  • It's practically a law that any retrospective on John Hughes would have to include the term "don't you forget about me." (from the song by Simple Minds used in this film)
  • What you pack for lunch speaks volumes about you.
  • You mess with the bull, you get the horns.
  • On that note, I was exposed to some of the funniest tough-guy lines ever in this film. "Two hits. Me hitting you and you hitting the floor." "If I have to come in here again I'm cracking skulls." Ah, classic.
  • The Physics Club is sorta social. Demented and sad, but social.
  • Not all minors have fake IDs so they can score alcohol. Some do it to vote.
  • Different cliques or groups of people are more apt to bond together when they do it against yet another foe.
  • Screws just fall out all the time, the world's an imperfect place.
  • In the eyes of some, saying that you get along with your parents doesn't make you an idiot. It makes you a liar.
  • Profiling is a reaction to teens only as a last resort. It's usually because adults have no other way of identifying with the younger generations.
As a look into our society, The Breakfast Club is still invaluable. The words are just as true now, when another generation faces the same dilemmas.

On a personal note, I do hold John Hughes personally responsible for my initial disappointment in my high school experience. You see, I thought high school was going to be just like John Hughes movies. Full of Molly Ringwalds, Ally Sheedys, and the like. Even the authority figures had personality. But I quickly learned there were no such girls, and the authority figures weren't as entertaining as the Ed Rooneys or Mr. Vernons. they were just dicks.

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

This one has always been my personal favorite Hughes movie. It's referred to as his most mature work, but to me it still has that heart that signifies one of his films. Absent from here is any sense of teen angst, but the focus is still on how we treat one another as human beings. The performances are all top notch here. I actually think this is the high mark of the careers of both Steve Martin and John Candy. As Del Griffith, Candy in particular feels so lonely beneath a rosy surface. There's a sense of quiet desperation that makes his story heartbreaking, and the bond between these two different men more uplifting. Yes, it's a holiday comedy, but a bittersweet one. It's a fixture in my holiday viewing schedule year after year, and the tears flow fresh every time.

In addition to the message about goodwill towards your fellow man, there are also these gems of knowledge:

  • Thanksgiving traveling is rarely any fun.
  • Advertising executives are no fun (unless you watch "Mad Men" on AMC)
  • Kevin Bacon will always win a race.
  • Ray Charles's "Mess Around" is a fantastic song to drive to.
  • The perils of smoking convinced me to never try cigarettes. Ever. You might burn your rental car.
  • Don't place beer on a vibrating bed.
  • Never discard your rental car receipt.
  • People looove that Flintstones song.
  • Pay very close attention if someone yells at your car that you're going the wrong way.
  • A hardcore woman is she who gives birth sideways but doesn't "scream or nothin."
  • Always look before you wipe your face with a hand towel. I can not emphasize this enough. Always.
  • Be careful if you're sharing a bed with someone... those may not be pillows!!

Ferris Bueller's Day Off

Oh man, Ferris Bueller could be a textbook, or at the very least a Cliff's Notes guide to life. The movie is escapism in the purest sense of the word. I could probably write a book on life lessons from Mr. Bueller, but here are some highlights.
  • If you're gonna fake being sick, lick your palms instead of faking a fever.
  • It is possible to be adored by everyone. Everyone loved Ferris, after all. "The sportos, the motorheads, the geeks... sluts, bloods, wasteoids.... dweebies, dickheads... they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." Except for his sister.
  • Very few can look cool singing in the shower sporting a shampoo mohawk.
  • If you're ever lucky enough to own a fine automobile like the 1961 Ferrari 250 GT California... lock it up.
  • Fake phone calls work best if you have a partner. Watch the dead grandmother scene and the restaurant scene.
  • Which reminds me... When giving a fake name, "Abe Froman" is (in real life) a great choice. Most people will think it sounds vaguely familiar, but it shouldn't raise alarms. Unless the person you give it to is a John Hughes fan, and calls you out for not being the sausage king of Chicago.
  • Wayne Newton sounds like a little girl when he sings. You agree? Danke Schoen.
  • "Twist and Shout?" Always a good time.
  • That song by Yello? It's so '80s. Ooooooooooo yeeeeeah. Day Bow Bow.
  • Be more selective when choosing a valet parking garage.
  • Successfully breaking the fourth wall can be fun. Normally this only works for Looney Tunes characters, but Ferris does it so well throughout the film. And when Ed Rooney slowly glances at the camera during the end credits without saying a word, it's brilliance.
  • Don't follow Cameron's examples. There are better ways to break out of the mold and defy one's father.
  • Charlie Sheen has never been cooler. Ever. Although Rick "Wild Thing" Vaughn comes close.
  • And hey, something academic. I did learn about voodoo economics.
  • Most important of all, from Ferris himself. "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it."
Well said, Ferris, well said.

My favorite sequence is easily the museum scene. There is something so beautiful and haunting about it all. The editing, the music, the silent poses and performances.

It's the last part with Cameron and the painting that gets me every time. It's important to see the uptight character losing a sense of coherence when he chooses to focus on the details instead of the big picture. Those few seconds say all you need to know about our life views. Bear that in mind, and maybe you don't need a day off from the daily grind, after all.

By the way...
I'm going to play hooky on Tuesday, August 3rd and watch Ferris Bueller's Day Off at The Paramount as we remember John Hughes a year after his untimely death.

So as I revisit all of John Hughes over the years, new lessons are learned and all the ones I've noted before become even more poignant. It really doesn't matter which Hughes film speaks the clearest to you, because the truth is there is a little of each of these characters inside all of us. That's the genius of his career and life lessons to us.

No matter if we see ourselves as a Ferris Bueller, Cameron Fry, Buck Russell, John Bender, Claire Standish, Ed Rooney, Brian Johnson, Chet, The Geek or even The Donger. We are all these outcasts and misfits in our own way.

Although associated with the 1980s, I think the cinema of John Hughes will provide answers to moviegoers for decades to come. Am I sure, you ask? Ooooooooh yeah. Day Bow Bow.

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