Saturday, August 22, 2009

Remembering John Hughes: Don't You Forget About Me (or the confused mess I was ten years ago)

This piece was originally written for the Envoy. A version of it will appear in that paper's upcoming issue.

In some ways, it was the impossibly rainy summer of 2009 that drove the final stake through the heart of my childhood. And by my childhood, I mean the 1980's (and you could stretch that a bit into the early 90's, too, if you really want).

From that blissfully uneasy perch, that nexus of still-novel independence and turbo-charged vitality—my mid-20's--I watched it happen. And you watched it, too. We couldn't ignore the headline-dominating passing of Michael Jackson, or the subsequent blasting of “Billie Jean” at every party, bar, club and out the open windows of every low-slung, neon-light-adorned, souped-up cruising import car in the city for two months.

Some of us cheered, and some of us cringed as Kobe Bryant lead the Lakers to their fourth NBA championship—more than Michael Jordan had won at his age—and just like that, the path to a “New Jordan” may have reached a point of no return.

But back in the years when sports fantasies began to give way to smoke-filled rooms full of kids with mohawks and studded jackets, in days when bonds forged in meandering discussions during Saturday detention meant way more than who your prom date would be, another icon of the 80's pried his way into my life. I'm talking about John Hughes.

I've bounced around from passion to passion a lot in my day. I spent most of high school screwing around doing tricks on BMX bikes, but never fully found my niche in a crowd that measured achievement in scars. Although they did seem better than any of the warring social factions at school: you know--the jocks, the “preppy” kids, the stoners, the my-parents-will-kill-me-if-I-get-a-”B” types, etc. I spent some time on the periphery of the local punk rock scene, but found a lot of the same vain struggle to conform, yet be yourself there, too. Looking for the place be “me” only led smack up against the realization that the only “place” to do that is when you're older... if you're lucky.

I grew up amid the very tree-lined images of picture-perfect suburban Americana to which Hughes's most iconic films pay cinematic homage. I went to New Trier High School, just outside Chicago (said to be the real-world inspiration for the fictional Shermer High). Until I left for New York on a quest to change the world at 22, I lived in a nice, two-story house that had a basement “rec room” and a basketball hoop lovingly affixed to the roof of a 1.5 car garage. My parents rarely fought, never once threatened to ruin my social life if I didn't get good grades (maybe that's part of the reason I never did!), and are still happily married—so far as I can tell.

So why did it feel like such a hellhole?

Really, it wasn't. At least not entirely. But adolescence, wherever you grow up, is an alienating place. And John Hughes, decades into his adulthood, held fast to that understanding and projected it onto movie screens and right into our hearts. If there's one overarching theme to be taken from Hughes' films—or at least the best, and most memorable of them—it's the idea that, for all I'm-in-with-the-in-crowd galavanting and all the the I've-got-it-all-figured-out-at-16 bravado, none of us really fit in. And none of us had much at all figured out.

As a BMX bike-riding, Marx-reading, punk rock-listening juvenile delinquent, I never quite fit any of the archetypes The Breakfast Club helped etch into our collective consciousness. But maybe that was the whole point of throwing a jock, a bad-ass, a popular girl, a nerd and a misfit into a room together: you might never guess it, but growing up is rough for everybody, and everybody's got a different mask to hide behind to try to make it look like they never cry themselves to sleep. So whatever you're into, however you fashion your identity, and, as the enduring popularity of Hughes' repertoire has shown us, whichever era you look back on and call your heyday—youthful insecurities are universal.

It's in this light that I prefer to cherish the memories of Friday nights in my parents' basement, crowded around an L-shaped couch with a bunch of friends, blurting out a chorus of lines from Ferris Beuller's Day Off like we were stealing each word out of Matthew Brodrick's mouth.

You know, it's not like there's nothing to it when people say Hughes' character studies in affluent suburbia painted a one-sided, deliberately misleading picture of the experience of growing up. That his best films were made during the Reagan years, at a time when everything that had been learned by the “60s” generation was being buried in a million ways, does—and can't help but—have bearing on how history judges the work of an artist who featured white faces in a white-picket-fence world.

But we'd be a pack of narrow-minded philistines to deny that there is a richness and a universality to Hughes's treatment of subjects like budding sexuality and the need to assert an individual identity in a world that seems one-dimensional. The themes, if not the literal experiences, mark all of our lives. And the observant, gentle hand of a man who could immortalize those sometimes mundane, sometimes life-affirming, sometimes bitter moments that now seem hard-wired into our cultural DNA, deserves some fond remembrance. Who among us can't relate to some aspect of the bashful Claire Standish or the hopelessly belligerent John Bender? Who among us can say they've never shown the world a confident human being when inside they were a mess?

As this summer starts to fizzle out and attention turns to what lies in wait on my next tour of duty in the trenches of academia, I've spent a lot of time thinking about the fading memory of bygone days. And in that process, it's come just a little clearer into focus, that whatever identity I, or anyone else showed the world back in high school, really, none us of was anything more or less than a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.


  1. Well written. I think John Hughes would like this.

  2. It's brave to admit to loneliness despite a seemingly good family life with a white picket fence (literal or figurative). You hit at the heart of the matter...growing up is, a a sense, it's own form of isolation. And we all do think that we're alone.

    You already know I really like this. I will link it on my blog at some point..