I turned 13 in 2005. So obviously, I know very little about being a teenager in the 1980s. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I know a thing or two about being a teenager.
I absolutely hated high school. Because of the trauma I’ve experienced in my suburban high school experience (you know, with running water and AP classes and all), I’ve sort of gotten into the habit of categorizing the world around me into traditional high school stereotypes. I also believe college, in its profoundly libido-fueled shit-hole ways, has only intensified that need to stereotype things and verbally piss on things I hate. Except college has allowed me to be more vocal about things and have people actually nod their heads in unison with me. I can be a really immature brat sometimes, but I also strive to be a very honest, immature brat at my best. That is why college is great and high school will forever suck.
So if you are 17 years old and love movies and think no one understands your love for Billy Wilder, hang in there, because college is going to be great, even though there are still going to be people who don’t know who Billy Wilder is. Maybe you’re still going to be rejected by the pothead on your dorm floor and develop a really awkward (and mostly antagonistic relationship) with stoner culture in general–it’s going to be okay, it’s all going to work out. If it’s any consolation, you’re finally going to meet real people who know a thing or two about irony and how great it is. And you’re going to think they are brilliant, even though all they did was laugh at your poor attempts at wit.
This bring me back to being a teenager in the 1980s. I know nothing about being a teenager in the 1980s, which is why I initially thought I had such a deep disconnect with John Hughes films. I recently re-watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with my apartment (because someone demanded a movie night–long story, boring story). I’ve never loved Ferris Bueller. It’s on television pretty much three or four or five times a year and I would sometimes stop and watch it–especially for that superbly entertaining “Twist and Shout” scene in downtown Chicago–but I never loved the film, in the same way I love some of my favorite channel-surf films. I never loved it because it never made me laugh out loud. It’s never particularly resonated with me. I don’t care for those so-called “classic” moments in the film–I never really understood the appeal of “Bueller…Bueller…Bueller” or “Save Ferris” because, really, whatever. Sure, I love Matthew Broderick’s performance as Ferris–such a natural, breezy performance–but I never actually celebrated the film itself.
I may be wrong about the whole time period difference, though. I certainly know people my age who are in the cult of Hughes. And, I suppose, I “get” it. I suppose it has nothing to do with being a teenager in the 1980s, but more with being a teenager in general. I suppose that Hughes’ films capture the spirit of being a teenager–or how some people perceive as the spirit of being a teenager–and that is why his films have been such culturally timeless pieces of Americana. And sure, I guess I buy that theory. I guess I buy it in the way that adult television reviewers seem to think The Secret Life of the American Teenager badly interprets teenagers while I think it perfectly encapsulates the nonsensically insufferable mindf-ck of modern teenage culture. I suppose we are all measuring the authenticity of the teenage spirit with different barometers.
Except I’ve never even liked The Breakfast Club. I’ve actually seen it twice. Everyone I know loves it and I never understood the popularity. The second time I watched it was in my high school junior year English class where we watched it as a companion piece to The Catcher in the Rye, which made me upset because The Breakfast Club and The Catcher in the Rye are two completely separate entities that should never associate with each other. The disparity sort of lies in the fact that people who actually relate to Holden Caulfield are not the ones who care about any of the “issues” addressed in The Breakfast Club. But everyone in my class ate up The Breakfast Club. (I would argue that Rushmore and Igby Goes Down would have been better cinematic companions pieces for Salinger’s angsty classic.) Nothing in the film really rang true to me, nothing actually resonated with me, nothing spoke to me. We can all talk about how different we are or how similar we are–but so what? So nothing–it’s all fantasy, it’s all fluff. The Breakfast Club always felt like a very dishonest film because it desperately wants to be honest. I think what really left a bad taste in my mouth is that I don’t like the ending, especially since I never really understood why certain characters ended up together. It just made no sense to me.
I suppose I don’t care much for Pretty in Pink either, but I still find it slightly more entertaining than The Breakfast Club. I’m one of the few people who is okay with who Andie ended up with, but that is also just motivated by my general distaste for man-children, no matter how darn endearing they may be. I guess it’s also because Andrew McCarthy is so darn dreamy in that film, too. Ergo, it’s entertaining, at least in that sense. But it’s still not a film that proves that Hughes deserves to the all-time narrator for the American teenage experience.
Then there was a moment in Ferris Bueller that made me understand. There was a moment when Ferris breaks the fourth wall about how he and his best friend Cameron are going to graduate high school, go to different colleges–essentially live different lives. And how his girlfriend, Sloane, is still going to be in high school when he goes off to college and how he really meant it when he said he would marry her. And at that odd moment, I finally understood Hughes’ appeal: he captures a moment for those who love to hate and hate to love high school. He successfully captures the spirit of the yearbook note, the slow dance at prom, the moment when you make eye contact with your crush in the hallway. They are all fleeting moments in the grand scheme of things, but they were great when they happened. All those things I’ve always thought I was too cool for back in high school (because I was a nerd with misguided aspirations to be sophisticated), Hughes gets it and he makes it into a movie and he sometimes think it’s all bullshit, yet sometimes he thinks it’s something special. And people wax nostalgic about things like that.
And I think I get it in the sense that I am a college senior and I’ve actually sort of liked college, in the sense that some people actually sort of liked high school. And watching Ferris Bueller made me realize something about Hughes’ popularity: his films aren’t solely about being a teenager in the 1980s (though, I suppose, you can see them that way), but it is about a moment. It could be a really long moment, or a really short moment, but it’s a moment, nonetheless. It’s something that has passed or will pass. And it’s something that you will certainly miss, despite the anguish, the frustrations. Because you know that in retrospect, it will be a really, really beautiful moment that deserves to be looked back with fondness. And Hughes gets that. And so does the rest of sentimental America.
As a footnote, I’ve always really loved St. Elmo’s Fire. I realize it’s not a John Hughes film and it’s more of a brat pack film and it’s not a film about high school at all, but I think my love for it is worth mentioning. Not just because Andrew McCarthy is dreamy in it, but I do think it’s this absurdly entertaining and endearing testament to friendship. I watched it when I was 18 and had like, three friends who I more or less felt ambivalent toward, and it actually made me want to stop watching so many movies and go hang out with them.