Friday, August 07, 2009

RIP John Hughes

"Demented and sad...but social"

Seriously folks, was there a better writer in the history of Hollywood? I know, I know, he made kids movies and he made teen movies and some of his latter year work was sub-par at best but if one looks at the actual quality of his writing, during his glory days John Hughes' contribution to cinema is hard to fault.

On hearing about his recent death at age 59, I felt more incredibly sad than I thought possible for a has-been filmmaker who was well past his sell-by date. "Why?" I asked myself. And then I started thinking about those films that have been part of my life for as long as I have existed. Those films that I enjoyed as a kid, but also the films I found later in life that just feel like home to me. John Hughes is known for being in touch with teen angst and writing realistic teenagers but what I really think his skill was, was writing people. Every character he wrote was charismatic, interesting, unusual and each character no matter how small was full of quirks and...well, character. Think of such people as Mr. "Bueller, Bueller". Or Long Duk Dong. Or the inimitable Duckie. Or Edie McClurg's chirpy car rental agent in "Planes Trains and Automobiles". These characters are memorable. But most of John Hughes' appeal was his ability to create characters you really care about. No matter how quirky, small or downright unlikeable his characters are, you still care about them.

In "The Breakfast Club" he manages to do the impossible and create characters who are stereotypes but write them as real people who, despite their labels are fundamentally the same as each other. Boiled down to their lowest common denominator, this jock, brain, prom queen, criminal and weirdo are just teenagers, dealing with all the crap that comes along with it. How's that for a statement on humanity? You may think that John Hughes made films for the MTV generation but what set him apart was his ability to find the tragedy and the joy in every character. His power as a writer was that he could show all manner of human stuggles wrapped in the fuschia taffeta prom dress of a teen comedy. Just because Duckie is the nice guy friend, doesn't mean Andie will necessarily choose him over rich-boy Blaine. And it doesn't mean that Blaine is a bad guy. Convention was a tool for John Hughes. A tool which allowed him to reveal the more unpoetic aspects of human nature.

What about the dark side of children as "Home Alone" shows how far an innocent little boy will go to protect his home. OK, so it isn't "Straw Dogs" but I can tell you which film made me laugh, cringe and cry more. Possibly his most gloriously multi-layered character is Ferris Bueller. How much do we all love Ferris? It's impossible to think of a more revered movie character. Yet, look at him. He's a total brat. He whines that he got a computer instead of a car for his birthday. He terrorises and abuses his best friend Cameron and he shows no regard for anything or anyone except himself. So what makes him likeable? Who knows! It's that magical ability that John Hughes had for creating characters and fleshing them out so well that you feel like you know them. Despite his flaws, there's not a person alive who doesn't want to take a day off with Ferris Bueller.

Apart from his undeniable skills as a writer, it's also important to note his skills as a director, particularly in relation to actors. Again, let's consider "The Breakfast Club", almost completely set in one room with five characters. Works a charm! John Hughes is known for "finding" people and making them stars. Just looking at his repertoire of actors it is difficult to deny this fact. But look at how many of his actors have gone downhill since he found them. The cast of "The Breakfast Club" is a prime example. Correct me if I'm wrong but for all concerned this was the peak of their creative work. Same goes for "Weird Science", "Ferris Bueller" and "Sixteen Candles". And as huge a fan as I am of Steve Martin, it has to be said that the performance Hughes pulled out of him in "Planes Trains and Automobiles" was darker and deeper than Martin usually goes, and he's also on the top of his comic game.

Reflecting upon John Hughes post-humously it strikes me that he may seem like the 80's equivalent of Judd Apatow or even Robert Luketic, but the fact is, he's the father of them all. He effortlessly weaved heart into his stories, rather than forcibly throwing in a sappy third act. That was John Hughes' power. And not only that but let's not forget the power to entertain!

- Charlene Lydon

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