John Hughes and the making and unmaking of the American dream

LOS ANGELES - JUNE 11: The movie
John Hughes's films re-established and updated the American dream for a new generation. His complex legacy helps us understand what went so wrong.
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If you grew up in the eighties John Hughes was probably part of your life. In just three years time, starting in 1984, he wrote and sometimes directed Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful. Each of those movies became almost instant classics. They redefined what a teen-movie could be. They were the first American teen flicks with decent soundtracks, featuring The Specials, Jesus and Mary Chain, The Smiths, Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, New Order, OMD and many others. In a sense they re-established and updated the American dream for a new generation.

Molly Ringwald, the American actress forever remembered as one of Hughes’s 80’s teen heroines, revisited her early career in an article in the New Yorker a couple of years ago. It was in the midst of the #MeToo fever. The piece came across as a hesitant one-woman wrestling match. On the one hand her mentor had a unique understanding of the ‘minutiae of high school’ from a ‘female point of view’. He really ‘wanted people to take teens seriously’. On the other hand, she noted that he didn’t cut out the scene in The Breakfast Club when the bad boy Bender – and all the viewers – get to take a peek up Molly Ringwald’s character Claire’s skirt.

Ringwald explains in detail how worried she was to let her ten years old daughter watch the movie. She spoke to friends about it in advance. She explained to her daughter that the person in the underwear actually was someone else: an unnamed actress well out of her teens, hired for that particular purpose. She felt troubled after showing the movie to her daughter, even though her daughter seems to have taken it all in her stride.

‘Back then’, Ringwald writes citing her youth and the standards of the time, ‘I was only vaguely aware of how inappropriate much of John’s writing was’. Wasn’t there a date rape made into a joke in Sixteen candles? Wasn’t there an indefensable use of homophobic language? And where are the people of colour to be found? To top it all, the pieces Hughes wrote for National Lampoon are just coarse and disturbing.

However, Ringwald recognises that Hughes had an ability to speak to teenagers, regardless of colour, sexual preferences or gender. She was astonished when a gay African American, growing up in Cincinnati, told her that Hughes’ movies ‘saved him’.

Are experiences like that ‘enough to make up for the impropriety of the films’? Ringwald’s text is a perfect example of how an over-politicised age loses its ability to gain inspiration or understanding from a common cultural heritage. Cultural expressions handed to us through time are almost always permeated with values and mores that most of us reject. Why should that be a problem and what does that really tell us about John Hughes?

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The American journalist Michael Weiss, who usually keeps himself busy with foreign policy and geopolitics, found a seemingly perfect John Hughes put-down almost fifteen years ago. His article in Slate Magazine in the fall of 2006 questioned whether John Hughes’ teen-movies actually favoured teen rebellion, or whether Hughes was really a Hollywood take on Norman Rockwell. Someone who liked to celebrate the ‘moral victory of the underdog’, but essentially was a family values guy who didn’t really champion the underprivileged. A Reaganite, possibly.

The article was captioned ‘Some Kind of Republican’.

When John Hughes left the advertising industry and joined National Lampoon at its peak in the late 70’s, the Republican party reptile P.J. O’Rourke was the magazine’s managing editor. Hughes and O’Rourke co-wrote several items, including a legendary full-fledged parody of a midwestern Sunday newspaper. It even had a spoof colour ad circular.

They shared their experience of middle-America: O’Rourke grew up in Toledo, Ohio; Hughes in Grosse Pointe, Michigan and Northbrook, a fairly affluent suburb north of Chicago. Both of them liked to reconnect to that world. Hughes dropped out of university, but he had a steady lifestyle. He got married at 20, got out there to make a living and stuck to his marriage until his premature death in 2009.

He didn’t much like the conceitedness of his own baby-boomer generation. If his movies had a soft, idealistic spot for anyone going through puberty, it did not extend to people who never got out of puberty. Like O’Rourke, Hughes was in certain respects a sceptic, just as inevitably bound to be a contrarian within the counterculture. In the original screenplay to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off Ferris tells the story of an uncle who went to Canada during the Vietnam war to avoid getting drafted, but now says he feels guilty he didn’t go. Ferris puts him on the spot: ‘What’s the deal, Uncle Jeff? In wartime you want to be a pacifist and in peacetime you want to be a soldier. It took you twenty years to find out you don’t believe in anything?’ Ferris gets grounded. His conclusion: ‘Be careful when you deal with old hippies. They can be real touchy.’

Hughes wasn’t even a Hollywood man. After only a few years in Tinseltown he moved back to the Midwest and bought a farm, like the Roman general Cincinnatus returning to his plough. He didn’t move to New York when he worked for the Lampoon either. Hughes was not a coastal man either; he was loyal to ‘fly-over country’.

Of course, there was a Republican streak. For God’s sake, the man wore Brooks Brothers.

Indeed, the fact that Hughes had this middle-America, republican leaning makes his films far more complex than agitprop stories of ‘teen rebellion’. There’s something particularly interesting about Hughes’s ability to marry the idyllic with harsh reality. The setting – in the teen movies almost always a fictional suburb of Chicago – has all the trappings of the American dream, but it’s not ironic or meant to be perceived as a fake façade, hiding terrible secrets. The dream is truly there and it’s real. At the same time, so is poverty, violent parents, suicide, alcoholism, estrangement, injustice.

The basic premise for any Hughes’ movie is, quite simply, anti-utopian. There is no belief in a perfect world. There is no dream of ‘a new man’. It’s not implied that the teen heroes will grow up and change the world to become something entirely different. It seems much more likely that they will grab the baton handed over by their elders and continue the relay, hopefully avoiding the fate of Richard Vernon, the bitter school principal in The Breakfast Club, or Ed Rooney, the vindictive headmaster in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

It’s no surprise that John Hughes has often been called ‘the Capra of the 80’s’ or ‘the Capra of teendom’. In his films, Frank Capra sided with ordinary people. Life takes place within civil society, the ‘little platoons’, and figures of authority, whether they represent politics, big business or something else, are always faintly or even outrageously ludicrous. In that, as in many other respects, Hughes and Capra are on the same page. They both made movies that are very American, even patriotic.

The teens in his movies live in a world of progress. It’s a bygone 80’s world that just has been introduced to MTV, the VCR, the Walkman and many other inventions that literally added up to a wave of liberation for western teenagers. And there’s something else: just a faint whiff of a sense of relief and sprouting pride, a Reaganesque confidence after a couple of decades of self-doubt. America was, in a quiet way, becoming great again.

It makes you wonder: how did we end up here? Something must have gone wrong.

What makes John Hughes’s movies transcend their particular place in time, even though the clothes, the music, the hair and the make-up are unmistakably 80’s, is that they’re existential, not political. They are about humans, not ideologies. As Ferris Bueller says early on in his movie: ‘– Ism’s, in my opinion, are not good. A person should not believe in an -ism, he should believe in himself.’

Hughes’ movies are wittingly apolitical. They deal with a host of problems, like economic differences, education and drugs, that are commonly addressed in a political way, but Hughes instead addresses them from a social and individual point of view. These movies are not indignant about obvious injustices. They do not try to mobilize their audience to become activists for this or that cause. They simply describe an imperfect world and tell us the story of how a group of individuals deal with its imperfections. It’s not about changing society and rebelling against ‘the system’, it’s about growing as an individual: To face up to your unloving father, even though there’s hardly a chance that he will get his priorities right after a showdown. To see what, or rather who, is in front of you, instead of reaching for a prestigious prize that really only exists in your own mind. To recognize that differences aren’t necessarily chasms between people, but rather can be the starting point for an interesting friendship.

In that sense Hughes’ is literally part of a classical tradition. It also makes him odd, for some probably unintelligible in this brutally politicized and thus polarized time. Molly Ringwald’s inability to get to grips with her own feelings for Hughes and her work for him, probably reflects that change. It is as if she’s trying to remember a world that she knows used to be there, because she was part of it, but somehow it eludes her. From this place in time she simply can’t get a firm grip on the world as it was 35 years ago. It seems unreal, fantastic, unfathomable. More like another planet, than another time.

John Hughes, like Frank Capra, obviously loved America. But that America isn’t a place as much as a frame of mind. It’s that tightrope that requires you to keep your balance between the matter of fact and soppy idealism. It’s the belief in solving your problems yourself, instead of turning them into societal issues and demanding that others need to solve them for you. It’s recognizing differences, without necessarily seeing them as injustices or even problems. It’s about minding your own business and caring about others, but not demanding that others have a duty to mind your business on your terms. And it’s a frame of mind that doesn’t lure you into turning everything into politics.

America has become a less multi-dimensional society. Left to right, politics has become the supreme, for some the only, way of looking at life. The students in detention in The Breakfast Club would never find their common ground in the current American setting, they would be too busy insisting on the interpretative prerogative of their own identities. And the gentle, civic-minded, character-based and at heart apolitical idea of what is great about America, that fuelled Reaganism in the 80’s, has turned into Trumpism: a harsh, despotic, mean and politically boundless street-fight. It’s trying to make America great again by scoffing at everything that is great about America.

In America today, everything is politics. It’s a country hell-bent on picking a fight with itself, at any cost. It has stopped being interested in itself. It has stopped revelling in its kaleidoscopic diversity and has started to use diversity as a tool for moral extortion or a reason for fear.

America has lost its way. Maybe even its soul. If Americans want to find it again, they could do worse than to start with John Hughes.

Johan Hakelius

Johan Hakelius is the political editor-in-chief of Fokus, Sweden’s leading current events weekly. He has written several books on English eccentrics and British social history. He should currently be working on his next book - tentatively on the social scene in Manhattan from the end of the civil war to Trump - but the garden, a puppy and his first grandchild always seems to get in his way.

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