From the archive: The arrested development of the modern teen movie
- Eddie Harrison
- 26 May 2020
Armed only with the novelisation of Pretty in Pink, Eddie Harrison journeys from The Breakfast Club to Saved! And explains why John Hughes deserves to go to hell
'Does Barry Manilow know that you raid his wardrobe,' The speaker, as any student of Hollywood high-school teen movies, is John Bender (Judd Nelson) in The Breakfast Club. In John Hughes' 1985 teen movie, originally titled The Library Revolution, bender verbally attacks his Principal, Richard Vernon. Played by the stern Paul Gleason, Vernon has assembled thug Bender, jock Andy Clark (Emilio Estevez) nerd Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) teen princess Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) and dowdy Goth Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy) in a Illinois school library for a day of detention.
Youth, inevitably, goes wild, and after destroying library books, setting fire to shoes, smoking pot and dancing to Wang Chung's 'Fire in the Twilight', the brats write a joint letter to Vernon, who has left an assignment to create an essay about who they think they are.
'You see us as you want to see us; in the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess and a criminal.
After Columbine, The Breakfast Club's notion that young people could grow to understand each other in their stance against authority now seems both quaint and profound. John Hughes created the cinematic equivalent of The Catcher in the Rye, a mixture of bitter humour, self-pity and sentiment that appealed to brains, athletes, basket cases, princesses and criminals alike.
Hughes was by no means the creator of the teen movie. The rise of communal television in the 50s encouraged teens to lock lips and undo catches in cinema back-rows watching teenage werewolves and Frankensteins, reflecting their own insecurities about their personal appearance. The Blackboard Jungle's schoolteacher Glenn Ford pacified maladjusted youths, while James Dean played chicken with cars in Rebel Without a Cause; his co-star Sal Mineo crashed his.
By the 60s, this veneer of seriousness had given way to the mass-marketing of pop-stars, such as the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and even the Monkees. In a similarly poppy vein, veteran horror stars Vincent Price and Basil Rathbone wooed teen audiences in the colourful frith of the Beach Blanket Bingo-style movies, while other sand buggy vehicles were driven by sub-kissed teens Frankie Avalon and Sandra Dee.
By the 70s the teenage pranks of day-glo hot-rodders in American Graffiti proved that cinema had go to third base with teen audiences, and was intent on going all the way. This sudden enthusiasm for getting laid fuelled the frat-house humour of National Lampoon's Animal House, Porky's and Cameron Crowe's Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
The rise of the multiplex in the mid-80s returned the teen movie to young people, a new generation sobered by the trauma of ET's near death. Francis Ford Coppola's The Outsiders, modestly described by the director as 'Albert Camus for kids' didn't do much for kids or for Camus. But it did launch the Brat Pack, fresh stars for a generation of boys and girls who just wanted to have fun, although only one sex could have it while watching Dirty Dancing. Camus was quickly forgotten, but Judd Nelson's desire to meet 'a beautiful woman with a copy of James Joyce's Ulysses' was widely reported.
In 1985, John Hughes, like a quarterback in love, dropped the ball. He followed The Breakfast Club with silly comedies like Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Weird Science, then went ga-ga with Curly Sue and Baby's Day Out. Without their puppet-master, the Brat Pack lurched through Ally Sheedy's encounter with comically-voiced robot Johnny 5 in Short Circuit, or Andrew McCarthy's authentically wooden Mannequin. The cycle sputtered out with the hesitant flames of St Elmo's Fire, in which Demi Moore and Emilio Estevez disavow their youth by turning away from the local pub of the title, claiming that the music is too loud.
As the Pack shattered, so did the teen movie, which would never recapture the unified feel of The Breakfast Club. Instead, teen flicks splintered into a series of sub-genres. Take sport, for example, with any self-respecting jock sure to remember ice hockey heroics in Rob Lowe's Youngblood, or Estevez reprising his athlete role in The Mighty Ducks. Sex was a contact-sport too, in the watered-down T-and-A of sex comedies American Pie or Road Trip.
Meanwhile, the warts-and-all sociological document still won't go away. Larry Clark delves into teenage crime in Kids, Bully and Ken Park. Todd Solondz offers a sarcastic Welcome to the Dollhouse, Harmony Korine parades the domestic squabbles of Julian Donkey Boy. But John Bender might prefer the stoner antics of Dude, Where's My Car?
Teen movies also have their art-house darlings, and any basket-case would relate to Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides. They also have the classics, through adaptations of Jane Austen (Clueless) or regular teen scribe William Shakespeare (Romeo and Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You). Equally enjoyable to anyone with a brain would be the cult, sensitive stylings of sci-fi teen flicks such as Donnie Darko or issue-based dramas like What's Eating Gilbert Grape? or The Basketball Diaries.
This month's Saved!, a satire on the hypocritical morals of US Christian high schools, is produced by Michael Stipe of REM, and offers a strain of the stroppy individualism seen in 1989's Heathers, a smart anti-bullying fantasy about outsiders overcoming a high-school clique. Macaulay Culkin, once Hughes' most popular star in Home Alone, sends himself up as an acerbic wheelchair-bound pot-smoker. The Hughes generation, Saved! suggests, hasn't turned out so well.
So where did it all go wrong for Hughes? The teen movie master is now reduced to the shaggy-dog antics of Beethoven's 5th, and Home Alone 4 beckons.
Why? If you read the novelisation of Pretty In Pink (and you should), based on Hughes's 1985 script, you'll find that the heroine (Ringwald) has a choice of two suitors; wimpy but nice Duckie Dale (John Cryer) or insecure but rich Blaine (Andrew McCarthy). Due to Ringwald's illness during test-audience reshoots, she couldn't film at the same time as Cryer, so Hughes changes the ending to have her choosing Blaine instead. Can you hear the sound of Hughes' soul beeping on the bar-code scanner and dropping into the Devil's reusable carrier bag? He made a film with the exact opposite meaning to what he believed.
Let's no fret too much about Macauley Culkin. If you have to pray for anyone's soul, pray for John Hughes.