Thursday, August 6, 2009

I feel a little older because someone just died.

I've been feeling older since I found out filmmaker John Hughes passed away. Like Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson, I grew up with him and what he brought to moviegoers. And like Farrah and Michael, he left us too soon.

I appreciate John Hughes in a way different from how I appreciate Farrah and Michael...John was more a creative force, never really a celebrity, even though his name became a recognized one. But he was recognized and respected in the same way filmmakers like Steven Spielberg are for the quality of his films. He'd been a writer for films like "Mr. Mom" and "National Lampoon's Vacation", but it was when he started directing he really began to cast an influence in Hollywood. The films he directed in the 80's are time capsules to that decade, and touched young teenaged film fans in a way no filmmaker has ever since. I know they influenced me...I was a teen in the 80's, and to say the least it wasn't the best of times. (It was because of his films along with many others at that time that inspired me to write and hopefully, one day, be a filmmaker bringing stories to everyone on the silver screen.) Hell, he all but revolutionized the teen comedy subgenre. More importantly, those films and many others he produced and wrote were successful in a huge sort of way that set the standard for comedies to follow. His brand of comedy could get crude, to be sure, and even politically incorrect in a way that would scare the hell out of Hollywood today, but it always had a soul that most comedies these days that pander to the lowest common denominator can only dream to have. Look at anything from the rude and crude brands of comedy in American cinema or television...can it honestly even be called funny? Even Hughes' "Home Alone" -- take it or leave it -- while punctuated by Tex Avery-style violence (I'm talking several degrees above The Three Stooges), had an undeniable moral center that was in counterpoint to the crudeness.

My favorite of John Hughes' films, just edging out the nearly magical "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and the way-over-the-top "Weird Science", was the first film he directed...1984's "Sixteen Candles". The main plot of the film was of a teenager, Samantha (Molly Ringwald), suffering higher-than-average angst for two reasons...first, even though the film starts on her Sweet Sixteenth birthday, her entire family has forgotten that important milestone(!); second, she's trying to figure out how to at least tell an uber-handsome jock in school she's smitten with him. To say the least, the day doesn't go very well, but it isn't boring!

All manner of characters bounce around Samantha's orbit, from her clueless family to the overconfident Farmer Ted (Anthony Michael Hall), a Freshman who wants to score with Long Duk Dong, a foreign exchange student who goes on a trip to find America that's as surreal as the one Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper took in "Easy Rider"! Just to get the shit out of the way: Gedde Watanabe's 'The Donger' isn't even CLOSE to being as offensive as Mickey Rooney's bastardized version of a Japanese guy in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (one of the Top Ten Most Overrated Films). Sure, the guy is even squarer than Farmer Ted and his version of Engrish has to be heard to be believed, but Gedde and John Hughes make sure to give Long honest to God humanity and a bewildered, fish-out-of-water charm that's impossible to resist or take as truly offensive. 'The Donger' could never be called a stereotype, but he's definitely on the wrong side of correctness. "Sixteen Candles" on the whole is incorrect in a way that would make mild-mannered filmmakers of the current day crap their pants! Pawing Freshmen, drunk teens and a house party that leaves the house standing only sorta, trash talk, sex between teens (that the participants can't remember), and a girl's panties put on public display are only a few of this film's many offenses to the over-sensitive. And it's hilarious!

But even before the dust settles, the crudeness is tempered by the film's clear and present heart, thanks to Hughes. In one of the best scenes in the movie, Samantha and her apologetic dad (Paul Dooley) have a heart to heart that touches on so many levels. As the chaos dies down, every other element takes on new and surprising orbits. I won't spoil things for you; as Farmer Ted says, "Buy the book!" (Or in this case, see the movie!) But in the end, Samantha's birthday wish comes true and we even get a fairytale ending. And could we want or expect anything less?

"Sixteen Candles" was typical of all of John Hughes' films...sure, the 80's pastels of teen wear in this film will tempt you to shield your eyes, and its soundtrack typical of the New Wave Pop of the decade will make you wish for electric guitars. The humor gets rude and often incorrect in a way that will leave many laughing, and others fuming. But the setting of the film is Mid-America, USA (itself to some politically incorrect), and its characters were ones anyone -- especially teenagers -- can relate to, even in the 21st Century and maybe beyond. We could relate to them because they were characters with real emotions and, granted, sometimes unrealistic dreams, but if they stayed with their respective quests through even the most chaotic situations, they might find their destination and their happiness. And isn't that what we all do in reality?

Rest In Peace, John, and thanks for bringing your films to us!

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