The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

A Final Letter to John Hughes

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageDear Mr. Hughes,

I am writing this, a final tribute to you and your work, as a letter because—to be completely honest—this is the stuff I wish I would have had the opportunity to say to you while you were alive.  But I never met you, and the likelihood that I would have is slim-to-none.  But for the moment, I’m going to pretend that you can and will read this.  (And who knows?  Some religious traditions would assert that you can.)  Okay, I admit, maybe it’s a little bit weird, but so far no one has come back from the afterlife to complain about things like this…so I’m probably pretty safe.

In spite of the fact that Home Alone was by far the most commercially successful of the films you wrote and/or directed, I suspect you’ll be most remembered as the auteur of teen films back in the 1980s.  And it’s an impressive legacy: Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—honestly, you’d be hard pressed to find a young adult today who wouldn’t have listed at least one of those films as a favorite during their teen years.  And yes, I know you didn’t “invent” teen movies; they were around long before you arrived on the scene, and they’re still thriving today.  But I can say this with certainty: just about every American teen movie that has been made since then owes you a debt of gratitude.  (Some more than others: I always thought you would have had justifiable grounds to sue the writers of She’s All That for plagiarism!)

ImageWhen I found out that you had died, I popped The Breakfast Club into my DVD player and watched it from start to finish—something I hadn’t done in quite some time.  Entertainment Weekly named this the best high school movie of all time, and it’s still easy to see why.  You start with the typical teen archetypes.  But then, as the film progresses, you start to see something more in them—and they start to see something more in each other.  As their hours together in Saturday detention slowly roll by, they discover that they’re more alike than they think.  We never see anything of these characters but their one day together in detention, but you can’t help but feel like you’re seeing a little glimpse of their souls; their pain, their loneliness, their fear, is just so real.  The emotional climax of the film—where they finally break down and reveal to one another what they did to get into detention—actually made me cry after all these years.  I’d like to think that they remained friends, that everything they discovered about each other made them brave enough to withstand the criticisms of their parents and peers.  But that’s the genius of the movie: what happened to those five detentioners after that Saturday is left totally up to our imaginations.

Your movies are often thought of as comedies, but I realized that their often this undercurrent of seriousness to them.  The Breakfast Club is the most obvious example, but I think my favorite—as far as this is concerned—is Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.  By all rights, this should have been a very silly movie: a charismatic high school senior feigns illness so he can skip school with his best friend and his girl.  Along the way, he poses as the “sausage king of Chicago,” stars in a parade, and still somehow manages to convince the entire town that he is on his deathbed.  But there’s a bittersweet note, too: Ferris works so hard to make this day perfect because he knows it’s the last time he’ll be able to hang out with them like that before graduation, and then life will come along and take them their own separate ways.  Although Ferris seems like the most happy-go-lucky character in the movie, he is acutely aware of this fact.  The scene that really gets me is when they’re in the art museum.  Maybe it’s the way Cameron stares at George Seurat’s “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” until it dissolves into formlessness.  Maybe it’s the way Ferris and Slone kiss, so tenderly, by the stained-glass window.  Or maybe it’s that music playing in the background.  My God, that was a perfect song for that scene.

And speaking of music, all of your movies seemed to have some great music moments: Ferris Bueller lip-syncing to “Twist and Shout,” John Bender triumphantly raising his fist to Simple Minds “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” at the end of The Breakfast Club, Samantha Baker finally landing the dreamy Jake Ryan to the synthpop sounds of the Thompson Twins “If You Were Here” in Sixteen Candles.  Putting your teen films aside for a moment, in Home Alone, the scene where Kevin McCallister lip-syncs to “White Christmas” in front of his bathroom mirror is probably the most iconic of the movie.  And of course, who could forget Duckie dancing to the tune of Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness” in Pretty in Pink.  Jon Cryer pretty much walked away with that movie, and it was this scene that did it.

I could go on, but you know your own work.  So I guess I just wanted thank you for making movies that helped me feel a little less alone during my teen years.  Your protagonists were never exactly cool (Ferris Bueller notwithstanding), never sure of themselves, never perfect, never quite happy enough, and that’s what high school was really like for me—and for a lot of other kids.  Many filmmakers have made teen movies since then, but I don’t know that anyone has captured that mix of innocence and cynicism quite as perfectly as you did.

To this day, if I’m flipping through the channels and I see one of your movies on television, I’ll usually stop to watch it.  It doesn’t matter that I’m not sixteen anymore.  It doesn’t matter that I’ve seen most of them about 100 times.  And it doesn’t matter that it’s no longer the mid-1980s and things like ultra-layered hair and New Wave music are no longer cool.  Because I still feel lonely and alienated sometimes.  Because I still get crushes on the Jake Ryans of the world.  Because I still have friends who remind me of Duckie and other friends who remind me of Cameron Frye.  And most of all, because sometimes I still need to be reminded that, deep down, everyone is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal.

Thank you, for everything.

Sincerely Yours,

Beth Woodward