Thursday, August 6, 2009

John Hughes 1950-2009

My blog is starting to read like an obit column, but I couldn't let the passing of John Hughes go by unremarked upon.

First, I've never actually seen The Breakfast Club, or Pretty in Pink (I know... I know... spare me the outraged emails) but when I was a kid, I must have watched Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Home Alone several dozen times each. Even today, if I'm channel surfing and I come across Ferris Bueller, I HAVE to stop and watch it. No matter where it is in the film, no matter how many times I've seen it, I will sit there and laugh as Ferris and prank calls his principal; as he "plays" the clarinet ("never had one lesson"); as he claims to be Abe Froman, the Sausage King of Chicago; and especially as he hijacks a parade to sing "Twist and Shout." It has to be one of my all-time favorite movies. It's such a good movie that I don't want to sit here and dissect the script - I don't want to think about the puppet strings, I just want to enjoy it.

His Planes, Train and Automobiles is another fun one to watch. It's a great little movie about a man trying to get home to his family at Thanksgiving who has to travel with an annoying, but well-meaning salesman in order to make the trek. If you want to learn about writing three-dimensional characters, and creating good interpersonal conflict between people without resorting to much in the way of an external plot, watch this film. It's the late John Candy's best performance by far.

A lesser script would have made his character a total obnoxious boor, a combination of all the worst traits found in characters played by Jack Black and Chris Farley. Hughes knew that the more interesting way to take was to give Candy's Del Griffith a big heart. He has annoying habits, he's a little too eager to please and he's tailor-made to get on the uptight Steve Martin's nerves - but he's not a bad person. He's a lonely guy, a guy whose laughs and outgoing nature hide some deep pain. Even as he's annoying us, we feel bad for that reaction because he's so genuine. When Steve Martin lays into him in one memorable tirade, we almost cheer on the catharsis because we've all known a Del... but then we see how hurt Del is, and witness it all through his eyes.

Del memorably responds:

"You wanna hurt me? Go right ahead if it makes you feel any better. I'm an easy target. Yeah, you're right, I talk too much. I also listen too much. I could be a cold-hearted cynic like you... but I don't like to hurt people's feelings. Well, you think what you want about me; I'm not changing. I like... I like me. My wife likes me. My customers like me. 'Cause I'm the real article. What you see is what you get."

It's no longer the story of a man having the worst road trip of his life with the worst travel companion imaginable. It's the story of a friendship between two guys connected by circumstance.

And then there's his script for Home Alone, which again excels because of the heart Hughes puts (sorry... "put") into his work. When I was a kid, I watched mainly for Kevin's Rube Goldberg-esque antics against the burglars in the final act. Last Christmas I saw it for the first time in years and it was that heart that stayed with me more. There's the pitch perfect tone to all the family scenes, particularly in Kevin's mother's efforts to get home to her son. The subplot with the old man could have been overly sappy, but Hughes managed to be sentimental without going too far. (Supposedly this subplot was added late in the process, but it never feels tacked on.)

It's a movie about more than hitting burglars with paint cans - it's about a young boy discovering the value of his family. At the start of the film, he wishes they'd all disappear. Like any young boy would, when he gets that wish, he indulges in all those newfound freedoms. He jumps on the bed, he eats junk food, he raids his brother's room - but soon he realizes he misses everyone. And in getting to know the old man, and seeing how he has become estranged from his family, Kevin seems to gain greater appreciation for his loved ones. A lesser movie would have gone overboard with the wish fulfillment aspect of the premise and shown Kevin in hog heaven until his family showed up to ruin everything. Hughes created a story with deeper resonance, and one that's more meaningful than the disposable fluff of many kid movies of the time.

He hadn't directed a movie since 1991, and his last screenplay credit was in 1998 - but he will be missed. John Hughes work will continue to be felt in the generations of filmmakers he helped inspire. Farewell, Mr. Hughes... and thanks for sharing your voice with us.

1 comment:

  1. just shocked by this news.. you have to watch breakfast club, et al - i'm about a decade too young to have experienced high school in the 80's but Hughes' storytelling easily transports you and that sense of nostalgia you feel is really timeless... he made me WANT to sit in school on a saturday, detention or otherwise... sadly sadly missed... thx for the tribute & please check out his films - 16 candles was another favorite