August 13, 2009

Danke Schoen, John Hughes

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 13, 2009 11:41 PM

I'm a little late in commenting on the death of John Hughes, but I learned today that he suffered his fatal heart attack on my very street here in New York. (There's a shrine at the spot, with candles: sixteen of them, naturally.) Anyway, this gives me an excuse to bring it up a week after the fact.

Here is where I would launch into a discussion of the John Hughes oeuvre, but I have actually only seen three of the films he directed: Ferris Bueller's Day Off; Planes, Trains & Automobiles; and Uncle Buck. I was too late for the Brat Pack age bracket: I started high school in 1993, nearly ten years after Sixteen Candles. If any of you are Hughes aficionados, you'll have to tell me which essentials I'm missing. The Breakfast Club? Weird Science?

For the moment, let's ignore Uncle Buck and talk about the other two I've seen: Bueller and Planes, Trains. Hughes directed the two consecutively, and they make an interesting pair. They're both basically road movies, but in Bueller the trip is an adventure taken purely for fun and escape, while in Planes it's a hellish experience and the only goal is to get home. And they're both buddy movies, with Alan Ruck and Steve Martin as the respective straight men opposite Matthew Broderick and John Candy. But the latter two are very different characters: Candy's Del Griffith is very irritating at first, but turns out to be well-intentioned and generally a nice guy. Ferris Bueller, on the other hand, is very charming but actually kind of a jerk. (The movie portrays him as a hero, but just look at how he treats his alleged best friend Cameron.) It's as if Hughes, in his attempt to move out of the teen movie genre, made the anti-Ferris with Planes, Trains.

In the end, Planes, Trains is the outlier, and while it's genuinely a classic, what he'll be remembered for are the high school comedies. Unfortunately, that's where my John Hughes knowledge ends, so those of you who have actually seen these movies will have to take over in the comments.

[Yes, two posts this month! Maybe I should have spread them out more.]

Tags: Movies

For a road rat, Planes, Trains is without peer as a study in the ultimate bad business travel experience, the comic precursor to "A Perfect Storm," just with a different, less howling but more fragrant wind. The client, sighing over the presentation, the fight over the cab on Park Avenue, Ben Stein tapping delicately on the mic prior to making some totally inane and infuriating airline announcement, the completely scary cab driver who is running them up, the woman at the rental car counter who is wrapped up in the conversation with her sister about ambrosia while Neil gets increasingly angrier and more frustrated followed by his hilarious teeth-gritting delivery of the F-bomb over and over, the living pits when he has to give his watch to the motel keeper to get a room and ends up doing an LBO of the mini-bar with Del and learns the guy's got some depth to him, right to the end with the sappy Paul Young song. A work of art, this movie. John Hughes will be long remembered and revered by us road rats.

Posted by: JSpur | August 14, 2009 12:20 AM

Those are some interesting comparisons between Ferris Bueller and Del Griffith as characters. But I have to disagree entirely that Ferris is, in the end, kind of a jerk. Though there are lots of likable jerk main characters in story, whether it's a Cartman, The Man with No Name (Well, really every anti-hero out there), or the blonde boy from the Karate Kid (okay, maybe he's not so likable*), Ferris definitively does not fall into the category of jerks, and were he interpreted as such, by the audience, by the actor, by Hughes himself, the story would not nearly have had the resonance it did.

I may be making an assumption here that we both have the same definition of jerk in mind. To me, a jerk is a cruel person who does hurtful things because having any empathy for another person's suffering is a worthless pursuit in their paradigm. Whereas I think the reason Ferris Bueller's story works on film, and what John Hughes' ultimate focus was that gave all his characters such humanity in those three movies, is the sad way in which we judge people to be jerks without taking the steps to understand their humanity and their paradigm.

And on the surface, Ferris seems like a jerk. He's impulsive, he feels like he's above the rules, he acts in ways that have potentially far more severe consequences than he's possibly thought through and yet he always seems to get away with it. No matter his amount of charm, such an infuriatingly easy life would be hard to like on screen especially as a hero character. But where John Hughes scores, and where Matthew Broderick's work shines so brilliantly, is the amount of heart and love that Ferris has for the world. It's not that he feels like he's above the rules: it's that he feels like the rules are beneath all of us. There's not, in fact, a spiteful bone in his body, though the Ed Rooneys and the Jeannes and even Cameron at times see him as someone who is acting just to spite them.

In fact, Ferris makes key remarks throughout the story that show his love particularly for Cameron. Ferris's actions do torment Cameron to a large degree, but much of Ferris's own problem is having to see his best friend suffering as much as Cameron does. It's easy to judge him as a selfish child saying "I'm not doing this for me, I'm doing it for you." over the phone to his bedridden friend, but I'd be hard-pressed to find any element of the story that proves this line is at all dishonest. He sees Cameron as we do: a perpetually sad, sick, suffering depressive with severe anger issues all coming from his inability to deal with his father. In the end, Ferris sees his role pretty clearly as a mentor figure who will teach Cameron to relax, have a little fun, and stop taking life so seriously, because he truly does sees Cameron's suffering and Cameron's inability to crawl out of that hole. And though the surface plot of the movie points the finger as the cause of that suffering, the inner life of the story shows he's not. Ferris's monologue in the bathroom of the French Restaurant and his monologue after Cameron goes catatonic are good examples of this off the top of my head.

Does he do seemingly cruel things? Yes. But so does Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid. Both are seen though the lens of our interpretation: as an audience we see that Mr. Miyagi is not simply a cruel old man getting free manual labor, he's pushing Daniel LaRusso to earn the goal he wants, and teach him even if Daniel does not know, and resents the teaching. Such is how Ferris sees himself, and he outright tells the audience so.

And in the midst of all the consequences, there are successes, though Cameron does make the final decision himself at the end. It would be hard to deny that Cameron would have confronted the issues he had to confront had Ferris not pushed him to the brink.

I think the best example I could give why having Ferris being simply a selfish jerk would absolutely have ruined the story is in the scene where Cameron falls into the pool. Ferris quite naturally freaks out over his friend as he and Sloan try to revive Cameron. Now, if Ferris was a definitive jerk, his concern would have been for his own welfare: what would happen to him were Cameron dead. I think the tone of the scene clearly shows his concern for Cameron, and were the movie a simple tale about the glory of people who get everything they want and the consequences of their actions to others, the film would have had a much darker tone in the end.

That went on way longer than I had intended! I'll cut myself off here, but I would definitely urge anyone thinking Ferris is a jerk to watch the movie again and see which story the movie is telling: if Ferris is a callous, unfeeling individual who uses his friends to get what he wants and will eventually be successful because of the gift of a silver tongue, or if he's a capricious teenager with an insane imagination and willingness to learn and explore, a boy with a hatred of rules because his best friend suffers from them.

*Though Neal Patrick Harris did have a particularly brilliant take on him in an episode of How I Met Your Mother:

“Hey, The Karate Kid is a great movie.

It’s the story of a hopeful, young karate enthusiast whose dreams and moxie take him all the way to the All Valley Karate Championship. Of course, sadly he loses in the final round to that nerd kid. But, he learns an important lesson about gracefully accepting defeat.” - Barney

“Wait, when you watch The Karate Kid you actually root for that mean blonde boy?” - Lily

“No, I root for the scrawny loser from New Jersey who barely even knows karate.

When I watch The Karate Kid I root for the karate kid, Johnny Lawrence from the Cobra Kai dojo. Get your head out of your ass Lily.” - Barney

Posted by: Josh | August 14, 2009 6:06 AM

Weird Science. Dear lord, if you haven't seen this movie, you absolutely must! It's one of the core classic nerd movies, along with Revenge of the Nerds and Real Genius!

Also Breakfast Club, because it's funny and shot in my high school's rival, and because you miss so very much if you watch it only in its edited for TV version. Also, it's a teen ensemble movie which takes place in the span of 1 day (Aristotle would be proud), and in which almost nothing happens (Seinfeld would be proud, too!)

Posted by: Stephanie | August 14, 2009 12:22 PM

I am only 5 month older then you and saw all of john hughes films so the 1993 entering High School is no excuse (ok i have sibling who grew up in the 80s). See breakfast club it is one of his best. The see wierd science it is as a geek it is must see cinema.

Also check out the list of film he was a writer on not jsut director that is a longer must be list

Posted by: shellock | August 14, 2009 1:16 PM

Josh: I will admit that I was trying to gin up a bit of controversy when I made the "Ferris is a jerk" comment. I think you're quite right that the actor, director, and most of the movie's fans see Ferris the way you do. So your reading of the character is absolutely valid, but I think it's a credit to John Hughes' ability to create an interesting and complex movie that it easily admits to a darker interpretation. I would describe it like this:

We know that Cameron has a bad relationship with his father, but we never see it: certainly John Hughes isn't going to show it in what is supposed to be an upbeat movie. But we don't need to look very far to get a sense of what it's like. There's a character right in front of us who sets himself up as a mentor to Cameron, but constantly pushes him around and even hits him, all the while claiming it's for his own good: Ferris Bueller. Ferris browbeats Cameron into coming along for two reasons: he needs an accomplice to get his girlfriend out of school, and he wants the car, which he appropriates just as shamelessly as the parking attendants do later.

And when it comes to the monologues, Ferris has to be considered an unreliable narrator. Maybe he knows his treatment of Cameron is appalling, and is trying to con the audience the way he cons everyone else. More likely, he's simply managed to convince himself that his abuse of his friend is actually helpful.

That's what makes the scene at the pool so important: it's where Ferris realizes that he really does care about Cameron, and the things he claims to have been doing for him really aren't helpful.

But Cameron has also realized that being around Ferris isn't going to help him. That's the revelation he explains afterward: rather than take the escape from everyday life offered by Ferris, he's going to stand up for himself and face the grim reality. And then he destroys the car, which throughout the movie has symbolized Ferris' flashy and adventurous style. It's a rejection of Ferris, not his dad, and when Ferris offers him one last scheme to evade punishment, he turns down the chance at escape.

Now, I like this interpretation but I don't think it's exactly right either. Not to be all Hegelian about it, but I think the right answer is a synthesis of the two: Ferris Bueller is an inspiring figure who can teach us a lot about how to have more fun in our lives. But he's not a saint: he's still a teenager, and like all teenagers he's sometimes immature, self-absorbed, or full of himself. Part of John Hughes' appeal was that he understood the teenage experience better than most Hollywood directors, and knew how to write plausible teenage characters. And Ferris is a great example. (So, yes, I was a little unfair in calling him a jerk.)

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 14, 2009 7:18 PM

It's an interesting thought-experiment, to be sure, but I find very little evidence in the film to support the theory. John Hughes being as smart a storyteller as he is, he would certainly have left specific tells to give credence to that theory were that the story being told, and if he were telling that story, he certainly would not have shied away from those tells just because it is an upbeat movie. Planes Trains is also an upbeat movie but Hughes has no shame in bringing the darkness of the characters to light in that film.

The structure of the story seems to prove in its own storytelling that Ferris's intentions are for more than just an accomplice and a car. Were that the case, why is Cameron even along for the ride for the rest of the film? Wouldn't Ferris want to spend a day with his girlfriend without the annoying downer of an alleged friend hanging around? Why do we not see the story from Ferris and Sloan's perspectives, rather than Ferris and Cameron? Where are the tells? Looking at the film through this perspective seems to be a denial of not only Ferris's narrative but the story itself, which makes no attempt to give that perspective or substantiate it in any way.

Looking at John Hughes other works, both in writing and in directing, I see no evidence that he would have looked at the story through that perspective and left it out so plainly... Hughes has incredible subtlety and specificity in his art but his voice is always very clear. In none of his films do we find ourselves left with the disturbing ambiguity of, say, a Coen Brothers movie. However, if the Coens had directed Ferris Bueller's Day Off, in spite of their often catering to the slapstick situational comedy, I would be more inclined to think the film could have such a grim undercurrent. But I think the darkness that the film does have, with Cameron's non-present forces as parents and of authority figures in general, speaks for itself. So I do think that the thought process behind the "Ferris could just be a manipulative bastard" idea is entirely, 100% wrong.

I actually do agree with your opinion in the last paragraph, however. Though Ferris is clearly well-intentioned in the story, he is no saint. He's a teenager, he goes after what he wants, he believes he deserves what he can take, and his capriciousness can be even a little dangerous at times. Even to himself... he breaks his thumb catching a fly ball with his bare hand!

Having said that, back to why I feel like the thought-experiment on "what would this story have been like?" is humbug: it doesn't take into account the world of the story. As you worded it: Ferris "constantly pushes [Cameron] around and even hits him." Sure, but let's take that in the context of the world: they're teenage boys, practically brothers. I think you can understand clearly how brothers or close friends can vie for superiority and even resort to petty violence when they don't get their way. Sometimes well into their old age.

Now, at the same time I'm not saying that male socializations and power-plays and physical fights aren't damaging or abusive on some level... that would be silly. It's a hard world. But looking at Ferris kicking Cameron and saying "That's outright cruelty!" is like calling The Merchant of Venice a purely racist play. Well, yes, but there's much more to it than that. It's a play in a racist time and calling it racist is totally overlooking the point of the story, which is about forgiveness, tolerance, and man's inhumanity to man.

Posted by: Josh | August 14, 2009 8:03 PM

Well, like I said, I absolutely don't believe that the interpretation I advanced is how John Hughes thought about the story. I think it really is clear from the way the movie is filmed that Hughes thought of Ferris just as you described in your first comment, so we agree completely on that. But I also don't believe that an author's interpretation is the definitive and final word on his works. The real world can legitimately be viewed from multiple perspectives, and a good writer's work is the same way.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 14, 2009 8:14 PM

Agreed on all counts!

Posted by: Josh | August 14, 2009 8:26 PM

Can we have an Uncle Buck discussion now?

Posted by: Josh | August 14, 2009 8:27 PM

I would come up with a contrarian interpretation of Uncle Buck now, but I'm afraid it's been too long since I've seen it... :)

Regarding shellock's comment about Hughes' writing credits, most of his post-80's screenplays look pretty terrible. I didn't know he wrote Home Alone, which lends a double meaning to the line about it in Dogma (a movie which explicitly references Hughes elsewhere)... I also hadn't known he wrote National Lampoon's Vacation until I watched it again recently and saw his name in the credits.

Another discussion topic I meant to put in the main post: who is making the John Hughes movies of today, that capture the high school experience? Ten years ago it was probably Joss Whedon with the first few seasons of Buffy, but I don't know if anyone has that title at present. Hopefully not the Twilight lady.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 14, 2009 8:49 PM

Good question on that... I certainly hope that the Gossip Girl type shows also don't qualify...

While the high school experience is left out of the mix, I'd find it hard to define teenagers of the aughts better with any show than South Park. Immature adult humor coming from still-children kind of sums up the American teenager, and they bring with them all the bitter snark and confused petulance of the Information Age generation...

Posted by: Josh | August 14, 2009 10:17 PM

I'll second (third?) the comments about seeing Breakfast Club and Weird Science. I still need to see Sixteen Candles... By the way, if you want to see a nod to a bunch of this stuff, then I highly recommend Not Another Teen Movie, which even has a cameo from Molly Ringwald as a rather bitter middle-aged woman. :) I approve!

While it had its moments---one of the classic scenes was already mentioned above---I found Planes, Trains, and Automobiles to be annoying much of the time. It was ok overall because of some redeeming moments, but I'm definitely not a fan.

The question about who is doing a good job depicting the modern teen (of the 00s) is interesting. I thankfully don't have enough contact with them to say much about the accuracy of Josh's comment, though I can at least hope that he's wrong. :)

Posted by: Mason Porter | August 16, 2009 8:04 AM

My own big worry has to do with the fact that Hughes's death has come at a very bad time... a time when remakes are an assured Hollywood cash-cow.

And with the remake craze, Hughes' death,and a lack of a proper force out there giving us the high school experience on-screen... that just seems like a trifecta for pursuing a vain attempt to revive some more 80's classics.

That they are remaking The Karate Kid is bad enough... I don't know how I could stand the thought of a Ferris Bueller remake!

Posted by: Josh | August 16, 2009 4:58 PM

I am fine with remakes as long as they're done well (not that most of them are). The Bad News Bears remake was excellent.

Posted by: Mason Porter | August 16, 2009 6:05 PM


(an engine revs; the curves of a Ferrari are seen)


(tires screech and the Ferrari comes roaring out of the garage)


(Ferris Bueller puts on sunglasses)


(Shot of Rooney in shadow)


(Ferris, Sloan, and Cameron flee through the Von Steuben Day parade. A float explodes)


(The Ferrari speeds ahead of a swarm of police cars, lights flashing)


(Rooney pulls alongside the Ferrari and cocks a shotgun)

Rooney: BUELLER!

(Shotgun fires. Show title card.)

Ferris Bueller's Day Off
Starring Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox
and featuring Robert Pattinson as Cameron

Directed by Michael Bay.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | August 16, 2009 6:27 PM

80s were definalty him at his best. Though i enjoyed maid in manhatan. good chick flick.

Also i second Masons choice not another teen movie was parady at its best.

as for john hugh of today not sure. but a bad remake of his film would be a true shame.

Posted by: shellock | August 16, 2009 9:38 PM
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