Judd Apatow might as well be dubbed the premier comedic director/writer of the first decade in the 21st century. Granted he’s only been hugely successful on the back half of the decade but that’s OK. He’s probably got a lock on pop culture that will look back on him with fondness in 20 years.
But while Judd has been able to recapture the 80s style of raunchy comedy with the likes of Superbad, Knocked Up and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, there is another writer/director that perfectly captured the angst of being a teenager 20 years earlier. Apatow’s Freaks and Geeks could be considered an updating of that genre of entertainment made popular by John Hughes, who died on August 6th. With his passing, a realization has set into my mind. The 80s are truly over.
I have preached on more than one occasion that I am a person deeply rooted in the 1980s. That decade shaped my entire life from the politics, the fashion trends, technology, and popular culture. To future generations the 80s will probably feel like the 40s or 50s. Nostalgic and revered by us. Misunderstood and scoffed at by everyone else.
So it goes that Hollywood and more importantly films of the 80s became a primer for those of us who grew up in it. We were taught that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. We learned that if you need to generate enough power to travel back in time, and don’t have plutonium, lightning will work. We understood that the only way to really impress a girl was to either stand outside her window, holding a boom box over our head, blaring Peter Gabriel or whenever possible, put on side one of Led Zeppelin IV. Beyond these essential life lessons we also learned that each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.
That’s the teen movement in the 80s. The simplest and most convenient definition of who we were. Shallowness was something we worked through while aspiring to be Alex P. Keaton or Gordon Gekko. It was the rite of passage we had to take to come out in the 90s as a more rounded person. But no one spoke to us like we were adults, except John Hughes. He knew exactly what if felt like to be a teen growing up in the burbs of America, dealing with angst over dating and success after high school. The comedy was front and center but the subtlety of the dialogue reached through that pastel neon exterior into the bare soul of adolescence. He was able to merge the capitalistic themes of the decade with the fragile psyche that hid behind it.
Sixteen Candles captures the follies of crushes and coming of age so perfectly, you recognize it like It was your own life. Samantha Davis falls somewhere in the middle of social status, pursuing an older guy out of her league while being pursued by a younger, awkward geek known as Farmer Ted. The food chain moves along as status is portrayed as exciting and enticing but bad. Geek mentality is played for laughs but outside of the quest for a girl’s panties loyalty and true friendship are underlying. Whether John Hughes wrote himself as the character of Samantha or Ted is beyond me though I suspect that there might have been a little bit of him in both.
When The Breakfast Club first came out I was only 11, so I didn’t see it in the theater. Before the booming market of home video and VCRs I had to wait for things to come to HBO or regular television. Of course we all know that basic cable distills out all the crudity of bare breasts and foul language so, for the most part I relied on HBO for a better enlightenment. Initially, I was not allowed to watch the film because of the language. Looking back it was pretty tame for today’s time but back then, Middle America was still loosening up its skinny tie a bit.
The film serves as a breaking down of the High School class system, taking stock characters such as “Brain” and “Athlete” and actually turning them inside out so you can see the flaws in their armor. The Brain is a failure at shop class while The Princess hates her seemingly perfect life as top of the social ladder. Yes, we are seeing a narrow cross section of all the social groups but also remember that in the 80s, the layers of social strata were thick and few, like the layers of musical genres. It wasn’t until the 90s that there was a huge splintering of types of music adding sub classes and derivatives of themes to Pop, Rock, Rap, New Wave, Blues, Jazz, and Country. Social Anthropology among high schools was as simple as a box of eight crayons. The box of 64 colors didn’t come along until later.
So, here we have these damaged and flawed archetypes thrown together in a situation that they would never experience outside of the one common denominator among kids in secondary education, detention. Institutional punishment pretty much levels the playing field on how they are treated as their roles may protest. Soon, they see the evolutionary flaw that exists in adolescence during the decade. The path to social classification is a linear, black and white road. It’s not until they are forced to examine their classmates’ character that they understand that they encompass each one of them inside themselves. For whatever reason, whether it be intelligence, physical aptitude or money, certain expectations bubbled to the surface. While they may be starkly different in their facades, they are all the same underneath. Pressure keeps them afraid to fail. Lack of adult understanding keeps them from evolving. Perception keeps them from exploring their personality.
Weird Science was more of a Freakenstein Comedy than coming of age tale. In fact, the high school aspect is pared down to an opening scene establishing the main characters as helpless geeks that are more interested in the physical aspect of the female form instead of the entire package. But that’s all you need to work from in terms of plot. Gary and Wyatt set out to build the perfect girl by combining what they believe are examples of perfection. Pulling from a trunk filled with magazines and adding in formulated behaviors like brains and aptitude, they mix together all the elements that society, especially 80s society, considers to be perfection in terms of beauty and brains.
The result is Kelly LeBrock’s, Lisa, although, I wonder where they got the British accent from in their magazine clippings. She is built and smart and everything they wanted, yet they are utterly afraid of the idea that she is there for the taking. The first thing they do is take a shower with her, wearing their jeans. The genie in the hard drive bottle is set on turning their lives upside down in an attempt to show them that fame and popularity are fleeting concepts. Fidelity and heart are long lasting. They are cooler than they realize, but like that shower scene, they are afraid to act on their instincts because they’ve been beaten and embarrassed into submissive roles. It’s a pie in the sky wish list of 80s social high points disguised in a letter to Penthouse.
Set against another typical 80s environment, a Suburbanite-Teen-House-Party-While-Parents-Are-Away, the popularity of Gary and Wyatt takes an extreme upshot as the entire class body descend on Wyatt’s uptight, 80s upper class home. Things are broken, sullied and thrown about as Gary and Wyatt once again find themselves unwilling to partake in the forbidden fruit that has eluded them during their teen years. A final straw breaks the patience of Lisa’s teaching the boys how to be real men which is not the same as what they perceive as ‘men’ in their shallow and popular counterparts. When Gary and Wyatt deal away Lisa to Ian and Max in exchange for their girlfriends in a masochistic swap, Lisa decides to make Gary and Wyatt jump off the cliff as she sends mutant bikers into the home to assault their guests. Rising to the occasion, the boys finally grab hold of all they really need in order to be heroes. It’s not the money, the clothes, the fame, or the girls. It’s the willingness to give all that away in order to do the right thing.
What ends up being apparent is that this test is more about getting Gary and Wyatt to accept that they had the power all along and to act on it. It could be about approaching girls or bullying brothers. But with that power comes great responsibility to realize that these girls, that they would gawk over and imagine in romantic situations, are not concepts but real people with real feelings. Even in their geek state, they treated women just like Ian and Max did, regardless of their actual interaction with them. By the end, everyone gets a lesson in perception.
What John Hughes did for teen comedy in the 80s is the same as what Shakespeare did with comedy in the 1600s. If Shakespeare were alive today, besides being really, really old, he’d be writing for television and popular movies. His comedies are pretty much a pastiche of similar characters, settings, and themes. John Hughes worked the medium the same way but his impact on the culture made it profitable and enjoyable.
The ideas of House Parties and Nerd Vs. Jock conflict were a common idea in the 80s. Besides the teen aspect of life, Hughes captured the convention of family vacations and holidays just as well, especially the concepts of families spending time together and apart in these situations. Adults are just as damaged as kids are, especially when it comes to living up to or surpassing the expectations of their parents and family. The plot is driven by people trying to get from Point A to Point B while dealing with outlandish obstacles.
The Vacation series, Uncle Buck and The Great Outdoors are all about families coming to grips with the idiosyncrasies that drive families to dysfunction and therapy. Man as the great world traveler. The loutish Uncle as the pseudo father figure. In-laws dealing with their different styles of parenting and social backgrounds. These all play out with tons of laughs, but it’s knowing how people really are that made Hughes a poet and genius.
Besides leaving a legacy of quotable films that no person born after 1991 will understand or appreciate, Hughes gave us all our upbringing in the 80s. He was our Dear Abby and Mike Brady, offering us advice and guidance through the murky waters of growing up during the end of The Cold War with bright colors and plastic fads. He will be missed, immensely. Even though he hasn’t been a public figure for years, his presence has been felt in movies today.
This year has truly been a sorrowful one as the icons of my childhood are slowly shuffling off the mortal coil. So, I think I will don my ripped up jeans, pop in a Thompson Twins or Simple Minds cassette, play some air keytar in my room as I reminisce about the glory days of the 80s when Farah was on my wall, Ed was on television, Michael was on the radio, and John Hughes was at the movies. Who’s with me? Bueller? Bueller?
Your all a bunch of Neo-Maxi Zoom Dweebies. The hell with you.
For the lighter side 80s cheese, check out one of my earliest posts, From The Path of Truth, John Hughes Hath Led Me Astray.