Sunday, February 1, 2015

Life imitates John Hughes: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Fast Times

Last week I rented an "80s comedy" DVD pack from the library. It contains three movies that I'm supposed to be familiar with, having been in that decade and young: The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Fast Times at Ridgemont High. So, thirty years too late, right?

And The Breakfast Club was definitely around when I was growing up, it just never caught my interest either on VHS, or later, on TV. I would catch a few minutes of it and wonder why these kids were sitting around and being so hysterical (the pot smoking having been edited out for the American public). I could tell, however, that it seemed to have some sort of reality-filtering effect on everyone else.

Just as The Godfather supposedly affected the way that actual crime bosses behave, this movie seems to have convinced everyone that teen-agers fall into, and only hang out in cliques of, five stereotypes. Older movies have generic designations of jocks or brains, but this may be the first time when kids who go to the same small town high school are presented as not even knowing each others' names.

I mean, I went to a city high school, but it can't be too different. Everyone has to take the same basic classes, go on the same field trips. At the least, some of them would be in gym together. I don't think I ever saw one person purposefully ignore someone else in a hallway. The real division and distance would be between the students fighting to survive their surreal world of obedience and testing and the faculty who are invested in keeping the machine running.

Yet everyone now swears to me that "this is how high school was." That there really were groups of teens who would only talk to each other. And of course, most "teen" movies now present their reality in that fashion.

Which is curious, because John Hughes' first movie doesn't present any kind of clique hierarchy, but defaults to generic popular/geek dynamics. Everyone goes to the dance; they don't always like each other, but they don't ignore each other either.

This may be because Sixteen Candles is so rooted in WASP-y suburban culture. It's not a case of rich vs. poor, because they all have money. Nor do they have any real problems; Molly Ringwald's character is threatened by unrequited love. The boy she likes doesn't like HIS girlfriend anymore. That's about the extent of hardship presented here.

There are outside characters, but they are sublimated to harmless comedic fodder. Exchange student Long Duk Dong's every appearance is punctuated by a cringe-worthy chinese gong sound while the implied Italian criminal family that Sam's sister is marrying into are written off as wacky "greasy bohunks."

Which leaves Amy Heckerling's Fast Times at Ridgemont High looking like a serious teen drama. There are actual consequences of what would be "wacky behavior" in other movies: sexual experimentation leads to pregnancy and losing one's temper at rude customers leads to getting fired. I'm especially fascinated by the concept of affluent kids actually working. In my experience, the whole point of working now, for teen-agers, is to "get away with" as much as possible, because they have no fear involved with getting fired.

And that's how this movie works best now, as a snapshot of the transformation into conservative 80s America. Writer Cameron Crowe was a practitioner of what we now called "insertion" journalism. Really, it's what any kind of writer should be doing, talking to and learning from people. It's probably most telling about our distance from the idealistic 1960s and 70s that we have a special term for non-fiction writing that involves something more than doing research on the internet all day. But it is that willingness to do extra work that creates good dialogue for people who happen to be young versus just writing about how hard it is to be a jock or a nerd.

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