Last week one of the most important figures in youth culture passed on, but it wasn’t who you think.
Yes, teen-flick director John Hughes’s cocaine-calloused heart finally popped its valves, years after the director of Breakfast Club etc had stopped doing much of anything. Like many a hefty type, he’d used the Bolivian marching powder to get the ideas moving, part of the reason for his astonishing run of successes in the 80s — and for his decline into pap and silence thereafter. In light of that, go back and read the bright-eyed wonder with which interviewers remarked on his ability to write a full draft screenplay in a couple of long sittings, etc etc.
Rumours have it that having given up the candy, he had become spectacularly fat, and remained a recluse, doing the occasional bit of writing work under a pseudonym — hence the unmistakeable 80s era photos, bouffant hair, big glasses, white shirt with leather jacket that accompanied his obits.
That’s kinda cool of course, because if anything epitomised the 80s, it was Hughes’s brace of teen movies — Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club — that marked an abrupt shift not only in the genre, but in the way people thought about teenagers and their own teenager years.
By the time Hughes came along, the rebellious teen culture that had dominated the west since the 50s had run out of puff, exhausted by the rapid acceleration from Woodstock through Altamont to punk. Since the inherent attitude of punk, despite some vestigial politics, was nihilistic rather than rebellious — being against everything, even pleasure (Johnny Rotten described sex as ‘five minutes of squelching”) — it marked an endpoint.
By the 80s, any alternative vision of society that might be carried by youth culture had been reabsorbed into the Reagan-Thatcher era, which simply took the nihilism of punk into the mainstream. If nothing was worth anything, if there was no qualitative differences between experiences, nothing you could argue was better or worse, then the only way to measure stuff was quantitatively, i.e. by money. “Greed is good, greed works,” as Gordon Gekko said, because it gives you something to strive towards, it makes meaning. It’s the ultimate mcGuffin, the Hitchcock device whereby a virtually worthless prize — some stolen jewels, a letter etc — gets the whole plot moving.
In a world dominated by individualism, youth culture came under the sway of competition — there was no battle between the generations, simply a series of small skirmishes within youth, as you moved towards adulthood. To a degree it always was and is, of course, but the collapse of older youth subcultures — hippies, punks, mods, etc in the late 70s — came about as the ordained social roles in western economies was coming apart. With the manufacturing economies of the west reduced to rustbelt status, life paths — to the factory, the office, to college — became more uncertain, at the same time as unprecedented media flows into everyday life offered a cornucopia of meanings, identities, poses, and guises. MTV and the high-concept music video arrived at the same time as the factories departed.
For a few years, no-one really spotted that that was happening. The gulf in youth culture was filled by a series of nostalgia films by directors reliving their own 50s and 60s youth — Grease, Animal House, The Outsiders — which in turn spawned the low-rent Porky’s style films, a sort of Penthouse readers’ letters committed to celluloid. Porky’s et al got a lot of its oomph from selling the idea that there was something impossibly good — losing your virginity — on the other side of the shower curtain, that this was nothing else you could possibly want. It was a tacky teenage hymn to human exuberance.
John Hughes was the first to spot that something else was happening to teenagers — that the process of becoming an adult, a self, of making one’s own persona had come to the centre of teenage life. Though Hughes’s characters fall into the subcultural groups that dominate American high schools, those groups are never as stable as they are in earlier eras, nor do they offer an easy answer to the questions of who one is. In The Outsiders or some such, subcultures define themselves against each other, or against adults as a whole. Hughes characters are continually putting themselves together — through clothes, music, accessories, friends, behavioural style etc — from an array of available options.
The retro-fashion store girl who’s Molly Ringwald’s mentor of sorts in Pretty in Pink, continually reappearing in a different retro chic outfit is a harbinger of the alt culture that would dominate the era that had not yet been named, Generation X. Ferris Bueller and his friends try on various ways of being an adult, of being a stable self. The “day off” is not a “day off” from school, it’s a day off from adolescence, which is constructed as harder work than actual work. Hughes’s characters are all afflicted with boundary issues — they are desperate to know what is really authentically themselves, and what is coming from the outside as a manufactured product. Since the whole western world was trying to work that out in the 80s, the movies hit a spot, and for many retain, at least in memory, a power beyond mere nostalgia.
That search for authenticity was not new of course — it animates teen culture back through Rebel Without A Cause, Catcher In The Rye, Murger’s Tales of Bohemia to Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther, a tale of imperfect love and oversensitivity which allegedly prompted a wave of suicides in 18th century Europe. But overwhelmingly in these works, the hero is a tormented individual who sees himself alone against a backdrop of conformity — a world of “phonies” in Holden Caulfield speak.
In Hughes’s films the great shift is that everyone is in that position, so there is no “Big Other” to define yourself against. All of the main characters in the Breakfast Club are striving for an identity by defining themselves against each other — which prompts each of them to shift who they are and where they fit in. Identity in postmodern society becomes a problem of quantum undecidability — no-one can measure their own position and velocity at the same time.
If nothing that matches the films came to replace them, it’s because the category itself was disappearing altogether — Hughes’s films were a teen twilight. People didn’t stop being between the ages of 13 and 19, but the sequestration of those years in the limits that Hughes’s characters strain against has changed dramatically. In Hughesworld there’s no internet, no 200 channel cables, no sampling, no iPhones, no Prozac, no ADD, no lawsuits by gay students demanding the right to take same-sex partners to the school dance, no 19 year old dotcom billionaires, no tweens, no pole-dancing kits for six year olds, and so on.
The media revolution changed the way we live to such a degree that the “teen” category that developed around 1910 all but collapsed — just as young adulthood has become an indefinite extension of teen years.
That’s why, for all his power, there is something a little de trop in the genius accorded to Hughes in the obits. He was a good screenwriter, an OK director, he “got” something that a lot of people missed — but the idea that this was great art or something is way over the top. Hughes’s films all too easily lapsed into cod developmental psychology, into older ideas of cause-and-effect in how we become who we are, in teens as a category. They are already vanishing backwards from us, by now closer to the 50s “rebel” cult than to the apparent flux of identities and choice — which really conceals a lack of them — that we have today.
That the culture has become a little infantilised, self-obsessed weepy might be seen by the virtual silence that greeted the passing of another influential director about the same time as Hughes — Budd Schulberg, author of What Makes Sammy Run?, screenwriter of On The Waterfront, who, attaining an age of 95, appears like Methuselah, coming out of an era several eras distant. Schulberg, the son of a studio exec, was a Hollywood brat, swept up in the great leftist wave of Hollywood in the 30s. He was an instrumental part of starting the American Writers’ Guild, the powerful Writers’ Union that campaigned for liberal causes for decades. In Sammy Glick, the empty ambitious hero of What Makes Sammy Run?, he made the first great portrait of californication, the process whereby the film industry emptied human beings of all content.
On The Waterfront is often taken as an anti-communist film — it is more exactly anti-Stalinist — but it is also simply an anti-corruption film — the gangs that Schulberg portrayed on the wharfs had taken over after the Communists had been thrown out.
But perhaps the most important thing that Schulberg did was as part of the ongoing support by the AWG for the civil rights movement. In 1965, after the Watts uprising in LA, Schulberg and others helped foster and financially support the groups of black writers and performers who were creating a style of performed poetry that spawned the “Watts Poets” group and movement and which ultimately generated Grandmaster Flash and one whole stream of the rap movement. As one of the Watts poets told me — they still perform at the age of 70 — in NY a couple of years ago “we did it but it wouldn’t have come together without Budd”.
Brando’s greatest role, a whole novelistic genre, and rap is a pretty good list to have on your resume — but what is striking is that, if one is to be honest about it, John Hughes’s films still hit me in a way that Schulberg’s work doesn’t. Hughes’s work is about the struggle to be, in a mediatised society, while Schulberg’s work and life was one of the great struggle of progressive forces, to beat back ignorance and reaction. To a degree we have the luxury of the dilemmas Hughes illustrates because of the battles Schulberg fought. But that doesn’t resolve the uneasy feeling that we have become children in a formerly adult world, cleaving to faded, obsolete VHSs and old mix-tapes that offered us something we now ceaselessly rewind to find.