8/6/09

Thank You, John Hughes


I just heard the news of John Hughes passing a few minutes ago. I'm surprised, mostly because he was so young, but also because he's been out of the public consciousness for a while. I mean, he can't ever really leave the public consciousness, his footprint will always be there even if his films aren't topically at the forefront of any discussions. Why? Because his movies were so unique in tone.

He's an inspiration to me because he was from Michigan, and he wasn't ashamed of it! I know that sounds like a joke, but Mid-Westerners who manage to grow up and work in film are always an inspiration to me. Especially when they find a way to weave the Mid-West into their stories so lovingly, the way Hughes did in so many of his movies. Heck, Mid-Westerners who do anything that adds to their community have my vote. (Garrison Keillor.) John Hughes was like the Tommy Boy of filmmaking.

So many people jump ship to try and "make it" in the industry and they never look back, or when they do it's in a very, "thank God I'm out of there" condescending way. Trust me, I've tried to jump ship a dozen times. But the older I get, the more I realize "making it" has nothing to do with where you live. Not anymore. No such thing as a centrally located film industry, i.e. no excuses based on where you live. Anyway...

Hughes' movies were so refreshingly unpretentious. They were movies about characters that were believable in every way. They looked believable, they talked the way you and I talk, and they experienced the same problems that we do too. Nowadays, most films are cast almost entirely with modelesque actors, not that there's anything wrong with beautiful. But I think that Hughes insistence at casting character actors (Catherine O'Hara, John Candy, Daniel Stern, etc.) gave his movies more weight with the American public.

He wrote most of what he directed as well, which is doubly admirable to me, because it meant that he was determined to see his own vision through to the end of the process. A very brave choice and a risky one at that. As a filmmaker, it means that if you succeed, you do so on your own two feet. But if you fail, you're extremely vulnerable, and there's nobody to blame but yourself. I love risk-takers.

His films for and about teenagers didn't patronize anyone. They didn't paint a picturesque version of those sometimes terrible, and always tumultuous, years. But they didn't exploit them either. He wasn't showing teen escapades to shock and he never went after a hard R. He was just showing the full spectrum of teenagers in the 80s. Sure, sometimes he went for pure fun, but those (Weird Science) were tame compared to today's dark tales of teen debauchery.

And just like in real life, sometimes life as a teen is funny or sad or heartbreaking or confusing. And he had a way of making movies that managed to bottle all that complexity of theme into an hour and a half package that entertained you, left you feeling grateful for your own life, friends and family, but without the need to poke and prod you to tears. John Hughes was never manipulative.
He created some sequences and I actually don't know how he got away with them, just sheer skill I guess. Like the float scene from, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off".

He was also a prolific writer, responsible for several endearing domestic comedies that also told the tale of family life, like, "Mr. Mom".

Then there was "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" and "Home Alone", his holiday classics. They had all of the same qualities, only this time Hughes entertained us with live action Looney Tunes versions of what happens to a man trying to get back to his family and a little boy left alone at Christmas.

And there it was again at the end of those films, the need to turn to whoever you were with and just hug them. He had a very populist way of making people feel great after watching his movies without hitting them over the head with the idea. And of course, I was a kid when these came out...so there's a little soft spot in there just due to my memories of seeing, "Home Alone" at the Village Theater.

John Hughes made positive movies that didn't feel forced, movies you could watch with your kids (Mostly, some had quite a bit of bad language. But even those didn't sound so bad, like when someone with an English accent curses.) without worrying. I wonder if that would even be possible today. Today critics like us would probably bash a film like that to pieces calling it unrealistic and cheesy. I hope that's not true, but I suspect that it is.

He had an innocent way of portraying the world and life through his films that was completely grounded. It wasn't a phony greeting card innocence, it was a connection to childhood and the teen years.

They were almost like public service announcements reminding adults to be compassionate toward their children, that whatever troubles they're going through, they're very real to the kids experiencing them. Whether the adults were to see them as big or small didn't matter, Hughes was there to remind adults that kids were people too. Whether it was a fear of the furnace or dealing with abusive relationships, Hughes made them all feel real on screen. His movies were an exercise in perspective, especially, "The Breakfast Club", but that theme was present throughout them all, even, "Uncle Buck".

Hughes was always emphasizing becoming a better person by staying attached and committed to your community, usually your family, but not always. He made so many movies about how getting closer to those around you is beneficial, even when it makes you uncomfortable. Especially when it makes you uncomfortable. There was also almost always a "standing up for the little guy" theme. He was sort of like a modern day Frank Capra.

Then there was the humor. Aside from all my sappy meanderings, I can tell you that the time I've laughed the hardest in my entire life is at the "Fuller, go easy on the Pepsi" scene from, "Home Alone". Everything about that scene is pitch perfect, the family chaos especially. But when Fuller gets his little face squished behind that chair...I must've rewound our tape a hundred times to see that. I guess it was the brain of a writer/editor appreciating nuances at an early age.

And really, how quotable are his films? "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" has got to be one of the most quoted films of all time. Even in that movie, there were deeper messages about teens and their susceptibility to incredible stress and pressure.

His movies were magic in a way, magic in a different way than we're used to now. Because they felt so real when you watched them. They were funny, yes. But they weren't, set-up, joke, set-up, joke, funny. But they just felt like they could've been home movies or mixed-in memories from your own life...only more entertaining.

I hope that a mix of his knack for authenticity will inspire future filmmakers to return to movies that feature more real-looking people, more "funnier than you could come up with on your own" moments of humor, and maybe a little bit of a return to true populism.

Thank You John Hughes! For your iconic additions to so many of our childhoods and teen years, for attempting to translate between kids and adults, for all the laughs, and for making films in your very own backyard. We appreciate everything you did!




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