Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes
on the set of "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," Chicago, IL 1985
August 6, 2009.
How I remember the day vividly as I returned home from work to be met with the devastating news that Writer/Producer/Director John Hughes had unexpectedly passed away from a heart attack which occurred during a morning stroll in Manhattan while he was visiting family. Even more sadly to me is of how young he was as he was merely 59 years old. Yes, he was, by that time, a Grandparent. But even so, age is relative and some truly believe that it is indeed nothing more than a number. All I felt then and what I think now that I am existing within the beginning of my own fifth decade is that he was too young, he left the world too soon and now ten years later, I still miss his creative voice to this day.
In many ways, the existence of Savage Cinema, and even further, the existence of its sister blogsite Synesthesia as well as my own creative writing (which has been dormant for longer than I had anticipated or would wish for), has all been realized because of the art and artistry of John Hughes. How I wish that I had been able to have had the opportunity to tell him how much he meant to me during my 1980's Chicago adolescence when his landmark, and now iconic, films chronicling the lives and times of his Midwestern American characters in the fictional Chicago based northern suburb of Shermer, IL. filled and enhanced my life, inspiring me to try writing for myself.
Most often and celebrated were his sextet of films devoted to teenagers. "Sixteen Candles" (1984), "The Breakfast Club" (1985), "Weird Science" (1985), "Pretty In Pink" (1986), "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (1986) and "Some Kind Of Wonderful" (1987), all of which were originally released theatrically throughout the entirety of my high school years, existed as my personal guide map to adolescence right at the time I would ever have needed it.
These were films that allowed me to get learn about myself as I watched these stories reflect my teenage experience back to me. No, my family never forgot my birthday. I was never in detention, skipped school to joyride around Chicago, and never found myself caught within any social class warfare that played out its climax at my high school prom. But, what John Hughes achieved with such creative style, agility, inventiveness, and an enormous amount of empathy and sensitivity was to make films that spoke to the core of what it means to be human.
Hughes spoke directly to issues of peer pressure, conformity and individuality, self-esteem and social status, as well as class warfare, depression, isolation, arrested development, abuse, friendship, families, sex, and dizzying, delirious romance. He spoke earnestly about themes concerning the true meanings of failures and success. Of either maintaining or even discovering integrity. The heavy, hard steps to admitting when one is wrong. And yes, the validation and uplift that arrives when, at long last, you are proven right and are accepted whole cloth by someone who truly sees you for the entirety of the content of your character, and the ascension of self-acceptance that follows.
And they were comedies.
Now I am certain that some of you may feel that this praise might be tainted with nostalgia. Let me please disagree with you gently yet emphatically as this is how I saw those films back in the 1980's. I concede that it may seem to be a bit hyperbolic to those of you out there who still feel his work to be too simplistic for such praise. But trust me, what John Hughes achieved, at his very best, was universal. He created work that truly transcended geographical locale as well as race, despite the overwhelming Whiteness of his casts and canvas (and besides, hey, he's writing about the Northern suburbs of Chicago--if you go looking for ethnic diversity there, you are looking in the wrong place).
He created a body of work that is indeed a direct product of the times in which they were created, as Actress/Writer/Hughes alum Molly Ringwald has eloquently written and questioned about herself now that she has children of her own who are seeing these films for the first time within a 21st century context. But despite any now controversial elements that may exist within those films, the purity of the work, which I choose to believe represented Hughes as the very best of himself, has withstood the test of time, has been embraced by generations after my own and are now timeless.
John Hughes was a poet and clown. A prized teacher or older brother figure with an impeccable taste in music who could also mine the art of the slapstick pratfall. He created stories and films that were as personal as they were populist, as we were witnessing Hughes' own emotional road map of his past and wish fulfillment fantasies, therefore encouraging us to embrace our own as we headed out into the world.
I honestly wonder that if John Hughes happened to be gaining his start in the movie industry now, could a figure like him exist today, especially in a world where the new norm consists of the tentpole franchises with all manner of sequels, prequels, remakes, re-imaginings and so on and personal cinematic visions are becoming less and less. If cinematic figures such as Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee, Terry Gilliam and Cameron Crowe, just to name four, are having difficulties having their visions rendered upon the silver screen how would someone like John Hughes had survived?
Maybe we have already found our answer as his own output became less personal and more mechanical in the 1990's after his final directorial effort with the 1930's Depression era styled heartwarmer "Curly Sue" (1991) and his greatest box office success with the surprising, gargantuan "Home Alone" (1990), which he wrote and produced while Chris Columbus directed.
But John Hughes certainly was clever and crafty and it seems that if he were to be here today making movies, he would have devised of some scheme, hatched some plot that could have possibly achieved what had been perceived to be impossible.
Let's think of what he did achieve when he was with us. Just the idea of making films about teenagers for teenagers and ensuring the work treated its target audience with respect and not as commodities, by devising films that were as artful as they were entertaining what a bold move in and of itself. But, with his background in advertising, he charted a map in which he would create and build his own brand while also building his own cinematic universe. While one film was being edited, another was filming and another was being written, so often by Hughes himself. When one film would hit theaters, you often saw a trailer for the next film before it. When one hit the home video market, another would be released to theaters. And he trained his target audience to stick out the end credits for a little bonus bit afterwards. Hmmm...sounds like the whole Marvel Comics strategy doesn't it? And John Hughes did this back in the 1980's!
John Hughes possessed a writing and directorial voice unlike anyone else for no other movies looked or sounded like his. He elicited career best and beloved performances for a host of actors and comedians certainly. Has Judd Nelson ever been as committed as he was as John Bender in "The Breakfast Club"? Did you ever imagine that the late John Candy would be as graceful and as heartbreaking as he was funny in both "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" (1987) and "Uncle Buck" (1989)? And again, the work has been generated to last and so it has and beautifully so.
Yes, I can quote his work to this day and when I watch them even now, I feel them more powerfully. Not due to nostalgia but of having lived life over these years and feeling the truth in the stories and characters that much more deeply. John Hughes' finest work, from beginning to end, was superbly thoughtful and most importantly, humane.
Every so often these days, I still have hope that I could somehow find an unproduced script to read just to "hear" his voice again. I think of the films that were once announced but were never filmed and what his career might have been like if say, "She's Having A Baby" (1988), his most personal and decidedly underappreciated film, was as much of a hit as so many of his other works.
Would he ever have made that film about five women approaching the age of 40? Would he ever have made that film about a teenager who spends his days riding Chicago commuter trains? What of "Black Cat Bone: The Return Of Huckleberry Finn," his modern day Chicago re-telling of Mark Twain? How about "Oil and Vinegar," a story that has now taken almost a mythic status as reportedly being one of Hughes' finest scripts and would have starred Matthew Broderick and Molly Ringwald on a cross country road trip, most of the film taking place solely in the car? There are just so many and how seismic his work remains in my heart as I wish those Hughes vaults to be opened by his family for fans to peruse and take in a greater appreciation at the wealth of creativity he amassed during his lifetime. I know this is highly unlikely so I will just remain grateful for the work that has so enriched my life.
Over the course of Savage Cinema, I have paid tribute to John Hughes time and again, taking greater looks at his films and exploring them through re-visiting favorite scenes to even the films' music as well as the unproduced material I have been able to discover. Having missed writing a tribute for the ninth year since his passing due to life responsibilities, I needed to make sure that for this tenth year, I paid my respects once again.
The pain surrounding his loss for me has lessened in its intensity for certain, but when I think of what he accomplished and how it hit my life at the perfect time and space and the course my life took afterwards being introduced to him (most notably, discovering myself as a writer), the missing of him is as profound as ever as I know that we will never see the likes of him ever again.
It is inexplicable to think of how art and artists touch your heart and capture your spirit in a way that feels so simultaneously random yet fully engineered to reach you. John Hughes reached me in ways I could have never imagined. He inspired me in ways I could have never imagined. And I am filled with a gratefulness that I still wish I could have shared with him, just so he knew that what he did mattered.
And it matters still...