You probably won’t see his face on t-shirts anytime soon, but for a wide-sweeping generation of twenty- to fortysomethings, the late John Hughes falls just short of being a cultural Messiah. The screenwriter and director became the latest Summer of Death casualty yesterday morning at age 59, and while most of his fans probably wouldn’t be able to identify his mug in a lineup, the mere mention of his name conjures a strange brew of nostalgia and admiration. For many of us, those first encounters with Hughes’ films tugged on the same sentimental strings as our first illicit beer swigs and sloppy make-out sessions.
While my dad was an alcohol and drug counselor in the mid-1980s, he somehow got his hands on a pre-release, bootleg VHS copy of The Breakfast Club—arguably the landmark of Hughes’ lasting cultural imprint. He showed this earnest film about high school cliques, rebellion, and alienation to teen addicts at the treatment centre where he worked throughout the ‘80s before retiring it to the VHS cabinet of our home’s basement, where I would discover it a few years later. It resonated then, and it resonates now.
Regardless of how high school actually was, an entire generation’s adolescent recollections have been conveniently repackaged into John Hughes-esque vignettes thanks to Hughes’ patented ability to create lovable ingénues out of self-aware, articulate teenaged misfits. He made talking about feelings—and publicly obsessing, rehashing, and ruminating—par for the adolescent course, which would explain why my father saw the icebreaking appeal in showing Hughes films to troubled teens and why, ever since, calculated representations of high school angst have become standard criteria for both small and silver screen.
Sure, Hughes’ films have their own problems, being notably absent of racial and cultural diversity and prone towards a Cinderella-trite treatment of class interactions. Still, we forgive the filmmaker for these shortcomings. After all, Hughes didn’t create the teen screen genre; he just grabbed it by the horns and made it into something a bit more honest.