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One More for John Hughes: Teenage Wasteland

August 7, 2009

I was Duckie. I was Duckie and Brian Johnson and when I pulled the trunk, the light wouldn’t go on. I was Gary and Wyatt and Cameron too. Oh, yes, I was Cameron to my friend’s Ferris; we took his dad’s Cadillac for joyrides. I recently got back in touch with this guy, my own personal Ferris Bueller – he’s recovering nicely, but when I greedily ask him, “So tell me more about the stripper orgies,” I secretly think to myself, “I’m glad I was more a Cameron than a Bueller.” But I never had that talk with my dad, the long serious standing-of-ground after killing the car: the foundation of raison d’etre; Cameron never had that talk either, now that I think about it.

You couldn’t have had that talk in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” because it would be terrifying and horrifying and would most certainly have ended badly. John Hughes wasn’t a realist, though he created the only pop-culture characters I could identify with, during that long dank high-school hallway called the 1980s. No, he was a fantasist – but fantasist of the teenage soul, rather than that of the stereotyped male teenage gonad in “Porky’s” and the excrable stew of T&A that you’d try to slip past the video-store clerk. He was a magical realist for white American teens, and he perceived our world in colors of hyperreal pathos and wit that’s painfully missed in today’s young-adult cinema.

What is love? When Ferris and Sloane kissed in front of the Chagall windows in the Art Institute, I knew: that was love. What is pain? When Cameron stared at the screaming child in the Seurat, our view jump-cutting to the individual pointillist dots, to the very fibers of the canvas, the hollowing pain of the most minute points in the grand post-Impressionist extravaganza, as the music swelled to an unbearable heartache strain – yes, that was the icon of fear and isolation and alienation in my ’80s adolescence.

Yes, in the greatness of “The Breakfast Club,” his pat schematics still irk: the Basketcase gets dolled up by the Princess, and the Basketcase and the Jock and the Princess and the Criminal find social acceptance in one another’s arms as the Brain has only his writing to kiss, as he completes everyone else’s homework assignment. But in the ’80s media landscape, where one-dimensional writers split “those crazy kids” into clichéd stereotypes of Nerd-dom and Coolness, of Wasteoid and Loser, Hughes gave his characters blazing intelligence and anarchic creativity, struggling against the soul-deadening careerism of the public-school system.

We’ll say that John Hughes “defined” our adolescence. But what does that actually mean? He gave us hope that one day we might be appreciated and loved, that one day we might see that the bewildering and malevolent nature of the American high school experience was just a system, an internment system devised by those whose own callousness, avarice and ineptitude fused to define “questioning authority” as “anarchism”; emotional honesty as “a phase”; and disobedience as the disease itself, rather than as a symptom of a diseased world, that seeks to destroy every moment of wonder.

And he did all that, while creating moments of wit as eternal as anything from “Casablanca.”

Save Ferris. What would we have done, had you never existed? It was a lonely and painful time, then, when a brand of jeans defined your self-worth. I simply can’t imagine how we would have survived it all, without Ben Stein’s drone, a secretary huffing glue, Bender ripping pages from Moliére, butt-taping, Molly Ringwald dancing, Anthony Michael Hall toking up.

And Bueller, bending the stupid rules. Dammit, John, you didn’t deserve to die so soon.


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