Posted Saturday morning, April 28, 2018.
Bet you don’t need a caption to identify the movie this still is from.
It’s sad to revisit a favorite movie, book, album, or TV show after many years and find it’s gone stale. Worse is to find yourself wondering why you ever liked it to begin with. What you once loved now strikes you as trivial, unoriginal, boring, ugly, incompetent, meaningless---dead. The dated product of a moment that’s passed out of memory that didn’t speak for that moment, merely reflected it and now that the moment has passed the life has gone right out of it. You’re left with the realization that what resonated with you at the time was what was resonant to you in living through that moment and in coming back to that work of art it’s not just the artwork that’s faded into nothing, it’s that moment when it seemed important to your life. The song or the story that at the time made the moment more interesting and vivid now works to the opposite effect, and that moment that seemed so wonderful or important now is as interesting as an outdated high school textbook. What once upon a time helped make you interesting to yourself now makes you a stranger to yourself, and a boring stranger, someone you’re glad decides not to sit next to you at the bar.
It can also be the case that it’s not the artwork itself that’s lost its effect or that the moment itself has simply become history. It’s that what made them both exciting was that they were shared. You didn’t fall in love with them alone. You fell in love with them along with someone else, often with someone you were falling in love with. But now that someone else---or someones: friends, family, classmates---are no longer around to share them with or to share the memory of sharing them with, what you feel when you revisit the art is a sense of loss. That’s what nostalgia is and why I avoid it as much as possible, a way of mourning your losses with a rueful and affectionate smile.
Some art gets better when the moment passes and it can be seen, read, or listened to for what it says about itself and what it has to say about the timeless universality of being human or, if that moment matters to the art’s effect, how that moment was like this moment whenever this moment happens to be. Whatever Shakespeare had to say about the Gunpowder Plot is irrelevant to modern audiences---and, for all we know, to the audience at Blackfriars who saw the original production--watching a performance of “Macbeth”. “Macbeth” is a story about runaway ambition, a person’s inability to control the consequences of his actions, and the ultimate nullity of existence not about the politics of Jacobean England as it sorted itself out in the wake of Queen Elizabeth’s death.
Shakespeare’s plays were mass entertainment. Shakespeare was a popular artist who incidentally happened to be a great one. So it’s not going from the sublime to the ridiculous to switch from talking about him and “Macbeth” to talking about John Hughes and “The Breakfast Club”. The problem is I don’t have much to say about “The Breakfast Club”. In fact, I have next to nothing to say about it. “The Breakfast Club” was not part of my moment. Maybe it’s better to say I wasn’t part of its. I wasn’t a teenager when it came out and I haven’t been one since. I’m not sure I’ve ever even seen it or at any rate have seen all of it. What I did see I saw on TV after its moment had faded, and that’s not the best way to see a movie. I know all about it, of course (or thought I did. I’ll bet to that.) because it has survived its moment to become a touchstone of popular culture. But that’s what I can talk about. Its place in popular culture and our collective unconscious, but that’s hardly the same thing or as interesting or as fun a thing as talking about a movie itself.
I don’t have much to say about John Hughes either. My thoughts about him and his art are divided. There are movies written and directed by John Hughes and John Hughes movies.
The former include several movies that were a part of my moment when they came out because I did see them in the movie theater and because I loved and enjoyed them and because they were good. Good enough to have lasted beyond my and their moment and can now be seen for themselves as well made works of popular art. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Uncle Buck”, “Home Alone”, and, best of all, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”.
The latter, the John Hughes movies, include “Ferris Bueller”, “Sixteen Candles”, “Pretty in Pink”, and “The Breakfast Club”. And same as with “The Breakfast Club”: I don’t remember if I saw them, even on TV.
It goes without saying that if I did see them or parts of them, I must not have loved them or even liked them or disliked them all that much or I’d remember if I saw them. If I did, I didn’t enjoy them enough that they left an impression on my memory. If I did and I made any attempt to connect them with my own moment as a high school student, it didn’t take. I’m aware of how much they mattered to high school kids in the 80s because they still mattered to them when they became college students in my classes in the 80s and 90s. And I know they’ve still mattered to succeeding generations of teenagers because of how they mattered to my students at Syracuse most of whom were born a decade or more after “Pretty in Pink” hit the theaters in 1984. It was fun that we could share allusions to “Ferris Bueller” but I was as lost when they talked about the others as they would have been if I’d started riffing about “The Goodbye Girl” or “Nashville”. One of those students wrote a good paper on “The Breakfast Club” which was one of her favorite movies but part of its success was in her persuading me that the movie was about what she wrote it was about. I’m talking thematically. She convinced me to take her word for it. My comments were all questions that bordered on “You don’t say?” and “How about that?”
So, like I said, I don’t have much to say about Hughes, John Hughes movies, as a group or, except for “Bueller, individually, the “The Breakfast Club” in particular.
Molly Ringwald does, though. As you’d expect. She’s written an essay for the New Yorker about watching “The Breakfast Club” recently with her daughter and thinking about what to think about it in light of all that’s happened to her since she starred in it and those other John Hughes movies. She’s now in the bewildering position of seeing it as important to three different moments in her life---the initial, intensely personal moment when she made the movie, the equally personal moment of being a mother of teenage daughter seeing it herself for the first time, and the historical moment of #MeToo in which those movies and Hughes himself have become problematic for Ringwald as a professional working in film and television, as a mother, and as someone looking back at what she thought then and for a long while after as a happy or at least fortunate time in her life and finding that things might not have been as happy or fortunate as they seemed and as she used to remember. Which makes this post a long way to go to giving you the link to Ringwald’s essay.
My reaction to the essay was a lot like my reaction to my student’s paper on “The Breakfast Club”, that is, mainly a series of questions, although questions tinged with more cynicism, not directed toward Ringwald, but towards those movies and Hughes. They were products of a moment so of course they reflected that moment, and that moment was not nearly as...enlightened...as it ought to have been or many people living through it thought it was.
One thing that dismayed me in Ringwald’s essay---one among half a dozen---was the news (to me) that Hughes got his start as a writer at National Lampoon. It was dismaying that the writer and director of one of my favorite comedies, “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, served his apprenticeship at that rag.
The early glory days of the Lampoon were part of my moment, and I hated it. HATED it. And I hated that so many of my friends liked it. I didn’t like what it said about them that they thought it was funny, and I especially didn’t like to sit quietly and pretend I was amused when they passed it around and repeated their favorite jokes and cut out cartoons, illustrations, pages, and "Foto Funnies" to post on their dorm room walls and doors. (I had New Yorker covers on my wall.) I thought the Lampoon was ugly, mean, hateful, and, although I probably wouldn’t have used the word, sexist---to me its attitudes toward women were worse than hostile. The intent seemed to make young men disgusted by women at the moment when I was discovering how wonderful they could be.
I’ve often wondered what made me different from my friends. Was I a prude? A young fogey? Too much of a precocious sophisticate? Too intellectual? Too pseudo-intellectual? Possibly all of those? But, going by what Ringwald writes, it turns out that what I mainly was was not stoned:
The October, 1980, issue [of National Lampoon] included a piece, [Hughes co-authored with] Ted Mann, titled “Sexual Harassment and How to Do It!”...
It’s all satire, of course, but it’s pretty clear that it’s not the chauvinists who are being lampooned but the “women’s liberation movement.” Women had begun to speak out, in the mid-seventies, against harassment in the workplace. (The beloved movie “9 to 5,” in which three women get revenge on a sexist boss, was released in December of 1980, two months after the Hughes-Mann piece ran.) Mann is now a writer and producer who has been nominated for seven Emmys, most recently for his work on the Showtime series “Homeland.” I sent him an e-mail asking what he now thought of the piece he wrote with Hughes. He replied that he didn’t remember ever having written it. “It looks like one of our art director Peter’s desperate page fillers,” he explained, referring to Peter Kleinman. “It wouldn’t fly today and it never should have flown then,” he went on, adding, “These were degenerate cocaine days.”
You should read Ringwald’s essay, whether or not “The Breakfast Club” was part of your moment. I’m sending you to it via the New Yorker’s Facebook page since its the magazine’s own way around its paywall. Here’s the link. But if you subscribe or haven’t used up your free articles for the month, you can get the essay directly by following this link to What About “The Breakfast Club”? at the New Yorker.