Monday, September 29, 2014
For no apparent reason, their features, in descending order from best to worst:
A Serious Man
Inside Llewyn Davis
No Country For Old Men
The Big Lewbowski
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
The Hudsucker Proxy
Burn After Reading
The Man Who Wasn't There
I look forward to your letters.
Sunday, July 20, 2014
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
In light of the observation a couple days back of the 30th anniversary of the kids in The Breakfast Club spending that fateful fictional day in detention, I thought it prudent to take a look back at that august classic. I've had a John Hughes-shaped rock in my shoe for a while now; the following is an excerpt from a play I wrote in 1999 (Peter is an erudite German drug dealer, Dana is an American recent college grad and the protagonist of the piece):
PETER: All I know about American high school I know from John Hughes films.
DANA: You’ve got the basic idea. I went to high school in a John Hughes film, except I wasn’t shallow enough to be Molly Ringwald, I wasn’t cool or nihilistic enough to be Judd Nelson, I wasn’t even Ally Sheedy, because even Ally Sheedy got together with Emilio Estevez after he realizes that deep inside the weirdo there lived the girl you see after her Doris Day makeover---
PETER: You’re talking about The Breakfast Club, yes?
PETER: So that meant . . . you were Anthony Michael Hall.
DANA: Uh-huh. (Pause) The Breakfast Club is one of the most fucked up movies ever made. What’s so fucked up about it is that it’s accepted as a movie that isn’t good enough to analyze, and so no one ever analyzes it. One girl I knew in college, she was always coming over to borrow a movie, and she’d search and search, going past The Searchers, Citizen Kane, Casablanca, All About Eve, looking at my movies for a solid five minutes, while I’m like, let me light a cigarette and if she’s not done by the time I put it out, I just kick her out. So I’m just about to eighty-six her when she finally looks up, holding a videotape. “Can I borrow The Breakfast Club?” she says, as if it’s the first time. Once she was even like, “Oh, I just remembered. I still have your Breakfast Club, I’ll go watch that.” Invariably, her choice was always the same. One day I said to her, do you realize what a fucked up movie The Breakfast Club is? And I proceeded to explain to her, and she interrupts me mid-ellipsis and says “Look, this isn’t like a film or something that’s got like all kinds of deep messages in it, it’s just a movie. It’s supposed to be entertaining.”
PETER: I must confess I don’t entirely know what’s so fucked up about it.
DANA: Here it is, point blank. There’s five of them, right. Judd Nelson and Molly Ringwald pair off at the end, as do Emilio Estevez and Ally Sheedy. Anthony Michael Hall, the nerd, not only doesn’t have anyone to go make out with while the Simple Minds are playing on the stereo, no, but he also lets Molly Ringwald, fucking Molly Ringwald, talk him into writing the essay. And he writes it and it’s all strident and defiant of authority, giving the finger to the fascist principal, yeah, fine. The bottom line is, there’s him, and there’s them. There’s Anthony Michael Hall, and there’s the two happy couples. Look, in any group of five, if two pairs are formed, there’s one left over. Simple arithmetic. But morally speaking, this particular case, the Nelson-Ringwald and Estevez-Sheedy pairings, is an outrage. A world that accepts this as right and good is wrong and evil.
PETER: What do you propose? The nice girl and the athlete? The nerd and the weirdo? That is too easy. Aesthetically, that is an outrage.
DANA: Oh, I agree. I’m not proposing that at all. Emilio Estevez getting together with Ally Sheedy is fine. The world would be a better place if more guys like him dated more girls like her. Both of them benefit from it, he by seeing that weirdos are people too and her by seeing that popular kids aren’t all assholes.
PETER: The problem, as you see it, is the good girl going for the outlaw.
DANA: The outlaw who abuses her and abuses her for the entire movie, and in the end she’s melting into a puddle of G-spot. Yeah. You see, this movie is, to a certain extent, beloved, and people say “Stop thinking about it so much, it’s just a movie,” and this means that they, by implication, share the philosophies espoused therein. This means that they implicitly support the notion that what women really want is to be abused and tortured.
PETER: I think that is stretching the point a bit.
DANA: Which would you prefer, someone who abuses you, or someone you can have a good conversation with?
PETER: Dana, truthfully, the sex is probably better with the Judd Nelson character.
DANA: I’m not kidding, Peter. This is a clear-cut case of good versus evil. Good: intelligence. Evil: abusive asshole.
PETER: Do you not think, in all honesty, that the good character, Anthony Michael Hall, deserves a little better than the shallow rich girl? I always saw it as a blessing in disguise for him that he is not trapped in a relationship with either the shallow rich girl or the kleptomaniac compulsive liar.
PETER: I see the problem as being that Hughes felt it necessary to give the film a Hollywood happy ending, or what he thought was a Hollywood happy ending. It would have been a far, far better film if in the end, the characters merely went their separate ways, and perhaps you have a slow motion montage of them walking past one another in the halls and not acknowledging . . . that is real.
DANA: But don’t you think sometimes movies, or, hell, art in general, should show what should be, instead of always just these bleak, depressing portraits of what is?
PETER: That is what I mean when I say you are more American than anyone I have ever met. You look to movies for the answer.
(Two disclaimers: one, it was the 90s, when people lapped up long dialogue scenes about pop culture; two, Dana only owning American movies is addressed later that scene when Peter tries to mansplain his way into her bed, on some “you need to broaden your horizons” shit but she's having none of it.)
So, John Hughes. By all accounts, the nicest dude. Beloved by friends and family and millions of 80s kids the world over. A lasting effect of that niceness, and of the fundamental banality of his body of work, has been a general sense that anyone who doesn't like his movies is a big old meanie, and that anyone who spends too much time critiquing them is, per the above excerpt, reading too much into things. As far as the meanie thing goes, go fuck yourself with a cactus, and as far as the reading too much into things, well, yeah, pretty much the same.
Much like Christianity, the problem with John Hughes isn't so much the canon as it is the fandom. Hughes, for all his visual ordinariness and superficiality as a writer, was doing what filmmakers are generally venerated for: making films drawn heavily on his personal experience and interests. Taken more broadly, he was living out the axiom/bromide “write what you know.” His middle-to-upper-middle-class white suburban teenagers were the people he'd grown up around as a middle-class suburban teenager.
Where the problem with Hughes comes into play is in the mistaking of his very specific milieu, the fictional suburb Shermer, Illinois, for a universal expression of what it means to be an American teenager. When I was a sophomore in high school I took “Film Appreciation” as an English elective, and among other adventures like watching Rebel Without A Cause and The Producers and almost failing my final paper for going on a digressive rant about Leonard Maltin's idiocy for not properly respecting La Dolce Vita (I've always been me, clearly), we watched The Breakfast Club in its entirety over the course of two hour-long classes. I had not seen it before, though a couple very excited girls had. I was a little less than moved, though I liked that it was doing something formally a bit different from other “stupid fucking teen movies” (again, I've always been me). Most of the class didn't really care for it (weirdly, Rebel Without A Cause was the runaway hit that class; Nicholas Ray auteurism lives!) and more than a few comments were made about it being “boring.”
A couple years later, wondering if I'd missed something, I bought it on VHS and indeed found myself picking up on nuances one simply doesn't pick up when surrounded by fidgeting classmates. But a couple things started gnawing at me, the first of which that Judd Nelson's character walks around calling people “fag,” which undercuts both his dubious coolness and the revelation that underneath the carefully crafted outlaw exterior he's really a scared, scarred kid. Then there was the asymmetry about who finds love in the end. And the awkward artificiality of the dramatic momentum. And so on. Then there was the hyper-defensive, ultra-nostalgic John Hughes fandom that I encountered in my suburban-reared college classmates, and thus died the death any chance I'd ever have at being able to overlook the clunkiness of the movie in favor of its sentimental intangibles.
Stripped of that sentiment, John Hughes movies are mildly (always, always mildly) grotesque to behold. There's the unexamined homophobia, misogyny (Molly Ringwald may be an asshole in that movie, but nothing she did warranted that disgusting upskirt shot), and classism. In his other movies, like Ferris Bueller's Day Off (which is probably the most entertaining of the bunch, although Ferris Bueller himself is a fucking sociopath) the classism is more fully on display, as the rich kids faff about doing whatever the fuck they want at the occasional ignored expense of the service industry. Then, of course, there's the so-racist-even-John-Hughes-fans-admit-it's-racist racism in Sixteen Candles, with Long Duk Dong.
The Breakfast Club stands apart from the comedies, unable to play the “but it's a joke” card. It tells the story of five privileged (yes, Judd Nelson too; the wrong side of the tracks in Shermer Illinois is the Beverly fucking Hills of most of the United States) kids who each do something stupid (yes, Ally Sheedy too) and end up in detention and make the revolutionary step of actually talking to each other. All kinds of sexist, anti-intellectual (Judd Nelson shredding the Moliere book?), racist (Anthony Michael Hall breaking character to do an old black bluesman bit?) bullshit flies by. The movie ends happily ever after for everyone, including celibate revolutionary manqué Anthony Michael Hall. Then the Simple Minds start playing and nothing else exists for three minutes or so because that song really is something else. Then it's over, almost like a post-hypnotic suggestion where you're feeling good because the song was so great and assume the whole movie must have been, too.
But it's not. Time has a way of creating classics independent of other forces, with nostalgia doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Throw in a director being a really nice person, and that's another extratextual classic-maker. So it's natural to look at The Breakfast Club and Hughes' other films and think “ah, well, I may not like them, but they're classics, I must be wrong.” No, you're not wrong. The Breakfast Club fucking sucks and always has. Pauline Kael called it a movie about a bunch of stereotypes who get mad that everyone treats them like stereotypes, and that's a perfect summation of the entire problem. Hughes' great flaw as a writer, even within the undemanding standards of his genre, was an inability to see the world beyond his nose, which resulted in some shocking lack of self-awareness in his characters and movies, which tend to be so white you need sunglasses to prevent eye damage.
All the self-pitying bullshit about being engulfed in the social miasma of middle-and-upper-middle-class white suburban life of Shermer, Illinois has a simple fix: move to fucking Chicago. It's fucking right there. Don't just treat it like an amusement part like Ferris Bueller. Move there. Whether literally or not, all that soporific whining about feeling forced into roles, just shut the fuck up already. Move to Chicago.
Monday, March 10, 2014
Sunday, March 9, 2014
|Waingro, about to fuck everything up, as is his custom|
The time has come to speak of Heat. One of the most towering feats in the history of ownage, Michael Mann's 1995 heist picture is beloved by both hardcore cinephile and civilian alike. It's full of memorable dialogue, two fantastic late-career performances by Pacino and De Niro, a couple iconic heist sequences, what might be the definitive collection of ownage movie supporting actors (Danny Trejo's character is just named “Trejo” because fuck a character name, he's Danny Trejo), and Michael Mann's uniquely magical ability to make soundtrack tracklists that look fucking horrifying on paper—in this case, the U2 side project Passengers and a fucking Moby cover of Joy Division's “Where Will It End”—into cinematic moments of ferociously transcendent beauty (seriously, the half minute or so of that Moby track? In the freeway scene where Pacino's driving 120 trying to catch up with De Niro? That shit's tight). These things, along with with the central contrast—Pacino's an obsessive, brilliant cop, De Niro's an ascetic, brilliant thief—are what we think of first when we think of Heat. What we rarely consider, and what I didn't realize until quite recently, is that if you delete one character from Heat, nothing ever happens. That character? The new recruit, Waingro.