Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Best: Directors of All Time #16 - John Hughes

-The Breakfast Club
-Ferris Bueller's Day Off
-Plains, Trains, and Automobiles

-16 Candles
-Uncle Buck
-Weird Science


John Hughes's greatest talent in film was his writing.  He wrote some of the best, most iconic movies of the 1980's.  But it is also important to remember his contribution to movies as a director.

His decent movies failed to move up to the level of greatness because they were too stuck in their own time or failed to hit a universal nerve.  But that just puts into relief the movies that he made which were truly great.

Let's start with Ferris Bueller's Day Off.  It is a silly comedy, no question about it.  But what makes this movie work so well is that Ferris is the kind of person we wanted to be in high school.  He was confident, popular but kind, smart but not nerdy, and he got away with everything.  It is difficult to make a character that cool who you can connect with.  But Hughes has you bond instantly by have Ferris talk directly to you.  He isn't talking to the audience.  He's talking to YOU.  You are in on the the joke.  You are his best friend.  And with that, he Hughes makes you Ferris too.  He captures the "above-it-all" high school attitude that we all felt from time to time.  As he said: I do have a test today, that wasn't [expletive]. It's on European socialism. I mean, really, what's the point? I'm not European. I don't plan on being European. So who gives a crap if they're socialists? They could be fascist anarchists, it still doesn't change the fact that I don't own a car. 

He gives it just the right tone of silliness, with just a hint of gravitas through Cameron, the person we probably felt like in high school.  The wordless scene in the art museum is the best.  It is not only a call back to the childhood innocence that the 3 main characters have left behind, but it is about the beauty of art.  It would have been funny and ironic for the characters to mock the art they found.  But Hughes doesn't do that.  He spends half of the scene just showing you the art, letting it affect you.  Yes, the characters have fun with some of the sculptures, but for the most part, they are mesmerised.  Ferris and Sloane are moved by the beauty to romance.  And Cameron is visually pulled in by Seurat's masterpiece.  Hughes is trying to tell us that good art should move you and draw you in completely.

His best known work is undoubtedly The Breakfast Club.  What amazes me about this film is that it still holds up.  You can still show this movie to high school students today because they would immediately identify with the lives of the characters.  Here is the genius of this movie and why it is not like any other high school flick:  instead of making stereotypes, he made archetypes.

In terms of directing, Hughes took a lot of risks setting almost all of it in one room.  Any director will tell you that you need to keep a movie visually interesting or no one will want to follow.  But for nearly half the movie, the characters not only stay in one room but only at the front.  And yet, despite this, he was able to capture your eyes with how he filmed and dressed the characters (think about how you immediately remember their costumes.  That isn't an accident).  The long dialogue in the circle is hellish to film, because not only they are in the same space, but the characters never move from their spot.  For that LONG stretch of time, Hughes draws you in with his slow pans and quick closes, making Bender look bigger and Brian look smaller.  In a movie, that scene shouldn't work as well as it does.  And yet it is the best scene in the entire film.

And you cannot mention this movie without the confluence of music and visuals in the finale.  Bender stands there with the sun setting on high school with his arm in the air triumphant.  But what has he won?  He is still going home to an abusive father and has 2 months of detention.  What he has won is connection.  He has a girlfriend, but more importantly, he has discovered that he is not alone.  That, Hughes is telling us, is how we succeed in high school.

But his most mature work is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Not a film about teens, Hughes moved on to adult men and their relationships.  Not only is the movie hysterical, but it is poignant.  You can be laughing one scene and crying the next.  John Candy, as directed by Hughes, gives his best performance in a movie.  He is annoying by endearing.  And Steve Martin's tightly wound man trying to get home pairs beautifully with Candy's thoughtlessly spontaneous fellow traveller.  Hughes could have made a movie that was simply a series of frustrations (as is the case with the Vacation movies, the first of which Hughes wrote).  But instead, the journey is the purpose.  The men in the story are better because of the crucible of hilariously hellish holiday travel.

The last scene of the movie can be watched without words.  Visually Hughes captures the entire essence of his story in a way that still moves me.  It is a perfectly cathartic way to remind us that even the silliest comedies can touch us if they give us the truth.  And that is what Hughes always did as a director, even at his wildest:  He showed us who we are.

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