(Editor’s Note: This is part one of a series examining the coming of age movie. I might even do something shocking like post the whole series in a week.)
John Hughes: a Remembrance (or Not)
A few years ago I was invited to an Oscars party at an upper scale (for Albuquerque) apartment complex. I’ve grown to hate the Oscars increasingly more each year (to the point where I no longer watch them). Despite this resentment, I felt like the best thing to do with this invitation was accept it.
This was shortly after John Hughes, director of such ’80’s teen comedies as The Breakfast Club, had died. The important element to factor into my telling of this story is that I have no real sentimental attachment to Hughes. I know I’ve seen The Breakfast Club and Uncle Buck at some point. I just dimly remember Some Kind of Wonderful, and I finally caught Ferris Buehler’s Day Off in my late twenties. (This was due to being too tired to shut off the TV or change the channel after a grueling commute.) These movies did absolutely nothing to change my life, and I don’t think I ever saw them again.
Ironically, I was not in high school when I saw these movies. Every instance of me seeing a John Hughes movie had to do with their ubiquitous presence on cable TV. They were on all the time when I was in college, and proved to be a respite for studying.
How did I live through the teen years without the Brat Pack? Pretty damn easily, to tell the truth.
I will also add that I have never seen Pretty in Pink or Sixteen Candles. I’m 32 now, so it’s not particularly likely that I will.
What does any of this have to do with the Oscar party? Please forgive my digression: here’s the rest of the story.
I can’t remember who hosted the Oscars that year, or what won. I just remember the John Hughes tribute that occurred halfway through the telecast. That’s because the people I was at the party with (primarily female and my age or older) went totally apeshit. The Hughes regulars (John Cryer, Molly Ringwald, the eldest Culkin, some of the Breakfast Club) stormed the stage to “Don’t You Forgot About Me.”
There was the cursory rant about the cultural significance of John Hughes. The actors had forced “personal recollections” of what a wonderful man John was. The general summation of all of this garbage was that film history wouldn’t have been the same without She’s Having a Baby.
I sat there unmoved, but eventually fell into a state of questioning.
These were some of the questions that floated through my psyche:
- Did these movies have that much of an importance?
- Did they (as the presenters insisted) accurately reflect the lives of the people who watched them?
- Here’s the next layer of the above question: Did the people who watch these movies want them to reflect their lives? Was this some statement about what Hughes’ audience wished their coming of age had been like?
I’m not going to do that.
No, I’d instead like to make an uneducated and stilted assumption about why people like coming of age movies.
I’ll be a little more diligent by including movies about “growing up” that I like. Why do I like them, in all honesty? How did they feel in the void that not loving John Hughes created in my life?
Let’s back up, and talk about how we see “coming of age” in American Society.
The Mythology of the American Teenager: Angst, Self Realization, and Eventual Maturity
I’ve read about the way other societies handle the idea of gaining maturity. They throw you out in the jungle or the desert for a few days. If you don’t get devoured by wild animals, you officially become women and men. (I’m not being facetious here, either. That is essentially what the Australians dub “walkabout,” for instance.) There’s no drawn out process, just a general sense of “you passed, you didn’t get eaten.”
What do I like about this? There is room for individual growth, and idiosyncratic reaction to circumstances. No one child is going to forge through the wilderness alone in the same way. This leaves some room for life to be a learning process that isn’t predetermined by expectation.
The American belief is that coming of age needs to happen on a trajectory that lasts in between ages 12 and 18. You struggle through all the stereotypical prat falls, only to reach whatever we deem as “maturity” at the end. Everyone needs to develop at essentially the same rate...and it should happen in glorious Technicolor with a rock/pop soundtrack. (Do you see where I’m going with this?)
I can’t entirely blame popular culture for this assumption. It starts in the educational system: The people that advance towards “maturity” the fastest are rewarded. They are held up as examples of how you should stumble through adolescence. They get voted the “most likely to succeed,” leaving a trail of resentful losers in their wake. I don’t know why this happens, and I’m not a sociologist.
I’m just a guy who has seen too many movies. This is what the movies I’ve seen about adolescence have told me. Being a high school “loser” just puts the grit in your character. You’re not a “loser” at all, but indeed a tragic martyr or an off beat romantic hero. The beautiful girl (or boy) will suddenly notice you, and you’ll get through this difficult period relatively unscathed.
The Inherent Flaw of the “Coming of Age” Movies
I don’t need to break the bad news to you. That never happens in real life, does it?
That’s the inherent Catch-22 with any coming of age film. They function as pieces of entertainment...yet we want to use them to substitute for our reality. The narration at the end of Stand By Me tells us that you’ll never have better friends than the ones you had at twelve. The reality is that most of your friends at twelve were assholes and idiots. You lost absolutely nothing when they left your lives.
The guys you chased girls and drank with in your early ‘20s were never as charismatic or hilarious as the crew in Diner. You might have thought they were, but I have bad news for you. You’re not Kevin Bacon, and your best friends were not Mickey Rourke and Steve Guttenberg. Those were professional actors hired to interpret a script by Barry Levinson. The fact is they ended up creating an attractive, excessively simplistic version of what reality looks like.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved Diner. My early twenties were not full of ‘50s rock and roll and conversations about roast beef.
What am I getting at here?
The coming of age film does us all a double headed disservice:
- If you’re young: They sell you on a reality that is just beyond your grasp. You need some escapism during troubled times. That’s completely natural...but you know what isn’t? Investing in this fairy tale garbage most movies peddle in. That’s unhealthy and somewhat of a waste of time.
- If you’re older: They create a false sense of memory. Even worse, they make you pine for a past you never had. I’m guilty of watching the horrible Can’t Hardly Wait a multitude of times when it first hit HBO. Why? Because I was convinced that this piece of dribble somehow reflected how high school should been for me. The realization of all my bullshit fantasies realized! I don’t even like Jennifer Love what’s her face.
- Both of these issues are still hinged on the belief that maturity is not a gradual process. Somehow it just happens magically, and isn’t something you need to continually work on.
The “coming of age” film is generally cheap nonsense. I don’t need Ducky to figure that one out. That said, I do have some favorites in the genre. You’ll have to wait until next time to find out what those are.
Hey, I’m not immune to the bullshit.