Screws fall out all the time, the world’s an imperfect place

Thumbing through the new nonfiction books at the Library two weeks ago, I happened upon an interesting looking volume called You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation, by Susannah Gora. The cover art features caricatures of characters from the iconic teen movies of the 1980s: John Bender, Lloyd Dobler, Ferris Bueller, and others from Pretty in Pink, St. Elmo’s Fire, Sixteen Candles, and Some Kind of Wonderful.

The “Brat Pack” movies are often said to have “defined a generation”, whatever that means. I’ve never entirely understood that. I wasn’t terribly interested in those kinds of films when I was a teen; I saw The Breakfast Club via a video rental after a teacher, of all people, waxed poetic about it in class one day. (With good reason, I came to see.) Of the films discussed at length in the book, the only one I saw in its first run in a theater was Say Anything, which truly did rock my world — I thought it was a brilliant movie from the first five minutes, and I’ve never stopped loving it. But I didn’t see St. Elmo’s Fire until I watched an edited version on TBS while in college, and I don’t recall ever seeing Pretty in Pink, Sixteen Candles, or Some Kind of Wonderful. I never had a crush on Molly Ringwald. Ally Sheedy, sure. But Molly? Not so much.

(In fact, one of the earliest actual rants I remember posting on this blog came when the American Film Institute did one of their 100 Years, 100 Movies specials, focusing on movie romances…and omitted Say Anything, which I hold to be not just one of the great movie romances, but the greatest teen romance ever. Funny thing about Say Anything, though: when it came out in 1989, I was feeling a bit of teen angst because I was about to graduate high school, my future felt uncertain, and I had just failed in my first real attempt to date a girl. I felt like seeing a movie, so I saw Say Anything. Which is about a guy graduating high school, feels uncertain about his future, and is in love for the first time in his life. Oy!)

Part of this is probably fairly obvious to regular readers; my filmgoing interests back then tended to be a lot more geeky in nature.

The book fills several roles: a chronicle of a certain period and group of people in Hollywood, a behind-the-scenes chronicle of the making of their films, and an examination of their cultural impact. It’s a very entertaining and informative read, especially in its overall profile of writer-director John Hughes, who comes off as a very complex man, often fiercely loyal but also extremely difficult to please. One thing I always look for in a book about movies is that it makes me want to see the movies discussed, especially the ones I’ve never seen before.

I found the inside stories of the movies the most interesting, as I usually do with things like this. I kind of skimmed through the chapter about the New York Magazine article that coined the term “Brat Pack” and, in many ways, doomed the careers of the actors within it; what interested me was the making of the films themselves. The way the set decorators had to literally paint trees green because Ferris Bueller’s Day Off takes place in spring and yet was filmed in fall; the fact that Cameron Crowe came this close to not getting to use “In Your Eyes” in Say Anything; the way the entire ending of Pretty in Pink was reshot, to Jon Cryer’s chagrin, after the original ending tested horribly.

My favorite of these stories involves what is actually my least favorite scene in The Breakfast Club, the bit toward the end when Claire decides that Allison needs a new look:

When it came time for the cast to film a now infamous scene in which Claire gives Allison a makeover, Sheedy wasn’t too thrilled. In the first version of the scene, Claire puts a lot of makeup on Allison, “like putting a lot of stuff on her is making it all better,” says Sheedy. Uncomfortable with this hypocrisy, Sheedy took the matter in hand. She suggested a small change that made a big difference, at least to her, and to any viewers paying close attention. “I asked John [Hughes], ‘Can we make it more that they are taking this shell off of her?’ ” says Sheedy. Hughes saw the logic in her suggestion, and so the resulting scene features Ringwald actually removing makeup from Sheedy’s face, in particular the dark eyeliners her character has been hiding behind. When removing the makeup, says Sheedy, Ringwald’s character “uncovers the beautiful purity that is in Allison that isn’t so scary and dark — and she got my hair out of my face, took my sweater off of me.”

But even with the idea of removing makeup as opposed to adding it, the scene wouldn’t exactly have Betty Friedan jumping for joy. “It is very much like Grease at the end there,” says Sheedy. “Like suddenly the jock sees her [as if she’s] come out singing ‘You’re the One That I Want.’ The thing I love about it,” says Sheedy frankly, “is that she doesn’t quite pull it off.” Sporting a frilly headband with an awful bow on it, Allison looks a bit like an unhappy poodle. “It doesn’t work. It’s just so stupid-looking. That bow completely came off of Madonna.” As part of Allison’s make-under, she removes many layers of her dark, goth/bag lady attire, to reveal a girly blouse. But if Allison’s true nature had been represented in the clothes, says Sheedy, “that should’ve been a boy tank top, a muscle tee. It should’ve been. But they wanted feminine. I don’t know — I always felt like John was on the fence about the transformation. But it was part of the ending written into the script. Everybody shifted positions into something else, and there was nowhere to go with Allison except into something like that.”

“How could that have been allowed to happen?” Juno star Ellen Page lamented to New York magazine. Page argued that the scene leads women to “start judging ourselves, just because…you’d rather climb trees than give blow jobs.” Indeed, says sociologist Robert Bulman, “the movie would have been so much stronger had it stuck to its original theme, which was, these are important characters who have something to bring to the experience of these friendships. To have her character go through a transformation to be accepted — that goes against the theme. That scene always kind of breaks my heart.”

I tend to agree, and have never understood the impulse behind the scene. The whole film, to that point, seems to be leading to the conclusion that the character in the least need of change is Allison, and yet, she’s forced through the most overt change of all of them. (Sheedy’s a bit wrong about Grease, though; what a lot of people miss about that movie is that at the end, yes, Sandy changes, but so has Danny — he’s not the outsider rebel anymore, and has instead earned a varsity letter. Both characters change for each other.)

The chapter on Say Anything, as good and welcome as it is, feels a bit at odds with the rest of the book, as the film had nothing to do with either John Hughes or the Brat Pack actors. I’m glad the film is discussed, but its presence here feels a bit out of place, and if it was there, then surely some other teen films from the 1980s could have warranted mention as well. Fast Times at Ridgmont High is mentioned in passing (with the explanation that the film’s feel makes it more of a 1970s holdover than a film from the 80s); I’d personally hold that The Karate Kid is as vibrant a teen film, and as culturally relevant, as any of Hughes’s movies.

Still, You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried is an engaging and entertaining examination of an odd series of films that seem to be both classics and fluff at the same time, as well as an elegiac tribute to John Hughes.

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2 Responses to Screws fall out all the time, the world’s an imperfect place

  1. Jason says:

    Sounds like a good read — I'll have to look this one up.

    Couple of thoughts: I seem to have had almost exactly the opposite experience with these movies than you, and I wonder if it isn't because I'm just a shade older (I graduated high school in '87). The common trope that the John Hughes cycle "defined my generation" works for me, because Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller all seemed to closely mirror my teen experiences (well, in the case of Ferris, my teen daydreams, but still…), whereas the later Hughes films — Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful — have always struck me as just retreading the ground covered in the earlier films. Also, I saw them when they actually came out instead of picking them up when I was older, which no doubt made a difference, too.

    On the other hand, the intense affection so many hold for Say Anything has always mystified me. Not because it isn't a good movie — it is — but it just didn't make much of an impact on me. To tell the truth, I really don't remember much about it all, aside from the iconic "In Your Eyes" bit and a couple of random gags (like the thing about the guys who are full of advice being dateless and sitting behind the Kwik-E-Mart "by choice"). And this despite seeing it several times over the years — it just doesn't stick with me for some reason. Better Off Dead, another highly regarded Cusack movie, is the same way — I know I've seen it, but it's like that disc sector of my brain is dead. Possibly because I was in college and busy with my own first major romance at that point? I don't know… but I find it interesting…

  2. Mimi says:

    I have to admit, I've only seen "Say Anything" once – and I was firmly in this generation (graduated in 90)

    This is a book I *need* though! I'm sure.

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