Andie is an outcast, hanging out either with her older boss, who owns the record store where she works, or her quirky high school classmate Duckie, who has a crush on her. When one of the rich and popular kids at school, Blane, asks Andie out, it seems too good to be true. As Andie starts falling for Blane, she begins to realize that dating someone from a different social sphere is not easy.
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I watched THE BREAKFAST CLUB at the weekend at the AFI, as part of its John Hughes retro, seeing it for the first time on a theater screen. I acknowledged on my Twitter feed that while I really genuinely do think, in my head of heads and heart of hearts, that THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a great film, worthy of comparison to the great works of realist theater from Eugene O’Neill or maybe even Anton Chekhov, it’s probably impossible for me to be objective about it, for accidental reasons of biography and age. But then I thought — well, why not write about that and make it an intermittent series about the films that most shaped me and influenced me, as Paul Clark once did and taking the same Truffaut-inspired title.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB was the first film I was ever truly obsessive over and watched repeatedly. It was released in the spring of 1985, my last semester of high school, but I didn’t see it in the theater at all. At the time, I went to the movies at most a couple of times a year, preferring TV and reading, and really only knew of this film for its chart-topping theme song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by Simple Minds. In fact, our graduating class picked that song as our class song, rejecting among others my nomination of the Pink Floyd hit, “We Don’t Need No Education” (not the exact title, but who cares).
It wasn’t until I was off in college that I first saw THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and from the standpoint of being glad to be out of high school, I was immediately taken by these characters. I felt as if I’d known every one of these people in my own class and everyone I knew did too. It was a real communal cement for college-age boys of that era. At the time, and trust me on this one Gen-Wired Kiddies, even having a VCR at home was a luxury, and video stores commonly rented out the players as well as tapes. It was common for guys to split all the rental costs and watch a double or triple feature, and THE BREAKFAST CLUB was often “my” choice. I watched it repeatedly with dorm mates and also when I was at home (my parents were frankly sick of it by 1988), seeing the film at least 12 or 14 times during the late-80s. There were a few other films I watched repeatedly — ST. ELMO’S FIRE and PORKY’S come to mind. But even though I was no cinephile, I knew even then that those other two titles were vastly inferior, and THE BREAKFAST CLUB was something special.
The film, as I implied, was one of the first works of art I really could get into on my own and on my own terms, without the burden of School. Appearances now aside, I was a math and debate whiz in high school, not a literature one. When it came to literature, I was immune to its consultations, but I was quite aware of what I was going through. Of course, I mentally cast myself as Anthony Michael Hall, reasonably so, though I was going through what I could only see at the time as an Ally Sheedy phase (I could hardly even otherwise identify it then as the clinical depression it probably was). It was not shop, but Driver’s Ed that I failed and which failure I couldn’t take. I noticed this time around also that Sheedy is the only one who doesn’t smoke dope and only Hall isn’t romantically involved at the end (ditto my personal experience of high school on both counts).
I could tell then that THE BREAKFAST CLUB was like a play in its observance of many of the Aristotelian unities — mostly on a single set, limited number of characters, compressed time. The fact the film was shot in sequence really helps maintain these unities in the actors’ performances too (all perfect BTW, and none of these actors have ever since approached this), as they’re discovering their characters as their characters are discovering themselves and each other. But at the time, I had no idea who O’Neill or Chekhov or Strindberg were, “Molay” really pumped my nads too, and my eyes would have glazed over if you’d tried to relate THE BREAKFAST CLUB to them. Whereas now it seems self-evident to me and hardly worth elaborating that Hughes, at least here, is working in their tradition and that his film is a breakthrough in the same way their plays were — in making drama out of the talk of ordinary people, characters from backgrounds previously considered unworthy (the bourgeoisie in the earlier case; teenagers in the case of THE BREAKFAST CLUB).
THE BREAKFAST CLUB is not a perfect film (there’s too much damage to the library not to be noticed, and there’s two silly Semi-Obligatory Music Video scenes), but even some of its apparent weaknesses aren’t really that. Yes, the characters are all broad types — in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. But that can hardly be a criticism of a movie which is set in an environment where there’s so much pressure to conform into typed cliques, and which is explicitly about that very fact and about how it is and isn’t overcome. And the fact is that after the end of summer of 1985, I have never gone to any high-school reunions and you couldn’t pay me now to do so. Yes, the lengthy encounter scene is a stagewriter’s device, but it’s hardly less realistic than, say, Hickey’s big speech in THE ICEMAN COMETH which runs on for … what, 40 pages? It’s also at least as penetrating, at least for these sorts of characters. The film is ultimately about the solidarity teens have in the face of adults — whether it’s things as small as Molly Ringwald begging Judd Nelson to back down over the weeks of detention or her telling Hall that “we trust you” to write their paper, or things as major as none of the kids ratting on Nelson as he hides under the desk even though they don’t actually like each other at this point in the film.
Seeing it again now, for the first time in a theater and for just the second time in a decade (the first being on the death of John Hughes — more on that anon) — well, I noticed a lot of the small details anew, reveled in the ways the film dates itself, laughed at how I had the movie practically memorized (still), and at how I had changed in my reactions even to things on screen. I now like sushi; at the time, I had Nelson’s reaction to Ringwald’s lunch. Such terms as “neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” were part of my vocabulary then but not now, and I once asked a sportswriter colleague and his girlfriend the whole conversation that ends “level with me, Sporto …” I whistled along in the theater to what I now know to be the “Bridge on the River Kwai” theme, noticed that Sheedy is looking at a copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” saw that Nelson was wearing a badge on his glove saying “not saved,” and chuckled at the principal bragging about making $31,000 a year. And what’s with all the political incorrectness — the film starts out with a noose and the word “die, fag” scrawled on a locker (two hate crimes in one), a Georgia state flag with “the Confederate swastika” is part of a library display (a third), the principal has a girlie toolbox calendar on the wall (sexual harassment lawsuit), and he locks a student in a closet, challenges him to a fight and calls him a gutless turd (another lawsuit).
At the Oscars earlier this year, there was a posthumous tribute to Hughes, in which several of his actors participated (actually all the kids in THE BREAKFAST CLUB did, except Emilio Estevez). At the time, I was both moved and angry. Moved because THE BREAKFAST CLUB was such a seminal experience for me and it wasn’t easy to accept that Hughes was gone (I basically wrote his obituary at work without credit because I didn’t like what the newswires had sent); angry because the Academy was paying tribute to a man whom it had never seen fit to honor while he was alive (nor frankly did many others; see this anger-inducing page at the IMDb). And that lack of honor was primarily because Hughes was working in a popular vein in a commercial genre considered declasse — the teen film. But he elevated it. And the generational wheel has a way of shifting, as the Oscar ceremony showed. Critics and film-makers of my generation, like those who loved Ford and Hawks as boys and pushed them into the forefront of American cinema, have done the same for Hughes best films, I have the impression. THE BREAKFAST CLUB, along with FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, PRETTY IN PINK and SIXTEEN CANDLES, helped make them the artists or critics they are 25 years later and thus have entered the canon of important works of popular art. It’s self-vindication.
Oh wow. I’d almost forgotten that video stores used to rent out the VCRs as well as the videos. But you’re right, of course; in fact, I worked at a video store between ’88 and ’92, and I can remember the big heavy cases we used to put the machines in, and how, when customers were asked to leave a deposit with us ($50? $100? I can’t remember, precisely), most of them let us take impressions of their credit cards but every now and then there was someone who gave us an envelope of cash.
Well said, Victor. One of my most memorable filmgoing experiences was at a screening of “The Breakfast Club” in college, less than half a dozen years after its release. I remember to this day the deep-throated roar that went up at the final shot, of Judd Nelson’s (triumphantly?) upraised fist.
I’m curious though. Your adoration for this film stands in stark contrast with your disdain for Holden Caulfield. Are they not of a piece?
Comment by Demented and sad, but social |
August 12, 2010
In a previous life, before I pledged fealty to the art of the written word — a pursuit for which I have subsequently won fame, fortune, and unbounded acclaim — a different calling beckoned for a time.
I enjoyed reading as a kid, but I also loved the cinema, while at the same time generally detesting everything savoring of “Hollywood” glitz, glamour and celebrity; by my late-teen years, I’d found a number of films with which I felt I could identify, which spoke in a unique way to my restless young heart.
Among this early personal canon of cinematic excellence was Whit Stillman’s indie classic Metropolitan, released in 1990. Others on my list included Richard Linklater’s Slacker (1991), and Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984). What drew me to these particular movies was in part their fiercely-wrought simplicity of craft: they were scruffy little projects, filmed on a microscopic budget with an ensemble cast of no-name actors, yet I found them infinitely more engrossing and entertaining than the latest formulaic Julia Roberts flick being sold to the drooling, credulous masses, or the newest Meryl Streep accent invariably fawned over by legions of no less credulous film critics.
Here, in fact, was an entirely different breed of cinematic experience, rich in substance, literary even, standing at a blessed distance from the abominable artifice and cheap, tedious pretentions and clichés one commonly saw on display among mainstream movies of the era. If nothing much “happened” in my chosen canon of films but a lot of talking and an equal amount of anti-climactic “down time,” that was okay by me: I had, by that time, discovered that life itself often lacks seeming direction or catharsis: one could address the dullness of existence in a perfectly un-boring way, and these films did.
But writer-director Whit Stillman’s work stood out among the rest for the manner with which his characters, dialogue and overall elegant mise en scène just seemed, in some exquisite and exhilarating way, to shimmer with beauty and intelligence. Perhaps it had something to do with the impeccable looks, dress, and deportment of the high-bred WASP protagonists, as well as their at times almost superhuman articulateness and supreme, slicing wit. I wanted to know these people, wanted them actually to exist, wanted to learn to talk the way that they did, wanted to attend their parties.
To be sure, I was at the time still a young man of the Left, trained to deplore reflexively the rich white WASP for his insufferable richness and inexcusable whiteness; still, there was something palpably exciting, even admirably subversive, about Stillman’s brash, unabashedly sympathetic portrayal of this much-maligned demographic.
His characters were upper-class preppy, bourgeois types, but they also managed to be fleshed-out, authentic characters bursting with charm and, yes, humanity; they were the flip side of the douchy, hateful caricature you far more frequently saw in movies of the time (think James Spader’s legendarily assholish blond snob Steff McKee in Pretty In Pink, or Ralph Macchio’s vicious blond antagonist in The Karate Kid, or the despicable blonde jock-frat boy bully in Revenge of the Nerds, or the sneering blond jerk in Back to School, or the similarly beastly blond boy who appeared in countless other ’80s dramas and teen-sex comedies).
Stillman wrote and directed two more movies in the ’90s, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1997), both of which built upon the themes first introduced in Metropolitan. While Metropolitan was set in the late-’60s and featured college-aged young men and women attending Manhattan debutante balls and generally hanging out and discussing art, politics, love, and life, Barcelona and Disco centered around mid- to late-twentyish characters in the early ’80s struggling to find their niche in the world as young professionals. In Barcelona, two American expatriates in Spain find romance, intrigue, and roiling anti-Americanism; in Disco, a group of elegantly-attired slackers argue, debate, and banter over the strains of pulsing dance music at a “Studio 54”-like club during the tumultuous final days of the disco era.
In each segment of the trilogy, a conservative-minded hero confronts the social decay resultant from the destructive cultural upheavals of the 20th Century Western world; in all of them liberal bromides are mocked ruthlessly and critiqued harshly. Yet none of these movies are preachy, or even overtly political. Rather, they are witty and hyper-literate gab-fests in which a central character is tempted to sin, falls from grace, then eventually wins redemption. The sexual revolution is particularly singled out for censure; we see the destructive consequences of casual divorce, careless promiscuity, and other behaviors borne of hedonistic excess and spiritual rootlessness. Metropolitan is especially scathing in its depiction of shallow left-wing Euro-hipsters, while Disco celebrates transcendent faith as a desirable and necessary thing, whose erosion from modern public life has had deplorable societal consequences.
* * *
Though the three films of the 90s Stillman trilogy are all delightful comedies, generally lighthearted in tone and featuring happy endings, a melancholy tone occasionally intrudes, sounding a pronounced minor note among all of the mannered amusement and wry erudition. A sort of Spenglerian tragedy, we are given to understand, is playing itself out behind the scenes; the WASPs, or “UHBs,” as they are referred to in Metropolitan (one character’s amusingly clumsy anagram for “urban haute bourgeoisie“), are “doomed,” and on their way out; there is a sense of an impending “decline and fall” which gives a context and a dramatic texture to the proceedings and lends a poignant undercurrent to the bright, debonair banter and repartee of the well-spoken, well-dressed, well-heeled cast of characters.
Following “Disco,” whilst at the height of his acclaim, Stillman abruptly retreated into hibernation for a decade and a half. He has recently returned to the big screen with a film called Damsels in Distress, which I haven’t yet seen. My tardiness on this front at least partly stems from the fact that I fear uncovering evidence of a “decline and fall” of an artistic sort in this latest work, evidence that the master has lost his craft. I want to remember the glorious Whit Stillman of my youth — the Whit who wittily chronicled the foibles of educated, upper-class whites in an affectionate, understanding and non-condescending manner, while larding his dialogue with enough breathtakingly clever bon mots to keep us reactionary-minded literary snobs (like the UHBs, a sadly shrinking demographic) perpetually grinning in escsatic delight.
A nice Hillel Italie remembrance of John Hughes, the “Breakfast Club” auteur who dropped dead yesterday while taking a walk in Manhattan. He was only 59. I eagerly went to just about all of Hughes’ films but was disappointed with most of them. Even as a 20-year-old, I thought “Ferris Bueller” was just ok — “Back to School,” which came out around the same time, was funnier — and although I watched “The Breakfast Club” as many times as everyone else in my age cohort, it never particularly grabbed me. Both Judd Nelson and Emilio Estevez are pretty unbearable in it, though they do indeed remind me of standard high-school types. And my favorite performer in the piece, Ally Sheedy, was essentially wasted. The script is faux-deep. Same with “Pretty in Pink,” which I enjoyed at the time but is also a slight movie. “Home Alone” and its sequel are, of course, for rug rats only. The only really good movie Hughes ever made was “16 Candles,” although even that is hardly a masterpiece of insight, just a pleasant little package.
Still, one has to credit Hughes for being basically the only filmmaker at the time (I grant exceptions to the makers of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Risky Business” and “The Sure Thing,” though none of them stuck to the genre) who looked at teen comedies from a teen point of view, with feelings (simplistically and histrionically rendered as they were) at the core instead of the slapstick, nudity and partying that were central to a wave of kid flicks from around 1982 to 1988. I recall a comedy-show skit about Hughes in which he was spying obsessively on teens, hanging out in high school hallways and frantically writing down what he overheard. “Breakfast Club” has connected, solidly, with teens for more than 20 years because he got something right.]]>
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