“When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies”: Remembering John Hughes

I can’t think of too many moments in film that are quite as cathartic and satisfying as Judd Nelson’s victorious fist pump in the closing shot of John Hughes’s brilliant “The Breakfast Club”. It feels celebratory, defiant and righteous. For the better part of the last couple of hours, we’d gone through some heavy shit. We’d witnessed the unfurling of five mid-eighties teen stereotypes, bordering on caricatures, slowly doffing the outward personas that everybody had forcefully squeezed them into. We are revealed shades of anger, sorrow, crippling insecurity. These caricatures are revealed as painstakingly human, duped by their own facades.

“The Breakfast Club” is a masterpiece. Not just a ‘genre masterpiece’ (and seriously, fuck that ‘genre masterpiece’ nonsense; something is either brilliant or it isn’t, regardless of how closely it conforms to the standards of any given genre). It’s a beautiful coming-of-age story comparable to some of Truffaut’s best work, if more insular and light-hearted. It’s a true classic. I say this to you now, at age 25, with the same conviction and resolve with which I declared over a decade ago, after I first discovered it on cable.

To call that initial viewing epiphanic is an understatement. It was almost religious. I sought out the screenplay online and read it feverishly (though, in hindsight, it was more likely a transcription of the film rather than an actual shooting screenplay). I saw in John Bender parts of what I wanted to be, and parts of what I was becoming. I winced as I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in Anthony Michael Hall’s character. Even Molly Ringwald’s frustration with her place in life was something I could relate to. And the fact that these characters were so honest in their duplicity and phoniness and the deconstruction of their individual stereotypes showed me that in reality, as cruel as our teenage existence was, we were all equally lost within it. It’s something I still feel to this day.

High school was a strange time for me. I went back and forth between having a blast and finding it unbearable, soul-crushing torture. As I suspect to be the case with most people, I was struggling to find my place in the world, struggling to figure out exactly who I was and what I was supposed to be. I was simultaneously fed up with the helplessness of my situation as a teenager with zero clout in the world, and paralyzingly scared of all the responsibilities that came along with adulthood. I also found myself extremely frustrated by the falseness and cruelty of social interactions which I was either a victim of or had bought into. To borrow the imagery of Joss Whedom, high school was very much a battlefield. And as someone who never really fit into any group– I was a bit too self-aware and social to be an outcast, but a bit too freaky and out-there to be one of the cool kids– the fact that there seemed to be somebody out there– “out there” being Hollywood– who understood my plight and didn’t satirize it was extremely comforting.

My life was made richer with the discovery of John Hughes films. My exploration of his filmography was akin to finding out all your favorite songs came from the same band. It’s something that happened to me when I started reading up on Phil Spector by virtue of his work in “All Things Must Pass” and then slowly realizing he’d produced all this shit that I loved and I was already a fan of. My mind was overflowing with memories as I looked through his credits online and recognized movies I had loved when I was much younger in which he was either a writer, director or producer– “Pretty in Pink”, “Sixteen Candles”, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Weird Science”– hell, he had even been responsible for the “Beethoven” movies, which were a huge part of my life growing up. And it dawned on me that he was already one of my favorites long before I even knew his name.

Well, I made it through high school, but a lot of those fears and insecurities made it through with me. I realize now that they are inherent to the human condition, that they are part of who we are and they are what pushes us to try new things, to be better. And with the incorporation of the John Hughes catalogue and all the lessons contained within, I’ve been doing relatively well since.

On August 6th, three years ago, John Hughes died of a heart attack in New York at age 59. I found out later that same afternoon while going over my Facebook page and seeing “RIP John Hughes” on a couple of my friends’ Statuses. I was shocked.

The rest of the day went by. I went to school for a final. My friends commented on my gloomy demeanor. I really couldn’t concentrate because the loss resonated deep within me, like I had lost a friend. A mentor. I mumbled through an oral presentation and left campus. The early hours of August 7th found me walking aimlessly through the streets of Buenos Aires, listening to the soundtrack to “Pretty in Pink”, with my eyes fixed straight on the asphalt, wishing the world knew exactly how much they had just lost, knowing full well that it wouldn’t.

John Hughes was involved with a lot of movies. He was an accomplished director as well as a prolific writer and producer in the eighties and early nineties. It broke my heart when I read the newspapers the next day refer to him as “creator of the Home Alone franchise”. This was a slap in the face of the legacy of a man whose work transcended (as well as redefined) the “teen comedy” genre, up from the lowbrow sex-related yuk-yuks of “Porky”s and other such shenanigans to genuine character studies. Teenagers in cinema stopped being bumbling, clueless pseudo-adults and developed into three-dimensional characters with warmth, complexity and the ability to empathize. Adults became the cynical and loveless counterpoint to the vibrancy and strangeness of the teenage existence, as tumultuous and tormenting as it was. Because when you grow old, your heart dies.

John may have disappeared from the scene in the 90s, but there was something comforting about knowing that he was around. Because he still knew. He knew that the world was full of adults with their heads so far up their own asses that they’re blind to everything but their own cynicism. He knew that there was something wonderful about the uncertainty of a teenager, and that we’re really just trying to find ourselves and each other amidst all the chaos. And he encouraged us to keep the magic in our hearts; to remain silly and believe in the magic that is in the world.

Three years after his death, I raise my fist into the air like Bender in “Breakfast Club”– not in defiance, but in honor of a man. A writer. An entertainer. But more than all of that, a teacher. I remember you, John Hughes.

12 thoughts on ““When You Grow Up, Your Heart Dies”: Remembering John Hughes

  1. You know I am not one of those people who follows the film world closely or pays attention to who wrote what or who directed what, unless it’s based off a book, I am pretty much clueless. But when it comes to Mr. John Hughes, well that’s a name I know. He made movies that are well iconic, fixtures of our time. Not just movies, but pieces of our time, and they never fade. How many times are the Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink, referenced in today’s books, tv shows, movies, around the dinner table? No one ever forgets these movies, they speak to every generation. RIP Mr. Hughes.

  2. To this day, the fuzzy feeling I get from most Christmas songs is traceable directly to their having been featured in the “Home Alone” movies, which I watched incessantly as a child. Perhaps not his finest work as a director, but that shit’s etched in my mind forever.

    1. Yeah, “Home Alone” was a pretty important movie in my childhood, but reducing JH’s legacy to a movie that he didn’t direct (he wrote the screenplay, Chris Columbus directed it I think) and didn’t really explore many of the major themes of his work just didn’t sit right with me.

  3. I haven’t actually seen any of these yet, but I did read a wonderful piece about him after he died by a woman who had struck up a correspondence with him as a teenager. He sounded like a true gent.

  4. Really great piece, Jorge. You certainly have a way with words that I can only dream of. I hate to be a stickler for facts but he actually died four years ago in 2009. Time flies, huh?

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