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Don’t You Forget About John Hughes

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Posted on Aug 13, 2009

By David Sirota

Confidence is a strange and elusive thing. As a nation, we clearly have it in this post-Vietnam age of chest-thumping invasions and flag-pin patriotism. But as humans, we are each, well, human. In our minds’ most secret caverns—those shadowy places that stiff upper lips, Botox and sports cars obscure—aplomb is often just a fleeting relief from more constant fear and loathing.

A country of human self-doubt birthing a nation of superhuman hubris—it’s not the paradox it seems. After all, the popular culture sustaining this oxymoronic reality revolves around exalting the impossibly gifted virtuoso, the against-all-odds champion, the Mount Rushmore-size megastar—in short, the larger-than-life individuals from Michael Jordan to Lance Armstrong to Ronald Reagan whom we know we cannot be.

While such deification drums up national pride, it also evokes the ugly feelings associated with personal insecurity, which is why I think so many mourned last week’s passing of John Hughes. The filmmaker, most well known in the 1980s, was one of the only contemporary artists who found success providing an uplifting antidote to those darker emotions—an antidote that is more relevant today than ever.

While Hughes’ works were marketed as one-off parables about teenage angst, they really make up a single catalog extolling something bigger—something that today’s infotainment teaches us to ignore: the intrinsic worth of the regular person.

Hughes created “National Lampoon’s Vacation”—a classic so intent on honoring the typical buffoonish-yet-loving father that its poster featured Clark Griswold as a Herculean colossus. With “Pretty in Pink,” “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” “Uncle Buck” and “Some Kind of Wonderful,” Hughes made films whose paladins weren’t aristocratic perfectionists, but working-class and decidedly flawed commoners. Even when Hughes went sitcom conventional with “She’s Having a Baby” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” he still produced plots forcing picket-fence protagonists to make do with—rather than magically transcend—their weaknesses.

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Certainly, the demography of Hughes’ on-screen world was whiter and wealthier than the country he aspired to portray. And even devoted fans admit he occasionally dabbled in offensive stereotypes (examples: “Vacation’s” redneck caricature, Eddie, and its minstrel-show depiction of the inner city).

Yet, for all his blemishes, Hughes accomplished the seemingly impossible: At the very moment America was being conquered by the cult of the celebrity superhero, he ascended through films insisting that the rest of us mere mortals are not as weird, alienated or worthless as we’ve been implicitly led to believe.

This is a big reason why Hughes’ work remains as embedded in the American psyche—and therefore politically significant—as any recent cultural product. That includes even those ubiquitous Barack Obama T-shirts because in many ways, Hughes’ themes are central to today’s epic battle between hope and panic.

As economic crises compel us to confront debates about taxes, health care and the common good, the enduring hyper-individualist conservatism of the 1980s now chafes against a president with a very different vision. He asks us not to trust only in his individual skills and not to obsess over society’s differences, but instead to be confident in our own problem-solving talents and to remember that we all are in this together.

We are, indeed, watching Obama channel his fellow Chicagoan, Hughes. As if ordering the band to substitute “Don’t You Forget About Me” for “Hail to the Chief,” the president implores us, as “The Breakfast Club” said, to understand that “each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal”—that is, each one of us, however flawed, is of value.

The only question now is whether we will run with that Hughes ethos, or simply walk on by.

David Sirota is the best-selling author of the books “Hostile Takeover” (2006) and “The Uprising” (2008). Find his blog at OpenLeft.com or e-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com

© 2009 Creators.com


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Outraged's avatar

By Outraged, August 17, 2009 at 9:06 pm Link to this comment

Quote: “Confidence is a strange and elusive thing.”

This is true.  Just when you think you have it, it seems in the wisp of the wind to be gone, but then seemingly, it magically reappears… outside of yourself almost, but not.  Elusive…. but very there….no doubt.

A very good article Mr. Sirota, interesting.  Additionally, several good comments, as well.

Imagine for a moment, very seriously…. to be President Obama, 2009.  Most of us here at TD are old enough to entertain this notion.  What would we do….  the wars, healthcare, corruption, reading the letters sent, torture, gauging the totality of the nation’s sentiment…. etc.

Your comment here struck me:

“We are, indeed, watching Obama channel his fellow Chicagoan, Hughes.  As if ordering the band to substitute “Don’t You Forget About Me” for “Hail to the Chief,” the president implores us, as “The Breakfast Club” said, to understand that “each one of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, and a princess, and a criminal”—that is, each one of us, however flawed, is of value.”

I feel it…. very seriously, I do.  I could go on and on, but sure….. I agree.  This “channel” has never been presented as, and I don’t sense is…. a one-way street, it isn’t analog but digital, a parallel circuit, three channels in one, both ways.  It’s a boulevard.  And rightfully so.

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By Big B, August 14, 2009 at 7:00 pm Link to this comment

While Hughes’ stilted version of upper middle class life in suburban america was, at best, flawed, it did tell that old story of false hope that corporate america has managed to sell us since the phoney days of June and Ward Cleaver. That story that, if everybody has a mom and dad that go to work at 8 and come home at 5, that our children will have not a care in the world, money and healthcare concerns don’t exist, and all of lifes problems will somehow solve themselves in just under 120 minutes of screen time. Most of us have always known that this america never existed for the majority of us, but it was always fun to get lost in the myth for a little while. After all, John Hughes made movies, not documentaries.

With that said however, the surprising depth found in Hughes’ charactors can be both amazing and touching at the same time. Even though it is only contrived fiction, I cannot help but tear up every time I see the scene near the end of “She’s Having a Baby” as Kevin Bacons charactor sits helplessly in an emergency room contemplating his wasted life up to that point, all the while awaiting news of his wife’s problematic delivery (having been in that situation twice in my life) He captured it perfectly.

And i have always thought that we should tie Dick Cheney to a chair and force him to watch “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles”, and if he doesn’t laugh when Steve Martin looks over in panic at John Candy’s charactor in the spinning car and sees him dressed as the devil, or if he doesn’t cry when Candy explains to Martin that he is living on the road because his beloved wife had died a year before, we should quickly kill him, for he is not human.

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By BobZ, August 14, 2009 at 10:07 am Link to this comment

Dave,

Good tribute to John Hughes. He captured the everyman spirit of an America devoid of the divesiveness that seems to have overtaken large segments of America. All of us could identify with the characters in a John Huges movie, because as we grew up we went through the phases of life those characters represented. What happily married man hasn’t driven along the highway and seen a beautiful blonde driving a fantastic sportscar and wished for a moment to be beside her, and then come back to reality. More to the point however is that he pictured an American spirit that is enduring and can’t be broken even though we are going through a period of uncertaintly reminiscent of the 1930’s. But we will get through this just as we got through a great depression, a world war, a cold war, and the culture wars. America and the American people are better than what we have seen on the television screens this week.

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By M.B.S.S., August 13, 2009 at 11:51 pm Link to this comment

this young lady’s blog really touched me.

http://wellknowwhenwegetthere.blogspot.com/2009/08/sincerely-john-hughes.html

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