Mash Ferris!

Here's a couple Ferris Bueller Mash-ups for you.

The first one, "Requiem For a Day Off," has a lot of good moments in it. Too many, in fact. It's really just a nearly endless stream of amusingly re-contextualized bits. They're funny, but no real story line comes of it. Hey, Benji, that's why they call it editing. All in all, it's pretty entertaining stuff, though.

The second, "The Fugitive's Day Off," wins points for execution, but it's basically just the fruit of one good idea. Well, worth watching, nonetheless.


Damn you, American Teen!

Yesterday was commencement: not only did I finish everything in time to graduate, but "Barry Manilow's Wardrobe" won me the "Paul Smith Prize" for this year's distinguished Master's thesis (woohoo!). So, now I'm thinking about "what next?" Publish?

If that's the current plan of action, then I'll probably end up turning the epilogue into a full-length chapter, and then writing a proper epilogue. I wrote about this movie before, but after watching the new trailer, and seeing the poster (which, if you happen to have wandered onto this website from a virtual knitting circle, you may not have realized is a mock-up of The Breakfast Club), I'm thinking that it will give me more than a little reason to write some more.

It brings me back to one of the essential (though largely unaddressed) questions of the thesis: which came first, the social stratification in high schools, or the social stratification in high schools as depicted in The Breakfast Club?

Oh, btw Nanette, it's the jock, the geek, the rebel, the princess and the criminal.


Damn Skippy!

Well, here it is. Finally.

I'm just about to print this thing out and have it bound. You can download the PDF here, if you like that sort of thing.


Full Draft


Sorry no updates recently. I've been working hard, or something like that.

Click here to download a PDF of the almost-final draft.

Click here to download the same as a Word file.


John Hughes Piece on NPR

I found out about this interesting NPR piece by way of one of my favorite procrastination engines, Metafilter. (Here's the original post on MeFi.) Proving, once again, that the influence of John Hughes is damn near perpetual, if not always pleasant.



This is the second vignette in the thesis, meant to act as a bridge between Chapter 3 (which ends with a discussion of teen suicide) and the Epilogue (which will deal with more contemporary high school films). I'm not entirely satisfied with it; there's something awkward about the flow. I'm also not sure that the whole vignette thing will end up working out, but the general idea for this was to use a contemporary teen film - Gus Van Sant's Elephant - to connect old and new, in particular to point out the odd fact that Hollywood was virtually obsessed with films that dealt with teen suicide at the end of the 80s, but has so far completely avoided the topic of school shootings (which are at least as commonplace as suicide was twenty years ago).

Anyway, here it is...
Director Gus Van Sant confonts several controversial issues in his 2003 film Elephant. Family dysfunction, bulimia, teen pregnancy, homosexual repression and school bullying each work their way into the eighty-one-minute plot, but all of these issues are merely ballast for the film’s true thrust: to depict an incidence of school violence on the level of the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado. Loosely patterned on the infamous killing spree of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, Elephant is one of very few films to address the epidemic of school shootings to recently plague schools in the United States.

Like many of Gus Van Sant’s less commercial ventures, Elephant’s approach to narrative is hardly straightforward. It consists of several short vignettes that follow the daily activities of individual students at an unnamed high school in the American northwest. The vignettes are divided by title screens which simply state the name of the character (or characters) about to be seen. These sections move backward and forward in time, often overlapping one another, but because of the long take tracking shots used, they sometimes create curious continuity problems. Intertwined with these stories are the film’s two primary subjects – Alex and Eric – the perpetrators of the violent attack that ends the film.

Cinematically, Elephant is widely known to have been inspired by the 1989 Alan Clarke film of the same name. Clarke’s Elephant is a dramatization of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, consisting of several sequences – quite similar to one another in narrative content, and cinematic structure – in which unsuspecting victims are gunned down by uncannily resolute assassins. In each sequence the camera follows a subject, or subjects, on a dolly shot as they pursue, and then kill, their targets. Clarke follows his subjects from a respectful distance mostly as they walk away from the camera, but sometimes accompanying them side-by-side. These tracking shots – which are generally not long takes, at least in proportion to the other shots in the film – alternate with static images of the victims, lying motionless after they have been shot repeatedly and killed. With no music or non-diegetic sound, very little dialogue, and only the subtlest structural variations from one sequence to the next, Clarke’s film has a rather harrowing effect on the viewer.

Van Sant’s film borrows the tracking shots from Clarke’s minimalist visual style for a very different overall effect. His shots are often extremely long takes, filmed almost exclusively from behind the characters. While Clarke’s film is filled with menace, Van Sant’s is somehow dreamlike, lulling the viewer into a nearly passive state. The fact that the camera follows behind each subject allows the viewer to identify with them in the same way one connects with a character in a video game. In fact, this perspective is almost indistinguishable from a certain genre of violent video games – often called “first person shooters” – and is a rather loaded reference to one of the cultural artifacts frequently blamed for the prevalence of violence among young people. Along with the occasional addition of slow motion and the introduction of random non-diegetic sounds – like bird calls, the sounds of dripping water, unintelligible speech, all with significant amounts of reverb and echo, no less – the cumulative effect of these aesthetic choices is the vaguely surreal atmosphere that pervades the film.

The overall impact of Elephant is difficult to describe. It is too nebulous to be a straight dramatization, and the lack of substantial character interaction makes it hard to pin down what is being expressed. While there are clear signs that the two shooters are victims of bullying, and may be struggling under the tension of repressed homosexual identities, the film doesn’t make a clear enough connection to point to any definite “cause” for the violence. What’s more, practically all of the characters in the film suffer from some sort of dysfunction – as previously mentioned – but they don’t uniformly seek out solutions in violent behavior. A CBS News report covering the 2005 massacre at Red Lake High School in Minnesota alleges that Jeffrey Weise, the shooter responsible for killing seven classmates before committing suicide, watched Elelphant shortly before the attack. However, it is difficult to imagine that the film could be solely responsible for inciting copycat violence, considering the unusual way in which it depicts the events. Comparatively speaking, Zero Day – also released in 1993 and, to my knowledge, the only other film to openly dramatize this type of school violence – takes a considerably more explicit approach to the material. That film – which focuses exclusively on its two violent protagonists – blatantly fetishes firearms, and even offers an on-screen tutorial for would-be bomb makers.

Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Elephant is one of the interviews appearing in the twelve-minute “making-of” featurette included with the DVD release. Alex Frost, the untrained actor that plays one of the two killers, remarks: “To me, high school is like going to hell. You get up and go to hell every day.” With the same disturbing nonchalance that marks his character in the film, Alex adds: “There’s always that… possibility that somebody could come to school with a gun and start shooting people, and one of those people could, in fact, be you.” The slight ambiguity is unsettling enough – Frost clearly means to say that “There’s always the possibility that it could be you that gets shot,” but his awkward teen creepiness leads one to think that maybe he really means to say that “There’s always the possibility that it could be you that comes to school and starts shooting.” – yet it is one of Alex’s later comments that is really distressing. At the end of the interview, Frost conveys his incredulity that he could have gone from being a teen nobody to starring in a feature film. It is as if to say that he never imagined the possibility of becoming a movie star, but he seems to think it would be altogether likely that he – or one of his peers – could walk into school one day and start shooting people.

School shootings – like the massacres at Columbine, Red Lake, and more recently Virginia Tech – are at least as prominent in the national consciousness today as teen suicides were fifteen or twenty years earlier. There have been nearly twenty incidents of this type of school violence since 1997, with at least one incident occurring annually (with the exception of 2002, in which no such incidents occurred). If this type of crime is so prevalent, why has it been virtually ignored by the motion picture industry? A significant number of films attempted to tackle the nuances of teen suicide in the late 1980s, but studios seem completely unwilling to do the same with school shootings today. Timothy Shary attempts to broach the topic in his survey Teen Movies: American Youth On Screen: “In the twenty-first century so far, Hollywood seems perfectly content to dismiss issues of juvenile delinquency rather than risk being blamed for encouraging it (90).” But the fear of culpability didn’t seem to significantly deter filmmakers from pursuing teen suicide in the ‘80s. In that sense, Gus Van Sant’s film is aptly titled: the menace of school shootings is like the elephant in the room that no one is brave enough to acknowledge. It is entirely possible that the issue could be dealt with responsibly on screen – as Elephant proves – it is even plausible that conscientious films of this type could be an important step toward understanding the causes and effects of an otherwise disconcerting and perplexing topic.

Drillbit Taylor

Ok, it may not be the two and a half hour director's cut of The Breakfast Club that I've been hoping for, but Drillbit Taylor just might be a promising return to form for John Hughes (under his I'd-rather-not-take-full-responsibility pseudonym, Edmond Dantes). At the very least, he's taking a break from pre-tween protagonists, and returning to high school.

There are a few genuinely funny, er, "bits" in the trailers and clips available here. All in all, it looks sort of like Weird Science meets My Bodyguard (but funny), with a Superbad sensibility, for good measure. At any rate, it'll probably be better than this piece of crap.

P.S. (Man-of-the-moment, Seth Rogen is listed as a co-writer, and the bully is played by this kid, who was one of the gunmen in Elephant. Stay tuned for a post on Elephant, probably coming later today.)


Chapter 3!

If you would like to read Chapter 3, you can download it by clicking here.

I have to admit, I'm starting to run out of steam, and this chapter was a bit of a struggle, but I'm pretty pleased with how it turned out. It's still a rough draft, but it's all there for the most part.

Since it ended up being a condensation of what was originally slated to be Chapters 3 & 4, the new title is:

“When You Grow Up Your Heart Dies” –
Parents, Teachers, Principals and Other Complications
Making Your Life Your Own

Here's an excerpt from the section on Ferris Bueller's Day Off:
There are several more remarkably asinine authority figures that Ferris encounters on his day of hooky, but he finds his ridiculous adversary in Principal Edward Rooney. Jonathan Bernstein calls Ferris “the Bugs to Ed’s Fudd, the Road Runner to his Coyote (81).” Ed Rooney is arrogant, clumsy, vindictive, rude and hopelessly uncool, but his most significant flaw is that he underestimates Ferris Bueller. While Ferris and co. are seeking out the finest that Chicago has to offer, Rooney is staking out the local pizza parlor and prowling around outside the Bueller residence. It never occurs to Rooney that his arch nemesis, juvenile though he may be in age, could be a man of culture. This is a common fault of adults in teen movies: they have predictably condescending notions of the teenage mindset. But Rooney is not simply flawed, like that beleaguered coyote he is downright cursed. In the short period of time he spends trying to break in to Ferris Bueller’s house he steps in the mud and loses his shoe, splits the seat of his pants, gets attacked by the Bueller’s preposterously vicious rotweiler, and amasses enough parking tickets to have his car towed. In short, everything Rooney does brings him suffering and humiliation, while everything Ferris does brings delight and easy triumph. Roz Kaveney helps to define the opposition of Bueller and Rooney: “It is typical of the clash in Hughes’ work between conservatism and anarchy that Ferris’ recklessness is admirable and successful, whereas the reckless disregard for limits of Dean Rooney has consequences (42).” It is the screenwriter’s moral imperative that Rooney must always lose and Ferris must always win. This makes for cartoony fun, but it also hints at a more philosophical side to the conflict.

Jonathan Bernstein provides some more insight, by refining our notion of the adult and teen archetypes in the works of John Hughes. “All representatives of adult authority were characterized in the Hughes canon as cringing, vindictive, foul-smelling, prehistoric, bewildered and spiritually undernourished (52),” while “His teen leads were smarter, hipper, more sensitive, more articulate, and at all times, morally superior to their adult oppressors (53).” Aside from the superficial trappings of youth and adulthood, Bernstein highlights the moral and spiritual elements of the distinction. In his short essay, “John Hughes Goes Deep,” Steve Almond quantifies this distinction: “By definition, the adults in a Hughes film are beyond hope of transformation. But it is his central and rescuing belief that teens are capable of change (11).” Redemption is a privilege available only to the young, while the old are doomed to be set in their senescent ways.

Almond’s essay – light on nostalgia and heavy on analysis – is the finest entry in the Hughes related anthology, Don’t You Forget About Me. While writing about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off he characterizes Ferris as a “raging, narcissistic id who gets away with” (7) everything. But while Ferris lives the dream, his best friend Cameron is trapped in reality. “…Ferris, of course, leads a charmed life. His existentialism comes cheap. For Cameron (as for the rest of us), the experience of pleasure is an ongoing battle against anxiety (7).” Almond goes on to refer to Ferris and Cameron as two nodes of a “psychological dyad.” So if Ferris is the “raging, narcissistic id” that makes Cameron the awkwardly self-conscious ego. Rooney is therefore by implication a narrative personification of the haughtily domineering superego. On one level, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is an “escapist farce,” but on another level it is a metaphorical representation of the ego’s struggle to find balance between the impulsive sensual desires of the id, and the authoritative demands of the superego. In that sense, Ferris is the movie’s red herring – he may be the focus of the action in the film, but actually it is Cameron who makes the hero’s journey.

As Cameron observes of his friend, “As long as I’ve known Ferris, everything works for him. There’s nothing he can’t handle. I can’t handle anything. School, parents, the future. Ferris can do anything.” Ferris is invincible, while Cameron is anything but. It is notable that Cameron makes the preceding statement about Ferris, while his best friend is in the midst of a non-alcoholic bacchanalian revelry of his own instigation; Ferris sneaks onto a float in the Von-Steuben Day parade, uniting all of Chicago in song and dance. The scene elevates Ferris from the status of inspired prankster to something godlike. Dionysus, the patron deity of the bacchanale, is also known as “the Liberator,” and Ferris is largely responsible for Cameron’s liberation.


You Gotta Have Faith... Don't You?

I just finished writing about Pump Up the Volume, which has me wanting to increase the interactivity around here a bit. Can anyone think of teen movies that deal explicitly with religion? The only ones I can come up with are Saved! and The Craft (which is obviously a stretch). I'm curious why religion is almost completely unrepresented in teen film. Any thoughts?

Oh yeah, there's always School Ties!



Sorry I haven't been posting so much as of late. I've been hard at work on Chapters 3 & 4, which have melded into one big chapter. I just finished several paragraphs on Risky Business, which end in a short discussion of the travails of the high school prep. I found this great NYTimes op-ed piece online, which I wanted to share. Enjoy this excerpt (or follow the link):

Part of what made the insular preppy world so alluring was its assurance, which was part and parcel of its conservatism. Preppies hung onto not just furniture and names but also customs and especially shares in Exxon bought back when it was called Standard Oil or something equally quaint. The culture was also conservative in the sense of accepting these things without question. Your true preppy, it seemed in 1980, was a stranger to self-doubt: can we think for a minute about the whale as a design motif on clothes intended for grown men?

Today, though, I think the unself-consciousness that used to distinguish the preppy world is gone. When anthropologists study a tribe, however respectfully, they change it. Preppy clothes had been a uniform by which you recognized the guy to sit next to on the train to New Haven. Like all the best uniforms, they were a visual language, instantly not only identifying but also, more subtly, placing the wearer.

Nantucket red pants came from Nantucket. Period. No Nantucket, no pants. The more faded they were, the more hours you'd spent on the water. They were better than an "I'd rather be sailing" bumper sticker because only the right people could read them.

And then, suddenly, in the 1980's, everybody looked like the guy on the train to New Haven. Imagine how they'd feel at West Point if all the tourists were in uniform too: cadets might begin to wonder about uncomfortable things like claims to legitimacy.


Chapter 2 for Downloading

If you would like to read Chapter 2, click here.


Not Another Teen Movie, Can't Hardly Wait.

I'm not quite sure why I thought I needed to see this one again. It's horrible. Really, really terribly awfully horribly bad. Like the other scary-movie-style-spoofs that I've seen, most of the jokes revolve around sex, nudity, excrement and the like. Apparently, John Cryer - Duckie! - was asked to be involved:
I read the script for Not Another Teen Movie. They actually wanted me to come in and audition to play the teacher who, when the sewage thing explodes above them, is drenched in human feces. I said, 'Wait, let me get this straight. You want me to come in and audition to be drenched in human feces? No, no, no, For the feces-drenching, I'm offer-only.'
The movie's only redeeming quality was a cameo appearance by Jon Benjamin - Coach McGuirk on Home Movies. Yay! - which was actually pretty funny, though in order for it to be a cameo I think Jon Benjamin would have to actually be famous. Not just in a geeky fan-boy way.

For my money, this movie is the real deal. Not a spoof, really, but it is a great teen movie in a meta sense. It has it's own story, and it does it's own thing, but it is also delightfully self-aware. Aren't references more fun if you're not being clobbered over the head with them?

Btw, Elfont/Kaplan also made this movie, which is woefully underrated. Really. Trust me.



I don't have any illusions about the singularity of my obsessions. Lot's of folks have a soft spot for teen movies. Especially teen movies from the 80s.

This, however, is a laughably narrow field of specialized "knowledge."


Chapter 2...

...is finally done.

The title of Chapter 2 is "With Friends Like These - Authority and Rebellion Between Peers."

It includes discussion of The Faculty, Disturbing Behavior, Heathers, Can't Buy Me Love and The Chocolate War.

It is 53 pages long (including two pages of endnotes), so I may or may not post it here. If you would like to read it, leave a comment, and I'll be happy to send it to you as an attachment.


Oh, Ilan!

I'm still not done with Chapter 2, but I will not be defeated. It's a complicated chapter. Lotta ins, lotta outs. I'm just now starting the last section of the chapter which deals with Keith Gordon's adaptation of the Robert Cormier novel The Chocolate War.

The movie stars Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Jerry Renault. Ilan was in a smattering of movies in the '80s, including one of the six movies in John Hughes' teen oeuvre, Weird Science.

Ilan pretty much gave up acting, and took up academia. Here is his faculty profile at Angelo State University (that's in Texas), where he is now Professor Mitchell-Smith. He is an English professor, go figure, and he looks just about the same as he did in The Chocolate War, except perhaps appropriately swollen.

I read a story about him in People Magazine a while back that I like to share whenever I get the opportunity. Apparently, after giving up fame and fortune as a minor child star he completely forget about acting and started living a "normal life". When he met the woman who would later become his wife he didn't even tell her about his past success on the big screen. They had been dating for quite some time before conversation finally found its way to all things Hollywood. The future Mrs. Ilan Mitchell-Smith confessed that when she was a kid she really liked this movie called The Chocolate War because she had such a crush on the kid that played Jerry Renault!

True story. True story? I dunno. It's a good one, though.



Smells Like Teen Spirit

I'm sure you must remember this one - an essential element to my middle and high school years, as I'm sure it was to many, many others. I was thinking again about Murray Milner's insight on the cheerleader - as mentioned in this post - and I remembered this video and how it somehow exploits that idea. Here's the full quote from Milner's book Freaks, Geeks & Cool Kids:
Cheerleaders have no direct role in the games played, but they are the key people who organize “moral” support for the teams. This moral support is expressed through public rituals. In addition to their close association with what is sacred [the team, the “spirit” of the school], cheerleaders are ritual specialists who have mastered the ceremonial techniques of the community and can lead others in carrying it out.

Rocket Science

Thank you Netflix! This quirkier-than-thou high school movie, about one coming-of-age-not-so-gracefully story, was thoroughly entertaining. It follows the mostly intrepid trajectory of one lovelorn stammerer from virtual outcast to state debate championship contender. The strength of this flick is its cast. I can't remember a weak character, in design or execution. I can remember a few irritating characters, but that was sort of par for the course.

My only complaint is the occasional feeling that this movie was trying a little too hard to be in a certain category of recent independent successes. The narrator - who was equal parts Alec Baldwin in the Royal Tenenbaums and Ricky Jay in Magnolia - was the perfect example of what I'm getting at. No matter, it didn't get in the way too often, and there were some singularly heartfelt scenes here (not to mention the singularly funny ones).

Oddly enough, it took place in "Plainsboro High School" in suburban NJ. Though fictitious - there are two West Windsor-Plainsboro High Schools, north and south, but no "Plainsboro" - it hits about as "close to home" as possible. Unfortunately, the majority of the movie appeared to have been fiilmed in Maryland, not the Garden State. Weird, nonetheless.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer (movie)

I've been focusing on research for the next chapter - With Friends Like These: Authority and Rebellion Between Peers - so when I haven't been reading Murray Milner's Freaks, Geeks & Cool Kids or watching The Chocolate War or Heathers (or all the commentaries, bonus content, etc.) I've been ingesting other high school movies...

I'm not sure how I missed Buffy when it first came out in '92. After watching half an episode of the TV show (not even) I was even less interested in making up for lost time, but I was pleasantly surprised. It was goofy, and clever, and didn't take itself too seriously. In other words, it was the perfect break from The Chocolate War (which I love, but which is not the sunniest of movies) and Heathers (which I think takes itself WAY too seriously and ends up the worse for it).

Yesterday when I was reading Milner I found an interesting quote which made me think a little deeper about the whole Buffy phenomenon:
In addition to their close association with what is sacred [the team/school "spirit"], cheerleaders are ritual specialists who have mastered the ceremonial techniques of the community and can lead others in carrying these out.
Interesting thoughts for a movie about the head cheerleader moonlighting as "the chosen" vampire hunter.

Milner's book is full of unexpected insights like that one, though it is on the whole more practical and realistic than that quote might suggest. But for another taste of the more offbeat perceptions of high school: Milner suggests that students in "alternative" social groups (like punks, freaks, goths, etc.) are analogous to monks or ascetics in "pre-modern" societies. They openly reject the standards established by their peers and thus operate largely outside of the established social structure.


I Just Wanna Dance!

I'm having a hard time getting the flow going today. I just wanna go out to the movies. No joke. Who's coming with me?


Chapter 1 - The Breakfast Club

Here's a rough copy of Chapter 1. It is 27 pages long, so prepare thyself. Incidentally, if anyone is html savvy, I'm having trouble getting the truncated posts thing to work. Any advice?


“These Children That You Spit On”:
The Teen Film Comes of Age (or)
How The Breakfast Club Redefined a Genre
Dear Mr. Vernon,

We accept the fact that we had to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it is we did wrong. What we did was wrong, but we think you’re crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us: in the simplest terms, the most convenient definitions. You see us as a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. Correct? That’s the way we saw each other at seven o’clock this morning. We were brainwashed…

It would seem unexpected, even oddly appropriate, that the first reputable study of teen film was published in 1985, the same year that John Hughes’ magnum opus, The Breakfast Club, appeared in American movie theatres. David M. Considine’s trailblazing and insightful survey of youth on film, The Cinema of Adolescence, arrived at precisely the right moment in the development of the genre he helped to identify: after several decades of gradual development the teen film was about to experience a rebirth. During the second half of the 1980s the teen film was more prevalent than it had ever been, and Considine somehow anticipated that renaissance. The high school movie, the sub-genre with which we are here concerned, had its own dramatic renewal in The Breakfast Club.

Though many films have depicted American youth in school, the first significant film about high school was Director Richard Brooks’ cinematic expose, Blackboard Jungle. Blackboard Jungle was presented to audiences as an honest depiction of the state of our inner-city schools, promising to increase “public awareness” about “juvenile delinquency – its causes and its effects” with the intention of taking a “first step toward a remedy” for this social ill. While the purported intention is laudable, the means adopted to achieve that end remain questionable, as David Considine remarks:
When ‘Rock Around the Clock’ exploded from the screen at the opening of the film, it did more than announce the arrival of rock and roll, or of Hollywood’s realization that the nation’s schools were in trouble. It announced that the film industry had found another social concern from which to reap profit. (118)
Indeed, Blackboard Jungle was both profitable and influential. Considine suggests that, “for the next twenty years the depiction of the school on the screen would, to a greater or lesser degree, represent a variation on the image as defined by The Blackboard Jungle” (124). It was a model for teen films to follow, as it established tropes that are still used today, but whatever the extent of its influence, films of this ilk continued – and continue – to appear in the years following its initial release. They have often tended toward sensation rather than representation, prompting some to categorize these films along with other “teensploitation flicks”. Movies like High School Confidential [1958], Over the Edge [1979], and Class of 1984 [1982] were all formed from a similar mold, with varying proportions of fact and fiction, and increasingly sensational depictions of juvenile violence and delinquency.

All of the films just mentioned begin with a sort of preface, appearing just before the main titles; these are messages meant to suggest that the following film is “based on true events” and often give statistical information related to teen violence. The ensuing scenes depict what one can only assume are meant to be shocking and sensational acts of violence perpetrated by young hoods. Fully aware of the sordid history of the high school movie, it was with a nod and a wink that The Breakfast Club made reference to its predecessors, as a preface to revolutionizing the genre. Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget about Me),” a song that may as well be referred to as “the theme from The Breakfast Club”, explodes from the screen in much the same way as Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” had done thirty years earlier . The film also has its own preface – more of an epigraph, really – appearing onscreen just after the main titles. However, instead of relevant statistics from the “National Council for Teen Reform”, Hughes quotes perennial pop icon David Bowie: and these children that you spit on/ as they try to change their worlds/ are immune to your consultations/ they’re quite aware of what they’re going through . Then shortly thereafter the screen shatters, like a brick thrown through a plate glass window, and we hear the voice of Anthony Michael Hall (as Brian) begin the voice-over that introduces the narrative: Saturday, March 24th, 1984, Shermer High School, Shermer, Illionois, six-oh-oh-six-two.

The epigraph manages to accomplish some interesting things – making reference to films of the past, situating The Breakfast Club within that tradition, setting the tone, etc. – but primarily it is a challenge, a call to arms. Here it should be noted that the teen film has always been at a particular disadvantage. These stories have always been told second-hand because the writers, directors and producers responsible for bringing these narratives to the screen are, almost as a rule, far removed from the teen experience. Occasionally productions may involve professionals in their early twenties, but members of the crew are usually much older. Even the actors that appear in teen films are often significantly older than the characters they portray. Breakfast Club director John Hughes comments on what the industry standard was when he made his first teen film:
At the time I came along… the last thing Hollywood wanted in their teen movies was teenagers! I mean, look at them - it was all 25-year-olds in those movies. When I did Sixteen Candles, all the extras, the kids on the bus and in the gym, they were all real freshmen boys and girls from the same high school. [Anthony] Michael Hall was a freshman, the sixteen-year-olds were actual sixteen-year-olds, except for Molly, who was a year younger. You may not realize it now, but it had never really happened before, for very simple reasons: it's more expensive and harder to use kids. You only have four hours a day to shoot because of labor laws, but the results were worth it, I think. (Ham)
Using teenage actors was just one of many ways that Hughes attempted to portray a more authentic high school experience. By including the epigraph at the beginning of The Breakfast Club Hughes is throwing down a gauntlet. It is as if to say: this movie is not another sensationalist story, told by someone who was a teenager in a previous life, this is a movie for real teenagers, now! The Breakfast Club is a movie about teenagers, for teenagers, where “teenagers” refers to a set of individual persons with thoughts and feelings of their own, not just a demographic group or a social phenomenon.

And although John Hughes was in his thirties when he made the teen films for which he is most well known, he introduced sensitivity for the concerns of teenagers that had been wholly absent from Hollywood teen film. In his exhaustive survey, Teen Movies: American Youth on Screen, Timothy Shary estimates the value and extent of John Hughes’ influence on teen film:
No other contemporary director has had such has had such a consistent (albeit brief) record of portraying adolescence, nor has anyone else so thoroughly affected the way that young people are shown in films… He simply made films about young people on their level, appreciating their experiences rather than exploiting them. The best teen films since then have done the same. (72)
In spite of his age, Hughes was able to connect with teen audiences by seeing the world through their eyes, and presenting their perspective without mediation .

The influence of John Hughes’ six teen films, from Sixteen Candles in 1984 through Some Kind of Wonderful in 1987, cannot be understated. In a few short years he was able to completely revive and redefine a genre that had up to that point been largely known for a shameless string of movies involving teens either trying to “get laid” or to avoid death and dismemberment at the hands of some psychotic slasher. This simple yet revolutionary act – of taking teenagers seriously – helped to establish a new tradition in teen film. As Roz Kaveney, author of Teen Dreams, observes of the Hughes canon:
The mere fact that films consciously imitated him, or consciously subverted tropes that he established, is crucial to the existence of teen films as a genre rather than merely a marketing niche. After Hughes, teen movies would always be knowing, had lost that blandness of affect, and lack of recursiveness and reference, which is often termed innocence. (12)
That is to say that the difference between “marketing niche” and full-fledged genre is the fact that these films established artistic patterns and standards that future films either copied or commented upon. Hughes’ teen films had something to say – not just something to sell – and that something was compelling enough to establish a canon in the literary sense.

What makes The Breakfast Club so important, as distinguished from other teen movies, and even from other teen movies by John Hughes, will be the subject of this chapter. What is it about this The Breakfast Club that inspires Jonathan Bernstein, author of Pretty In Pink: The Golden Age of The Teenage Movie, to call it “the most powerful example of its genre” (69) and compels Timothy Shary to refer to it as “one of the most important teen films of the entire decade” (68)? What puts it above the rest? Its authenticity is certainly of prime importance, but there are other things that make it valuable. The Breakfast Club explores the fundamental dynamics of the high school experience, reducing teen tension to the essential conflict between authority and rebellion, both between teachers and students – or parents and children – and also between teens and their peers. It does so with wisdom and wit, not to mention a keen dramatic and cinematic sense. The preceding pages will explore these social dynamics, while simultaneously illuminating the cinematic craft that helps bring them to life on screen.

The narrative conceit of The Breakfast Club is deceptively simple: five teenagers, from very different backgrounds, spend a Saturday together in detention. Lacking any direct adult supervision, or anything better to do, they gradually get to know one another, ultimately concluding that they have more in common than they previously assumed. One of the most rewarding aspects of this simple set-up is the opportunity it provides to examine the high school social hierarchy more closely. There is something almost scientific about this approach, as Jonathan Bernstein highlights in his commentary on the film:
In Sixteen Candles, Hughes displayed a David Attenborough-style delight in excavating and exhibiting the teen tribes secreted in suburbia. In The Breakfast Club he continued his anthropological theme, this time enclosing a quintet of representatives from disparate social groupings in a controlled environment, delving beneath the tribal markings in search of an underlying common humanity. (62)
In fact, the five personality types – the nerd, the jock, the delinquent, the rebel/freak and the popular girl – form the basis for Timothy Shary’s chapter on “Youth In School” in Generation Multiplex, in which he examines “the impulse of smart students to transform, the impact of delinquents on the school order, the threat of conformity to rebels [freaks], the sensitive depiction of athletes, and the effects of popularity on teen girls” (9). These narrative “impulses” are played out in a considerable number of teen films – both before, and certainly after, The Breakfast Club – and John Hughes helped to codify this phenomenon both on and off screen.

We will not whole-heartedly attempt to prove the latter implication beyond the shadow of a doubt, but rather ask the reader to entertain the possibility of its veracity while thinking about our analysis of high school films. In some ways, it is an assertion that is impossible to definitively address, much like John Cusack’s – and Nick Hornby’s – query at the beginning of High Fidelity: “What came first, the music or the misery? …Did I listen to pop music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to pop music?” That is to say, these social groupings existed long before moviegoers met Allison, Andrew, Bender, Brian and Claire, but nonetheless, has The Breakfast Club contributed more to their prevalence than it has to their malleability? Either way, the presence of these five stereotypes makes it possible for the film to examine how they relate to one another, and how these relationships may develop. In the narrative structure of The Breakfast Club these dynamics are largely exhibited in two ways, in how they are (1) set against each other, through resisting or yielding to conformity, and (2) how they unite against a common enemy in the form of school administrators, parents or teachers. We will examine these two dynamics in a narrative sense, but will also draw on the cinematic vocabulary of this particular film to make our points.

The five social types are first presented in the film through voice-over – brain, athlete, basket case, princess and criminal – each with a quick accompanying visual cue – computer lab, locker room, guidance counselor’s office, etc. – and then by introducing each character in isolation. These short scenes – brief interactions between the main characters and their parental figures, or lack thereof – help to establish their lives outside of school and away from their classmates, before throwing them together to fend for themselves. They also lend credence to the accounts each character will later give about their parents and their lives at home, as well as establish their socio-economic status.

Once they come together in the school library we are able to see how they relate to one another in terms of their social roles as high school students. Claire (the popular girl) and Andrew (the jock) are among the first to arrive, sitting next to one another in the front row. Claire is high school royalty – the Prom Queen – and Andrew’s status as an athlete of some renown affords him the privilege of sharing space with her at “the head of the class”. Brian (the nerd) actually arrives before Andrew, but knows better than to sit next to Claire. He first sits behind her in the second row – perhaps out of a desire to be counted among the social elite – but he is forced to move when Bender (the delinquent) arrives. Bender towers over Brian, motioning for him to relocate to a seat across the aisle, staring at him confrontationally until he does. Both Andrew and Claire turn around to watch this exchange, but do not interfere. Bender takes his seat directly behind Claire and Andrew, perhaps also out of a desire to insinuate himself into their social milieu, but also because it will give him the best vantage point from which to instigate trouble. Allison is the last to arrive, taking a long arc around the outer perimeter of the seats and even beyond the sculpture that divides this classroom space from the rest of the library. All four students watch her as she walks in and takes her seat in the last row, as far away as she can be from the others and facing away from the rest of the group. Claire and Andrew look at one another and share a disdainful laugh at her expense. Even Brian raises his eyebrows in disbelief; Allison is clearly an outcast.

These seating arrangements will remain fixed for the remainder of the film, with two exceptions. Bender is not static; he freely moves throughout the room, going where he pleases. This allows him to antagonize his classmates, acting as the catalyst for the various confrontations that will occur during their day together. Later in the film, when Bender is removed from the library, Brian will temporarily reclaim his seat behind Andrew and Claire. The significance of their arrangements solidifies their positions in relation to one another, in social as well as physical space.

The camera reinforces these relationships. Andrew and Claire are frequently shown in the same frame, as are Brian and Allison: the high school’s aristocracy and its outcasts. Bender most often appears alone onscreen, unless he is confronting another character. When any one of the other four appear alone on screen it is usually to highlight their reactions to a particular event, but it sometimes serves to distance them from the rest of the group. For instance, after Richard Vernon (the principal) first enters the room Claire interjects, “I know this is detention, but I don’t think I belong in here.” Her remark is meant to distinguish her as superior from the other students in the room, and the camera obliges by showing her alone onscreen for the first time since her arrival, as opposed to sharing the screen with Andrew as she has done up to this point. If the teenage characters are visually set against one another, then they should be at least as distanced from Vernon, who operates as the film’s primary authority figure. Vernon is consistently shot at a slight low angle, making him appear as if he is looking down at his students – which he is doing both literally and figuratively. He also appears to be looking down at the audience. In contrast, the students are always shot at eye level, prompting the audience to view them as peers. This is emphasized when Brian stands up during an early scene in order to express his intention not to return to detention; the camera follows him, appearing to stand up when he stands up, and to sit down when he sits down. These visual relationships will be explored further as we continue.

One of the most authentic aspects of Hughes’ screenplay is how fluid the teen characters are in terms of their allegiances to one another. Beyond the rigid social contract that allows and disallows certain interactions, the only logic that applies to the ways in which they interact is the fixed rule that anyone is open to derision or ridicule at any time. Though one might expect that the nerd and the freak would be the most frequent targets of scorn, in his role as instigator Bender is an equal opportunity rabble-rouser. In fact, at first it seems that Claire and Andrew will be his special targets of enmity. It is from his vantage point directly between and behind them that Bender first fires a warning shot – tossing a wad of paper between them – before launching into his first round of inflammatory dialogue. As the day continues, all of the characters – even the most timid in the bunch – seem to take equal pleasure in attacking one another. For instance, when Bender denigrates Andrew’s involvement on the wrestling squad by saying that the only thing he would need to join them is “a lobotomy and some tights,” Brian enters the conversation by first inquiring with some amount of curiosity, “you wear tights?” But when Andrew replies that he wears, “the required uniform,” Brian shoots back triumphantly, ”yeah, tights”. Later, Allison, who had been completely silent up to this point, reacts vocally, and violently – a single loud “Ha!” – when Claire remarks that her parents “just use [her] to get back at each other”. Andrew had invited Claire to go out to a party with him just moments before this exchange, but that doesn’t stop him from ganging up against Claire. When she complains that if she didn’t, “feel sorry for [her]self, no one else would”, Andrew replies sarcastically, “you’re breaking my heart”. Like real teenagers they dismiss any notion of friend or enemy in the higher interest of defending their own insecurities.

However, as much as they mistrust each other, that is of secondary concern to their hatred and mistrust of authority in the form of Richard Vernon. They may be at each other’s throats, but once Bender removes a screw from the library door, making it slam shut unable to be propped open, Vernon comes to confront them everyone stands up to him, covering for Bender. Of course, they are most likely protecting Bender out of fear of retribution, not because of any special affection they have for him. However, later in the film when Bender escapes from the storage room where Vernon is holding him captive, they all conspire to conceal him as he hides underneath Claire’s desk. At this point in the narrative it is far more plausible, and even likely, that they are protecting Bender because they have developed some attachment for him. In either instance it is perfectly clear that they are compelled to challenge Vernon because they instinctively regard him as a common enemy. Furthermore, it is worth noting that until the “confessional” scene toward the end of the movie, the only times that we see all five characters together in one shot – with only a few circumstantial exceptions – are the times when Vernon is also in the room. Actually, the visual language in The Breakfast Club demands further examination as it not only illuminates several plot points, but also speaks to the cinematic sophistication of a film intended for an assumedly unsophisticated audience. We will take a closer look at two relationships – in four scenes – to see how they are visually represented: Andrew and Allison, Vernon and Bender.

When Andrew and Allison leave the library to fetch drinks from the soda machine for lunch we see them walking down the hall toward the camera, which always stays a few feet ahead. They are confined on both sides by the lines of perspective terminating at the end of the hall. Behind them a hand painted banner shows a drawing of the liberty bell, with the words “Freedom for All” in red. Andrew walks slightly ahead with his back facing Allison. He initiates a conversation with the slightly confrontational, but mostly detached query: “So, what’s your poison?” It’s a ridiculous question. It’s precisely the sort of question that one high school student with nothing better to say might ask another in the hopes of appearing tough. At first, it elicits no response from Allison, so Andrew tries to dismiss it: “Alright, forget I asked.” After a look of disdain, and a short pause, Allison replies with some gusto, but obviously playing along, “Vodka!” Andrew replies incredulously, “Vodka? When do you drink vodka?”
“Whenever,” Allison retorts as she looks Andrew in the face and then takes the lead, stepping in front of Andrew and closer to the camera. Allison’s back is to him, her head held high, nose in the air in triumph. She has won the first volley.

When Andrew asks if Allison’s self-proclaimed enthusiasm for vodka is the cause of her stay in detention, Allison hesitates uncomfortably. Andrew asks again, “Why are you here?” Allison panics and avoids the question, turning the tables on Andrew, “Why are you here?” At this point they stop walking and turn to face each other for the first time, standing eye to eye in the middle of the hall. The camera also stops moving. At this point Andrew literally backs down, taking a few slow steps backward to the wall behind him, where he comes to rest in the far right hand side of the screen. The camera follows, swinging to the right and excluding Allison from the frame, setting the stage for Andrew’s soliloquy. The horizontal lines of the bricks in the wall – which look like the bricks in the wall of every high school, everywhere – confine him. The slight angle makes them appear to run left to right, boxing Andrew in on the right side of the screen.

Andrew begins to tell his story, and we see the reverse shot of Allison. She is on the opposite side of the screen (far left) in an almost mirror image of Andrew. Her impatient sigh, and general look of bored contempt, give her a superiority that is highlighted by the shot. Where Andrew looks trapped, Allison looks powerful. The horizontal lines of the wall behind her also look like they run left to right, but because of her position she appears to be at the source of movement or action. Allison replies dismissively to Andrew’s tale of woe, “Now why don’t you tell me why you’re really here.” Andrew replies with defeat, “Forget it,” sulking off of the right hand side of the screen, as if pushed by the force of the horizontal lines.

In another scene later in the story, when everyone is smoking pot and just beginning to open up to one another, Allison joins Andrew and Brian. After emptying the contents of her purse in front of them, Allison tentatively discusses her “unsatisfying” home life, but walks away when things get too personal. Andrew pursues her and encourages her to open up. The ensuing scene is both confrontational and confessional, but it brings Allison and Andrew closer together. This is displayed by what the camera shows, as much as by what the characters say.

Throughout the scene the over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot and the extreme close-ups of both Allison and Andrew’s faces impart a feeling of their growing intimacy. Never mind that not much is said; these are high school students, so the degree of intimacy is relative. In other words, when Andrew gently prods Allison for details saying, simply, “parents?” Allison’s hesitant and watery-eyed, “yeah” is more than enough to get the point across. Coupled with the subtle visual reinforcement the dialogue brings these two characters closer together.

The relationship between Bender and Vernon is also developed on both visual and narrative levels. In the case of Allison and Andrew the familiar over-the-shoulder shot-reverse-shot technique gave their relationship a sense of intimacy. In the case of Vernon and Bender it is used to heighten the confrontation and to illustrate their relative levels of power over one another. The first significant confrontation between Bender and Vernon, when Bender’s determination to challenge Vernon’s authority consigns him to two more months of Saturday detention, begins with a simple shot-reverse-shot, each character appearing alone in the frame. Vernon is shot at a slight low-angle, and Bender from a slight high-angle in order to emphasize perspective. This shows that Vernon is in a superior position. As their argument intensifies a few over-the-shoulder shots are thrown in to increase tension. Now each character is occupying the other’s space, intensifying the conflict. At the height of their argument the camera closes in on some extreme close-ups of Bender and Vernon’s faces for maximum emotional impact. All of these techniques, used previously to bring Andrew and Allison closer together, serve the same purpose here, but for opposite emotional ends.

In a later scene – Bender and Vernon’s “final showdown” in the storage closet – very similar camera techniques are used, but some subtle variations make a considerable difference in conveying the intent of each character. Shot-reverse-shot is used mainly to give Bender’s reactions to Vernon, since Vernon is doing most of the talking. However, when we see Vernon facing forward, speaking toward the camera, we see him alone in the frame in a tight close-up shot. When we see Bender in the reaction shot – with the exception of two extreme close-ups of his face at the climax of the scene – he always appears in the frame along with Vernon. Bender is sitting, clutching his knees, belittled and vulnerable in the right hand side of the screen, with Vernon standing above him, his right arm extended and finger pointing challengingly. Vernon dwarfs Bender in these shots, frequently taking up the majority of the screen. The effect of this is to make Bender appear small and helpless while Vernon clearly controls the action.

This scene’s emotional significance cannot be understated. Vernon, as the sole figure of authority, challenges Bender, the most active proponent for rebellion, to prove his physical superiority. Vernon, who previously appeared to be merely an imbecile or a jerk, is here revealing himself to be a vicious bully. Though his previous actions were often inappropriate – for instance, several cases of verbal abuse: telling Brian, “shut up, Pee-wee” and mocking Bender, “whatsamatter, John? You gonna cry?” – he is now openly threatening Bender, practically begging him to “throw the first punch” so that he is justified in retaliating with physical violence . You can see in Bender’s face, even more than fear, a sense of shock and disgust. Bender is stunned because he is just now realizing the extent of Vernon’s corruption. If there were any lingering doubt, Vernon confirms his role as the villain when he takes off his jacket, revealing the black dress-shirt underneath: bad guys always wear black.

While “Vernon is the embodiment of all that is rotten, decaying and worthless in adulthood” (Bernstein, 62) Bender is “the classic delinquent, disgusted with his place in the world but unsure of what place would be better, taking on a demonstrative toughness to shield his vulnerable desolation” (Shary, Generation Multiplex 43). Roz Kaveney observes of Vernon:
One of the film’s strengths is the combination of neurosis and authority that Paul Gleason brings to the part [of Vernon] – it asks the valid question of whether the delinquent is as dangerous as the authority who is trying to control him. (19)
And while one would hope that Vernon is more sinister than your average high school principal, John Bender is not your average juvenile delinquent. For a vandal whose active disinterest in literature – or his passive assent to boredom – compels him to destroy library books, he is actually quite literate. His charm is more in his quick-witted responses to anyone and everything than it is in his bluster and bravado . When Andrew tells Bender to “speak for himself” and Bender replies, without so much as a moment’s breath, “Do you think I’d speak for you? I don’t even know your language.” it’s clear that Bender is more Puck than palooka . Timothy Shary remarks that his first altercation with Vernon is Bender’s “early stand for his authority in a brief showdown with the principal” (Generation Multiplex 43). The two of them are locked in a struggle for authority throughout the film, and victory for Bender means a victory for youthful rebellion. Although there is no decisive victory at film’s end, there are a few indications that Bender has won the war even without formal surrender on Vernon’s part. Vernon openly mocks Bender saying, “If you want to see something funny, you go see John Bender in five years. You’ll see how god-damned funny he is.” The obvious implication being that John Bender has a life of failure to look forward to, but Vernon’s life is already pathetic. Aside from repeatedly bullying and demeaning the students he is meant to inspire, we repeatedly see Vernon as the butt of the joke: he spills coffee all over his desk, he leaves the faculty restroom with a paper toilet seat cover hanging from the back of his pants, etc. Vernon is only a role model insofar as he is taken as an indication of what not to do.

Regardless of whether it is Bender or Vernon that finally comes out on top, many of the other aspects of the film’s ending have been frequent sources of disagreement and controversy. In these final scenes the tension that has played out between Andrew, Allison, Bender, Brian and Claire comes to some unexpected resolutions. It is because these resolutions deal directly with questions of conformity – the arena for authority and rebellion among peers – that they are of interest to our study. Addressing the apparent simplicity of the film’s plot, Roz Kaveney observes:
We know the sort of film this is, almost from the beginning. It will be an ensemble piece, something like an opera, in which each character, pair of characters or group of characters will sooner or later express their inner feelings, show off their public selves or enter into clashes and reconciliations. It is almost inevitable, given that the film’s exposition establishes the differences between the five principal young characters, that the film’s resolution will reconcile them and that much of its action will be devoted to the dialectical personal clashes whereby this reconciliation will be achieved. (13)
The problem with Kaveney’s analysis is that it is based on assumption that The Breakfast Club actually achieves reconciliation between its characters. On the surface this is not incorrect, but we will argue that the reconciliations are not entirely authentic. Through experience we have long come to expect that Hollywood movies deliver happy endings, so much so that we often assume that they are there even when they’re not. As the final image of the film serves to highlight – Bender, fist upraised, stands alone at one end of the football field underneath a clear blue sky, captured in perpetual freeze-frame – any ending is artificial; it is one point among an infinite number of possible points of resolution. As we will shortly discuss, the resolutions chosen by Hughes are each deceptive in their own ways, but suffice it to say that they do not add up to the happy ending we may be making them out to be. John Hughes suggests as much in the following quote:
The studios never perceived those films as hits - they'd always bring them out in February, which is when the studios usually dump the movies they have no confidence in. Of course, I was naive, I thought, "Fantastic! Right in the middle of that long stretch between Christmas and Spring Break, your coats are getting dirty, everything's dark, dingy - what a great time for a movie!" Especially one that's a little depressing. You see, one of the bits of wisdom I've picked up about adolescence is that joy and sorrow are equally pleasant to a teenager; those extreme states of mind are pretty cool whatever they are! (Ham)
It is therefore fair to assume that the ending Hughes arrives at is just as likely to be depressing as it is uplifting. It may even contain elements of both. Let’s take a closer look at the elements that come together to form this resolution, whatever its emotional content may be.

A particularly consistent point of contention among fans of The Breakfast Club is the romantic pairings that end the movie. These pairings often catch first time viewers by surprise, and even to long-time fans they often seem arbitrary. However, the couplings of Claire and Bender, Allison and Andrew are not arbitrary, they are clearly established at points throughout the film. Aside from the evidence that we will provide shortly, these relationships follow the logic of teenage attraction, which is to say that it is practically unnecessary to make any case for their being logical or illogical. Attraction between teenagers often requires little more than close physical proximity, and many times follows nothing more rational than an established cliché – good girls are attracted to bad boys, girls (of all stripes) are attracted to popular athletic boys. After all, clichés exist because they relate to phenomena that occur frequently enough to be identified as fairly consistent patterns.

The most emotionally charged divide among the students in The Breakfast Club is the economic one, so it is no surprise that viewers are sometimes startled by the fact that Claire and Bender end up with one another at the end of the movie. Their relationship is not without precedent though. There are many instances during the film that we can see Claire and Bender’s interest in one another taking shape. This is not to say that their relationship is as simple as it seems. Aside from the occasional lingering gaze that Bender fixes in Claire’s direction, we can see Claire’s interest in him growing from scene to scene. One compelling case in point: Claire physically retaliates when Bender tries to molest her while he’s hiding underneath her desk, but then moments later when he leaves to smoke pot, she is the first to follow. Soon afterward the two of them are seen sitting together apart from the rest of the group. There is a familiar idea that love and hate can sometimes be paradoxically similar emotions, and the intense emotional exchanges that occur between Bender and Claire may be as much a sign of their affection for one another as they are signs of their distaste.

Roz Kaveney again objects to Hughes’ denouement: “One of the film’s weaknesses is its assumption that all of the problems of its five iconic teenagers have quick and simple fixes.” She cites Allison’s makeover and Claire giving her diamond earring to Bender in order to prove her point. It is arguably naïve to insist that these resolutions are either simple, or that they have fixed anything in a substantial sense. In both cases there is something significant in the fact that Claire is the catalyst for the solution, as if it were the “generosity” of the rich and influential high school aristocracy – literally the Prom Queen – that were required to bring about change. An act of charity may hurt as much as it helps, in the sense that it serves to reinforce an already existing social inequality. This makes these two “resolutions” particularly problematic. They have not come to any substantial redefinition of their social roles, they have merely found a new way to express the old relationships.

In the case of Claire’s earring the charity has actual monetary value, making it all the more troublesome. Shary argues that “the gesture [of giving her earring to Bender] shows [Claire’s] pity on him as well as her appreciation of his reciprocal affection” (69) to which there can be no reasonable objection . Furthermore, it is especially appropriate because it shows the negative and positive aspects of Claire’s offering. To make reference to another film in the Hughes oeuvre: Some Kind of Wonderful ends with the hero (Keith) giving his long time best friend, and new girl friend (Watts), diamond earrings that he used the entirety of his college savings to purchase. After she puts them on, Keith remarks, “You look good wearing my future.” It is among the most heart-warmingly romantic of teen-movie endings. With that in mind, what can we say about the earring that Claire gives to Bender? It was already suggested by Bender, with no compelling objection from Claire, that the earrings were a gift from her father. Given that there was no amount of time or money expended by Claire to obtain the earring in the first place, what value does it really have to her, monetary, symbolic or otherwise? Granted, there is something poetic about it, but when compared to Keith and Watts, it’s not all that significant. It is more or less on par with the blue sweatshirt or varsity patch that Allison takes home with her; it is a ritual act of teen infatuation.

Allison’s make-over – again the result of Claire’s growing sense of philanthropy – and her concomitant romantic pairing with Andrew are easily the two plot points in The Breakfast Club that have raised the most criticism. What Jonathan Bernstein calls the movie’s “biggest blunder” (67) may draw objection not so much for its implausibility, as for the level of disappointment it inspires in viewers. Allison is the rebel, the most idiosyncratic and fiercely independent character, and her transformation to a benignly pretty girl indicates that she is not being accepted for who she is, but rather who she is willing to become. Her new appearance is “simply another false façade behind which she can hide her anxieties” (Shary, Teen Movies 70).
Throughout the film, Allison may seem to be the most independent, but she is also the character most desperate to make some connection with her classmates. For all of her attempts to protect herself – her silence, the long dark hair in front of her face, the dark eye make-up, etc. – she also wants to be included. As she admits at the end of the “confessional” scene, she is only there because she “didn’t have anything better to do”, not to mete out any punishment. If this is true , then it stands to reason that if she really wanted to be left alone, she would have stayed at home. Allison also repeatedly indicates that the main source of her adolescent dis-ease is her uncaring and emotionally distant parents, an assertion which is given some credence from her parent’s hasty departure earlier that morning: after Allison gets out of what can be reasonably assumed to be her parent’s car, she steps forward and bends down as if to say something through the passenger-side window, but the car speeds off abruptly, almost in response to her attempt to connect, leaving Allison alone in the street. Seen in this context, it is perfectly reasonable that Allison should be willing to try on a little conformity, in order to win the affection of her peers. Furthermore, when we remember the scenes in which Allison and Andrew make an emotional connection, as we have previously discussed, then their relationship seems entirely plausible. It is perhaps no less disappointing, because it makes some very clear statements about the ability of the freak/rebel to maintain their individuality and to still be accepted by their high school peers.

Of the five characters presented in the film, and the social groups they act as tokens for, Brian (the nerd) is the one that has retained his independence and remained mostly unchanged. At the same time that Claire is kissing Bender, and Andrew is kissing Allison, Brian is alone in the library proudly kissing the essay he has penned on their behalf. While Allison’s status as the rebel/freak has been compromised by her newfound willingness to conform, Brian has somehow managed to maintain his outsider status as the nerd and still gain some amount of acceptance. Timothy Shary corroborates this interpretation:
Unlike most nerd characters in other teen films, Brian ultimately appears to accept his labeling, and his peers eventually show some sincere appreciation for the difference he represents… When the students leave school at the end of the day, Brian may be alone unlike the others, but he has thus maintained a certain independence that is not afforded to the rest. His resistance to romance and to changing himself to look or act like the others – something the rest do – indicates that he is the least conformist of the bunch. (Teen Movies 70)
At face value, this resolution seems just as unexpected as Allison’s conformity, and a more cynical reading is indeed possible. After all, Brian’s “election” as the group’s spokesman can be just as easily dismissed as an instance of his peers taking advantage of his perceived status as “the nerd” and his willingness to assent in order to be accepted. It is again significant that Claire, the charming, attractive and popular girl, is the one that requests Brian to write the essay. It is also significant that Brian calls her on it – remarking, “you just don’t want to write your paper” – but then caves under the soft and gentle weight of feminine flattery. John Hughes’ own explanation strikes a balance between these two extremes:
Other than the obvious technical matter, which is that there were five people in the film so somebody had to get left alone at the end, we decided that Brian was smart enough to know that [romance] wasn't on his agenda. He was the intellectual superior of the others, and it was enough for him to be accepted by them, that they'd think enough of him to let him represent the group on paper. I think Brian was intellectually mature enough to realize that he wasn't socially mature enough to handle a relationship anyway. (Ham)
Brian’s superior, yet conditional, status is all the more interesting when we consider that Hughes may have some affinity for him. After all, Brian is the narrator as much as the group’s spokesperson, and at the film’s end the director makes a cameo appearance as Brian’s father, dutifully picking him up from school.

At any rate, all of this is of secondary concern. The real question, left to plague characters and audience alike, is what will happen when everyone returns to school on Monday morning. Like so many of Hughes’ screenplays, The Breakfast Club is the account of a significant event in the lives of its characters. It relates a story, of unexpected and life-changing significance, that takes place over a relatively short period of time. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, Uncle Buck, Reach the Rock… All of these films follow the same pattern, occurring over the course of one day, evening or weekend, and though they all reach some sense of resolution – as all Hollywood films must – they also leave the viewer with a sense of anticipation: what happens next? Like Cameron in Ferris Bueller or Samantha and Jake in Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club depicts a series of unexpected changes that may very well return to normal between Saturday afternoon and Monday morning. Truth be told, there is an endearing optimism in the fact that Hughes allows us to quit while we’re ahead – or is it escapism? – but it is doubtful that anyone is confident that these new friendships will be strong enough to withstand the relentless demands of the teenage caste system. The happy ending that we all want to see, embodied in Bender’s upraised fist, is really only temporary. In movie land the freeze-frame continues perpetually, but in the real world time marches on. What assurance do we have that these iconic teens will resist conformity and subvert authority instead of simply yielding to the unstoppable flow of peer opinion and adult influence?

  1. The version of the song that opens The Breakfast Club has been fattened up for dramatic effect: reverb has been added in order to make it sound more expansive. It also includes an introductory drum fill that does not appear on the radio edit. When the song is reprised at the end of the movie it is played at a slower speed, and therefore a lower pitch than the original. Both recordings differ enough from the version commercially available that they appear to have been made especially for inclusion in the film.
  2. From the song “Changes” appearing on David Bowie’s 1971 album Hunky Dory. The song also includes lines like “time may change me” and “turn and face the strange” which are equally as relevant to the subject matter in the film.
  3. One significant way that John Hughes was able to establish credibility with teen audiences was through the effective use of popular music in film soundtracks. Teen films that exploit their subjects also tend to exploit their audiences by using soundtracks to sell records. The music in John Hughes’ films never came off sounding like “the hot new single” that a record label expected you to like. Rather, it sounded like something cool that a friend was personally introducing you to. As Roz Kaveney observes, the soundtracks to Pretty In Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful are “…two of the most attractive and undated rock music scores of the Hughes canon, indeed of the entire teen genre, using non-mainstream bands like the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Psychedelic Furs. For once, hip teens are shown as listening to the edgy music that hip teens of their period might actually regard as worthwhile” (40).
  4. For instance, they are also seen together when they leave the library to go to Bender’s locker. This is entirely reasonable because in this instance they have banded together to accomplish something. As the scene tests their ability to cooperate and to work as a team, it is only natural that they would appear on screen as a (visually) unified whole.
  5. There is also an element of threatened emasculation and an assertion of sexual superiority. Roz Kaveney calls Vernon “a figure of threatened adult masculinity” (16). This is a claim that is borne out during this scene when Vernon tells Bender that he will “knock [Bender’s] dick in the dirt”. Connected to earlier comments, this sexual dynamic is heightened. For instance, Bender calls Vernon a “brownie hound”, an expression that, at least by some accounts, can be taken to mean that he is a homosexual. At one point Vernon also tells Bender to sit down by saying, “Grab some wood there, bub.” Bender’s smirk suggests that he appreciates the double-entendre.
  6. This is a trope that is still echoed from time to time. For instance, The Faculty [1998] which bears more than a few similarities to The Breakfast Club, features Josh Hartnett as Zeke Tyler, a teenage delinquent who is clearly smarter than any of his peers.
  7. And just as much in the sense of the Shakespearean – as a mirthful instigator – as in the sense of MTV’s Real World, San Francisco.
  8. To further complicate the issue, when Claire first kisses Bender in the supply closet, initiating their romantic relationship, Bender remarks, “You know how you said before that your parents use you to get back at each other? Wouldn’t I be outstanding in that capacity?” Along with any genuine romantic feelings they have for one another, Claire and Bender’s relationship may also serve the added function of being a source of irritation for her parents.
  9. Allison also “admits” to being a compulsive liar, so she is admittedly not the most reliable source of information.

Newport South; Reach the Rock

I found this article some time last week. I had not realized that John Hughes wrote the screenplay for Reach the Rock, which I knew about only because John McEntire of Tortoise-fame composed the soundtrack. Geek-that-I-am, I purchased a VHS copy on Amazon for $.01 - plus the $2.98 shipping cost - which I received yesterday. When the flow stopped some time last evening - still working on The Breakfast Club chapter, for feck's sake - I sat down for another perspective on the mind of John Hughes.

It was not disappointing, if not actually enjoyable, which was a surprise given the fact that it pretty much disappeared upon release. The story - which takes place in Shermer, IL - could be reasonably described as a return to the teen-angsty flicks of yore. At least it was much more BreakfastClub than CurlySue. Damn it, I liked it, and I would watch it again, but I am a geeky fan-boy of sorts.

Speaking of which... There is another almost completely unknown high school movie, tangentially connected to the Hughes canon. Newport South was written by John Hughes Jr. with dad acting as executive producer. It is about as angsty as they get; three friends orchestrate an all out rebellion in their high school with the help of some hip graphic design and a soundtrack that out-cools the movie itself. No wonder that Hughes Jr. would be more successful as muso and big-serious-important-guy at Hefty Records.

Newport South also features this guy as an emblem of angry authority. I ran into him in Boston recently and recognized him from NS, not realizing that he had claims to fame far more weighty than bit-parts in virtually unknown high school flicks. I accosted him, and explained that I had a keen interest in silly movies about high school. He seemed bemused, if not slightly annoyed, and rightly so. He also wrote and directed this movie, which was nominated for an oscar or five, and this movie, which I still haven't seen, but it has one of the best trailers I have ever had the privilege to witness.

Ok, geek-time is over, back to work. I plan to post Chapter One later today.


The Best Years of Our Lives!?

Yesterday I was speaking with MissLaxmi, and she told me that initially she had been surprised that someone would want to spend so much time and energy revisiting high school. Which, I must admit, is an entirely valid response. We both agreed that our high school years had been, to quote the bard, "unsatisfying".

Really, that's putting it quite mildly. High school was horrible. A painfully uncomfortable, sometimes humiliating, and often soul-crushing experience. Second only to middle school in the grand scheme of demeaning life experiences.

I used to scoff (guffaw?) when I heard my classmates say: these are the best years of our lives. I couldn't, and can't, think of too many statements that are quite as tragically pathetic. Even if you do enjoy your high school years - which is a situation that must apply to a negligible percentage of high school students past or present, and still they're probably just kidding themselves - the idea that they are/were the best years of your life is just a way of setting yourself up for disappointment. You might as well be saying: this is as good as it gets, and everything else will just be a letdown. And you think I'm being negative!

Anyway, I'm not yet prepared to address my reasons for diving into the deep end and wallowing in an all too familiar world of gut churning and cringe inducing experiences. Whatever my reasons - exorcism? - the truly odd thing is that I have somehow found myself with this month to fully immerse myself in the task at hand, and I've set up camp in my old room, in my parent's house, a short walk from where I actually suffered through my high school years. It adds an interesting element to the experiment that I am also not fully prepared to dissect just yet.

In other news: there was a little high school drama here in "the junction" yesterday. Apparently, a 16 year old student at my alma-mater was planning to skip town with her boyfriend. Somehow her parents got wind of it and showed up at the high school parking lot yesterday morning to confront her and her sweetie. There was some sort of physical altercation and the boyfriend took off on foot. The local police were "pursuing" him all morning. From what my parents tell me - they were driving home from the airport at the time - all of the police cars in the junction must have been dispatched, and there was even a helicopter flying low over the 'burbs! The automated emergency warning system was leaving voicemails letting us know that the search was on, and that we were "strongly advised to stay in our homes". No joke. Aside from the hysterical response, I think I see a teen movie in there, like, fer sure. Maybe I'll drop the thesis and start working on a screenplay instead. Something like Crazy/Beautiful meets Light It Up?


Geek Out - The John Hughes Font?

I'm working on "Chapter 1" now, which focuses on The Breakfast Club and therefore will have to say something about the larger Hughes oeuvre. This morning I started watching Pretty In Pink - one Hughes movie that I would prefer to forget - and I noticed that the opening credits use the same font that appears in the opening credits of TBC. I had a hard time finding an example of what I'm referring to online, but if you click here you can briefly see the typeface in question.

Are there any hipsters out there, well versed in the alchemical vagaries of graphic design, that could help me find out what this font is called, or if it has had any other applications?


Extreme Makeover: Identity Edition

Last night I watched The Breakfast Club with my good friends C&C. Afterwards we talked quite a bit about our own high school experiences and how we could and couldn't relate to John Hughes' magnum opus. One topic came up that always seems to inspire strong reactions: Allison's make-over and subsequent pairing-off with Andy.

I'm curious how people feel about this part of the plot. It seems that it is almost universally agreed that Hughes' made an enormous mistake here, but I'm not completely convinced.

One of the things that has always appealed to me about TBC is that underneath the melodrama it is a pretty accurate depiction of the social landscape of American high schools. At the end of the movie the prom queen and the criminal are going steady, the jock and the freak are walking hand-in-hand, and the nerd - his confidence bolstered by writing a badass little social manifesto of an essay - feels comfortable enough to admit that Carl-the-janitor actually is his friend. And even though Bender's triumphantly upraised fist is captured for eternity in an uplifting freeze-frame, does anyone really believe that when these kids get back to school on Monday morning that anything will have really changed?

That is to say, is Allison's transformation really all that shocking? Disappointing, sure. But shocking? She is alienated and insecure. Her appearance is basically an extension of her desire to protect herself from a hostile world by remaining more or less invisible, but at the same time she is desperate to find someone that will listen to her and take her seriously. It seems to me entirely plausible that she would be willing to try on a little conformity in an attempt to make a connection with her peers.

In a simultaneously related and unrelated note, the Andy/Allison thing also reminded me of Juno: jocks all secretly lust after the freak girls. Oh, and btw, Clea DuVall's character in The Faculty is another case in point.


Another Movie I Can't Write About!

theW just told me about a new movie called American Teen. No release date yet, of course.

Frederick Wiseman's "High School"

Aside from the Introduction and Epilogue (I decided to collapse the two epilogues in the chapter list into one) I am planning two mini-chapters, no more than five pages, to help provide context. They're really just excuses for me to talk about two movies that I think are awesome that I would otherwise probably not include.

Anyway, here is what I wrote today about Frederick Wiseman's 1968 documentary High School. I'm really not happy with what I wrote. It didn't come easy, and it reads like it. It's a shame because Wiseman's film is totally brilliant. He has this really wicked sense for editing. From what I have seen of his style, the material is pretty stark. One hand held camera, no lighting, only diegetic sound. But the editing is merciless. He can say so much with just how he opposes scenes and shots. Incredible.

So here's the junk. Any thoughts?

“High School shows no stretching of minds. It does show the overwhelming dreariness of administrators and teachers who confuse teaching with discipline. The school somehow takes warm, breathing teen-agers and tries to turn them into 40-year old mental eunuchs… No wonder the kids turn off, stare out windows, become surly, try to escape… The most frightening thing about High School is that it captures the battlefield so clearly; the film is too true.”
–Peter Janssen, Newsweek
The images are simple, in grainy black and white, with the distinctive quiver of a hand held camera. The documentary style is equally as stark: there are no interviews, no voice-overs, and no narrative structure to be easily grasped. With the exception of an Otis Redding song played during the opening credits, all of the sound comes from the source material; there is no carefully orchestrated soundtrack and no collection of contemporary popular songs to lend allure or to enhance the mood. Frederick Wiseman’s 1968 documentary High School is not likely to appeal to the average high school student, and though it may not immediately resemble the other high school movies discussed in this text, it is in many ways, a genuine prototype for classic teen films like The Breakfast Club, Dead Poets Society, and Pump Up the Volume.

High School was shot in 1968, in an upper-middle class, mostly white area of suburban Philadelphia. In terms of facilities and resources Northeast High School appears to be well equipped, at least not any more or less so than the average American public school at that time. During an interview with Cynthia Lucia for the October 1994 issue of Cineaste, Frederick Wiseman remarked on the effect his film has had on audiences. “One of the amazing aspects of making High School has been the fact that, over the years, I have met people who have graduated from high school anywhere from the 1920s on into the 1990s, and they tell me it's just like their high school” (Lucia). The film is honest and unmerciful, and it accurately depicts the typical high school experience.

Many of the teachers are smug, condescending and self-important. Some of them are bullies. The Dean of Discipline is a hefty man with a forceful voice, and he doesn’t hesitate to use either asset to maintain his control of a situation. In conversation with one student he makes it clear that he equates “being a man” with following orders. Another disciplinarian, whom the camera follows from a cautious distance as he makes his rounds, practically barks at the students he meets in the hallway: Whaddya doin’ here? Where ya goin’? You got a pass? They respond to him with fear and concealed amusement.

Other teachers are insensitive, and superficial. Publicly criticizing their student’s weight and physical appearance. Still others are simply racist and/or sexist. One remarks on the “matriarchal” structure of the middle-class Jewish family, which he compares to the natural familial structure of “lower animals”. In easily the most awkward of the film’s several cringe-inducing scenes one adult addresses an auditorium full of unruly teenage boys, responding to anonymously written questions about “the facts of life”. At one particularly low point he reads, “Is it possible to get a girl pregnant by rubbing the surface of the vagina?” and then responds with an off-putting cocksure air, “With what, your nose?” The auditorium quite literally erupts with laughter and applause.

As this scene proves, the students are equally deserving of the viewer’s disapproval. They frequently whimper under the weight of their superiors, often resorting to subtle manipulation to avoid censure or punishment. Some of them attempt, however unsuccessfully, to assert their independence, even though many of their gains are purely symbolic. One boy persistently states and restates his innocence to the Dean of Discipline though he finally assents, agreeing to serve his scheduled detention, he adds that he will do so “under protest”. Though their struggle is rarely flattering and never graceful, there is no confusion as to who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed, and the viewer’s sympathy always goes out to the students.

Yet, there is one scene showing students and teacher occupying the same uncomfortable ground. A young teacher, her short black hair, dangling silver earrings and short striped jumper just inches above her knees – and just a few short minutes after an extended debate over appropriate skirt length: below the knees – is almost completely indistinguishable from her students. She appears to have little more than her four years of college ahead of them, and she is visibly eager to gain their approval. That day’s lesson plans include the poetic merits of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Dangling Conversation”. While she peers over her class as they listen to the song, she seems just as interested that they develop an appreciation for her, as she is that they develop an appreciation for poetry. It is both endearing and pathetic at the same time.

Wiseman’s camera often revels in and ruminates on the details. He frequently focuses on posture or mannerisms, pushing in on a tight shot to reveal a mother’s hands nervously fidgeting with a chair. At other times he draws out aspects of physical appearance, highlighting a guidance counselor’s implausibly thick bifocals. All of these elements are combined to create a portrait of high school life that is as frustrating and discomfiting as the real experience. In his May 1969 review of Wiseman’s High School, Peter Janssen observed that, “high schools are prisons where the old beat down the young, where raw material is run through the machine and stamped BLAND” (Janssen). The undeniable energy that exists on screen in Wiseman’s film is created by the constant tension between the students and their parents, teachers and administrators who almost never miss an opportunity to assert their authority, however speciously held that authority might be.