So where the hell did John Hughes go?
Last week at Sundance, shit-joke raconteur Kevin Smith screened his new film, action/horror hybrid Red State, to widespread shrugs. That’s no surpise; if passionate apathy is a thing, then it’s been Smith’s chief product going back at least as far as Jersey Girl. Also unsurprising was how Smith made himself the star of the event, generating headlines and throwing meat to his frothing fans by declaring the indie cinema scene hopelessly broken and buying the distro rights to his own film at auction. The only real surprise at the event came in the form of a sound bite that filtered out amidst the chaos. In an escalation in his war against the studios and critics, Smith announced his plan to retire, in the spirit of Dom Cobb, after pulling off one last job.
The merits of Smith’s rant are for another column—did he really “win” the auction, or simply pay more than the film is worth?*—but one thing seems increasingly certain about the former indie darling: if Smith’s career really does take him out of Hollywood, he’s not going quietly. Compare that to Smith’s teen-comedy forerunner, John Hughes, who turned his back on the city so firmly and irrevocably that he even assumed the name of a wronged prisoner just to keep the beast at bay. John Hughes became Edmond Dantes, and his work became as flavorless as it had once seemed fresh and starkly honest, and although Hughes was a gifted writer, no angry screed or long-winded doorkicker surfaced to explain why it happened. One day Hughes was one of the most famous filmmakers in America, then he quietly closed his suitcase and left.
That’s when the rumors began, and the comparisons to literary exiles like JD Salinger. Fans looked for clues in his work, but no easy answers took shape. Did John Candy’s death send Hughes away? Some reports suggest Hughes hated the system for pumping Candy like a resource, discouraging him from getting healthy because his films might not sell as many tickets if he were thin. There’s light evidence to support this—Hughes had averaged 2 films per year as either writer or director since 1984, but in the year after Candy’s death, he had none—but we can never know for sure. The mystery is compelling, but the question is going nowhere, like a Hughes teen hero trapped in a do-nothing town.
About those teens: I’m always intrigued at Hughes’s reputation as a teen filmmaker, because his work is almost perfectly split between comedies for teens, adults, and children (or idiots). Technically, he made fewer teen films than any other genre. Even if we look only at the films he personally directed, as we’ve done on this project, his ratio is, what, 50% teen at best?
Part of that is branding. It pleased the money men in LA to have a genre to go with the name. John Hughes? He’s the teen comedy guy, just like Shane Black is the mega-action guy and Chris Columbus is the kiddie adventure guy. The Hughes exile, however, crystallized his reputation. His teen fan base protected his films, buffing them with nostalgia polish and turning frass like Weird Science into some kind of pearl. Teens love their heroes with all of their not-insignificant hearts, and as his fans grew, Hughes’s legend grew with him and his failures faded from the mind. We have The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller. Who cares if Hughes wrote Flubber and Drillbit Taylor? (The same will likely happen to Kevin Smith, should he follow through with his threat of retirement. His fans will discard distractions like Cop Out while venerating him as a Red Bank Buddha).
But what about new fans? I tackled this project because I wanted to know whether Hughes films had held up to 30 years of aging. Was there anything left for today’s audiences to take away?
The answer? Of course there is. His themes are universal, which means, well, they’re universal. They’re not going anywhere until we figure out how to skip ages 13 to 20 when growing up. Write a movie like Hackers and it’ll be dated in two years. Write about a girl who wishes a boy would notice her, and your film will live forever.
But let’s be honest. Nostalgia only goes so far.
There are real problems here. Despite his consistently strong writing, Hughes never really arrived as a visual storyteller, and even his best films have huge, chunky flaws. While this wasn’t an impediment early on, it certainly showed as his scripts became less Ferris Bueller and more Curly Sue.
Hell, who knows? Maybe Hughes was mad at Hollywood, or maybe he figured that he’d lost some of his step and, rather than wind up like Carl the janitor, still trudging through halls he’d long since outgrown, he’d prefer to fade away. Or, then again, maybe he simply got tired of the business. It is a job, after all, and not an easy one. We can never imagine someone happily walking away from money and fame, but Hughes was a Midwestern guy. Maybe he never developed an LA mind.
It’s in our nature—certainly in mine—to try to puzzle out the mystery, but there’s no answer for this one. The John Hughes era in Hollywood came and went, just like the teenage years of his most passionate fans. His impact is still lapping at the sides of the pool, influencing a generation of artists and writers who saw his films and declared that their hearts would never die. Neither did his. Vanity Fair published some of his final work about a year ago. Rather than put away his typewriter, Hughes continued to write stories—hundreds of stories, actually—and most of them simply for his own amusement. Who needs the movies with a mind like that?
6. Uncle Buck
8. Curly Sue
* – Whoops! I wrote the intro to this article before gathering all the details. Embarrassing. Turns out the “auction” never really happened, and Smith simply gifted himself the film for $20. My statement still kind of stands (who knows what the film would have brought at auction after the poor screening), but it seems clear that he got it at a bargain.