Films of My Life – 1
THE BREAKFAST CLUB (John Hughes, USA, 1985, 10)
I watched THE BREAKFAST CLUB at the weekend at the AFI, as part of its John Hughes retro, seeing it for the first time on a theater screen. I acknowledged on my Twitter feed that while I really genuinely do think, in my head of heads and heart of hearts, that THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a great film, worthy of comparison to the great works of realist theater from Eugene O’Neill or maybe even Anton Chekhov, it’s probably impossible for me to be objective about it, for accidental reasons of biography and age. But then I thought — well, why not write about that and make it an intermittent series about the films that most shaped me and influenced me, as Paul Clark once did and taking the same Truffaut-inspired title.
THE BREAKFAST CLUB was the first film I was ever truly obsessive over and watched repeatedly. It was released in the spring of 1985, my last semester of high school, but I didn’t see it in the theater at all. At the time, I went to the movies at most a couple of times a year, preferring TV and reading, and really only knew of this film for its chart-topping theme song “Don’t You Forget About Me,” by Simple Minds. In fact, our graduating class picked that song as our class song, rejecting among others my nomination of the Pink Floyd hit, “We Don’t Need No Education” (not the exact title, but who cares).
It wasn’t until I was off in college that I first saw THE BREAKFAST CLUB, and from the standpoint of being glad to be out of high school, I was immediately taken by these characters. I felt as if I’d known every one of these people in my own class and everyone I knew did too. It was a real communal cement for college-age boys of that era. At the time, and trust me on this one Gen-Wired Kiddies, even having a VCR at home was a luxury, and video stores commonly rented out the players as well as tapes. It was common for guys to split all the rental costs and watch a double or triple feature, and THE BREAKFAST CLUB was often “my” choice. I watched it repeatedly with dorm mates and also when I was at home (my parents were frankly sick of it by 1988), seeing the film at least 12 or 14 times during the late-80s. There were a few other films I watched repeatedly — ST. ELMO’S FIRE and PORKY’S come to mind. But even though I was no cinephile, I knew even then that those other two titles were vastly inferior, and THE BREAKFAST CLUB was something special.
The film, as I implied, was one of the first works of art I really could get into on my own and on my own terms, without the burden of School. Appearances now aside, I was a math and debate whiz in high school, not a literature one. When it came to literature, I was immune to its consultations, but I was quite aware of what I was going through. Of course, I mentally cast myself as Anthony Michael Hall, reasonably so, though I was going through what I could only see at the time as an Ally Sheedy phase (I could hardly even otherwise identify it then as the clinical depression it probably was). It was not shop, but Driver’s Ed that I failed and which failure I couldn’t take. I noticed this time around also that Sheedy is the only one who doesn’t smoke dope and only Hall isn’t romantically involved at the end (ditto my personal experience of high school on both counts).
I could tell then that THE BREAKFAST CLUB was like a play in its observance of many of the Aristotelian unities — mostly on a single set, limited number of characters, compressed time. The fact the film was shot in sequence really helps maintain these unities in the actors’ performances too (all perfect BTW, and none of these actors have ever since approached this), as they’re discovering their characters as their characters are discovering themselves and each other. But at the time, I had no idea who O’Neill or Chekhov or Strindberg were, “Molay” really pumped my nads too, and my eyes would have glazed over if you’d tried to relate THE BREAKFAST CLUB to them. Whereas now it seems self-evident to me and hardly worth elaborating that Hughes, at least here, is working in their tradition and that his film is a breakthrough in the same way their plays were — in making drama out of the talk of ordinary people, characters from backgrounds previously considered unworthy (the bourgeoisie in the earlier case; teenagers in the case of THE BREAKFAST CLUB).
THE BREAKFAST CLUB is not a perfect film (there’s too much damage to the library not to be noticed, and there’s two silly Semi-Obligatory Music Video scenes), but even some of its apparent weaknesses aren’t really that. Yes, the characters are all broad types — in the simplest terms and the most convenient definitions: a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess and a criminal. But that can hardly be a criticism of a movie which is set in an environment where there’s so much pressure to conform into typed cliques, and which is explicitly about that very fact and about how it is and isn’t overcome. And the fact is that after the end of summer of 1985, I have never gone to any high-school reunions and you couldn’t pay me now to do so. Yes, the lengthy encounter scene is a stagewriter’s device, but it’s hardly less realistic than, say, Hickey’s big speech in THE ICEMAN COMETH which runs on for … what, 40 pages? It’s also at least as penetrating, at least for these sorts of characters. The film is ultimately about the solidarity teens have in the face of adults — whether it’s things as small as Molly Ringwald begging Judd Nelson to back down over the weeks of detention or her telling Hall that “we trust you” to write their paper, or things as major as none of the kids ratting on Nelson as he hides under the desk even though they don’t actually like each other at this point in the film.
Seeing it again now, for the first time in a theater and for just the second time in a decade (the first being on the death of John Hughes — more on that anon) — well, I noticed a lot of the small details anew, reveled in the ways the film dates itself, laughed at how I had the movie practically memorized (still), and at how I had changed in my reactions even to things on screen. I now like sushi; at the time, I had Nelson’s reaction to Ringwald’s lunch. Such terms as “neo-maxi-zoom-dweebie” were part of my vocabulary then but not now, and I once asked a sportswriter colleague and his girlfriend the whole conversation that ends “level with me, Sporto …” I whistled along in the theater to what I now know to be the “Bridge on the River Kwai” theme, noticed that Sheedy is looking at a copy of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” saw that Nelson was wearing a badge on his glove saying “not saved,” and chuckled at the principal bragging about making $31,000 a year. And what’s with all the political incorrectness — the film starts out with a noose and the word “die, fag” scrawled on a locker (two hate crimes in one), a Georgia state flag with “the Confederate swastika” is part of a library display (a third), the principal has a girlie toolbox calendar on the wall (sexual harassment lawsuit), and he locks a student in a closet, challenges him to a fight and calls him a gutless turd (another lawsuit).
At the Oscars earlier this year, there was a posthumous tribute to Hughes, in which several of his actors participated (actually all the kids in THE BREAKFAST CLUB did, except Emilio Estevez). At the time, I was both moved and angry. Moved because THE BREAKFAST CLUB was such a seminal experience for me and it wasn’t easy to accept that Hughes was gone (I basically wrote his obituary at work without credit because I didn’t like what the newswires had sent); angry because the Academy was paying tribute to a man whom it had never seen fit to honor while he was alive (nor frankly did many others; see this anger-inducing page at the IMDb). And that lack of honor was primarily because Hughes was working in a popular vein in a commercial genre considered declasse — the teen film. But he elevated it. And the generational wheel has a way of shifting, as the Oscar ceremony showed. Critics and film-makers of my generation, like those who loved Ford and Hawks as boys and pushed them into the forefront of American cinema, have done the same for Hughes best films, I have the impression. THE BREAKFAST CLUB, along with FERRIS BUELLER’S DAY OFF, PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, PRETTY IN PINK and SIXTEEN CANDLES, helped make them the artists or critics they are 25 years later and thus have entered the canon of important works of popular art. It’s self-vindication.
Does that answer your question?