Friday, February 27, 2009

The League Re-Watches: The Breakfast Club

Another sign I am getting old:
I watched about 80% of the seminal 1980's teen movie "The Breakfast Club" on cable last night. And I found myself identifying far more with Dick Vernon than those crazy kids.

My first thought when tuning in was whether, in this day and age, anyone would cast a movie about teen-agers in an American high school with such a lily white cast. Or keep issues such as sexual identity completely off the table.

It's almost pointless to critique a movie more than 20 years and when its aimed at a much younger, more cloistered audience who more closely resemble the five characters. I recall liking the movie quite a bit myself, watching it repeatedly into high school, but its been years since I watched more than a snippet on TV. The film isn't aimed at 30+ state employees, but at kids who do believe in the trials and hardships of being upper-middle class and showing up for school (b-o-o, h-o-o).

And I also came to the startling revelation that I have no idea what the title "The Breakfast Club" means. Is it a little used term? Does it have historical connotations? Did it just sound good? I have no clue. Someone throw me a bone.

I will give Hughes credit. When one sees the endless parade of assembly line teen comedies and tween-aimed movies starring teen-agers, which were just as common in the 80's, its a miracle anyone ever bothered to take a look at high schoolers as people. But one also finds the ending of the movie to be more than a little pat.

The jock and basket case find romance? Based on what? The prom queen sneaks into the closet with the thug and possibly has sex with him? And the principal accepts one, single-page paper which would seem stunningly out of context for ol' Dick Vernon?

There's a huge amount of fantasy that creeps in around the edges of The Breakfast Club, and that's okay. The intended audience is more likely to buy it, and it helps to cement the notion of the film that we've all got something in common once you move outside of your tribal identity. And believing it can end in smooching isn't so bad, I guess (unless you're "The Brain", in which case, no smooch for you).

Its easy to be cynical with so much water under the bridge, and looking back at your own high school career with what feels like a permanently etched wince.

I guess what struck me on this viewing was how much the script stacked the deck for John Bender. Nobody ever really challenges Bender, aside from Vernon, who more or less seems to freak him out completely. In most ways, he's a bully who dominates the conversation through shouts, an actual threat of serious physical violence, and often random humiliation. But as he's a bit charming, the audience is meant to root for him. Right up to the point when Molly Ringwald, who he's badgered, berated and made unwanted sexual advances upon for the duration, for some reason slips into the supply closet to make special time with Judd Nelson.

It speaks poorly for "Claire" as written that, apparently, any attention at all seems to be enough, and she seems to be heading into what will surely be an emotionally one-sided and possibly emotionally abusive relationship by film's end.

Brian, who admits to suicidal feelings, is more or less dismissed because he didn't do it this time. But what happens when he can't light the next elephant lamp?

Perhaps 2 hours is too little time to fit in any exploration of the more-or-less real-life issues (although I still have no idea what was supposed to be up with Ally Sheedy. She's never really given any story), but its surprising how well the movie has succeeded despite the fact it doesn't really try to close the loop on the situations thrown out to move the characters beyond their stereotypes.

Perhaps the staying power stems from the fact its a movie that acknowledges its intended audience as having an inner-emotional life that isn't the usual, cheesy fair one sees in after achool specials, or that goes beyond the "will the cheerleaders win the cheer-off?" plots that most teen-oriented films contain, the film has held up for over two decades.

The movie acknowledges sex, overbearing/ suffocating parents, finding out someone gets hit at home... a lot of the messy stuff that pops up in high school but for which the audience doesn't have a serious tool-kit yet for managing. And so, in many ways, its appropriate that we don't know what happens on Monday morning, or even Saturday night with these characters. There's no American Graffitti style conclusion.

I wish today's kids the best with the movie. They'll never believe the soundtrack sold like crazy, or that the Molly Ringwald dance became sort of a thing, but there you go. But I would honestly like to see the movie re-made. Or something along those lines, if for no other reason than so that maybe teen-agers can see some reflection of high school on the screen that doesn't come from "The Hills", "Gossip Girl", or the latest teen-sex romp. It'd be nice to acknowledge at that age that you're a human, and not just so you can be marketed to, pitched a lifestyle, or given some small thrills with your cheap laughs.


Michael Corley said...

Breakfast club did not have equal impact on me as it did most of our generation. I mainly remembered the weird girl using dandruff as snowflake art.

Cal's Canadian Cave of Coolness said...

Ah we were a simple people back then. The clouds were made of cotton candy and all the boys wore bandana's on our wrists and eye liner. It was the videos I tells ya...they corrupted us.

Anonymous said...

Between this and the post on what college kids, it is apparent that you are no longer Dennis the Menace and have quite clearly become Mr. Wilson.

J.S. said...

Well, I think the title, "The Breakfast Club" is little more than a reference to the name that Brian tags the msall group with when writing his little letter at the end to Dick Vernon. And, sad as it may be, I think it's actually probably a lot more realisitic for the cast to be all white, given the upper middle class Chicago suburb where the movie is supposed to take place. I also think that the whole point of the John Bender character is that people have been trying to challenge him, stand up to him, and discipline him for most of his life because of his behavior as "the bad kid" (he starts off in detention here, and ends up locked in a closet), but very few people have bothered to get to know hom well enough to know or address the underlying issues that make him act out in the first place (i.e., being raised in an abusive home where your father burns you with cigars whne you make a mistake). I think the intended point with the character is that when faced with a "problem kid" who sort of interrupts the flow of living a smoothly run, orderly existence, most people would rather just brand him as a loser than spend the time or energy really getting to know the problem, let alone trying to help do anything about it (and I think Dick Vernon personifies that sort of self-involved, "I don't care what you do, but just don't cause any problems for me" type of viewpoint. Such kids act badly, but they may be doing so because they're trying to process some heavy sh*t. (and before you can say, "Well then these kids need to grow up, because that's just how life is", I would argue that this shouldn't be and isn't always how life really is- there are actually people out there who want to help, and I work with a bunch of counsellors, therapists, doctors, and social workers who are the type of people who are willing to listen and help). The movie is filled with cheesy stereotypes, but as an adult it's easy to forget how often high school kids cling to such images themselves as they struggle to find and establish identities for themselves in adolescence. I think part of the theme of the movie is that there's a lot more than meets the eye going on below the surface of such superficial artifices if people can be bothered (or in the case of detention, perhaps forced) to really get to know each other.
Anyway, it's a John Hughes movie, and I'm not here to preach that it's the best movie ever, but I think there are some legitimate reasons why people had such a strong reaction to this movie when it came out and why it still continues to have some resonance today (i.e., this message that there's more to each of us than the image that the world has of us, and the fact that people sort of pine for a utopia where they are actually understood and appreciated for who they really are). As far as the next day goes (after the events in the movie), I guess the audience is supposed to be satisfied with the idea that at least these people are moving forward after having made some sort of emotional connection with a few of the people around them (after having revealed some of the hidden problems in their own lives), and that's more than a lot of people are ever going to get. Here ends my term paper.

The League said...

I don't doubt that in many suburbs, particularly in the 1980's, that the make-up of Saturday D-Hall and the school populace would be overwhelmingly white. I'm not doubting that. It was almost more of a thought on how Hollywood would think of such a film in today's market and what's changed as per what might be more easily explored in today's movies.

And, yeah, I know where the name comes from in the movie, but its also the name of a band of the era, a UK radio show, etc... and it relates to nothing I know of in the movie.

And I think I got the whole "the troubled kid is that way for a reason" bit. Its part of why I think people have been so ready to accept the character who is funny, charming, but spends much of the movie lashing out somewhat indiscriminately at his peers. There's nothing all that wrong with that, but the script basically disallows anyone from ever really pushing back.

And, in watching the movie again, I was surprised by how many gaps, how recently in the movie Bender had humiliated Claire without ever really showing her anything resembling respect before she sneaks off to meet him in the closet. Especially after Bender's "you use sex to get respect" speech, which Claire (of course) denies and then fulfills by movie's end.

It's not that I have a problem with the concept of John Bender as someone with something to say, its that the script is so clunky, it really doesn't serve the character very well if you're not in the throws of teen-angst.

J.S. said...

Maybe it's just that your heart has turned into some sort of cold, black, stone-like substance.

In all seriousness, I think part of what you have to remember is that John Hughes was trying to make a movie with some underlying moral themes about what it meant to grow up in the environment that these kids were living in at the time (the mostly all white, affluent American suburbs of the 1980s), but mostly he was trying to make a piece of entertainment that fell strongly within the highly marketable pop culture arena- complete with silly jokes, dumb catchphrases, hip kids, and popular music.

And in terms of no one "pushing back" against John Bender, he does manage to get himslef wrestled to the ground by the resident jock and to get himself locked in a storage closet (but once again, I think the main thing to remember about Bender is that in his normal life he's used to being pushed around and punished plenty). Bender's pretty mean to Claire, but I think part of this is meant to be a combination of "pulling the ponytails" type flirting combined with some role reversal on Bender's part- Claire is one of the people who normally rules the social strata of the school in day to day life, but once she gets stuck in detention on Saturday she's kind of trapped in Bender's world (and he probably does have pent up resentment and jealousy about their relative positions in life) and can't get away with just ignoring him the way she normally would (and the fact that all of them being trapped together forces
them to get to know one another is one of the themes of the movie- Claire's easiest revenge against Bender would be to just go right back to ignoring him). I think one of the interesting things about the movie is that we see and experience these characters for the first time only in, what is for them, an abnormal situation, and we have to learn about how their lives normally work through the dialogue. It's not as if this technique has never been used before, but it's an interesting one (and to an extent, it almost makes the movie feel a bit like a play that takes place with a single set).
Man, I am spending FAR too much time on The Breakfast Club today...

The League said...

You know, I get all that. I just was surprised how much weaker the script is when I watch it now.

It's not saying "Oh, Bender should just suck it up" or being insensitive to real-life kids with tough home lives to say either the script or final cut of the movie doesn't do a great job of making its arguments.

J.S. said...

I know. It's kind of a strange movie in that it sort of tries to take on some sort of heavy themes, but does it in a cheesy John Hughes popcorn chompin' eighties movie style. Maybe that's about as heavy as Hughes could get (oh wait. I almost forgot about the insights he brought us in Baby's Day Out...)

NTT said...

I'm with Jason on the Breakfast Club. Bender of course is portrayed sympathetically but I don't think it was completely out of logic with the premise of the screenplay. Frankly, any out of character moments can really be chalked up to teenagers being teenagers. Personalities are still being explored and that involves ignoring said principles and committing actions in direct conflict with what was said. I'd say, looking back at my experiences in high school, nobody ever acted like what they tried to portray to others.

I'd say that The Breakfast Club holds up well and will still be enjoyed more current offerings.

As for a reflection of high school that contrasts with The Hills or Gossip Girls, there was a great example: Freaks and Geeks. And it died a miserable death.

The League said...

Well, we have only two hours with the characters. One rule of movies, because you do spend so little time with them is consistency. That's not to say that characters can't say one thing and do another, and thus we learn about the character. And i'm not sure its that I felt the characters were being inconsistent so much as manipulated by the script to do and say things convenient to Hughes' ultimate goal of getting them to learn about each other, especially The Criminal.

Part of the point of the post was my surprise that the movie wasn't as rock solid as I'd remembered it (for what it was). I'd postulate that we saw the movie during a time in our lives when it resonated, and we've not given it much thought since.

Does Breakfast Club hold up with current offerings? Is it still a pretty okay movie? Sure. As you point out, for whatever that's worth.

It doesn't mean I won't point out some oddities in the film through my eyes now versus when I was 12 or whatever when I first saw it.

I think its also important to remember: These are fictional characters. I don't see any particular need to defend John Bender, discuss how "realistic" he is (I mean, he's an 18 year old who looks 28). And as the movie DID leave such an indelible impression on at least one generation, its worth noting the film's flaws.

If fictional John Bender can have fictional conversations in which he dominates and humiliates his peers, how is that more legitimate than fictional Claire kicking Bender in his fictional nutsack for trying to stick his face between her fictional legs? Or the writer's decision to make Claire someone who is utterly unable to defend herself except to whimper when challenged? Or stack the deck with John having a fictional bad home life situation (because God knows there were plenty of kids who were loud mouthed jerks who weren't beat up for spilling paint in the garage).

As long as the characters are fictional, there's a million directions to go. Hughes would have better served his characters, especially Bender, if he'd allowed them to present counter-arguments to his humiliating remarks, and not just half-assed come backs. Let him actually win the argument on real terms, not a trumped up scenario in which he just wears people out.