Forgetfulness of things past
Copyright © 2020 Nat Segaloff
An old friend just recommended three books about the teen films from the John Hughes era of the 1980s -- pictures like “The Breakfast Club,” “Pretty in Pink,” ”Some Kind of Wonderful,” etc. I resist calling them Brat Pack movies but if the sweatshirt fits, wear it. As a critic, I recall dismissing the first teen films as whiny fantasies of middle-class suburban white kids because, while they certainly echoed the anguish of the intended teen audiences, they also unrealistically over-dramatized them. Not until the TV series "Beverly Hills 90210" debuted did I get the message that it was probably helpful to young audiences to see their troubles -- which adults had ignored,if not caused -- taken seriously and made open for discussion. The important aspect of the John Hughes (and his knock-offs) canon is that teenagers were finally played by real teenagers and not 20-somethings who looked young. Thinking back, I hold "American Graffiti" (1973) as the transitional film -- nostalgic in content while being modern in concept.
The beach blanket movies that my generation used to see on Saturday matinees or at the drive-in were an important precursor to the 80s teen films. Few scholars have given them appropriate credit. I was fortunate to work for the company that made most of them (American International Pictures) for my first real job after college and, while the trend had played itself out by the time I was hired in 1970, the people in charge of making and distributing them were still around and eager to reminisce.
Their target audience, they confided, was the 19-year-old white male. This was on the belief that older people wouldn't go to youth-oriented movies, that younger teens wanted to emulate 19-year-olds, and that 19-year-old females would automatically accompany their 19-year old boyfriends. The "white" aspect was partly because of Hollywood's racism and because the so-called "urban audience" (African-Americans, who were called Afro-Americans at the time) had little or no interest in those movies. In the cities, they patronized horror and kung-fu action pictures until the black exploitation genre (Blaxploitation, another term I resist) in 1971 by “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” and “Superfly” in 1972. The appeal of the teen films, AIP knew, was that kids left the house to watch them without adult supervision. They pictures made the kids into heroes, either vilified or belittled their adult figures, and created a sense of solidarity among their young viewing audiences. In other words, it's just what John Hughes would perceptively do twenty years later, only with actual teens and decent production values.
The major difference is that, by the time Hughes and his peers did their work, the youth audience had become a well-defined target marketing demographic. It was also significantly larger than it had been in the 1950s when the Baby Boom generation (mine) emerged. Now this young audience is all that matters as consumer targeting is aimed almost entirely at them.
Freud wrote of the id and ego as being early psychosexual drives. Commercial opportunism has been pandering to those drives since the “me decade” of the 1970s to the exclusion of the superego, that is, the regulator of those infantile urges. The Hughes films, more than the AIP youth movies, are at once a celebration of and a cynical exploitation of the very real anguish of teenagers during this transitional and traumatic time of life. Hughes and his filmmaking contemporaries (Amy Heckerling, Cameron Crowe, Howard Deutsch, Chris Columbus, and, more recently, Judd Apatow) gave polish and attention to a genre that, like its subjects, date quickly. Rites of passage are like that.
I don't write on spec, but every now and then something gets me fired up and I can't stop my fingers from hitting the keyboard.