Saturday, August 08, 2009

He Made Us Comfortable in Someone Else’s Skin

What a lousy year…
I’m really not in the mood to write today, but I feel I must. I need to do so in order to pay tribute on at least a somewhat timely basis to the passing of yet another luminary in our culture whose life has come to a premature end; a man whose movies defined a generation in a way that may never be duplicated: reknowned 1980s writer/director/producer, John Hughes.


Photo courtesy Cinetext/Allstar

Over the past three months I’ve started and stopped at least four stories regarding the notable lives that 2009 has claimed; the list is staggering. It seems that each time I try to express my regret for one of the individuals who has passed, another one drops off and I’m once again crippled by grief and have to set it aside.

On June 25th we experienced the double-whammy of losing both Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson within mere hours of one another. And though these were the two who captured the attention of the TeeVee news magazines for weeks, there were others who preceded them. Giants of significance to me, in the personal, entertainment, pop culture, and political arenas; names like Ed McMahon, my Father In-Law, David Carradine, Dan Miller, Chuck Daly, Dom Deluise, Jack Kemp, Bea Arthur, Mark ‘The Bird’ Fidrych, Paul Harvey, James Whitmore, Andrew Wyeth, and the great Ricardo Montalb├ín.

But the Grim Reaper wasn’t finished in June; he kept right on going, and has in just the past six weeks claimed the additional lives of Walter Cronkite, Robert McNamara, Steve McNair, and Karl Malden.

Now if you’re looking at that list and either scratching your head because there’s a bunch of names there you either don’t recognize — or in whose passing you weren’t quite moved enough to really feel bad about, well, no worries here. Chances are you’re not 53 years old, have split your lifetime between LA and Nashville, and/or are married to the daughter of a late, former Apollo 11 Moon Mission engineer.

You Just Never Know
We all have our own individual list of people that have touched our lives; its not the same for everyone, just as we also wield our own sphere of influence that touches the lives of others.

Sometimes that influence is through incidental contact; other times it’s quite intentional. Sometimes it’s a part of our job; other times it’s none of our freaking business. Sometimes our influence is a good thing; other times it’s the worst thing that we could possibly do to another person.

There’s one constant in all of this however, and that is that we never know.

We never know how just a look from us can change another person’s day; how an encouraging word can either make or break a child; how the conscious decision to NOT let our ill mood affect our response can make all the difference in the outcome of an inter-personal situation.

We never know how years of direct exposure to another soul can either mold that person’s character for good, or cast an irrevocable die of pain upon their life.

We just never know.

My all-time personal favorite quote — the single greatest influence I have ever received from a poet, is displayed in the masthead of my blog. It’s not from a poem, but is from the heart of a wise and inspired poetess, Maya Angelou:

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

This has become my mantra; something I attempt to use to govern my actions; to make each and every contact with another person a positive one, because…you never know.

A Hughe(s) Loss
John Hughes probably had a clue, but I doubt he ever knew just how influential his movies were, or how much he would be missed when he left us this past Thursday.

I sure as hell didn’t know how it would affect me.

And the thing is, at the time I heard the news, I really didn’t know why I was so shaken.

Perhaps it was just the straw-that-broke-the camel’s-back of this god-forsaken ‘another one bites the dust’ kind-of-year.

Perhaps it was the fact that just a few days earlier I had actually done a Google search on Hughes to try and find out what he was up to. I hadn’t heard anything about him making movies in what seemed like forever. Was he ill or just laying low? Why had he dropped out of the limelight? Why had he not directed a single feature film since the early 90s?

And then came Thursday...and he was gone.

The irony was simply too sharp. I really had to swallow hard as I read aloud to my co-workers the news of John Hughes death from the press release I received via email late Thursday afternoon.

I felt as though someone had punched me in the gut.

The man was 59 years old — just six years my senior. I had no idea. I’d always assumed him to be was much older than that. I’d never even seen a picture of him prior to that news release.

I guess I knew a different John Hughes. The filmmaker I admired was perhaps different than the one whose movies you connected with as a teenager. I was well beyond my teens in the 1980s, but instead was traveling through my late twenties and into my thirties by the time Hughes’ films exploded upon the scene.


Hughes’ original Brats: (clockwise from left) Ally Sheedy, Judd Nelson, Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, and Molly Ringwald
Photo courtesy WashingtonPost.com

I was, by MY generation’s directive, almost ready to join the ranks of ‘those not to be trusted’ when The Breakfast Club hit the theaters in 1985.

Oh, and did I mention, I what an ASS I was back then, too?

In the mid-80s I used to bristle at Generation X, as they recently had been dubbed. The kids born after the mid-60s; those malcontents who listened to Punk Rock, dyed their hair chartreuse, and spent their time yakking about ‘No Nukes.’ These were the age and experience group that John Hughes’ films were directed to the most.

I realized at the time that this must have been how my parent’s generation felt about me and my mates in the 60s, when the first so-called ‘generation gap’ formed.

I was aware of The Breakfast Club, although not necessarily cognizant of Hughes per se. What I did know, however, was the ‘Brat Pack’ — this group of up-and-coming actors, and how they were being hyped as ‘the next big thing’ in Hollywood. The Breakfast Club was ostensibly the birth of the Brat Pack, as noted in the 1985 New York magazine cover story which popularized the phrase.

Yeah, they were brats alright, I thought. Kids these days.

I just rolled my eyes.

But as has so often in my life been demonstrated, I later realized that I needed to stop assuming things that weren’t necessarily true. I mean, you know what they say about ASSuming…

So I went to a different ‘Brat Pack’ movie that came out that same year: St. Elmo’s Fire. It wasn’t a John Hughes film, but its ensemble cast featured three of the Breakfast Club’s five principles, including Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy and Judd Nelson.

I loved it.

But enough about brats; back to John Hughes.

An Overdue Present
I may have given the Brat Pack a second chance in 1985, but would continue to be late to the John Hughes love-fest for another five years, until a screaming kid would force us to take him to a movie about another screaming kid: Macaulay Culkin in his portrayal of the precocious Kevin McCallister, in Hughes’ comedic masterpiece, Home Alone.

Our kids were ages eight and six in December, 1990, and Home Alone was all the rage among most of the young parents we knew. So after much cajoling from our son Shawn, we treated the kids to the now-classic Chrismastime flick — which they loved.

However it was I who received the long-overdue present at the movie theater that day: the gift of John Hughes.

There are two movies from the Early 90s that simply enrapture me, not necessarily for their production values, or even their story lines alone, but rather the aesthetics created by the combination of those two elements that infuse the mind of the viewer.

One film, about which I’ve written fairly often in previous stories, is City Slickers — both for it’s breathtaking cinematography of the West and its humorous-yet-gripping truths about a man saying goodbye to his youth.

Home Alone is the other, and probably for exact opposite reason. Oh it’s funny, silly, and all of those things that one would expect from a plot about a young boy who believes he’s made his family disappear, but there was something more in it for me.

Home Alone reconnected me to my childhood — not that I ever spent any time fending off burglars by greasing up the basement steps or pretending I was a gangster joyously filling my enemies full’a lead.

What I got out of the movie — and the numerous other John Hughes films I would subsequently rent and devour over the years that followed, was pure John Hughes; a guy who was a child of the Midwest, just like me; a child of the 50s and 60s, just like me; and a filmmaker who poured out just the right amount of that part of his life into every movie he made.

I don’t really know how else to define it, but the ‘feeling’ of Kevin McCallister’s neighborhood in suburban Chicago is exactly how it ‘felt’ in similar settings throughout the Midwest I grew up in. The flavor was unmistakable to me. And amid all the movie’s laughs and high-jinx was the poignancy of this connective tissue that bound it all together.

This wasn’t just a movie about a kid in suburban America, it was a movie about me. And I’m certain that the way Hughes affected me in Home Alone is the same way so many GenXers felt about The Breakfast Club.

He made us feel connected.

John Hughes didn’t just make movies about teens; he made movies about the human spirit — weaving characters into whom we could lose ourselves and identify; seeing our lives through their eyes for just a little while, and then returning us to reality a little more enlightened; a little more encouraged to go out and make the world our own. He had a remarkable ability to speak to the heart, whether in laughter or in angst, making us comfortable in someone else’s skin.

And he will be missed.


Next: John Hughes — addendum
blog comments powered by Disqus