05 October 2011

JOHN HUGHES, SCREENWRITER: PRETTY IN PINK (1986)

And now we come to a very exciting moment in our retrospective: the emergence of John Hughes as a brand name.

Prior to 1985, Hughes was well-enough established as a screenwriter of popular hits so that his 1984 directorial debut Sixteen Candles could be proudly advertised as "from the man who brought you Mr. Mom and National Lampoon's Vacation". But this was not, as yet, married to a specific personality, as evidenced by the fact that the three films being compared share no characteristics other than that they are all comedies. And not even terribly similar comedies: a family-friendly sitcom, a vulgar farce, and wacky teen slice-of-life picture.

After Sixteen Candles, Hughes began to gel as a creative force: his subsequent three films as director were all very much in that film's mold, being tales of teenage anomie in affluent suburban Chicago. In particular, it was his immediate next film, The Breakfast Club, that really sealed it: while Sixteen Candles was a critical success, The Breakfast Club was a critical success and a box office hit, making enough of a cultural splash that it and fellow 1985 angst epic St. Elmo's Fire (which shared three of its five actors) launched the brief flowering of the Brat Pack, and cementing Hughes's status as the mid-30s guy with the uncanny knowledge of teenagers' lives.

Not only did The Breakfast Club guarantee Hughes his place in pop culture history, it was the first time he produced a movie, which is actually the more important detail for our current needs, for it was in this stroke that Hughes became an executive. And thus do we come to 1986, in which we find the Hughes-penned and the Hughes-produced Pretty in Pink, which was directed by first-timer Howard Deutch, though it is unmistakeably a John Hughes movie and was even advertised as such: it is the producer's name and not the director's that appears above the title on the poster. Less than 13 months after the release of The Breakfast Club, the man was already such an icon in his field that his name could be used as a seal of quality - "This movie is 100% guaranteed to fill all your teen angst needs!" - a record which not even Judd Apatow, the next comedy writer-director who quickly became the curator of a brand rather than an individual creator, could match.

The movie hinges on an extremely simple variation of the Romeo & Juliet dynamic: Andie Walsh (Molly Ringwald, in her final and best work with Hughes; they suffered a terrible falling-out as a result of this film's post-production woes & her refusal to star in its effective remake) lives in the poorer part of a suburb where there is no such thing as extreme poverty, Blane McDonnagh (Andrew McCarthy) is one of the wealthiest kids in school, and they start dating despite the general dismay of everyone around them: particularly Andie's New Wave friend Duckie (Jon Cryer), who has a crush on her. And that is all, really: all of the details around the central scenario are in some way a direct result of the fact that Andie has no money, Blane has lots of money, and Blane has a lot of peer pressure from his incredibly evil friend Steff (James Spader).

On top of being as good a character study as anything else he wrote, this is the first Hughes film to really grapple, and hard, with the realities of class differences. The Breakfast Club feinted in this direction, but was too damn nice and optimistic to really muck about the way that Pretty in Pink does, and I frankly think that's exactly the reason Hughes farmed it out to Deutch: certainly, the neophyte does not in any meaningful way exhibit an aesthetic personality distinct from his producer-mentor, not that Hughes's filmmaking aesthetic is profoundly unique and original, other than maybe his quick appropriation of new developments in pop music. But I digress: the point I wish to make is that Pretty in Pink is a grubby and even nasty movie in its understanding of class structure, of culture and counter-culture and the ways that teenagers can destroy one another over the subtle distinctions therein.

The big tell is the film's use of music: Andie works at a music store alongside the aging but awesomely hip Iona (Annie Potts, the uniformly under-used and under-appreciated comic character actress par excellence), and as is often true of people who work at music stores, they have outrageously refined tastes in the latest and edgiest. As I just pointed out, this is not in and of itself rare in Hughes's canon; but the specificity of it on display here is. Pretty in Pink is "about" the way that musical tastes define and are defined by social structure as much as it is about anything, and the '80s were a uniquely perfect moment for such a theme; there has at any rate not been any time since then in which music as signifier of one's social role was so important.

All of which is to say: Pretty in Pink "gets" the musical subcultures it explores in a way that Hughes's other films have not, and this means that it is more serious and unsparing in its look at what those subcultures stand for: and that, in turn, leads to an awareness of class differences at times far too uncomfortable for the warmth of a Breakfast Club or Sixteen Candles, or certainly Weird Science; my suspicion is that part of the reason Hughes took into his fold a totally blank filmmakers who could be trusted to make a John Hughes film in all but name was a means of keeping his reputation "safe"; not that Pretty in Pink is particularly harsh in the grand scheme of things, but we are talking about the edge of the envelope within a specific brand.

The way in which class is used in Pretty in Pink leads us, inevitably, to one of the points that liberal & leftist critics are always going to arrive at eventually in discussing Hughes: which is that he was an outspoken Republican in the tradtionally Democratic movie industry, during the Reagan decade when the Republican party was particularly absorbed with class-based issues. Now, Hughes was by no means dogmatic: his movies are apolitical far more often than not. But Pretty in Pink is perhaps his most political movie, and that deserves some comment.

Explicitly, the film is about the differences between two young people that result from him being upper class and her being lower-middle class; and the Marxist in me is threatening to act up and suggest that it's a sign of Republicanism that Andie's tidy, none-too-small home is used as a signifier of her outrageously underprivileged life; true urban poverty, and non-white people as a whole, remain unknown in Hughes's universe). I shouldn't lose the thread, though: rich boy, poor girl, and the film makes a big deal about that fact, so much so that we can't possibly ignore it as a mere contrivance. Now, one of the major elements of Andie's arc is that she comes to find that her ingrained dislike of the rich kids can be broken down the moment she gets to know one of them reasonably well (Blane has no arc; he's never more than a supporting character in Andie's movie, and McCarthy's anodyne performance doesn't do much of anything to correct for that). Steff is an unreasonable asshole; Spader's performance is magnificent in turning the stereotypical snobbish preppy of every '80s comedy ever into a force of pure, unmitigated spite; but Steff is absolutely held out to be a massive exception to the rule, mean because he is mean and not because he is rich. I cannot shake the feeling that we're meant to learn along with Andie that the rich are just like you and me, contra Fitzgerald, and that Pretty in Pink is an apologia for the upper class.

Obviously, only a deranged person would accuse a John Hughes movie of being classist propaganda, and I don't mean to do that. Still, there is a strong current of bourgeois conformity in his cinema, despite his overt love of misfits and rebels, and this seemed like the best time I'd have to point it out, given how much that tension underlies every moment of Pretty in Pink up to its outrageously misguided ending.

Spoilers for the rest of the review: because the ending of this film isn't just a bad ending, it is an ending that almost ruins the whole film, and I have to talk about it. Having alienated Duckie and thrown Blane over for being too concerned with his asshole friend's asshole opinions, Andie decides that she will nevertheless go to prom, something she never wanted to do before (conformity!), but she will make her own dress according to her own tastes and desires, uniting tradition and the modern (misfit rebel!). The dress ends up looking like a neon pink tube sock and could not possibly be less flattering if it literally crush her breasts into oblivion, but I don't think we're meant to notice that. What we do notice is that as a result of her brilliant stand, Andie manages to patch up her friendship with Duckie, and allows Blane back into her life, and the film ends with the big romantic reconciliation that made a thousand 14-year-old hearts coo.

Nothing in the previous 90 minutes sets us up to think that Andie and Blane belong together, that he deserves her, or that they will last for more than the next month or so; yet the need for a trite bit of closure is so profound that the movie ends up counteracting its own arguments and spewing out a torrent of lies about teenagers and love, all in the span of just a couple of scenes. To be fair, Hughes did not intend to end the film this way: it was forced on him by the studio when it turned out that reshoots would be necessary for other reasons. His original ending had Andie end up with Duckie, which would have been even worse: not least because it's really, really hard not to read Duckie as gay and in deep denial about it. More to the point, it would have been even more blithely bourgeois: don't ever look outside of your immediate social circle and class level, it says. Allegedly, Hughes himself was uncomfortable with the possibility of that reading, to his credit, but he never once, apparently, considered the possibility that Andie could end up alone; and yet that is the only sensible ending that the film has been driving towards all along, that she should have figured out what her needs are, and that her strength of personality is enough to let her stand proud and single.

Hell no, it's not commercial, but it would have been the most fair to the character. And of course, honesty forces us to concede that in life, girls end up in terrible, wrong relationships all the time, and so do boys, because society frowns on single folk. But that's not the ending that Pretty in Pink demands, particularly since there's no trace of the idea that this is a bad thing for Andie. There may not be - in fact, there is almost certainly not - a political motivation to this. There is, however, a deep streak of small-c conservatism, and a commitment to retreating to traditional values and mores as the way things ought to be. Plenty of movies have done that; plenty of moviemakers espouse that kind of tradition, and I'm not complaining about Hughes so much as pointing out a characteristic. Still, Pretty in Pink is a clear demonstration that just because that opinion isn't inherently wrong or bad, it can still stand in the way of Art, when Art demands something a bit more rebellious.

3 comments:

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

I have not seen this film. Maybe I should. But the only point I want to make is this: I DO love that Psychedelic Furs song. That is all.

Tim said...

And a damn good song it is, at that.

Regular commenter and reader Rebecca, who is having a hell of a time dealing with Blogger comments right now, has this to say:

"Thank you for mentioning that hideous dress. As a girly girl I've always generally liked the ending of the movie (Andrew McCarthy!) even if it is incredibly forced, but where it goes wrong is that horrible thing she *chooses* to wear to prom. It had so much potential, especially given what she had to work with, and isn't it the title of the movie that she's supposed to be Pretty in Pink?

"Also, it was recently pointed out to me that Andrew McCarthy doesn't blink.

"I have another comment that gets into the choice of endings, but it requires discussing Some Kind of Wonderful, so I'll wait until you get there."

Kelsy said...

Agree. The ending never made sense to me, but there's so much good stuff in the middle. I mean, is anything more magical than Duckie singing along to "Try a Little Tenderness"?