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November 04, 2010

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Victor Morton

Christian:

"I had mixed feelings about Hughes back in the day"

Well, who among us who saw CURLY SUE or UNCLE BUCK did not?

More seriously ... yes 3.5 stars is a thumbs-up, sure. (Though I'll never forgive Gene Siskel his one-star IIRC review of FERRIS BUELLER -- show segment here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WxJ8GN29qA) And obviously people have different grading systems (I use 0-10) and use them in different ways, so differences between 3.5 and 4 stars starts to approaching angels-boogeying-on-sewing-implements territory.

All that acknowledged, I think I'm on solid ground in saying that when a critic NEVER gave an auteur a 4-star review and only ONCE a 3.5 (or whatever the top grades are) and NEVER put him in his Top 10, and when said critic is among the friendlier and more-appreciative toward Hughes's work -- that Hughes was critically undervalued.

bill

Hey, UNCLE BUCK's a good movie. I hate THE BREAKFAST CLUB, never even saw PRETTY IN PINK, didn't think FERRIS BUELLER held up at all on a recent viewing, but PLANES, TRANES... and UNCLE BUCK are darn good. The latter may not be great, exactly, but it shows off John Candy to great effect.

Glenn Kenny

Hey, here's another reason to admire the ostensible "greatest generation:" you never heard any of them bitching and moaning about Norman Rockwell not getting enough critical respect. Jeez, you Gen-Xers really DO want everything; it's not enough that Hughes defined the cinematic iconography of a generation and made a mint doing it, no, NOW he needs rehabilitation for being critically undervalued. Oooh, boo Gene Siskel for not liking "Ferris Bueller." Big deal. I HATED "Ferris Bueller," and I was neither close to 30 nor a critic when I saw it. Yeah, you can sit around and say, wow, you know. "The Breakfast Club" is a pretty ballsy film; it's essentially just a bunch of kids sitting around talking, which makes it practically EUROPEAN, and then that stupid dance montage happens and it's another conspicuous error down the drain.

Hughes was prodigiously talented and he continues to exert an influence to this day. A lot of his stuff, or a certain amount of his stuff, still gets a laugh out of me, just as some of his pandering still gets a rise out of me, when I'm reminded of it. But that's it. There is no there there beyond the assertion that there is, but that can be convenient for the younger critics Victor speaks of. Not least because in short-format reviews, you can cite an affinity between "Due Date" and Wenders without having to back it up (sorry, J.R....)

Victor Morton

"There is no there there ..."

John Hughes never shot a film in Oakland.

More seriously ... the "there" in Hughes, most prominently in THE BREAKFAST CLUB and PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES, is mismatched people overcoming difference (or not or only temporarily) and even forging a group/team identity without either of those pretentious-twaddle terms becoming an explicitly foregrounded Subject or Great Theme. The growth of love, in other words (just shoot me now).

Victor Morton

As for THE BREAKFAST CLUB specifically, yes, the Semi-Obligatory Music Videos are a concession to the 80s teen-film genre Hughes was in the midst of elevating. But they're no more irrelevant than, say, having Ricky Nelson sing a song in the middle of a Western, or Aishwarya dance during a gangster film. And they actually do serve a dramatic purpose (besides seeing, for the first and only time, that nerdy Hall is actually bigger than either Estevez or Nelson) -- a fueled reverie unifying the kids themselves, first by being chased through the halls and second by being stoned. In those moments, dramatic logic isn't really the subjective feeling.

Glenn Kenny

As you may have inferred, VIctor, my comment was at least partially meant to goad you—and you passed. It's an interesting argument you should pursue into a longer piece, I think. By the way, my old and dear friend Susannah Gora wrote a fairly interesting book on Hughes' work and the teen flicks on its periphery called "You Couldn't Ignore Me If You Tried." It is not of a Cahiers-ish bent, and it contains a few howlers that dearly make me wish she would have let her cranky ex-Premiere colleague have a look at the manuscript prior to publication, but it's got some good stuff in it.

christian

THE BREAKFAST CLUB is practically Chekhov given that it was a major studio teen release at 2 1/2 hours with no tits, cum/shit gags, or extra crunchy bland irony that is the hallmark of today's teen outings.

I never liked Hughes pandering ("It's our PARENTS fault!!!") but the guy knew how to use cool music, and had a clean, compositional rhythmic style.

Victor Morton

Glenn:

It's probably a bit Gen-X narcissistic for your taste you Big Boomer you, but I kinda have (and I even name-drop Chekhov for Christian) --
http://vjmorton.wordpress.com/2010/08/10/films-of-my-life-1/

bill

I called it PLANES, TRANES... earlier, instead of PLANES, TRAINS... Anybody notice that? That's pretty wild.

Tom Russell is being pedantic again

@Christian: you're off by about an hour there. BREAKFAST CLUB was a lean 93 minutes.

Victor Morton

OK ... I'll pre-empt the obvious joke ...

"but it FELT like 2 1/2 hours ..." ba-da-DUM

Thank you folks. I'll be here all week. And tip the waitress. Take my wife, please.

That Fuzzy Bastard

In full agreement with Victor---if you're maddened by the obligatory dance number in BREAKFAST CLUB, you've gotta throw out a whole lot of Westerns with equally obligatory, equally mood-shattering songs. All of which seems sort of anti-pleasure.

christian

You're right - It just felt long. But I'm thinking of the original three hour cut...for reals.

Glenn Kenny

Victor wrote, "they're no more irrelevant than, say, having RIcky Nelson sing a song in the middle of a Western." This may have been an attempt to goad me back, but I'm not taking the bait: I'll allow that the aforementioned dread scene from "The Breakfast Club" serves a very similar function to the ostensibly sacrosanct "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me" number in "Rio Bravo" (in which a performer name of Dean Martin also sings). (And I hope this Guru Guru fan isn't deemed a "square" for his considered opinion that the Tiomkin-composed "Rifle" rates way higher as a song, pace Fuzzy, than Karla DeVito's "You Are Not A Dork" or whatever the hell the "Club" number is called.) That function being to pull the characters together, or rather to demonstrate how the characters themselves are pulling closer to each other personally. The problem isn't the intent, it's the execution. (Or, you could say, it isn't the music, it's the montage.) In "Rio Bravo" it's simple, unobtrusive, while the cutting and the moves in the "Breakfast Club" sequence are tacky, jokey, knowingly vulgar, and actually at odds with the tone of much of the rest of the film. A compromise/sop that feels like one while the Hawks scene (which we all know actually was a sop, as he had two still very popular singers top-billed in his cast) doesn't feel quite that obvious. So. There.

That Fuzzy Bastard

I'm maybe defending TBC more than I really want to---I think it's a fine movie, but not great---but I'd say that by classic-movie standards, the dance scene does very well.

Yes, it uses on the somewhat abstract cutting/staging that was standard in movies at the time, just like Hawks uses the nailed-to-the-floor camera that was standard for musical numbers in his era. But I can't see one as inherently superior---the loping-around of the Hawks seems weirdly stiff if you aren't used to the period---just the taste of different eras. Ditto the song quality, which is pretty low in both cases, though the Hawks has nostalgia on its side. But setting aside highly subjective questions of "I hate them drum machines!" "I hate them acoustic guitars!", how does TBC stack up cinematically---that is, does it both further the plot and express the themes? Yes, and far better than the Rio Bravo number!

RB is showing/making the characters bond, which it does reasonably well, in the unobtrusive way Hawks favored. It's hard to buy Ricky Nelson as a cowboy, but whatev's. It starts as a series of one shots, then concludes with a group shot, signifying that they've gone from being apart to being together. Simple, but effective enough.

TBC is much wittier and richer cinematically (in part because it has access to post-Nouvelle Vague techniques which allow it to break out of strictly realistic staging). First, it shows the kids transforming the oppressive space into a zone of play, which is what the whole movie is about---Judd Nelson headbanging against that hideous abstract sculpture captures the whole film in a single image. It then reiterates the movie's progression in under a minute of screen time: We begin with different dance moves expressing each characters' personal style (Sheedy is eyes closed and internal, Estevez is tightly wound and beating himself, Ringwald is displayed on a pedestal). After these solo displays (mirroring the beginning of the movie, when each character is still defining themselves), the kids do identical moves, which shows how different they are when they're placed in an identical situation (the bit of Sheedy and Ringwald side-by-side, in a full-body shot, is a wonderfully succinct expression of how teens use fashion as tribal identity markers). And then they end the number alone again (with Judd Nelson, the character who would never fit in, ending the series of group numbers).

Yes, it's more abstract than Hawks, but are you really going to object to a filmmaker using post-Godard techniques? I wish more directors and writers were willing to engage in these sorts of expressive flights of fancy in the midst of otherwise naturalistic staging!

Glenn Kenny

"The dBs:Repercussion [Albion, 1982]
A man of simple tastes, I'm thrown into a tizzy when I find myself uninterested in playing an album comprising twelve tunes I can hum after a dozen plays. I think it's because they're so prepossessing they short-circuit my simple aesthetic sense. I was thrown off for weeks, to take one example, by the soul horns that open the lead cut. They sounded fussy. Soul horns. On a pop record. Overreaching. B+"—Robert Christgau

That Fuzzy Bastard

Nahhhh, overreaching would be saying that Hughes is a better director---or at least a more visually expressive director---than Hawks. Which I'm sorta tempted to assert now, just for laughs...

Glenn Kenny

Go ahead, I dare you. I'm on my way to the gym, so if you get me good and pissed off, I may finally make that 8-minute mile!

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Okay, okay, I won't bait just for the sake of your exercise regimen!

That said, there's actually an interesting point about canons somewhere in here. The Cahiers crowd formulated a canon around a lot of values that had been marginalized (though certainly not eliminated) in sound cinema, particularly an emphasis on visual expressiveness over expressive dialogue, and an interest in cinematic space and time over naturalistic space and time. And they roped in a number of directors who didn't quite fit the standards, but who they enjoyed anyway, like Hawks, and that became "the canon according to Cahiers".

But of course, a lot of directors---arguably just about every director---ended up a product of the Cahiers aesthetic ideology, and many of them carried out its precepts far more devotedly than directors who had no idea who these lefty frogs were. So in updating the canon, one's left with the choice of evaluating directors based on their fidelity to the Cahiers standards, in which case post-1968 directors are likely to eclipse their predecessors, or maintain the canon as originally formulated, because those who formulated the canon must know best.

Hawks is clearly less interested in creating specifically cinematic space than Hughes, and he's much too beholden to a theatrical presentation of events to do anything as expressionistic as the dance numbers in BREAKFAST CLUB or SHE'S HAVING A BABY (which is practically Eisensteinian in its devotion to cinematizing everything within an inch of its life). But Hawks was adored by the Cahiers crowd, and has a much more "classical" style (though that's arguably the style that the Nouvelle Vague demolished).

So do you put Hawks above Hughes as a director (without necessarily arguing that Hughes' movies are better), because he's the classicist and you like old movies better than new ones? Or do you evaluate directors based on how fully they find cinematic expression for their themes, with points taken off for theatrical staging, in which case Hughes runs away with the prize on the strength of the lawnmower ballet alone?

Victor Morton

Mr. Bastard (BTW ... loved the breakdown of that dance, the only thing which I'd explicitly noted myself was how weird the pairing of the two women is):

Glenn WANTS to run an eight-minute mile. So being baited gets him good and pissed off, like how in the old days fighters would be kept away from their wives or girlfriends for months and DeNiro had to pour ice down his pants. So in that spirit --

VIVA GREG GUTFELD!!!!

christian

My biggest problem with the dance scene is that it significantly alters the "reality" of the film - it's a problem (or trait) of Hughes work throughout. Anything approaching real will be sidelined by a total fantasy construct. It's only the window shattering that makes the scene some kind of stupid. And the song.

Kent Jones

"The Cahiers crowd formulated a canon around a lot of values that had been marginalized (though certainly not eliminated) in sound cinema, particularly an emphasis on visual expressiveness over expressive dialogue, and an interest in cinematic space and time over naturalistic space and time. And they roped in a number of directors who didn't quite fit the standards, but who they enjoyed anyway, like Hawks..."

Do you really believe that? It's like the sorry end product of a game of cinephile telephone.

The "Cahiers crowd" was a group of individuals, not a lock-step collective. A brief look at Godard's writing about Mankiewicz or Truffaut's thoughts about Guitry, to name just a couple of examples, is enough to dismantle the "visual expressiveness/expressive dialogue" opposition. If you were to ask a young Rivette or Rohmer to explain the differences between "cinematic" and "naturalistic" space and time, they'd either hang their heads and weep or walk away chuckling. And if you were to read Rohmer on Hawks, you'd find a lot more than a justification of a "favorite" who didn't otherwise conform to group "standards." And the Nouvelle Vague (same as the "Cahiers crowd," right?) didn't demolish "'classical' style" - what many of them really tried to demolish was the lazy equation between the "cinematic" and the "expressionistic." Evidently, they weren't successful.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

Fair enough---Godard and Roehmer are very different filmmakers and critics, as are, well, any of 'em. I suppose I'm conflating them somewhat with the very different Russian thinkers (Vertov, for example) who they idolized, but didn't necessarily ape. Though wasn't Godard's beef with Mankiewicz (quoted in this blog earlier this month) precisely that there was too much dialogue, not enough cinema?

Victor Morton

And further, Eric Rohmer once wrote, and note that he is not speaking in strictly his own voice:

"Thus, you should not be too astonished to see me take the opposite view of an opinion, expressed here by me some while ago apropos of 'Les Girls.' No film in Cahiers has made as much ink flow as 'The Barefoot Contessa' and nevertheless, the cinema which we ordinarily defend in this magazine - a cinema of spatial construction and corporeal expression as our old friend André Martin would say - has barely any relation with what Mankiewicz proposes to us."

Obviously, the context is Rohmer introducing an exceptional case. But he nevertheless thereby confirms that it IS an exceptional case.

Glenn Kenny

Six miles in 52:22. Thanks and keep up the good work, Fuzzy, Victor.

Matthew Fisher

"Yes, it uses on the somewhat abstract cutting/staging that was standard in movies at the time, just like Hawks uses the nailed-to-the-floor camera that was standard for musical numbers in his era. But I can't see one as inherently superior---the loping-around of the Hawks seems weirdly stiff if you aren't used to the period---just the taste of different eras. Ditto the song quality, which is pretty low in both cases, though the Hawks has nostalgia on its side."

Just wanted to say for the record that when our heroes sing "My Rifle, My Pony, and Me," and "Cindy" in the middle of Rio BRAVO, it just thrills me to death every time. Sometimes, when I'm in the right mood, it leaves me wiping away tears of joy. For me, it's the highest point in a film full of high points, and it's one of the greatest of all musical moments (or just plain moments) in movies, right up there with, well, you name it- Dean Stockwell singing "In Dreams," or the Mozart coming in during the final moments of A MAN ESCAPED, or...

Which is why I can't understand the idea that it's a weak point, or that RIO BRAVO would be better off without it.

Kent Jones

Look, to simplify matters, let's just say that the idea of what is or is not "cinematic" expressed above, and the idea of what is or is not cinematic generally held by "the Cahiers group," are worlds apart. As I said and as FB reiterated, they were all very different - Godard, to my knowledge, was the only one with a deep admiration of Vertov (although I think it was Gorin who actually named the collective) - but they shared a certain idea of cinema embodied in Rossellini, Renoir, Hitchcock and Hawks.

In his writing Godard grappled with Mankiewicz, admired him AND found his staging and visualization a little on the pedantic side. But the idea of dense dialogue exchanges certainly stayed with him when he made his own films. More to the point, it's been rumored that Rohmer had a certain fondness for dialogue. Even if he didn't like THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA.

Asher

I thought complaining about 'My Rifle, My Pony, and Me' was just a straw man that Robin Wood invented. Now people really believe that somewhere out there there are critics that fault the film for containing that song because Wood said that there were.

I really can't stand THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. I can't quite articulate why other than to say that I find widescreen Technicolor (though CONTESSA isn't in Scope) dreadfully leaden in the wrong hands, and Mankiewicz certainly falls into the wrong hands category. (McCarey's another director who was completely lost in widescreen color.) Moreover, I don't much like the script.

Kent Jones

Asher, I'm with you. I love some of Mankiewicz' movies, but Bogart aside, I really can't take THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA. Every time there's a new scene, I feel like I'm sinking in a quicksand of epigrammatic bitching and undifferentiated "decor." Absolute murder.

Fuzzy Bastarrd

For the record, I *like* "Mein Mauser, Mein Gelding, y Moi". I just think it's off-base to complain that the dance number in THE BREAKFAST CLUB is out of place while celebrating a similar moment in RIO BRAVO. Or in BAND OF OUTSIDERS, or SURVIVING DESIRE. They're all sort of frame-breakers, but I don't mind a little crumbling around the edges.

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