Friday, August 07, 2009

Don't You Forget About Me

I have this girlfriend who didn't go to hers, and every once in a while she gets this really terrible feeling, you know, like something is missing. She checks her purse, you know, she checks her keys, she counts her kids, she goes crazy and then she realizes that: nothing is missing. She decided it was side effects from skipping the prom.

John Hughes was a part of my life before I understood the prom, teen angst, or boner humor; before it occurred to me how racist it was to name a character named Long Duk Dong and sound a gong whenever he appeared; before I understood that James Spader was supposed to be smarmy and not dashing and Andrew McCarthy was supposed to be dashing and not lame; when rotary phones were current technology instead of something on which I just entertained the idea of spending $85.00 even though I don't have a house line or $85.00.

My very first exposure to John Hughes was actually through the Muppet Babies, which was my favorite Saturday morning cartoon. I remember eating one of those variety pack tiny boxes of Frosted Flakes (an indulgence bought with extreme infrequency and doled out by my mother only on the weekends, like the Eucharist or something) and watching the episode where Miss Piggy is drawn into the Pretty in Pink scene where Blane asks out Andie on their first date. I didn't understand what was going on entirely (why was this live action? What about Kermie? WHAT ABOUT KERMIE?) and it took years for me to place the scene. When I did, on my unavoidable run of enthusiasm for all things 80s and kitschy when I was about fourteen, it felt like returning a library book thought long gone.

I didn't go crazy when Farah Fawcett died. I don't think I've ever even seen an episode of Charlie's Angels. Ditto for Michael Jackson. I mean, I like Billie Jean as much as the next kid, but I wasn't gonna go apeshit and buy a ticket on the I Always Loved Him express just because his passing came as a surprise. But John Hughes, this one I feel, and feel justified enough in my love for his movies enough to lament his loss. In certain ways, I think more of my experience of what it's like to be a teenager came from watching his teens than living my own adolescence.

I grew up nerdy, but not Anthony Michael Hall nerdy. I grew up kind of weird, but not Ally Sheedy weird. I grew up unattractive, but not the kind of unattractive that's remedied by small amounts of brown mascara and a better outfit. The thing I hooked me in The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, and Pretty in Pink was the way he included outsiders, for sure. But the thing that kept me watching over and over again was the fact that his outsiders were brave in a way I could never be.

Ted the geek and his dork-ass friends have the balls to go to a party where they're sure they'll be booted.

I, on the other hand, sat home on weekend nights in high school watching the bleeped version of Sixteen Candles on TBS for the hundredth time and eating Dove Promises by the bagful. His dorks had the guts to try.

Still, there is a part of me that resents the holy trinity of John Hughes movies for basically inventing the Pretty Ugly Girl. Ally Sheedy as Allison in The Breakfast Club is the best example, but Molly Ringwald as Andie Walsh in Pretty in Pink or Samantha Baker in Sixteen Candles isn't bad either. Long after these movies had come out, I found my way to the literary magazine, eccentric outfits, a pretentious preference for independent cinema, and disdain for high school and the suburbs and, heaven forbid, suburban high schools all because, basically, I was unable attract attention from the opposite sex.

I mean, not entirely; writing had always been a sort of a life raft for me, and I've never lost my desire to see new films, find new bands, yada yada. But all of it, all of the weird girl package, came from and begat sexlessness. And in a way, that was the point. Where John Hughes's brave nerds had the courage to step up to bat and strike out, I was to scared to even try out for the team and, instead, sought my victories elsewhere.

The Pretty Ugly Girl, though, she made things more complicated. For me, for many of the weirder girls in the real world, the weird was the merit we earned ourselves. But the Pretty Ugly girl held the secret pearl of attractiveness aside from being able to do everything I could do only better. (Alison's drawing of the covered bridge, pre-dandruff snow, is better than anything I could sketch; Andie designed clothes way cooler than the stuff I basted together from thrift store dresses; Samantha went unnoticed only in some demented school where movie star looks somehow register as invisibility.) She just had to budge an inch to be beautiful to boot. Allison changes her shirt and scrubs off the black shit and puts on a headband and, bam, Emilio Estevez wants to kiss her in the parking lot.

I changed my shirt every day. I wore headbands on numerous occasions.

I skipped the prom.

Still, I can't hold the Pretty Ugly Girl against John Hughes entirely, because she's part of the universal promise that his movies make. That promise is transcendence. Just as much as his characters defined the roles of jock, geek, cool girl, weird girl, rich girl, bitch, asshole, bad boy, and so on, they packed up and walked across the borders all the time. They shot grappling hooks into cooler identities and pulled their way up. They met and kissed on tightropes strung between loserdom and popularity.

I've actually been thinking a lot about Duckie from Pretty in Pink recently, which is why it felt particularly strange to hear the news that Hughes had died. That's probably my least favorite of his big three movies, mostly because Duckie makes me sad as hell and for a long time I couldn't figure out it was because I am a Duckie. And I think most people are. It's hard to identify with Andie--I've never been the girl with guys falling for her left and right. It's equally hard to identify with Blane, the rich dreamboat confident enough to date someone his friends hate. Which leaves you with Duckie, the one who tries too hard, who falls in love and no one notices, who can't win, who has to bow out, and around whom people wince twice for every one time they laugh.

You know how in cartoons they have an angel and a devil represent conscience versus temptation? I don't have that. I've just got Duckie on one shoulder, whispering in his most "She's gonna laugh. Can you blame her?" tone, constantly chickening me out.

Despite his embarrassing dorkiness, however, he's real. And he's loyal. He's good. He appreciates Andie without qualifications the whole time, and he's the one she's supposed to turn around and realize she's loved all along.

Apparently in the first version of Pretty in Pink, Andie and Duckie end up together. Hughes didn't like the way the scenes were shot, and he didn't want to send the message that poor people should just stick with poor people, and, on top of that, audiences wanted to see the girl get the cute rich guy. And so it went into cultural history.

But see? That's what I mean about Hughes and transcendence. Even when you think there's no hope for Duckie, for the geeks, for any of us at all, you find out that somewhere, sitting on some shelf, there's a reel where everything ends up as it should be.


Blogger Knowing Photography said...

Wow...that was incredible - and the fact that you made a shout out to long duk dong...god, haven't heard that name in years! Love reading your writing :)

8:02 AM  
Blogger Robin said...

Kathy, this is awesome. Also, I'm amazed at your ability to blog perfectly written, perfectly formed essays. Also, I miss you.

10:19 PM  

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