As someone who came of age during the ’80s, I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the critical response to director John Hughes’ recent death. Over and over again I’ve been told that he was “the voice” of my generation and that he “defined the ’80s.” Instead of pointing out the crass commercialism that made up the man’s entire film career, The New York Times has let A.O. Scott proclaim that John Hughes was “our Godard.”
John Hughes may have been many things to many people, but there’s just no denying that as a director his career had a hell of a lot more in common with Judd Apatow than Jean-Luc Godard. How any film critic that writes for The New York Times could call Hughes our generation’s Godard and get paid for it is beyond my comprehension. And as someone who was a teenager in the ’80s, I also find it deeply sad and frustrating.
I’m unabashedly naive and extremely sentimental when it comes to my childhood in the 1970s, but the 1980s ignites a different kind of nostalgia in me. It’s an unpleasant nostalgia that took shape while my innocence was melting away and my teenage hormones were raging. That teenage rage has carried into adulthood and occasionally manifests into fits of anger like the one you’re about to read.
It’s important to note that I’m not angry at John Hughes the man or the people who enjoy his films. I’m angry at the absurd critical response to the director’s death and I blame a culture that conveniently forgets facts in order to build critical arguments. If the cultural pundits and film critics are to be believed, an entire generation bought what John Hughes was selling them. But the truth is much more complex than that.
Hughes made films for mainstream America that resembled the Gidget movies of the late 1950s and early ‘60s. As a rebellious teenager I absolutely hated Hughes’ films. Hughes’ simplistic, Reagan-fueled, whitewashed, upper middle-class view of the world reflected everything that was loathsome about the ’80s in my mind. Hughes was a conservative baby boomer and a yuppie that spoon-feed my generation – so-called Generation X – the worst kind of ’50s nostalgia imaginable in order to make a buck. His films didn’t speak to me at all since I had much more in common with James Dean than Gidget and John Hughes was no Nicholas Ray.
I’m told in countless obits written about John Hughes that some segment of ’80s youth culture found comfort in the way that his movies portrayed teenagers as well as outsiders and malcontents. But if you were actually questioning authority during the ’80s it was impossible to identify with any of the faux rebellion found in Hughes’ movies. The man preached conformity over and over again. The so-called “outsiders” in Hughes’ films rejected other teens like themselves so they could date popular jocks or beauty queens. In other words, if you followed the social rules laid out by John Hughes you’d get a “hot date” for the school prom and be “accepted” into Reagan’s America. Reality check; the real teenage rebels and outsiders didn’t go to school proms in the ’80s. They also skipped detention.
The myth of John Hughes giving voice to my generation is much like the myth of the ’80s in general that has been perpetuated by silly television shows like VH1’s I Love the ’80s. But contrary to popular opinion, many of us who came of age in the ’80s didn’t buy what Reagan and the Hollywood machine that marched in boot step behind him were selling us and John Hughes was a hugely successful part of that Hollywood machine. Those of us who resisted the machine didn’t live in gated communities or spend our days in shopping malls. Some of us actually attended “Rock Against Reagan” protests and after the initial excitement wore off many of us didn’t want our MTV. We watched AIDS destroy entire communities as the homeless spilled out into our streets. We saw the drug wars destroy families and fill our prisons. We spent our time trying to self-publish zines that expressed our anger and frustration as a compassionless and cruel conservatism swept across America threatening to suffocate the country. And last but certainly not least, we watched class warfare and racism take root in our high schools as they crumbled from lack of funding. The ’80s was a scary decade to grow up in unless you conformed to rigid social structures and didn’t question authority. And the films that John Hughes’ made seemed to perpetuate a kind of thoughtless conformism that is frankly appalling to me and still prevalent today.
Of course many people did buy the American fantasy that John Hughes and the establishment were selling them. Many didn’t see the casual racism and sexism that was evident in many of Hughes’ most popular films. Some people clearly sympathized with the materialistic nature of his characters and I’m glad that so many have found some kind of joy in Hughes’ movies. But the fantasy world featured in John Hughes’ films was not representative of the ’80s youth culture that I came of age in and Hughes did not speak for me.
Thankfully some directors who actually came of age during the ’80s are now old enough to make films that truly reflect the decade as I remember it. One of those directors is British born Shane Meadows. Meadows’ unforgettable 2006 film This Is England takes place in Britain during the 1980s and attempts to show how the skinhead culture that took root there developed into an angry nationalistic movement. Many of the kids featured in Meadows’ film are fatherless and form a kind of family with other young people who share their taste in music and wear similar clothes. Much like Reagan’s America, Thatcher’s England presented British youth with a very bleak future and Meadows’ film skillfully chronicles the underlying frustration and resentment that so many young people from working class families were feeling at the time.
Shortsighted film critics often overlook how much of Meadows’ movie can be seen as a general critique of the decade it calls into question. And I think that is symptomatic of the increasing ignorance about what youth culture was really like in America during the ’80s. Point of fact; you could easily take Meadow’s terrific script, set it in San Francisco during the ’80s and simply call it This Is America.
In This Is England the main protagonist is haunted by his father’s death in the Falklands War. If you grew up in California during the ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon to know 2 or 3 kids who had lost their fathers in the Vietnam War and you often sat in classrooms with Vietnamese refuges. The Falklands War may have ended in 1982 and the Vietnam War may have ended in 1975, but both wars left my generation with fatherless kids and a whole lot of baggage. Many of the kids I knew also had their families torn apart by divorces or deadbeat dads who just walked out the door one day and never returned. Families were falling apart as fast as the economy. Reagan’s America might have looked financially sound if you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth but for many Americans it was a decade of increasing job losses, forced early retirements and an all out war against organized labor. College wasn’t an option for myself or most of the kids I knew. It was a luxury that few of us could afford. Without a supportive family and a college fund, the future looked incredibly bleak which often led to an increase in recreational drug use. Like the kids in Meadows’ film, we ended up forming makeshift families simply based on our musical tastes and wardrobes. But our clothing wasn’t just worn for kicks. What we wore often reflected our social class and attitudes. In other words, wearing an anarchy t-shirt wasn’t just a fashion statement. It was a social statement that could get you kicked out of school in the ’80s.
Many of us who grew up on the West Coast in Reagan’s America also faced our own skinhead crisis thanks to a group who called themselves the American Front. The American Front was an organization loosely based on England’s National Front that is prominently featured in Shane Meadows’ film. Older members of the American Front often preyed on vulnerable and angry young men that they recruited off the streets. A new and deeply disturbing form of Nazism encouraged these young people to engage in violence and proudly sport swastika tattoos. They naively started to believe that immigrants, homosexuals, communists and socialists were destroying the country and they blamed them for the failing economy. The American Front became a dangerous threat to groups of neglected kids who had come together due to lack of family and outside support. As the ’80s progressed music clubs that once represented a small oasis where you could hangout with like-minded individuals began to casually transform into minor war zones after these white power obsessed skinheads latched onto the punk and metal scenes. In this kind of environment you were forced to grow up fast and your political identity was often formed before your 18th birthday.
You won’t see any of that ‘80s reality represented in the films of John Hughes.
John Hughes never spoke to me, but Shane Meadows does. Meadows is a truly talented filmmaker and if you want to know what the ’80s was really like for those of us on the fringe who were trying to make sense of the world that was left to us watch This Is America England. I should point out that This Is England takes some of its cues from other films about troubled youth such as Truffaut’s classic The 400 Blows and Penelope Spheeris’ Suburbia (which I also think is a better film about the ’80s than anything made by John Hughes), but Meadows’ packs enough punches and truth into his script to make it a truly original film and one of the best of the decade. This Is England also boasts some terrific performances from it’s two lead actors, Thomas Turgoose and particularly Stephen Graham as the deeply disturbed Combo.
At a time when it has become increasingly clear to me that very few people actually remember what the ’80s were really like I take comfort in a film like This Is England. Shane Meadows obviously remembers the decade well. And although This Is England is a very British film, Americans would be wise to watch the movie with their own country’s history in mind because many of the problems we face today are just remnants of unfinished business from that often misrepresented decade.
The American trailer for This Is England (2006)
Modern Mondays is an ongoing project here at Cinebeats where I share a few thoughts or lengthy rants and raves about my favorite films produced during the last decade. Films previously mentioned on Modern Mondays include: