Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A few thoughts on John Hughes

I was out of town this past weekend, and so missed my chance to offer a timely commentary on the death of John Hughes, Hollywood's poet laureate of '80s suburban teenage angst. Perhaps that's appropriate, since I came to his movies quite late - I was a little too young when they were actually in theaters, though I vaguely remember some of my older cousins talking about them - and to date I've seen only three of them (admittedly the big guns): "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles," and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." (I don't count "Home Alone," which Hughes wrote and produced, but didn't direct.) Also, by the time I got around to them I already had conflicted feelings about Hughes, for one simple reason: the one memorable non-white character in his canon happens to be one of the most ineradicable Asian American stereotypes to come out of my childhood.

I'm speaking, of course, of Long Duk Dong - he of the pidgin English, bad bowl haircut, and hopeless ching-chong foreignness, the gong-heralded exchange student from "Sixteen Candles." Come on, non-Asians might say, it was just supposed to be funny, not serious, no one takes it seriously. Depends on whom you ask, is what I say. NPR did a feature on the character last year that pretty well explained why so many Asian American men of my generation think differently. Having said that, I'll admit that when I finally did see "Sixteen Candles," I was less outraged than I thought I would be. First, because Gedde Watanabe, who plays the "Donger" (and whom I'm glad to say I knew and loved as Yosh from "ER" before I saw him as LDD) is an infernally able comic actor; I found myself laughing involuntarily before cursing myself. I don't blame Watanabe for taking the part, considering roles for Asian American actors weren't exactly plentiful back then or even, sadly, now. Second and perhaps more importantly, taken in context, the Donger is no more of a caricature than many of the other characters that populate the movie. And while he is supposed to be the ultimate outsider of all outsiders, he still ends up pretty happy: he gets laid. That's kind of the point that underlies Hughes' other films: everyone, no matter how cool or not cool, is just another brand of freak inside, and at bottom, everyone wants the same basic things. Still, I maintain that of the three Hughes films I've seen, "Sixteen Candles" is by far the weakest.

But oh well. We'll always have the infectious breeziness of "Ferris Bueller," which deserves its iconic status, and "The Breakfast Club," which I could watch - and have watched - over and over again. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it perfectly captures that sense of wanting to fit in, not knowing in the least how, and secretly suspecting the whole charade is a sham, that just about everyone has at one point or another during adolescence. Or even beyond. That's Hughes' legacy, and it's one any filmmaker would envy.


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