June 2010

Emma Kat Richardson

features

Pack to the Future: the Brat Pack, Gen-X, and Teen Turmoil at the Infancy of the New Millennium

It’s fitting that, as I sit down to write this, the bold, brazen Chicago city skyline floats hopefully on the horizon. It looms like a giant of intimidating stature, just around the corner from this boxy, 18th Street Chinese takeout joint, where I am sipping at the generous fruits of free wireless Internet service. Having grown up amidst the deteriorating wasteland of Detroit, I’ve spent most of my life gazing across the water at Chicago’s dazzling, out-of-place elegance -- a hardened lump of coal casting envious eyes at the glistening perfection of a tightly formed diamond.

It’s fitting, to be immersed here in this Midwest mecca, as I am currently charged with writing about the Brat Pack -- that ‘80s movie cavalcade of pretty young Hollywood hotshots whose iconic celluloid characters adopted the gritty Chicago neighborhoods as their old stomping grounds. And indeed, time here has proved, for me, a calculated impossibility to lay eyes upon the architectural, Rust Belt majesty of the Windy City without entertaining elaborate Ferris Bueller-like fantasies of running loose on Michigan Ave. (Not to mention the act of cascading through Pilsen’s Mexican population, and wondering where John Bender might have come to score his suburban dope.)

Of course, all this is a ringing testament to the myriad of ways in which the stories, morals, and characters of these ‘80s teen films have permeated the consciousness of the modern pop cultural landscape. Coupled with endlessly quotable dialogue, bright and memorable actors to fill the rubber-soled Keds of the bright and memorable protagonists (often rubber-souled themselves), and a warm heart at the center of an often-comedic premise, films like Sixteen Candles, St. Elmo’s Fire, Pretty in Pink and, perhaps most importantly, The Breakfast Club, all helped define a Reagan-era makeover of what had been considered previously to be a disposable movie genre. Never before had filmmakers taken seriously the plights and perils of the American teenager -- a notion manifested by writer/directors like Joel Schumacher, Cameron Crowe, and John Hughes (especially the media powerhouse Hughes), and personified by actors comprising the so-called Brat Pack: Molly Ringwald, Demi Moore, Emilio Estevez, Judd Nelson, and Anthony Michael Hall, amongst a shiny and svelte hodgepodge of others.

And thus springs the central thesis of You Couldn’t Ignore Me if You Tried, the latest in a recent trilogy of Generation X nostalgia volumes from the disaffected (now middle-aged) youth who defined an era of irony and cynicism. (The prior two Gen-X manifestos, Lizzie Skurnick's Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading, and Marisa Meltzer's Girl Power: The Nineties Revolution in Music, each tackle teen fiction and ‘90s rock, respectively, allowing You Couldn’t Ignore Me to round out the pop cultural triad by bringing a discussion on Gen-X film to a table already stacked with books and music.) Written by Susannah Gora, a revered film critic and a former associate editor at Premier magazine, You Couldn’t Ignore Me is a deeply researched, high-cultural analysis of the type usually found amongst the best in academia, all the while composed in a thoughtful, tongue-in-cheek narrative that lends a certain amount of relaxed and streetwise gusto to Gora’s prose, easily befitting any quintessential Hughes (or Hughes-ian) script.

Embarking upon a journey back in time to mid-to-late-'80s America proved more of a history lesson than a nostalgic trip down memory lane for me, having been in utero or in playpen as most of these films saw theatrical release, often quickly followed by a landmark swig of post-theatrical financial success. Like nearly all suburbanites with easy access to a VCR -- and later, more significantly, a DVD player -- I’ve had the privilege of bearing witness to some of the most memorable and iconic fare to be found here, courtesy of the Brat Pack elite and the behind-the-scenes wizards who loved them. Films like The Breakfast Club, Say Anything, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off occupy positions of honor amidst the shelving unit housing my entire DVD collection, and I can, without any degree of difficulty, pick out campy references to John Bender’s infamous abusive homestead speech from The Breakfast Club when they surface in cartoon form on Family Guy.

But more than pop cultural diet staples, these films and their sprawling influence have proved, for many, to be little more than revolutionary nuggets of social commentary as found in its most impressive state of being. “I first saw The Breakfast Club when I was 13 years old, and it changed my life,” says Gora. She speaks as earnestly as any soul-bearing geek, basketcase, or princess. “I had always loved movies, but until then, I hadn’t been able to relate on a personal level to what the films’ protagonists were going through, like Rocky trying to win the boxing championship, for example. When you’re a kid and you watch movies like that, you can greatly enjoy the experience, but you can’t relate to most of what is going on onscreen. But The Breakfast Club changed all that. Here was a movie about the very things I was concerned with as a young person: identity, wondering where you fit in, questions of coolness and conformity.”

Certainly, by highlighting her own experiences with these films, Gora hits the nail on its rhinestone-studded head in identifying the lasting appeal of the Brat Pack’s influence. (Her book also effectively demonstrates just why the Brat Pack films were so revolutionary for their time, in that the deep heart and substance found amongst the films’ stories and characters managed to blow the beach blanket out from under a vapid, largely frivolous pattern of the teen film sub-genre -- a fact that I was, prior to this reading, largely ignorant of.) Styles and fads may change; fashions ebb and flow with the elasticity of a lunar tide; generations of rebellious youth are replaced by new cads, restless with dissatisfaction, as they enter into middle age, but quality, solid storytelling never loses its effectiveness in speaking to those eager for some type of personal guidance. As with the novels dissected in Skurnick's book, even late-to-the-table consumers of generational pop culture can retain and appreciate righteous-yet-funky tales of adversity overcome, status gained, and personal triumph on a very fundamental, intimately individual level.

In particular, these films struck a resonating chord with the beleaguered members of Generation X -- a ragtag, transient gang of Americans who came of age right smack dab in the middle of the ‘80s, making for a cultural prime time period for the films of the Brat Pack, that would allow them to assist significantly in transitioning these young people from youth into yuppie adulthood. “In many ways, the Brat Pack ‘80s youth films were the perfect marriage of art and audience,” says Gora. “The films took Gen-X teenagers seriously -- the very teenagers who for various reasons often felt like an overlooked, misunderstood, undervalued group. Remember that these teens were the children and younger siblings of the Baby Boomers, who were a tough act to follow. The Baby Boomers changed the world, and all the Gen-X teenagers had to do was live in it.”

And in much the same manner that Gen-Xers only had to occupy the space set up for them by the members of the previous generation, the Baby Boomers, America’s current pack of brats -- the Millennial generation, those born 1980 and after -- have latched onto the identity of cultural criticism forged by the contributions of those who stood here before. If anything, kids these days are probably blessed with more of an informational advantage when it comes to the complex ins and outs of Brat Pack-era cinema: naturally, a simple search on Wikipedia or Google can turn up a litany of background information and intellectual (or, as is often the case with the Internet, boneheaded) analysis on the deeper meanings behind Lloyd Dobler’s hoisted boombox in Say Anything or Pretty In Pink’s Duckie-Blane dichotomy. As Gora rightly points out in both her book and our interview, hundreds of thousands of teens the world over have made a habitual practice of rediscovering these films year after year: soaking up their messages, and absorbing the life lessons to be found as a compass for navigation of the self.

But still, given the drastic changes rendered to the world -- from the 1980s bubble of material optimism to the current landslide of economic dismemberment -- I often can’t help but wonder if today’s teens, the Millennials, might not harbor some difficulty in identifying with the Americana portrait painted by Hughes and his clan of contributors. After all, it’s hard to deny how markedly different the cultural landscape appeared then as it does now: while Molly Ringwald’s Breakfast Club princess Claire Standish ditched a day of school to go shopping for designer duds, most current kids can’t be quite sure of how secure their share of the social security pie promises to be. And as the listless wanderers of St. Elmo’s Fire grappled over issues of identity and self-worth from the Reaganomic-supported stability of their sprawling city apartments, many recent college graduates of the new millennium are also grappling over issues of identity and self-worth -- from the confines of the bedroom occupied in their parents’ brick, suburban colonial basement. Ferris Bueller may have faced down the authoritative stare of the menacing Principal Rooney, but modern day American tweens, teens, and twentysomethings have a looming national debt that lingers somewhere in the trillions resting firmly on their weary, world-worn shoulders.

They were getting laid, whereas we’re just getting laid off.

To be sure, any avid movie consumer with a modicum of familiarity with the films of the Brat Pack knows that the struggles of class distinction presented itself as an oft-explored core theme for the characters in these movies and the screenwriters who gave them life. Witness Molly Ringwald’s winsome Pretty In Pink heroine Andie Walsh fall head over taffeta-laced heels for Andrew McCarthy’s preppie rich boy Blane McDonnagh; in Say Anything, the unambitious but charming Lloyd Dobler successfully courts Diane Court -- a brainy beauty with Ivy League collegiate aspirations who, by the film’s conclusion, accepts a scholarship to study in England, bringing the directionless Dobler along for the ride with her, much against the wishes of her pushy father. “The ‘80s youth movies my book focuses on explore the question of class distinction in teendom in rather complex ways,” says Gora. “There are nuances of class distinction in almost all of the Brat Pack films. Just like teens of today, the teens of the 1980s were highly aware of who had money and who didn’t, and the painful divide that can cause.”

Yet, as universally treasured as these tales are, all around me I see something of an air of bitter cynicism surrounding the Millennial generation -- a consistent, nagging feeling that holds within it the definite potential for causing these films to be viewed through a lens that is cracked and grey, rather than rose-tinted. While the movies of the Brat Pack never shied away from depicting America’s ingrained caste system in an honest and unrelenting light, conflict outcomes in which the underdogs emerge triumphant (picture Anthony Michael Hall’s nerdy Farmer Ted proudly displaying the panties of Molly Ringwald’s protagonist Samantha Baker for a gaggle of slack-jawed geeks in Sixteen Candles) and the rich and the poor can attend the prom together without sparking class vitriol are of a dubious realism at best; a snarky, cynical denial at worst. Following on the heels of the 2008 stock market collapse and the sub-prime mortgage bubble burst, the gap between wealthy and middle class Americans has never been wider than it is today, with the top one percent of earners bringing in higher wages than the bottom 90% combined. (Certainly, the wage gap today is significantly wider than it was during the Brat Pack’s materialistic ‘80s heyday.) Given what we now know about modern economic disparities on this country, it’s as easy to imagine the father of Pretty In Pink’s Blane as a Goldman Sachs executive responsible for putting Andie’s father, however direct or indirectly, out of work. Similarly, it’s difficult to fathom of a young modern American taking to Lloyd Dobler’s lack of work ethic without a large grain of burdening resentment. (Rather than swooning at his unwavering devotion, today’s version of Diane Court might instead shudder and mutter. “Great, now I’ve got to support his ass, too.”)

Troubling to me, too, is a perceived inability of the Millennial generation to produce its own Breakfast Club or Say Anything. Yes, the past ten years have given birth to several heart-and-humor cinematic pieces distantly resonant of the not-so-distant Brat Pack past, and while films like Save the Last Dance and the entire Judd Apatow catalogue are entertaining, one would be hard-pressed to label them game-changers. As a committed cultural connoisseur, I’m more than a bit skeptical in believing that She’s All That and other frivolous fare in the same vein will transcend the boundaries of space and time, causing a ripple effect throughout the minds and lives of generations yet to come. 

So where, exactly, is the Millennial equivalent of Molly Ringwald? Judd Nelson? A new John Hughes who’s creating waves with insight and creativity, rather than just aping off the fruits of the former genius epicenter?

Gora, for one, is optimistic about the future of the Millennials, at least when it comes to popular culture’s creation and response. “Films like Superbad and Juno remind me of the great ‘80s youth films in many ways,” she says. “I also feel that the incredibly intense, romantic drama of the Twilight films reminds me of the intense, romantic drama inherent to some of the great ‘80s youth movies. I’m sure the Millennials will be nostalgic for all sorts of things one day -- the very TV shows and songs and movies and websites that are a part of their everyday life right now. They just don’t know it yet.”

Perhaps, really, that’s just it. After all’s said, budgets are spent, salaries totaled, and career schemas successfully outlined, glancing in on the world of the Brat Pack bears shocking resemblance to a confined, jilted Detroit native gazing wistfully westward at the golden promise of the Chicago landscape. It stands there, just beyond the glistening tide of Lake Michigan, standing resolute at the banks of the Indiana border. And like the social savvy of Chicago politicians past and present, John Hughes and his Brat Pack familiars have managed to finesse an unprecedented type of staying power upon the cultural map of America; successfully outmaneuvering the efforts of lesser talents who have come after.

Detroit, like the Millennials, is a disparaging, directionless entity for whom hope springs infrequently; but like Detroit, there’s always room for a phoenix-like renaissance, from which the ashes are successfully shrugged off. If the geek can get the girl and a button-nosed, plain redhead can become an international superstar, then perhaps there is room for nascent optimism. Stranger things have happened.