The death of John Hughes at age 59 is a sad passing, an occasion to once again show some love and respect for a writer-director whose core group of films in the 1980s became enduring classics of youth. But the most notable thing about Hughes' departure is that people aren't expressing their love of his work as if they've rediscovered it after a long haitus; no, they — we, I — have loved these movies all along. Hughes' death is not a chance to look at old films but to look at the films that are still with us. That's an important distinction, and one that could only happen now. Two separate appreciations of Hughes' work published in the wake of his death have been written from the point of view of an author who lived through the Hughesian era the first time around; in other words, of someone who was actually a teenager when Hughes was defining teen culture on screen. What's more, both pieces use a similar construction to pin down what they feel to be Hughes' target demographic. From A.O. Scott's wonderful write-up in The New York Times:
Especially for those of us born between the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution and the Bicentennial, the phrase “a John Hughes movie” will instantly conjure a range of images and associations ...
And from Dana Stevens' piece at Slate:
John Hughes movies — the good ones, those five or six gems he wrote and directed in the mid-to-late '80s, before he stopped directing altogether and became a producer and writer of hack comedies — persist in the collective memory of a certain demographic (say, anyone born between the Kennedy assassination and the Watergate hearings) as foundational texts of adolescence.
Scott and Stevens make their case for Hughes' impact based on arbitrary but not necessarily nonsensical birthdate bookends: Scott's runs from August 1964 to July 1976, while Stevens' covers November 1963 to May 1973. They're shooting for people who would have been 20 years old or younger when Sixteen Candles was released in May 1984, a group of people whose teen years mostly coincided with Hughes' phenomenal mid-decade cluster of films: The Breakfast Club and Weird Science in 1985, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Pretty in Pink in 1986. (He directed all but the latter.) And there's no doubt that it would have been a wonderful experience to see those films released while you were struggling through the very same hellish stretch of high school that plagued Hughes' best-remembered heroes and heroines.
But the point is that that's not necessary. At all. We as a viewing public had the good fortune to get these films as home video was permeating the market, not to mention the eventual airings on movie channels and network television, followed by (often multiple) DVD releases. Thanks to the modern era Hughes chronicled, we don't have to look back wistfully and say that only teens of the 1980s enjoyed or learned from or loved those movies, or saw in them the same beauties as the first people to buy a ticket the year Reagan was re-elected.
Look: I was 11 years old when Jurassic Park came out in the summer of 1993, and there's practically no better age to be for that movie, especially if you're a geeky, hyper-literate boy with a fondness for dinosaurs who had already grown up with E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Sometimes the tumblers just line up, and a movie opens when your growing mind is ready for it. But there's no reason a child today, 16 years later, can't have the same basic experience. Absent going to the actual theater, an 11-year-old boy of similar disposition can see that film and feel excitement, terror, and amazement similar to what moved me at that age. The availability and distribution of home entertainment guarantee this.
That's why the pieces about Hughes are right about his impact on a generation but wrong in acting as if he only affected that specific generation. Ferris Bueller's Day Off was a huge part of my youth, just as it has been for a lot of people in the past two decades. I identified with the stratified angst of the Breakfast Clubbers as surely as my predecessors had when I was just a baby, regardless of how dated some of the slang had become. (Though to be honest, I doubt that "neo maxi zoom dweebie" was ever a remotely trenchant insult to throw at someone, even in Chicago's North Shore.) These movies were cultural touchstones for my peers and I as surely as they were for people now in their 30s or 40s. Hughes made comedies with heart designed to last for generations, and they have. And because of the gorgeous ease with which these films can be passed down, I know that teens twenty years from now will feel the same way.