BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 09
Featured in
Issue 126

Party Politics

Domestic and social dynamics within the parentless homestead in the films of John Hughes

BY George Pendle in Opinion | 01 OCT 09

John Hughes, Sixteen Candles, 1984. Courtesy: Universal Pictures

The death of the film director John Hughes has caused an upswell of nostalgia in those who happened to grow up with his films. Rarely have a filmmaker and a decade been so completely intertwined as Hughes was with the 1980s.

Yet what is remarkable about the praise for his high school romantic comedies – Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) – is that none of his achievements were all that revolutionary. Hughes’ films came towards the end of a particularly strong run of high school movies. Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (1979), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Porky’s (1982) and Risky Business (1983) had all established such tropes as the gauntlet of the school corridor, the sexual arena of the gymnasium and the nerves of prom night.

Neither was Hughes’ message particularly radical. His characters live in an affluent, sanitized world and show no real appetite for destruction. Even Ferris Bueller, the most bacchanalian character in Hughes’ universe, has no wish to overturn a system he has mastered. There are no knife fights here or games of chicken. The darkest threat to these characters is social exclusion. Drawn from a rigidly defined caste system, described in Ferris Bueller… as ‘the sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, the wastoids, dweebies, dickheads’, his protagonists seek not to bring down the system, but to find a way of living within it. The defining longing of all his protagonists is one of belonging. 

Yet Hughes did add one important innovation to the genre: the house party. Of course there had been house parties before – consider Risky Business in which the protagonist’s family home becomes a brothel. But Hughes brought monumentality to the house party, transforming it into a battlefield or testing ground for his protagonists. Ringing the doorbell to a house party in a Hughes film is like pulling the sword from the stone, or gaining entrance to the castle of the Holy Grail. Indeed the party is the quest and goal in one. 

The simplicity of Hughes’ films – boy likes girl, girl likes other boy – lends them the air of a fable, and this is reinforced by the climactic house parties. Here the house party is an anarchic, artificial space in which roles are reversed and caste systems toppled. It is a topsy-turvy venue where geeks can bed prom queens, and bullies can end up being bullied. 

Stylistically they are instantly recognizable involving masses of well-dressed people dancing energetically, hanging out of trees and drinking heavily, all to a driving new wave soundtrack. Of course, a Hughes party is an impossibility; it is a propaganda missive from the ministry of fun that dangles an image of an Ur-party, a Platonic ideal of teenage revelry, before the viewer as a tantalizing fantasy. In the epic party scene in Sixteen Candles we see lace underwear on a garden statue and toilet rolls hanging from the trees. Inside people sprawl onto sofas or sneak upstairs hand in hand. Inevitably a ceiling collapses. Drinking, sex and vandalism are the three presiding forces, and never have the three in concert looked quite as innocent or as much fun.

Physical devastation is a necessity in Hughes’ films. The house party is a prelude to the house being torn apart, and with it the ties to staid family life. There is no countercultural longing in the damage caused, merely the slipping of parental restraint and the chance to act as an individual outside the strictures of the classroom and the family unit. (As if acknowledging his penchant for devastation, Hughes’ first post-‘80s film was the prepubescent Home Alone, in 1990, which also saw the ruin of a parentless homestead. Hughes was a man obsessed with the suburban house and its destruction.)

Perhaps the ultimate expression of the Hughes party scene can be viewed in his lesser regarded, but wonderfully enthusiastic Weird Science (1985) where the quest elements of the party are made glaringly obvious. Two geeks, Wyatt and Gary, are inspired by watching The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) to create a perfect woman on their computers. They succeed, but their creation is much more fun than they are, and decides to hold a party at the uptight Wyatt’s house. The boys, wracked with nerves, end up in the bathroom while everyone else has a wild and crazy time. However, some electro-mystical side effects from their experiment cause furniture, books and people to be flung out of the chimney and a group of surly mutant bikers to run riot through the house’s plush carpeted living room and hallways. It is left to the boys to deal with this extreme physical embodiment of their social awkwardness. There in their own home, the boys are forced to undergo a one night maturation process and shrug off the mantle of geekdom. The result leaves one not with a sense of the bittersweet melancholy of growing up, but with the purely sweet lesson of social tags being ditched.

Hughes’ house parties acknowledge the birth of the individual. They hold within them a sort of static bildungsroman, in which the heroic journey is condensed into four hours in one house in the suburbs of Chicago. Now that’s what I call a serious party.

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.