' Cinema Romantico: Friday's Old Fashioned: The Breakfast Club (1985)

Friday, March 27, 2015

Friday's Old Fashioned: The Breakfast Club (1985)

John Hughes’ seminal teenage film, “The Breakfast Club”, theoretically took place this week thirty-one years ago – March 24, 1984 – on a Saturday afternoon at Shermer High, on the outskirts of Chicago, its principal quintet stuck in all-day detention for various misdeeds. The imprisoned five: Claire (Molly Ringwald), Andrew (Emilio Estevez), Bender (Judd Nelson), Brian (Anthony Michael Hall), and Allison (Ally Sheedy). Or, to say it in terms of readymade high school labels, they are, respectively, a Princess, an Athlete, a Criminal, a Brain, and a Basket Case. And in light of those deliberate stereotypes children of “The Breakfast Club” era were regularly privy to this question: which one are you? My answer was always the same – I’m part Brian, though I have nowhere near as big of a brain, and I’m part Allison, though I’m not quite as much of a basket case. That sounds like a cop-out, I know, but in re-watching the film for its anniversary I was struck most noticeably by how these supposedly clear-cut demarcations functioned just as much like masks.


When you commute each morning in Chicago by train you often end up sharing it with kids on their way to school. There is one young man I see routinely. He has long hair, often sports a duster, not un-Bender-ish, and always carries a thermos and cooler. Yes, a cooler, an Igloo cooler, which I presume is his wacky spin on a lunchbox. It’s so adorable. I want to go up to him and pinch him on the cheek and say “You whippersnappers and your affectations.” That, however, would be a classic case of Forgetting What It Meant To Be Young. Pauline Kael criticized “The Breakfast Club” by pointing out how “it appeal(ed) to young audiences by blaming adults for the kids’ misery and enshrining the kids’ most banal and longings to be accepted and liked.” That statement contains some truth, both in ways Kael meant and did not mean because of course it blamed adults for the kids’ misery! That’s what kids do! And kids’ longings to be accepted and liked are banal…when viewed through the prism of adulthood. To kids, those longings are the pinnacle of compelling.

I’m sure in high school Ms. Kael had her own variation of that kid’s cooler, just as I did and you did too. High school is a battleground, and what do kids have to guide them when they are still trying to figure out who in God’s name they are? Thus, they adopt and discard personas and attitudes and mannerisms like burgeoning James Franco’s. Sportos, motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads, and an occasional righteous dude. It’s your junior high rolodex. And it’s why critics who didn’t see “Divergent” as a high school allegory still confound me. They mocked “factions” on Twitter, conveniently forgetting that high school is nothing but factions. If you make it into one, you cling like hell to stay in, because maybe they can help protect you against the onslaught of angst.

When our characters reluctantly enter the library at 7 AM to begin their punishment at the hands of villainous, vainglorious Principal Vernon (Paul Gleason, RIP) they are each clinging to their respective affectations. It’s why Andrew and Claire sit at the same table, because they run in the same social circle and the others don’t. It’s why Bender immediately establishes himself as the center of attention, because if he’s not, he’s confused. These early scenes, when the characters are still feeling one another out, find them routinely taking sides willy-nilly and ganging up. If one character says something or does something peculiar, Hughes favors reaction shots of the other characters’ confusion or disgust as they quickly turn on the sudden outcast. These pivots happen over and over, underlying the fraught nature teenage alliances and hostility. So much of a young adult’s existence is governed by defense mechanisms, not wanting to be singled out, and so you go with the flow. There is the extraordinary moment when Andrew cops to his reason for being in detention – that is, “tap(ing) Larry Lester’s buns together.” “That was you?” Brian asks. “Yeah, you know him?” Andrew replies. “Yeah, I know him,” Brian says, and Anthony Michael Hall gives the line a spin that clearly, brilliantly relays just how easily those buns could have been his. It’s a thin line between wallflower and butt of the joke.


Of course, as the film unfolds and plot uncoils, those fronts will be stripped away. Bender, in fact, becomes less forceful as the film progresses as his need to be the center of attention to make up for the lack of it at home becomes less important to him. Allison, often purposely forgotten amidst several cuts, or buried out of focus in the back of frames, at the beginning, becomes more and more prominent. The library becomes their nest in the tree of trust and understanding. Social barriers are not knocked down so much as they just imperceptibly give way, like they were invisible, or like they never existed in the first place. They begin to see one another for who they really are even if they all seem in touch enough to simultaneously admit that once 4:00 rolls around things will have to go back to being the way they were. “The Breakfast Club”, really, is like a high school version of “Joyeux Noel.”

The grave irony is that all this delineation is supposed to vanish once you grow up, but then the film already knows the truth. Or at least Allison does. “When you grow up, your heart dies.” Consider Principal Vernon. The adults in John Hughes’ films always get a bad rap, and while this isn’t entirely unfair, it’s also not totally deserved. “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off’s” infamous Edward R. Rooney, Dean of Students, was, to quote the esteemed Roger Ebert, “dim-witted and one-dimensional.” But then, that was primarily an adventure story, and Rooney was simply the dastardly villain. At first glance, Vernon seems dim-witted and one-dimensional, but there is, however faint, a whiff of layering, of a man who’s grown up to find his heart has long since died. More than that, though, he embodies the ongoing search for self. “I make $31,000 a year and I have a home,” he barks at Bender. “I’m a man of respect around here. I’m a swell guy.” These are the labels (well, these and the leisure suit) by which he defines himself, yet watching him preen and yell it’s hard to take at face value. Even adults can fall prey to affectations.

The film’s real flaw, it always seemed to me, was the conclusion, one which felt rushed to reach the wrap-up after the big confessional sequence when they gather in a circle to trade secrets and tears. More than that, though, it came across like a betrayal. The film took stereotypes and humanized them, but when Claire gives Allison a quick third-act makeover and has the gumption to declare “You really do look a lot better without all that black shit on your eyes”, holy moly, was that an affront. Allison Reynolds isn't a Princess! Allison made Shirley Manson! ALLISON REYNOLDS ALWAYS LOOKS BETTER WITH THAT BLACK SHIT ON HER EYES!!!


Yet, the years have softened me. It’s not about Allison’s identity, I see now, it’s about Allison momentarily becoming somebody else. She is primped into a Princess just as the Princess morphs into a Criminal when she makes out with Bender, and even Brian, the one frightened of tampering with “school property”, becomes a Criminal when he smokes pot. They are slipping into different affectations, trying them on for size and, who knows, perhaps there are scenes in some alternate cinematic universe of Allison playing point guard for the Shermer Bulldogs and Andrew rocking Dee Snider-ish eyeshadow.

What’s still troubling, however, is the film’s sense that this truly is a resolution, and with the essay Brian concocts at behest of Principal Vernon that they have figured themselves out even if he – and everyone else, presumably – only still sees them in stereotypes. But then, that’s the ultimate truth of the film, isn’t it? The one that knows full well how a teenager can presume to have found the key to the universe in all-day detention?

Thirty years ago when Bender sauntered across the football field and thrust his fist in the air, I hollered, “Fuck yeah!” Thirty years later when I see the same thing, I smile. I know better. I say, with all the nostalgic respect I can muster, “Motherfucker, please.”

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