Two books from two authors about ’80s movies came into the world within a month of one another this fall. We asked Kevin Smokler, author of "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies" and Jason Diamond, author of "Searching for John Hughes: A Memoir" to speak to one another about childhood, growing up at the movies, and a strangely real town called Shermer, Illinois.
Kevin Smokler: Jason, I loved your book. May I ask you to tell the story about how "Searching for John Hughes" came to be born?
Jason Diamond: To be honest, I’d been thinking a lot about failure. I had a book idea for something that had nothing to do with Hughes or me, and it didn’t work out. My entire professional life felt like it was having a weird moment where I wasn’t sure what was going to happen next. I felt like I was failing, and started to think of the last time I’d felt that low, and it was when I started coming to the realization that the biography on John Hughes I’d spent a chunk of my twenties trying to write wasn’t going to happen. I started to think about that period and sort of related it to a lot of fictional characters I love: Falstaff, Don Quixote, Oblomov, Ignatius J. Reilly, characters who are so stuck in their ways and ideas that they don’t get to see how foolish they might act. I realized that I was like that for a little bit, so I wanted to present my life, really just those few years of trying to write the Hughes book, as a real-life version of those kinds of stories. How I didn’t realize I was failing, but I totally was, and ultimately that failure helped me grow. When we presented it to the editor I ended up going with, she said she wanted to read about my entire life. I had no clue why, but when I started going back and looking at my childhood and connecting it back to my obsession with Hughes films it started to make more sense to me.
Smokler: John Hughes never did much in the way of interviews or appearing in public. Tell me about developing a deep respect as a young person for an artist who is more abstract than public and visible?
Diamond: It’s kind of funny you say that because, thinking back on it, I was really into his movies and not so much Hughes until sometime in my teens. I guess before I could find everything on the Internet I sort of just knew the little things about him like he was a local director and that he was often seen at Blackhawks games. I think my deep interest in Hughes as a person developed when I was really starting to dig for things. I didn’t want to know about the books or music or movies that all the other kids talked about. Since I went to high school in the 1990s, I think some of the movies Hughes made still resonated, but they weren’t part of the teenage zeitgeist of the time as I recall. So getting really into Hughes felt like something that was mine but also something totally familiar.
What about you? You’re from Michigan, right? Did people talk about how you were from the same state as Hughes?
Smokler: I actually didn't find out Hughes grew up in Grosse Pointe, Michigan (which is where my father went to high school), until after Hughes died. So in my mind he was always a Chicago and greater Chicagoland filmmaker. Which still meant a lot to me because, growing up in Southeast Michigan in the 1980s, I felt like anything of pop culture significance happened far away in New York or California. That's where the record labels and movie and TV studios were. If my beloved University of Michigan football team had a championship season, they played the championship game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. There was no "Live from Cleveland, It's Saturday Night!"
Sure we had Motown but that was more the music of my parent's generation. And I was too uncool to know who MC5 or The Stooges were.
But John Hughes' commitment to the American Midwest as the center of the world if you were a teenager, spoke to me very deeply. It's probably why I ended up calling "Shermer," which is totally made up, "The Capital City of Brat Pack America," of the ’80s teen movie universe and also why in the same way, absurdly enough, having Chunk in "The Goonies" be an openly Jewish kid meant a ton to me. There just weren't many of those either and I'm sure you relate to the secular-Jew-in-a-Christmas-Tree world childhood we both had.
Speaking of that, you speak of Hughes' characters in your memoir rather obliquely. You didn't relate to or want to be Jake Ryan or Ferris Bueller but instead they represented a life, culturally, psychologically, that you felt you didn't get to live.
Can you tell me a little about this relationship to his characters, not as peers or heroes but as wish fulfillment?
Diamond: Oh yeah. Curious to know more what you felt about this, but when I saw Jake Ryan for the first time when I was a kid I think I felt like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster felt when they were creating Superman. I was like, "That's the coolest looking guy and I'd love to look like that." Unfortunately that wasn't in the cards for me. Eventually I sort of felt more like an Allison from "The Breakfast Club." I don't know if I wanted to, but I definitely related to her and also had a huge crush on her as well since I was also a weirdo sad punk teen.
As for Ferris, I think we all want to be like him a little. He's a little bit of a trickster, but he's also so damn positive, both of himself but also his outlook on life. There's a lot I think you can get out of paying attention to how he carries himself throughout the day. I think I'd still like to try and be a little more like Ferris.
Since you move beyond the stuff Hughes did, I wonder if there were any characters from any of the other Brat Pack films that spoke to you. I know Rob Lowe will forever be a saxophone playing god to me because of "St. Elmo's Fire" …
Smokler: It's funny but I never related to who the characters in ’80s teen movies were as much as what they did. I didn't want to be Ferris Bueller or Marty McFly but I sure did want a best-friend relationship like the one between Marty and Doc or Ferris and Cameron. I didn't see myself in the the kids in "Over the Edge" or "Legend of Billie Jean" but I sure as hell wanted their camaraderie and the way they all looked out for each other.
If I had to guess, that was the strange part about growing up with relative privilege, comfort and good fortune. I didn't feel the need to seek out stories about me because hell, I was a straight, white, upper-middle-class male and images of me and my point of view was everywhere. I might have been short and overweight and Jewish, way more Lucas and Chunk and Farmer Ted than Cappy or Brand or Jake Ryan, and I sure didn't have those words for it back then but I think I came to the idea of wanting not to see myself in pop culture but for pop culture to show me something really different, to show me there was something else beyond being short and overweight and Jewish -- beyond the either/or of being Chunk or Jake Ryan.
My hometown of Ann Arbor, Michigan, was a hipper-than-thou kind of spot where "different," no matter what kind of different, was cool. I took that in the direction of everything in black pop culture being cool, this being the time of Run DMC and Public Enemy and Eddie Murphy and Whoopi Goldberg stand-up specials and Spike Lee's early movies. So I remember even then thinking that, say, "House Party" was as much the story of kids my age than "Pretty in Pink" -- or at least I wanted it to be.
Your book is about growing up without comfort and safety and privilege, of feeling not seen in real life, of stitching together an identity and self-narrative from pop culture. What do you see as the difference between what we are looking for as teenagers and what shape that kind of looking takes as an adult?
Diamond: I think I had some degree of comfort and privilege, at least early on. I got to see that world and I was constantly around it in one way or another growing up, but I think that was sort of my problem. I had all of these ideas of what life was supposed to be, what was “normal,” and what would make me happy. I think Hughes really tapped into that; he provided a picture for me to sort of draw myself into. I think a lot of movies from the 1980s are sort of great because you could be the geek and get the guy or girl you wanted; you could hop into a time machine, bust ghosts, whatever, but everything would be fine in the end. I think I was striving for that. I think we all are, but I had this very 1980s movie idea of how it was supposed to look. When that didn’t happen I think I had to question a lot of things.
I think later, when I was a teen in the ’90s and getting into punk and skateboarding and stuff, anything weird from the 1980s sort of fit into my view of what was cool, so Hughes kinda came with me. I mean, I’m pretty sure the first time I heard Jesus and Mary Chain was because of "Some Kind of Wonderful."
How did you come back around to all of these films? At least enough to want to write a book about them?
Smokler: I think in my head they never went anywhere. When it comes to pop culture, I have trouble letting things go so the ’80s teen movies I never outgrew. They sorta just aged as I did and even though I probably appreciated them for different reasons, a year hasn't gone by since 1987 when I didn't watch "The Lost Boys" or "Some Kind of Wonderful" at least once. Which probably explains, at least a little, why "The Warrior" by Scandal was my favorite song at age 11 and still is one of my favorites at age 43.
As far as "Brat Pack America" goes, my first two books were about books and I was ready to try something different. Teen movies of the 1980s had always been a great love of mine but there have already been plenty of great books written about them. After a lot of reading and rewatching and iced coffee, I hit upon the idea of the places in ’80s teen movies as points on a map that I called "Brat Pack America" -- not just because a lot of those places still exist and people visit them (like the beach with three rocks in "The Goonies" or the resort in "Dirty Dancing") but as a metaphor for the permanence and enduring greatness of those movies.
How did you approach your story knowing there's already been plenty written about John Hughes and his influence?
Diamond: Actually, I hadn’t read that much stuff on Hughes or his films. I mean I’d read the typical listicles on best 1980s teen films and a few great articles like David Kamp’s wonderful Vanity Fair piece on him from a few years ago, but I sometimes think that Hughes being sort of one of the big directors from the 1980s means he’s never going to get the sort of admiration a Kubrick or a Hitchcock might. Of course, he’s a different kind of filmmaker, but I think since he’s so connected to the eighties, and that’s a decade that everybody associates with greed and commercialism, I think a lot of art from the time is sort of dismissed as pop schmaltz -- which Hughes sort of was in his own brilliant way, but in a very artistic way. I think something I wanted to do was sort of dive into his films while discussing my own life, but also look for opportunities to pick apart or widen the discussion about the movies he wrote, directed and produced.
I’ve always thought people were dismissive of films, or that there’s much more of an emotional attachment than a critical one. I think in your book you also pick things apart and give a lot of those films a look that other people haven’t really spent time doing, and I wonder if you ever felt that was the case and what made you want to really dig into this specific decade and these kinds of films.
Smokler: I think you make a great point. We're pretty unfair about which culture from which periods of time and by who gets appreciated and what gets its feet welded to that point in history never to transcend it. I'm not about to make an argument that, say, The Spin Doctors got a raw deal, but a big reason why we probably all just snickered when I said "The Spin Doctors" is because they feel painfully early ’90s and not much else. But is that their fault, something about the early ’90s, us being snobs? Probably some of all three, which makes it an unfair judgement. Had The Spin Doctors done their thing circa 1973, we'd probably consider them competent nephews of The Grateful Dead rather than the musical equivalent of a bottle of Zima.
The 1980s are so easily remembered as a decade of loud, performative shallowness — big hair, shoulder pads, Joel Silver action movies — that it's tempting to say that's all it was. But that's like saying the 1950s was all white bread conformity -- and if it were, would we have gotten Chuck Berry? The Beats? Patricia Highsmith? "Touch of Evil?" The 1980s for all that was big and stupid about them also produced Basquiat and Keith Haring, Black Flag and Public Enemy, Allison Anders and, well, John Hughes.
In spending a bunch of time for my book with John Hughes' movies like you did for yours, I came away feeling like eventually we'd look at them the way we now look at the movies of Douglas Sirk or John Waters, derided for dealing in emotion rather than ideas, sneered at for being blatantly pop instead of high-minded, but worshipped by their fans and cited as super important by the generations of filmmakers than came after. Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody and Kevin Smith have already said that about Hughes' movies.
How do you view John Hughes' movies now, being a good few decades removed from their birth and your own teenage years?
Diamond: I have a deep emotional attachment to them, yet I recognize there’s a lot I now find personally wrong (Jake Ryan talking about sexually violating his girlfriend, Long Duk Dong, overall lack of representation by anybody other than white people), and I know people can say the eighties were a different time, but I don’t buy that. I wish Hughes would have gone against conventions and what was acceptable at the time, but he didn’t. Not sure why he didn’t, but today I do take issue with those things. I think like that with nearly everything. You can like something, but pick it apart; don’t love a movie or music or a book or philosophy or politics blindly. It’s important to be critical because it will help you appreciate whatever it is you’re critical of even more.
Either that or you’ll come to totally hate it. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with me and Hughes.
Were there any films you revisited in your research that you were sort of shocked by? Any scenes that jumped out at you that made you think they wouldn’t be put in a movie today? Also, can we talk about "Soul Man?" How the hell did that get made?
Smokler: I managed to duck having to write about "Soul Man" because it's a movie about college and not high school but, man, is that movie a steaming pile of what-have-you! Although funny, isn't it, that same idea in the hands of a Robert Townsend or an Amy Heckerling or any filmmaker who could actually do satire instead, thinking the premise itself is funny (it isn't) instead of a jumping-off point for comedy? That probably should have been "Soul Man" instead of what we got.
There's a good 10 or 20 percent of movies I watched for this book that have gutless, lazy politics in terms of race and gender and sexuality and I'm disappointed that it's the best they thought they could do. Some like "Adventures in Babysitting" are just so stupidly racist that you want to send them to a liberal arts summer camp for about 19 years. Others, like "The Breakfast Club," I love for many other reasons but am sad John Hughes and his team were blind to having five white actors as their cast (Forest Whitaker would have made a great "Athlete").
Overall, though, I was pretty happy with how well the teen movies of the ’80s held up. Our friend Hadley Freeman (author of "Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from ’80s Movies") has argued beautifully that many of these movies were a lot more with-it than we as a culture have acknowledged. "Dirty Dancing" is a movie about female desire that gets center stage. "Ghostbusters" is a broad comedy where the main characters get to be grown men instead of overgrown man-children. I'll throw in "War Games" and "Real Genius," which both argued that being smart is cool long before that was actually true.
Where did you see ’80s teen movies most having an influence in the pop culture of today?
Diamond: Literature. For sure. Rainbow Rowell and John Green are at the top of that list. I’ve thought about that for a long time, how I think that, even though we had YA and literature for teens, that Hughes and some of those other directors from the 1980s really helped to start something authors like Rowell and Green have been able to work with. You also see it in films; obviously the 1990s had plenty of great teen films, "Mean Girls" didn’t hide its Hughes influence at all; some of Judd Apatow’s work seems to be partially influenced by him; and even more recently movies like "Dope, "Seoul Searching" and "The Edge of Seventeen." I think we’ve gotten so used to remakes and things being such direct homages to certain artists or times that we don’t really squint our eyes to look at how things are part of a lineage or an evolution. I think the films we’re writing about started something, but that wasn’t the end. It was the start of something I see continuing to this day.
I’d also be curious to know what you think of your question, but since we’ve talked this much, I guess we should wrap it up. What’s next for you? What do you plan on doing after watching and writing about all these movies from the 1980s? Is there some big future project we can reveal here to end this thing?
Smokler: Several ideas brewing, something about women filmmakers, a few ideas about relationships between fans and makers of pop culture. As tempting as they all are, I've been given a rare opportunity to have written a book where people are super passionate about the subject. So my attention's got to be on that for the time being.
How about you? Or is it too early to ask?
Diamond: Yeah, probably too early. I have some things up my sleeve, but just going to tour behind this one for now and see how it goes.