Breakfast Club Martin Scorsese analysis of his directorial talent
There are lots of great teen films from many talented directors. When it comes down to it, though, only one filmmaker truly made a career out of it – John Hughes. I don’t know if he is the type of guy who never grew up, or the type who lamented for high school days gone by. To be honest, I just don’t know that much about him. Certainly he isn’t celebrated in the same way as Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock or Martin Scorsese, and that his major successes are almost exclusively in one genre may limit fair analysis of his directorial talent. But that only brings up a larger question:
Sometimes things just don’t need to be dissected and examined with scalpel and probe. In my opinion, the catalogue of ’80s films that Hughes either wrote or directed is immune to this type of scrutiny. Starting with his script for National Lampoon’s Vacation in 1983 and continuing straight on through Uncle Buck and finally, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in 1989 nearly everything the man touched was solid gold entertainment on at least some level. But specifically, it was his teen flicks that resonated (and still resonate) with audiences. In a society where generation gaps get smaller yet parents become more preoccupied with work, Hughes recognized this and was able to implement it in his films. He was on a tear throughout the decade, so it’s worth more to examine why his films work than look for whatever minor flaws they might have.
Despite being in his thirties during the 1980s, he had a complete grasp on the teenage lifestyle. He understood the universal qualities of all teenagers, regardless of background. They didn’t/don’t want to go to school, they were/are on some level concerned with being cool and fitting in, and it’s likely that they and their parents either didn’t/don’t get along or see eye-to-eye on most things. These themes are evident in almost all of Hughes’ catalogue, but it was never more pronounced than in The Breakfast Club. The reason the themes are so well developed no doubt comes from the fact that this was the first film that Hughes wrote, produced and directed. Of all the films he made up to this point, this one was his.
Spending time discussing the plot of The Breakfast Club is almost moot for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an incredibly popular movie that most people have already seen. Second, it’s an ensemble film and the plot is little more than a set-up to get dialog going. But for the sake of the six people reading this who might not have seen it, here it is, in a nutshell: the film takes place entirely in a high-school library. Five students of different backgrounds are sentenced to serve out a Saturday together. Confined to the school’s library, they must remain quiet, and contemplate their individual reasons for being there. All of the students are serving their detentions for different reasons, none of which are revealed for the first 50 minutes of the film. Aside from the students, there are only two other people in the school; principal Vernon (Paul Gleason) and the janitor Carl (John Kapelos).
Nearly everyone loves this movie because they can easily relate to any or all of the students. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is the jock of the group who feels he has to live up to the expectations of his father and his peers. Brian (Anthony Michael Hall) is the brainy geek of the bunch, overstressed by his parents’ desire for him to succeed. Claire (Molly Ringwald) is the prom queen and stereotypical rich girl. Allison (Ally Sheedy) is the silent mysterious type who attracts attention to herself by pretending not to want attention herself. Finally, John Bender (Judd Nelson) is the “criminal” who in effort to cause a ruckus, ends up being the catalyst that causes the group to come together and open up to one another. As you can see, every major school clique is represented here, and once the students finally get together and open up to one another they reveal that they’re all going through the same things, struggling with the same issues and sharing similar dissatisfactions with themselves.
Whenever The Breakfast Club is examined, the supporting characters often go overlooked. Early in the film, Vernon is set up as your typical, take-no-shit commanding voice of authority. He’s justifiably angry about having to baby-sit students on a Saturday – specifically Bender, who’s obviously been there before and goes out of his way to push the principal’s buttons. In a particularly difficult scene after Bender sacrifices himself in order to allow the other kids to get out of trouble, Vernon isolates Bender into a separate room and challenges him to a fight, boasting pridefully about how important he is, and how insignificant the student is. This is an important turning point for Vernon, as it shows that it isn’t just the students who project a fake image, but the adults do the same. Vernon would never let his true feelings show back in the library in front of the other students. This makes the Vernon character a perfect counterpoint to Carl the janitor. Here is a man whose occupation is filth, but who is the most pure and wise of them all and has a much clearer viewing of “the big picture” than the educated Vernon does. In a film full of fantastic dialog, it’s Carl who has the most fitting line:
Vernon: Now this is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night. When I get older, these kids are gonna take care of me.
Carl: I wouldn’t count on it.
This could easily be written off as blatant generational pessimism, but it takes the tone of from-the-heart observation following a previous statement Carl made, telling Vernon, “The kids haven’t changed. You have.” It’s a wonderful exchange, which can be taken in various ways. Directly, it means the younger generation won’t take care of the older. More appropriately, it means the kids won’t care about people like Vernon. The kids will remember the people who stepped on and humiliated them. It is interesting to remember that while Bender may have been the main recipient of Vernon’s attacks, not a single student escaped his wrath that day.
Carl’s statement was as true then as it is now. Kids really don’t change, and they certainly haven’t changed much in the 20+ years since The Breakfast Club finished its theatrical run. The realization of this may be the biggest testament to why Hughes’ film remains so endearing. Regardless of how outdated the soundtrack is today, and despite the fact that the fashion trends have long since passed; all of this can be overlooked. The film’s message, the relatable characters and their recognition and acceptance of their flaws transcend time. Never has there been a better meditation on alienation and never has there been a better high school film. It must be because Hughes exposes the fact that alienation and high school are practically interchangeable.