Friday, July 21, 2017
(May 1984, U.S.)
Looking back at the 1980s now, I can't help but wonder how I and everyone else of my generation ever got through their teenage years with all of its tacky pop culture and bullshit. The big hair, the leg warmers, the pop metal...Boy George??? But then again, perhaps we can take a moment to remember that there was a man like the late John Hughes to somehow get us through it all. John was quite possibly the one person of the decade who could ask us to stop for a moment, take our eyes off of MTV and recognize our own existence in this world. The drama of THE BREAKFAST CLUB was still a year away, so for the time being, the funnier side of teenage life would penetrate our minds with SIXTEEN CANDLES.
Who were you in high school back in the '80s? Were you the gorgeous jock that every girl longed for? Were you the popular Prom Queen that every boy in school wanted to fuck? Were you dreaded geek that everyone else tried to avoid sitting next to on the equally-dreaded school bus? Or perhaps, were you someone like Samantha Baker (played by Molly Ringwald)? She's the girl on the verge of womanhood trying to not only figure out her place in a vast array of suburban teens, but also suffering from a desperate infatuation for the gorgeous jock Jake Ryan (played by Michael Schoeffling) who doesn't have the slightest clue that she even exists. For Samantha, just trying to get her family to pay even an ounce of attention to her on her sixteenth birthday is a challenge, as her older (and not-so-bright) sister is about to be married to a real sleazebag and is hogging all the attention instead. At school, during study hall, she takes a "sex quiz" given to her by a friend and confesses that she'd gladly give up her virginity to Jake. Too bad that Jake managed to get his hands on this quiz and now has full knowledge of just how Samantha feels about him. Jake, despite any stereotypes we may have toward the mindless high school jock, is a boy of feelings and sensitivity. Despite the fact that he's hooked up with the beautiful, rich, obnoxious Prom Queen, he's initially flattered by the idea of Samantha's attraction and seeks to find out more about her beyond the prospect of simply banging her (that, he can get anytime he wants from the dizzy Prom Queen!).
But if her potential humiliation with Jake weren't enough, Samantha has two sets of visiting grandparents to deal with (two of them sleeping in her room!), as well as the totally bizarre Chinese exchange student two of them brought along called Long Duk Dong (I'll get to him in further detail later). Just how do you begin to feel special on your sixteenth birthday when you're surrounded by all of this in-home madness? Maybe the school dance will help. Maybe she'll have the courage to tell Jake just how she feels about him. Or maybe instead, she'll be harassed by the school geek, the king of the dip-shits, or in other words, this guy...
Really, if this doesn't destroy your birthday for good, I don't know what does! Surprisingly, though, the "Geek" (played by Anthony Michael Hall), as he's simply called (he's actually identified as Ted in the film) turns out to be the one who will listen to Samantha's woes, offer advice, and even try to hook her up with Jake. She appreciates his friendship. She must...I mean, why else would she willingly give the guy her panties to help him out?? Unlike the traditional school geek we may have known in our real lives, this one isn't the shy type. He makes his presence known to others and even has the balls to crash a senior party with his two "dudes" (one of them an unknown John Cusack). Like the chameleon, he knows how to blend in (or at least make a valiant attempt) with the cool kids at the party, even if in the end, he's placed underneath the glass coffee table. Still, you gotta give the "Geek" the proper credit for becoming the "hero" by the end of the film by not only driving the Prom Queen home in a fancy Rolls Royce, but also believing he had sex with her, too. We know they didn't, but their drunken delusions are hardly anything we want to spoil. We cheer the "Geek" because there's likely a small part of us that can relate to his desires and dreams of high school fame. Oh, yeah, and of course Samantha and Jake come together in the end, too. What else would we expect in a movie?
For all its implications of teen angst and sensitivity to growing up in a world that doesn't understand them, the wild comedy in the tradition of its predecessors like PORKY'S and FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (both 1982) is not lost. High school years in the '80s is a wild time; inside its walls, the weekend parties and the insane life at home we're forced to contend with. When we aren't taking our teen years too seriously, we have many reasons to laugh, particularly the idea of the bride hopped up on an over-abundance of muscle relaxers on her wedding day! However, if we take a deeper look at SIXTEEN CANDLES, it's impossible not to recognize that the underlying themes behind its social situations are not only very relevant, but also not necessarily dated, either. While Hughes makes it clear that high school can be a funny place for four years of our lives, it's also a potential battleground where these poor kids are forced to fight for their identity and their place within the world inside that dreaded building. There's no teen revolt against authority because by all accounts, these kids don't recognize authority. Teachers in this film are hardly more than a minimal presence, if not a complete joke. The film is strictly a teen's world defined by school, their clothes, their cars, their parties, their music and the endless possibilities of their sex lives.
The film is ultimately not without its stereotypes, far beyond that of the "Geek". The Prom Queen, if not the blonde, in general, is a mindless ditz who can't see far beyond the existence of her beauty, her body, her wealth and her popular social status by being with the right guy, in this case, the gorgeous jock. While the "Geek" is quite atypical in this film, it's easy to see that his two best friends, Bryce and "Wease", who by all stereotypical definitions, are unpopular, unwanted and even bullied (when I look at them now, I can't help but notice a slight resemblance to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the two seniors responsible for the mass shootings at Columbine High School in 1999; something John Hughes never would have conceived in his screenwriting of two unwanted boys). The strongest stereotype, of course, is Long Duk Dong (I told you I'd get back to him). While it's impossible not to find his character the funniest thing in the movie, he is, nonetheless, an offensive stereotype to any and all Asian people who choose to take offense. His stilted English dialogue, offensive or not, is still outrageous comedy. There are also moments in the film that today would be classified as totally politically incorrect, if not dangerous. Remember the scene where Jake and the "Geek" are talking alone after the wild party and Jake confesses that his girlfriend is passed out in the bedroom and he could violate her ten different ways if he wanted to? Also, in the Rolls Royce, the "Geek" and the Prom Queen wake up next to each other, very certain that the two of them had sex with each other as a result of their drunken stupor the night before. It's all funny, but by today's standards of movie morality (whatever the hell that might be!), these scenes practically condone date rape; again, something Hughes never would have intentionally written about.
This is how someone with a serious mind toward cinema may choose to spend their time analyzing a simple teen comedy like SIXTEEN CANDLES. In the end, however, let's not forget when it came out and why it came out; to give all us young kids of the '80s the opportunity to better understand ourselves and even laugh at ourselves in the process. Thank you, John, for that. We'll never forget it...or you.
Favorite line or dialogue:
Long Duk Dong: "I've never been so happy in my whole life!"
Marlene: "You maniac!"
Long Duk Dong: "Now I have a place to put my hand!"