Much too fast to take that test

Mr. Vernon…We accept that we have to sacrifice a whole Saturday in detention for whatever it was that we did wrong. What we did was wrong. But we think you’re crazy to make us write this essay telling you who we think we are. What do you care? You see us as you want to see us…in the simplest terms and most convenient definitions. You see us a brain, an athlete, a basket case, a princess, and a criminal. Correct? That is how we saw each other at seven o’ clock this morning. We were brainwashed.”

Anthony Michael Hall as Brian — The Breakfast Club

I ran into Jeremy outside a Hollywood Video store during the last week of June. He caught me lesson planning. I teach at a continuation high school and the last three days of my classes were going to be movies. We talked about what the kids would like vs. what I was allowed to show them vs. what I think might in some way be valuable for them to see. He laughed at my list of past last day offerings: synching up The Wizard of Oz and Dark Side of the Moon was a hit while Style Wars definitely fell flat. Office Space didn’t grab them like I had hoped it would but it worked out much better than Logan’s Run. The less said about how 2001: A Space Odyssey went over the better. We both agreed that there is probably no better last day of school movie than Dazed and Confused, but I have to change things up as some of my students have had me before and expect newer and ever better cinematic experiences from Mr. Mancillas.

I decided on Three Kings and Memento because I thought they were somewhat challenging and that the students would get something out of them, but my gift to them was what I was going to show on the last day, The Breakfast Club.

Pretty in Pink is without question my favorite John Hughes film, but I felt that The Breakfast Club was a can’t miss and Paul Gleason, who so memorably played Richard Vernon, had just passed away about a month ago and the press from his death brought the film to my attention again after so many years.

The credits were very plain: white letters on a black background. This worried me; it smelled of Mr. Hughes having something serious to say. What followed didn’t make me feel any better. I think that I remembered the movie opening with the quote from Bowie’s Changes: “and these children that you spit on as they try and change their worlds are immune to your consultations. They’re quite aware of what they’re going through”; but I had forgotten that this screen then explodes outward in slow motion, showering shards of glass toward the viewer.

If anyone has any thoughts as to why the hell this happens, I am interested to read them.

But here’s the big question that you are to answer–which one of the above stereotypes listed by Brian applies best to you (and how can you not help but think of these people, in this case Anthony Michael Hall, by the names of the actors rather than those of the characters? OK, maybe Judd Nelson as Bender but does anyone really remember Ally or Emilio’s character names?)? I realize that there aren’t enough choices and that Hughes lacks nuance if not commercial instincts, but the logic of the film compels you to indulge in this key moment of identification. Have you got yours? Has it changed much from your first viewing? Mine has, I think. Or rather hope, as I can’t imagine any teenager knowingly pointing at the screen and thinking, “that is the guy who speaks for me.”
Reader, I cannot lie. I am Vernon.

Yes, this is cheating of a sort, but what struck me most about watching The Breakfast Club is how I have so completely began to pull for, if not outright become, the villain of the piece.

Has this happened to any of you? Is there any film or book where you have so drastically changed your opinions and even identifications regarding the heroes and villains of the work?

Part of my crisis, I recognize, comes from my chosen profession and the genre of movies I am discussing. Teen movies demand the requisite recognition of shared teen alienation and being misunderstood, and they also require the presence of an adult figure that just doesn’t get it (at best) and is outright malicious (at worst). But to realize what your teenage students actually think of you, if and when they consider you at all, is to offer a corollary of sorts to Wooderson’s immortal line from Dazed and Confused; Yes, I get older and high school girls always stay the same age, but after a while this is not necessarily a good thing. We don’t get (beg for, obsess over, compare) chili peppers at my level, you see… [Editor’s note: poor you, Ruben…]

Let me stick up for Dick Vernon for a second here and offer that Hughes actually wrote himself a more interesting character than even he intended. Consider this long quote from Vernon confronting the “criminal” Judd Nelson:

That’s the last time Bender. That’s the last time you ever make me look bad in front of those kids, you hear me? I make $31,000 dollars a year and I have a home and I am not about to throw it away on some punk like you…But someday, man, someday. When you’re outta here and you’ve forgotten all about this place… And they’ve forgotten all about you and are wrapped up in your own pathetic life… I’m gonna be there. That’s right. And I’m gonna kick the living shit out of you, man, I’m going to knock your dick in the dirt… What are you going to do about it? You think anybody’s gonna believe you? You think anybody’s gonna take your word over mine? I’m a man of respect around here. They love me around here. I’m a swell guy… you’re a lying sack of shit. And everybody knows it. Oh, you’re a real tough guy… come on, come on, get on your feet pal. Let’s find out how tough you are? I wanna know right now how tough you are. Come on, I’ll give you the first punch. Let’s go. Come on, right here, just take the first shot. Please, I’m begging you, take a shot. Come on; just take one shot. That’s all I need, just one swing… that’s what I thought… you’re a gutless turd.

This guy could have just been, and I might argue was supposed to merely be, a clown, an Establishment figure to be laughed at like Mr. Rooney in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (though if you ever wondered why he was so consumed with catching Matthew Broderick, you might want to read about the actor Jeffrey Jones on the Smoking Gun), but instead Hughes has written a certifiably scary guy who is oh so much more of a rebel than a kid wearing a “Not Saved” button on his cut off gloves could ever be.

Realism alert: Mr. Vernon is sometimes described as a “principal,” but principals rarely get the unpleasant duty of having to supervise weekend discipline. And, yes, the amount of money he proudly claims to make, even adjusted for inflation, does not speak of an upper administrative position, but it does still hit much too close to home.

I might also add that truly at-risk students do not make it their habit to actually show up for an all-day Saturday detention or challenge authority by shouting “eat my shorts.”

And, yes, I identify with Mr. Hand too.

But I ask you all again–which characters have you changed positions with? Who were you? Who have you become? Why?

A coda: my wife Adriean and I went to see Grant Lee Phillips play eighties covers at Largo last weekend and were discussing some of my ideas for this post when the voice of the “opener” suddenly came through the speakers. I squinted at the stage, though it was very close, and heard a man described as Todd Carlin begin his act, but we knew all too well who it really was. Adriean yelled “Mr. Rosso,” and I called out “Feedback” but, alas, he did not begin to play any Alice Cooper…this time.

21 responses to “Much too fast to take that test”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Ruben,

    Somehow, even through glimpses of myself in Emilio’s “Sporto” and AMH’s nerd, I always identified with Carl the Janitor, the smart post-grad loser who sees the situation for what it is, finds a fairly undemanding position to inhabit in the system (partially inside, partially outside), and uses that position both to comment on the system and to survive on it, though in a tenuous, unglamorous way. (This may partially come from the fact that I was already out of high school when BC came out.) I haven’t seen this movie in years and years, so I wonder if I’d feel the same way. I just don’t think I can bring myself to sit through it again, though. All those cringe-worthy moments (especially the dancing, oh god, the dancing) throw up a barrier between me and renting it.

    T

  2. Scott Godfrey says:

    Ruben,

    Great post. I’m not sure that I know anyone else who would have the nerve to stand up and say that they’ve come to resemble Dick Vernon. As per your challenge: I’ve gone from empathizing with Benjamin Braddock to Mr. Robinson. Who wouldn’t want to kick that young punk’s ass for playing his wife against his daughter. Especially after having the kindness and generosity of sharing his scotch and giving the only sage advice in the film: “Ben, I think you ought to be taking it a little easier than you seem to be.”

  3. Rachel says:

    Ruben,

    Lately I’ve been noticing with disturbing frequency the phenomenon you describe. Are we getting old, or is it a more innocuous change in perspective?

    The other night I was watching DiG!, a documentary film about two bands, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and The Dandy Warhols. The opening scenes feature some Dandys’ concert footage, during which the young and very nubile keyboardist Zia McCabe is performing topless.

    Ten (hell, five) years ago my reaction would have been:
    Shit, it would be so fun to travel around the world getting paid to party and play music with no clothes on!

    Now: Shit, her mother is going to have a stroke when sees this!

    Monsieur Vernon, c’est moi.

  4. andrea says:

    I loved that scene from DIG! and I got a big case of distalgia, a condition we made up that makes us nostalgic for a time that never really happened to us. hell, I might have lived in Oregon back in the day but I never sung topless with the Dandy Warhols. not that I recall.

  5. Adriean says:

    And here I always considered you more Blane to my Andie, but good to know that we are both developmentally arrested in our adolescence through John Hughes nonethless.

  6. WW says:

    Funny, I read your post after getting mine up — my post which is a loooooong answer to your question. One of these days, I’m due to become Isaac.

  7. bacon says:

    I think the correct spelling is “dystalgia”…

  8. Ruben says:

    Tim, nice call on Carl. I didn’t mention this earlier but to save you from any dancing induced trauma (yes, it is as bad, if not worse, than you remember) let me just point out that when the camera tracks through the empty school at the beginning of the film it passes over some pictures of Shermer High’s Men of the Year proudly wearing their tuxes and enshrined in some trophy cabinet or above an archway. Yup, you guessed it-Carl the janitor was in fact a previous Man of the Year for the high school.

    And Adriean honey, I’m your Steff.

  9. Stephanie Wells says:

    Well, it’s really tempting to say that while I used to identify with Sandy, I now identify with Chacha DiGregorio . . . but that wouldn’t exactly be true, I confess (well, the Sandy-pre-Frenchy’s-makeover part is still true). Nor was I ever cool enough to identify with any of Molly Ringwald’s characters, even the sushi-eating one in the Breakfast Club who is so uncool (I wasn’t that rich), let alone that girl in the Dandy Warhols (I wish!). The closest I ever came to having my own conflicts played out onscreen was in the oft-GW-cited Freaks and Geeks, when Lindsey’s high school ambivalence mirrors, no, not me in high school, but me in my 30s stuck between grad school and booking bands. I guess I was a late bloomer with all that adolescent rebellion stuff. Nevertheless, I absolutely loved this post, even though it made me realize how tragically underrepresented I’ve been in Hollywood up until now.

    But Ruben and Adriean, I thought *I* was your Steff.

  10. the older my kids get the more i identify with the parents in all these films.

  11. Lane says:

    I used to identify with Lenny, now it’s Squiggy.

  12. PB says:

    OK this has nothing to do with personal identity–but I had seen “Breakfast at Tiffanys” about a million times as a kid and then at at like 30 I saw it again and realized George Peppard was giglo to Patricia Neal’s money. Yikes! I totally missed it as a kid, thought she was leaving lunch money or something. Suddenly the movie is a lot less sweet and a lot more sophisticated. I hate growing up.

  13. admit it, pandora — you wanted to *be* that gigilo.

  14. PB says:

    Hmmmm, truly I wanted to be Audrey, because as a kid I only vaguely realized how fucked up she was and she was so pretty and skinny. Frankly George couldn’t hold a candle to Audrey or Patricia. (thanks for pointing out how to spell gigilo, it was a hot family discussion)

  15. i can just hear your voice yelling from the computer room: “Can *somebody* tell me how to spell gigilo??”

  16. Jeremy says:

    i believe it’s spelled “gigolo.”

  17. ha! well, now people know the part *you’re* playing …

  18. Lane says:

    Richard Gere?

  19. Stephanie Wells says:

    Speaking of true confessions inspired by the Breakfast Club, I have to add that even though I was already a sophomore in college when it came out, I was so profoundly smitten with Bender that even Judd Nelson’s despicably Young Republican lawyer in St Elmo’s Fire, nay, not even the ignominy of Suddenly Susan could completely erase the first shaggy memory of him from my heart for many years.

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