From John Hughes’ fictional suburb of Shermer in The Breakfast Club (1985) to the dirty dancing in New York’s Catskill Mountains in Dirty Dancing (1987), 1980s teen movies left their mark on American culture.
In the new book Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ‘80s Teen Movies, author Kevin Smokler gives virtual tours of iconic ’80s teen movies like Sixteen Candles (1984), Pretty in Pink (1986) and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986).
Smokler joined Morning Shift to talk about these films and why the places and characters continue to delight audiences.
On the origins of the phrase ‘Brat Pack’
The phrase “Brat Pack” comes from a David Blum New York Magazine article published in the summer of 1985, Smokler said.
“The author talks a whole lot about how this generation of actors is young, hot and all the teenage girls want to be with them and all the teenage boys want to be them,” he said.
The “Brat Pack” name that applied to this generation of actors — including Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Judd Nelson, Matt Dillon, Nicholas Cage, Molly Ringwald, Sean Penn — was flawed from the very beginning, Smokler said.
“Some of the actors were 10 years apart in age,” Smokler said. “Some of them didn’t even know each other. A lot of them didn’t work together. It was a loose sloppy grouping of actors around the same age.”
The term still became an adjective used to describe any ’80s teen movie, “in the same way ‘Rat Pack’ has come to mean martini glasses and skinny ties,” Smokler said.
On the evolution of teen movies
Smokler said teen movies have evolved significantly between the 1950s and the 1980s, particularly in how teenagers were depicted.
Teenagers were a dangerous social problem in ‘50s teen films like Rebel without a Cause (1955). Teens were an angry and lost generation in ‘60s films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Then teen movies like Grease (1978) — set two decades prior to its filming — served as a sort of nostalgia-trip for adults at the time.
“Move forward one decade to the 1980s and you’re talking about movies where teenagers are the protagonists of their story and the narrative is just about them as human beings, and not as representations of anything,” Smokler said.
Smokler noted films like Animal House (1978), Breaking Away (1979) and Fame (1980) propelled the “Brat Pack” genre.
“They’re all movies where teenagers are main characters and they’re not abstracted. They’re simply seen as people,” Smokler said.
Note: Video clip contains explicit language.
On director John Hughes: ‘the king of the teen movie’
John Hughes — who also directed Weird Science (1985), Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987) and Home Alone (1990) — moved from Lansing, Mich. to the northern suburbs of Chicago when he was a teenager.
“He didn’t talk a whole lot about it in his lifetime but the place really took its hold on him,” Smokler said. “He saw it as a kind of set of blank notebook pages that a teenager could draft and sketch their own experience onto.”
Smokler attributes part of Hughes’ teen-movie filmmaking success to creating places and situations that were both highly specific and archetypal at the same time.
“John Hughes movies feel slightly mythic,” Smokler said. “They feel relatable but they also traffic in fantasy.”
“Friendship, fitting in, heartbreak, loss, relationships with parents — those are all things we’ve all experienced,” Smokler said.
“Most of us have not hijacked a German-day parade. Most of us have not spent all day in detention,” he said. “Those are the things that are uniquely the creation of movie fantasy, and yet they are in service of emotions that are universal.”
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