Saturday, March 3, 2018

Pretty In Pink (film)

Last fall my mother and I traveled to England together for my niece’s graduation. Flying east is never an issue, but flying west for any significant duration can give me a terrible migraine. One technique I have is that if I watch movies, one after another, then I have something focus on and am less affected by the buffeting headwinds, and also by the time.

These days, thankfully, most long-range airlines provide in-flight entertainment of your choice for no additional charge. It’s probably best to keep all the passengers distracted as it keeps the rage to a minimum. Choosing what to watch, however, can be a trial. There are so many choices! But not enough choices!

I decided to view the 1986 John Hughes film Pretty In Pink. You may be surprised to learn I have never actually watched Pretty In Pink. Not one second of it. Yes, I am a devoted fan of the 1980s. Yes, I have seen most of John Hughes films (at least from Vacation through Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) and like many my age, straight, gay, or other, I have a thing for Molly Ringwald.

When the soundtrack was released early that year, I noticed at the time that it was the first record I purchased which had a "1986" copyright notice. This was significant to me because I was to graduate that spring, the number 1986 was magical, the two digits, 8 and 6, that I had on my sleeve since getting my “Bay jacket” in junior high. The future was finally now.

So I had the soundtrack, but never saw the movie. And it is an amazing soundtrack, solidifying my love for New Order and The Smiths (which I had only recently discovered) and introducing me to Suzanne Vega and Echo and the Bunnymen. It also had a track from INXS which my friend Scott was quick to dismiss as sounding like something they had decided not to include on Listen Like Thieves, and a rather tepid cover of the previous year’s hit single “Wouldn’t It Be Good.”

I have this on cassette. It is useless.
I knew the basics about the story, Molly Ringwald’s character, who lives on “the wrong side of the tracks,” is being courted by a rich kid (Andrew McCarthy) and this dweeb named Duckie. What I also knew was that the original ending, which takes place during Prom, because so many teen films end at Prom (did that start with Valley Girl?) in which she chooses Duckie, did not go over well with test audiences. In the final cut she chooses the Andrew McCarthy character.

Blaine. His name is Blaine.

Anyway, flash forward to fall 2017, and I’m finally watching this movie in a plane for the very first time. I learned several things:
  • Molly Ringwald is hands-down adorable in every single frame of this movie and if she were my daughter I would be so proud of her for being smart, artistic, resilient, good-hearted, and quick-witted. To put it another way, she is exactly like my actual daughter. 
  • Harry Dean Stanton as her depressed father is also adorable, and I was particularly touched by his performance because the actor had only recently passed away. I was also happy for him because it was obvious they shot all of his scenes in one day on two sets, so he probably got a fat check for very little work.
  • Duckie (Jon Cryer) is not the adorable, pompadoured dweeb I was led to believe him to be, but an aggressively toxic young man, one of those assholes who in common parlance use terms like “friendzone,” believing women should surrender to him by virtue of merely existing and being omnipresent.
  • Andrew McCarthy, whom I really enjoyed as a shell-shocked, morphine-addicted World War One veteran in Alan Rudolph's Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, employed the same vacant, thousand-mile stare eight years earlier in this film. I kept asking myself if Blaine was supposed to be high all of the time, or if that’s just that thing McCarthy does.
In general, I was disappointed and underwhelmed. I don’t think Hughes’s work has weathered well, and that future generations may not understand their appeal at all. His films are not merely lily-white, but in the case of Ferris Bueller and Sixteen Candles blatantly racist.

His masterpiece, The Breakfast Club, remains a sincere, downright eloquent expression of teen angst, with a far more nuanced attitude toward gender relations, and the entire screenplay is packed with memorable turns of phrase. I cannot for the life of me recall a single thing anyone in Pretty In Pink says. In fact, I was stunned by how nothing anyone said made any sense at all.

This was written to be a cutting rejoinder.
The one exception was James Spader, who cannot create a forgettable performance. He has a keen ability to say things, even horrible dialogue, like he is the smartest fucking person to draw breath. Spader and Stanley Tucci need to make a heist movie, where all they steal is scenes from each other.

Heading out from seeing Lady Bird last night (the wife is on a tear to watch all of the Oscar-nominated films over the course of this weekend) she observed the obvious nods to Pretty In Pink in that film. They even toy with the phrase “wrong side of the tracks” in literal, devastating fashion.

The difference between these two movies, as I saw it, was that unlike so many Hollywood films, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird has a roster of well-developed female characters, and a trio of one-dimensional male tropes (the closeted love interest, the hipster douchebag love interest, the pathetic, depressed father) as obstacles in the protagonist’s journey toward adulthood. Unlike Ringwald’s Andie, who seems to have entirely bought into the idea that she must end up with somebody at the end of the film, Saoirse Ronan’s Christine realizes friends are more important than boys, and that the most important person to end up with is yourself.

The past week, we began rehearsals for one weekend of performances of my new play script The Way I Danced With You, which will be presented at Blank Canvas Theatre on the near west side later this month. Lara Mielcarek directs, and the piece features Sarah Blubaugh and Michael Johnson as Dani and Charles.

I am not crying. It is you who is crying.
Writing this piece, I tried very hard to put myself back in that place in the mid-80s, a time when we tried a little too hard to play dress-up and pretend we were adults. Like James Spader's Steff, sitting at his father’s desk in his father’s home office, in his father’s bathrobe, smoking cigarettes and, doing what? Working? He’s a rich, hungover high school student, putting on his daddy’s armor and pretending to be a Master of the Universe (the Bonfire of the Vanities kind, not the action figure.)

While my character Charles is nowhere near as hot and self-possessed as Steff, he does try in his own way to be that thing. And without all the whining, he reflects a slight degree of Duckie’s self-righteous insistence that staying power justifies deserts.

That may have been the most disturbing part of watching Pretty In Pink for the first time ever, at this point in my life. It was like stepping through a time machine into a moment I know and feel so well and so deeply, and I was surprised and even moved by what I found there.

UPDATE: Ensemble Theatre presents the World Premiere of "The Way I Danced With You," opening March 21, 2019, directed by Tyler Whidden, and featuring Sarah Blubaugh and Cody Steele as Dani and Charles.

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