Friday, August 7, 2009

On the Weirdest Science of All

Let me begin with a caveat: It is not possible for those of us who endured an awkward phase of adolescence in the 1980s to even pretend to have an unbiased opinion of John Hughes. I am willing to accept the premise that Hughes never wrote/directed a truly great film*, and yet I also find it difficult to imagine that there was a more important and influential and thoroughly enjoyable director to emerge from that period. In an era defined by artifice, Hughes' movies were an attempt to strip that away, to chronicle the daily angst of growing up in a material age, etc., etc....

And now I will stop pretending to be a film critic and get down to business. Because in all the enconiums and memorials and essays about Hughes and his films, I've seen very little about one movie in particular, a fantastic tale of wish fulfillment, Frankenstein, computer programming, thunderstorms and greasy pork sandwiches. I am speaking, of course, of Weird Science, considered by most thinking humans to be a second-tier product of the Hughes oeuvre, the story of two nerds who manage to create a woman named Lisa on a TRS-80 using DOS prompts and harnessing electromagnetism, a government mainframe, and photos cut out of Playboy magazine. They then take her to the mall, get doused by milkshakes and taunted by Robert Downey Jr., drink moonshine at an African-American blues bar, throw a hardcore house party, foil an outlaw biker gang**, wear bras on their head for no apparent reason, and learn, over the course of a weekend, how to be cool, largely by osmosis, but also through the use of nuclear weapons and illegal firearms.

It's funny, but you forget after a while just what it's actually like to be teenager; if anything, it's more erratic than what Hughes portrayed in his films. Recently, a girl who had come across one of my books friended me on Facebook. Her status updates are bracing and blinding and unexpurgated. At one point, she declared her undying love and subsequent hatred for three different boys over the course of two weeks; she is often bored, then briefly excited, then bored again. Then she is hungry. Everything is an obsession; her life, like every teenager's, is a fishbowl from which maturity is the only escape.

And in this fishbowl, in 1985, Weird Science was a lifeline. Maybe, I thought, I could somehow learn to be cool. I wasn't delusional; I didn't imagine that one day during a thunderstorm, Kathy Ireland would emerge from the monitor of my Apple II+ and use alchemy to form a Porsche 928 in my driveway. But Weird Science, like all of Hughes' movies, was about adolescent identity, about deriving some sort of comfort in who you were, about taking control of a situation rather than allowing it to subsume you. Lisa wasn't real, and the whole premise of the movie was as far from reality as any Hughes movie ever got, but so was this high-school hierarchy we felt like we'd never get away from.

Hang in there, Hughes seemed to be telling us. None of this is real.

And as usual, he was right.

*Don't get me wrong: I love The Breakfast Club, too, and would readily watch it straight through on any rainy Sunday morning for the remainder of my existence, but I am not sure if it is really a great movie or a product of my own nostalgia. As for Sixteen Candles: I am among those who like this movie more than The Breakfast Club, but I dare you to engage in a serious deconstruction of a movie involving a rampant stereotype named The Donger.
**How a hardcore biker gang was notified about a teenage beer bash in the Chicago suburbs, I have no idea. But then, this subplot coincides with the moment when Bill Paxton, as Wyatt's domineering brother (the greatest role of his career to date--seriously), is (temporarily) rendered into, and I quote Wikipedia here, "an antrophomorphic pile of feces." I will admit that this movie is not based on peer-reviewed science.
It does, however, have Oingo Boingo.

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