Teen mischief, teen longing, teen betrayal. And Long Duk Dong.

The big story of 2009 is not health-care reform. Celebrity death is getting complex, the feelings it arouses harder to parse. Because our relation to the world and one another is so tempered by imaginary relations to deceased strangers, public discourse on the subject can feel like a competition between people jockeying to have been the most or least affected by a dead person's legacy. The resulting tone is a mixture of inappropriate joke telling and confessional sentimentality that verges on bathos.

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It turns out those were also two of the chief characteristics in the work of the late John Hughes, who died last week of a heart attack at age 59. This is not a coincidence.

As a writer/director/producer, Hughes was one of the few mainstream filmmakers who earned the term "auteur." His oeuvre, driven by language but visually commanding, was unmistakably distinctive. There were three distinct periods in his career, each successful—one obscenely so. But his middle years, between 1984 and 1987, are what made him the kind of artist people argue over having cared the most about.

After his early screenwriting years (Mr. Mom, National Lampoon's Vacation), before the phenomenal success of Home Alone and its clones, John Hughes was, notoriously, the laureate of white suburban adolescence. His métier wasn't merely teen angst, as is usually reported, but teen-ness: teen mischief, teen self-determination, teen longing, teen betrayal, teen loyalty, and caustic teen one-liners. The films he wrote and/or directed during this period—Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and lesser works Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful (which he may as well have directed)—have had a more lasting cultural influence than any number of ostensibly more serious '80s films. Matthew Broderick addressing the camera with a shampoo Mohawk, Molly Ringwald practicing what she'll say if Jake ever notices her ("D'you have a cigarette?"), Anthony Michael Hall crying over his F in shop—these are not just iconic moments. They're almost a paradigm. For teenagers, and, crucially, preteens, Hughes films were more than escapist wish-fulfillment, class-conscious romances, and existential Skinner boxes. They were instruction manuals for people trying to learn how to be young.

Earlier youth movies like Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Saturday Night Fever, even Risky Business, offered a more or less binary system for audience identification. You were a straight or a rebel, a conformist or an original, an us or a them. Hughes's works expanded the language of youthful alienation. His social cosmology was infinitely more elaborate and self-aware. The hyperarticulate, culturally plugged-in kids in his films understood that the identities available to them were merely arbitrary roles, each burnout as predetermined as every jock—all equally subject to ridicule by rich, beautiful jerks who lived to make you feel unpopular, uncool, unloved. The finales were uplifting, but finales weren't the point (sometimes they sold us out, like Allison's makeover and Andie choosing Blane). The twin suns of the Hughes galaxy were shame and dread. Funny, cute, and underdoggy as they were, his characters were gripped by terror that they might fail to choose a viable self.

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The films and the real-life anxiety interacted in unique and intriguing ways. Obviously, John Hughes didn't invent peer pressure. But he distilled, articulated, and dramatized it better than any other filmmaker. My fellow eighth graders sneaked into The Breakfast Club the day it came out and walked out shattered. We were too young to identify with the characters, but exactly the right age to recognize that we were about to learn whether we were the brain, the athlete, the basket case, the princess, or the criminal. The future was coming. Don't you forget about it. Fear of the pressure predated the experience of it. Pre-pressure pressure. What better definition of anxiety? What better cinematic representation of it than a pill sugared with laughs, tears, bizarre slang, Molly's lips, and a fashionable soundtrack? We saw it 500 times. We saw them all 500 times, quoted the lines incessantly. Hughes talk remains a ready lingua franca 25 years later. The Brat Pack fretting over the futility of cultural signifiers became the ultimate cultural signifier of its time.

That time passed, as times do, and Hughes went on to make less-memorable, more-successful films—some funny, some schlocky, most both. On the sad occasion of his untimely death, it's worth considering how rare it is for an artist to simultaneously depict and invent his audience, even for just a few years. If you're the right age, watching Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off (and maybe Pretty in Pink if you can stand Jon Cryer) can be like watching your own memory. Which is kind of funny, a little bittersweet, and probably deeply sad. A little like a John Hughes film. recommended

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