Back to the Future: Kevin Smokler, "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies"

Kevin Smokler, author of Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies

Kevin Smokler, author of Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies.

The 2010 Academy Awards telecast devoted a nearly seven-minute chunk of airtime to commemorating the life and work of John Hughes, a director/writer/producer who never received an Oscar nod in his life.

Kevin Smokler's recent book, Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies, explains why those Hughes films stand the test of time. But his interests run much wider than just Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Throughout his enjoyable survey of the decade, Smokler persuasively argues that, during this time, setting began to matter more to teen films than ever before.

Smokler will return to his original hometown of Ann Arbor on Monday, June 12, at 7 pm for an appearance at Literati. I spoke with the author about Reagan-era high-points as varied as Risky Business, The Lost Boys, and Back to the Future, as well as the Hughes canon.

Q: How did the concept of Brat Pack America come to you?
A: I had been wanting to do a book about '80s teen movies for a long time because I always saw them as a group, and not just because of John Hughes or because of the label Brat Pack that was unceremoniously given to this group of young actors. I had been an early teenager at that time and had recognized that there was a bumper crop of movies made about people my age and slightly older than me. I'm not the first person to come to that realization. The movies have been written about in one way or another several times, and several times admirably. I didn't quite see what I had to add to that story. So since that's usually where I begin most of my books -- having an idea off in the distance like the green light at the end of the dock -- I just sort of wander toward it and hope when I get there the path I've taken is clear, and I have something to report back once I get there.

In this particular case, I spent a lot of time with a stack of DVDs, and what I noticed is I kept circling back to this memory I had of my father, who had grown up in Detroit and really liked telling me and my brothers about all of the things that came from the middle of the country. One of those things was John Hughes; he was enormously proud of the fact that John Hughes was a Michigander and made all of his movies proudly about the Midwest. I remembered thinking to myself, you say "Chicago filmmaker" and you could say William Friedkin or John McNaughton, or a hundred other people, but in my mind, the first name that comes forth is John Hughes. So I started thinking about that and thinking about the movies at that time that were self-consciously about the places where they happened. One night, late into the night and three iced coffees to the wind, I scrawled "Brat Pack America" down on a pad and fell asleep. That's where the idea started from. I've always been an Americana buff, so I'm always trying to work the word "America" into the things I do and actually, in this case, it made sense.

Q: Your examination of the early hip-hop movies being specifically about New York was eye-opening.
A: I'm sort of dubious of culture writing that assumes a part is actually a whole so I think there are books that say, "I'm going to write about the indie-rock movement of the 1980s," and they say so up front, and they set their boundaries by that, and that's what they stick to. Then there are books that say the same thing but say, "I'm going to write about the music of the 1980s," but they only write about white guys with guitars. That's just sloppy at best, and at worst it's making a lot of assumptions. I was very careful not to assume an '80s teen movie meant John Hughes and his closest disciples because I think the category is much richer than that. When I went looking, there were these two strands that popped out at me, the doppelgangers of the John Hughes movies -- the dystopian dark comedies like Repo Man and Heathers, and also the early generation of hip-hop movies, because hip-hop was a young artform perpetuated by young people.

Q: One of my earliest moviegoing memories was walking down to the local one-screen theater in my hometown and being denied a ticket to see The Breakfast Club because it was rated R. It was the only Hughes film to have an R rating, and I was curious if you have any thoughts about that.
A: In my research about Hughes, and in talking to his family, it didn't come up all that often, that ratings were an issue. Hughes largely made movies with one or two studios. For someone who was a savvy businessman, he didn't have a whole lot of patience for or interest in the business of making movies. I think he dealt with studios as little as possible, and the agreement he had with them, even if it was unspoken, was largely that he would bring in something on time and on budget that they can use and make money on without spending a ton on marketing. He delivered on that promise over and over again.

I think when he wanted to do something that was more challenging, like The Breakfast Club, he, in fact, wanted to make The Breakfast Club first, but the studio sort of said, "How exciting is seeing a bunch of teenagers sit around all day going to be?" So he very smartly chose to make Sixteen Candles first, which is a lot more high concept and whose appeal is more straightforward. Not that Sixteen Candles was such a box office success, it wasn't, but it was proof of concept that Hughes was a self-sustaining unit who could do things his way and good actors wanted to work with him.

I think they [the studios] sort of counted on him to deliver the goods affordably. I don't think they worried too much about ratings. Maybe they just assumed that if the R rating was prohibitive for teenagers seeing The Breakfast Club in the theater it would bounce back on video, and it turned out it was a box office hit anyway.

Q: Have you rewatched these movies with kids?
A: I don't have kids, but I've watched them other people's kids, which has been pretty interesting. I watched both and Back to the Future with a friend's young teenagers, and the two things that jumped out at them are that the kind of bullying you see in The Karate Kid isn't done much anymore, at least not in their San Francisco public school world. It's more of the spreading vicious rumors on social media kind of bullying. The thing I have to say about Back to the Future is, the chronology was very confusing for them because to them 1985 is the past, and 1955 is the way past, so most of the time travel jokes were lost on them, and the social mores surrounding parents and kids were lost on them, too. I think they mostly thought it was funny, and the DeLorean was cool.

Q: I have two teenage girls, and I know the ones that speak to them as closely as they did to me at that age are The Breakfast Club and Ferris Bueller, both of those really work for them still.
A: I didn't notice this until I read some biographies, but John Hughes always operated from sort of an archetypal, slightly mythic, instead of grounded in realism, approach. He clearly makes use of lots of Hollywood archetypes. What is Sixteen Candles if not a Doris Day/Rock Hudson movie? What is Ferris Bueller if not On the Town but with high school students instead of sailors? I think the fact that those movies hold up is in part due to plots and tropes that have been with us since the beginning of moviemaking. Another part of it is due to John Hughes skill at being specific and archetypal and relatable and mythical at the same time.

Q: When you mentioned the time frame in Back to the Future it made me think of one of my favorite passages in your book about how Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders is a film shot in the '80s, set in the '60s, with the iconography of the '50s, from a master of the '70s.
A: And filmed like it was set in the '30s, like it was in CinemaScope like Gone With the Wind. I think a lot of that had to do with how young S.E. Hinton was when she wrote it. She was writing a book about her peers, it was published when she was 20, so she was doing on-the-ground reporting. It was not nostalgic when it was written. This may be me being elitist, I think because the book was set in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and not in some major urban area, I think the iconography is not the leading edge. There is a reference in some of S.E. Hinton's later work to hippie kids, but even though The Outsiders was published the same year as the Summer of Love and Sgt. Pepper, it feels like it comes from an earlier era. It was coincidence that the movie was made in the '80s, 15 years after it was published. That's when it came to Coppola's attention. He had kids just the right age to read the book in school. It did dovetail nicely with the fascination with cars with tailfins, and leather jackets and greasers that was part of the early '80s culture.

Q: After revisiting all of these movies doing research for the book, I'm curious what movie were you surprised by how your feelings toward it changed, either positively or negatively, since you saw them as a teenager.
A: The chapter on horror movies didn't make the final manuscript of this book. As a kid, I was too scared to go see horror movies, so I was shocked at how great a movie Halloween is. I just thought it would be trashy and cynical and gross, and I think Halloween is a masterstroke of modest budget filmmaking, of making something out of nothing. I think Halloween is genius. I remember being crazy about The Lost Boys, and I think The Lost Boys is now your basic teen vampire movies. It's only 90 minutes, so by the time it gets ridiculous, it's over. But I think it looks great; that's mostly Joel Schumacher's doing, and it makes spectacular use of Santa Cruz. There's been a dozen movies shot since in Sana Cruz and they all work to varying degrees, but when you go to the Yelp reviews of the Santa Cruz boardwalk nobody mentions Killer Klowns From Outer Space or Riding Giants or any of those movies; they all mention The Lost Boys. I don't think The Lost Boys is a great movie; it's a greatly produced movie. I think it looks great, and the use of setting is fantastic.

I think it really would have helped had I seen Gremlins at that age. I didn't. In retrospect, there's not much to it. It's fun, it's well cast, it's naively racist, which is annoying. Many Steven Spielberg acolytes at the time were playing with this vaguely racist idea of a poor helpless group of white kids menaced by a mean outside non-white force. Gremlins is an example of that; Adventures in Babysitting is an example of that. I don't think those movies were intentionally prejudiced, but they were playing with a lot of notions that seemed at best dated and at worst terribly closed-minded. I don't think those movies wear very well. And I'm not the kind of person who opposes showing kids movies with outdated ideas; it's a good excuse to have an honest conversation with them. But I think if your kid is watching Sixteen Candles and guffawing at Jake Ryan's date rape joke, that's a teachable moment.

Q: What's the best movie that you couldn't work into the book that you really wanted to?
A: Risky Business. I had a whole chapter that was fun to write, I hated to let it go, about Risky Business, Adventures in Babysitting, Midnight Madness, the whole kids-let-loose-on-the-big-city-at-night kind of movie. It was too similar to other chapters and the manuscript was too long and it had to go. Risky Business is one of my absolute favorite movies. I think that movie is fun to watch, it's a masterstroke of satire of '80s youth and ambition. It's sexy as hell. It's one of the most inspired scores in movie history.

Q: One of the most intriguing concepts of your book is that place matters. You really get at how these movies defined where they took place, and that was a necessary element to the overall story. I'm curious, post-Brat Pack America, what films do you see are worthy of a spot on that map?
A: I don't think they use place in exactly the same way. If we're just talking about teen movies, a movie like (2015's) Dope is a really interesting reconfiguring of the map of Los Angeles where working class black and Latino kids live. If Dope was made a decade before, it would take place in South Central. Dope, made in 2015, takes place in Inglewood. Very self-consciously Inglewood. That's not just the interest of the director -- who set his film The Wood (1999) there as well -- but also showing that sort of archetypal working-class black and Latino teenage story has moved there geographically. I think that's really interesting.

I think a movie like (2012's) The Perks of Being a Wallflower and (2015's) Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which are both set in Pittsburgh, is infinitely more interesting having been set in Pittsburgh and is an exemplar of how Pittsburgh is the revitalized former rust belt city. Is it crucial those films take place in Pittsburgh? No. Does it say something interesting about what place Pittsburgh holds in our national consciousness? Yes. What other movies self-consciously takes place in Pittsburgh? The Deer Hunter. That's a totally different Pittsburgh than the one in Perks of Being a Wallflower. It says a lot about how far we've come that the last shot of Perks of Being a Wallflower is -- the music swells [David Bowie's "Heroes"] -- and they emerge from the Fort Pitt Tunnel and there they are driving into downtown Pittsburgh. If that movie was made in 1987, it would have them going the other way through the tunnel and driving away from downtown Pittsburgh.

In the '80s we were coming out of an era where moviemaking seemed like a very coastal thing and that was largely the interest of Coppola's generation of filmmakers. My argument in Brat Pack America is the opening of the image of growing up in America at this time. It becomes a life cycle event that happens all over America, not just in the Mid-Atlantic, the Northeast, and California. There's a democratizing effect on the stories of being young in America at that time. That becomes less necessary once A) It's done, and B) Once we have the Internet and we can travel further, faster in our minds without ever leaving home.


Perry Seibert is a movie lover, freelance writer, and founding member of the Detroit Film Critics Society. Follow him on Twitter @Perrylovesfilm.


Kevin Smokler will talk "Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to '80s Teen Movies" at Literati on Monday, June 12 at 7 pm. Read our previous interview with Smokler as part of a preview for the Michigan Theater's "Kids in America: '80s Teen Classics" series.

Opening Weekend: Highlights from the 2017 Cinetopia Film Festival

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Cinetopia 2017

The first weekend of Cinetopia is over and I saw eight films in total. Sure, that’s more than the average person sees in a weekend but far fewer than the 400 seen by the programming team to select the 68 that make up the festival. Deciding what to see was difficult, and with so many intriguing options I often just chose on a whim. While I found something to admire in all that I saw, I really want to tell you about two of my favorites.

Full STEAM Ahead: Intermitten highlights the intersection of art and tech

A lot of folks blame the influx of tech companies in Ann Arbor as a prime reason for the rising rents that have gradually pushed portions of the creative community out of downtown. The Intermitten conference returns June 8 and 9 to remind us that artistic adventure and modern business success don't need to be mutually exclusive or adversarial (even if there's no immediate solution to the rent situation).

Now in its second year, Intermitten brings together speakers to discuss how "how creativity in both art and technology helps us add value to our home, work, and global communities," as stated on intermitten.org. "We're technology people with creative prowess and artistic people powered by tech, and we unite to discover the many ways in which working together and thinking creatively can help us accomplish our goals."

Trevor Scott Mays, co-founder of Intermitten and director of support operations for Duo Security, walked us through the event's brief history, current focus, and bright future.

A guide to the 2017 Cinetopia Film Festival

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Though most of us don’t sense a strong link between the auto and film industries, Michigan Theater executive director and CEO Russ Collins pointed out that the two essentially grew up together.

“In 1922, when Hollywood was deciding whether it would be based in New York or California, Ford Motor Company became one of the largest distributors of movies of anywhere in the world,” said Collins, at a recent press conference for the sixth annual Cinetopia Film Festival, which happens June 1-11 in various Ann Arbor and Detroit locales.

“Ford distributed so many educational films and newsreels that Detroit was second only to Hollywood in terms of the amount of film shot and processed. So it’s an art form that Detroit has long held dear," Collins said, "and it’s deeply built into this community, which is why we’re so happy to bring the world’s cinema passion back here to Detroit.”

Motion Lights: UMMA's "Moving Image: Performance"

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Presence

Universal Everything, Presence 4; 2013, two-channel video, stereo sound; running time 2 minutes; edition 1/6. Courtesy of Borusan Contemporary.

The art of motion is currently on display in the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s spirited Moving Images: Performance.

The second of UMMA's three presentations drawn from Istanbul, Turkey's Borusan Contemporary museum, Moving Images: Performance illustrates the subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) relationship of performance and moving-image media that’s been fostered by the advent of the portable video camera.

The exhibit complements the concurrent UMMA installation Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: Wavefunction, Subsculpture 9, which is a subject we’ll get to in a forthcoming review. But for the time being, the four short videos in this exhibit stand as prime examples of experimental filmmaking.

A journey through the 2017 Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival

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Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival

Some of the selections from this year's Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival.

The 16th annual Ann Arbor Jewish Film Festival opens Sunday, May 7, and runs through Thursday, May 11. Sponsored by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Ann Arbor, planning for the five-day festival began in November 2016.

“We have a committee of 23 individuals who help decide on the films,” said Karen Freedland, the JCC’s cultural arts director and festival coordinator. “We start with a list of over 95 titles and whittle it down to 40 films we think look the strongest. From there we try to get from the distributors as many of those 40 films to screen, and we narrow it down to the 13 we have chosen.”

Save for one, the films in this year’s festival are very recent, most from 2016. "We try to get the most current releases available and that sets us apart from some other festivals who will show films that we had shown the year before," Freedland said. "We are lucky that we work with Brian Hunter from the Michigan Theater. He helps us source out some of the latest films that are geared for a Jewish film festival.”

Rave On: FoolMoon 2017 in moving pictures

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Downloads:
720p video, 480p video or 240p video

It's hard to believe FoolMoon 2017 took place a few weeks ago; we're still glowing from the April 7 event and it has nothing to do with the neon paint we still can't get off our bodies.

To keep the FoolMoon vibes illuminated a bit longer, our talented photographer and videographer Tom Smith combined some images from the event with the techno track "bland western charm" from the album chromedecay tracks pt. 2: 2001-2005 by Bill Van Loo. (The Ypsilanti-based Van Loo also did one of our Tools Crew Live performances; check out the videos here.)

As the FoolMoon afterglow begins to fade, keep this page bookmarked for emergency illumination.


Christopher Porter is a library technician and the editor of Pulp.

Terence Davies' film "A Quiet Passion" covers the life of poet Emily Dickinson

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At first listen, Terence Davies' voice seemingly betrays his 71 years. Even with his charming British accent, the Englishman sounds gravelly, like he can't get as much air into his lungs as he might like. But then it takes about 30 seconds of hearing his words to understand age might not explain this condition as well as a literally breathless enthusiasm for whatever topic he's discussing.

I spoke with Davies about his latest film, A Quiet Passion, a biopic about Emily Dickinson that details her complicated family relationships, her unconventional religious beliefs, and her own self-esteem issues in order to celebrate a unique life and illuminate her poetry. The film opens at the Michigan Theater on Friday, April 21.

Michigan native and "Narcos" co-creator Doug Miro talks about the art of screenwriting

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Doug Miro, Narcos

Michigan native Doug Miro is more than happy to come home to talk about his hit Netflix series, Narcos.

When I talked to him on the phone recently, Michigan native Doug Miro was driving around Bogotá, Colombia, looking for a good coffee shop. He was shooting a few episodes for season three of the Netflix show Narcos, which he and collaborator Carlo Bernard created along with their partner and showrunner Eric Newman. Miro and Bernard, along with a team of writers, pen the scripts, and the two take turns filming episodes in Colombia and California.

Miro and Bernard have worked together for years now, writing screenplays for Steven Spielberg, Harvey Weinstein, and Jerry Bruckheimer, scripting films such as Prince of Persia (which starred Jake Gyllenhaal), The Wall (starring Matt Damon), Tintin, The Uninvited, and the television series Narcos, which Miro describes as more of a “20-hour movie."

Miro will give a free talk at the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD) on Wednesday, April 19, at 7 pm. The event is co-presented by the MOCAD and the University of Michigan's Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series.

The Great Eight: Banff Mountain Film Festival at the Michigan Theater

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It’s been over 20 years since the Banff Mountain Film Festival launched its “world tour,” bringing various films from the competition to over 40 countries and hundreds of cities around the world. Ann Arbor has been lucky enough to be a stop on the tour for more than a decade.

The film festival, which takes place at Banff National Park in Alberta, Canada each fall, features short films and documentaries about outdoor recreation of all sorts. Eight of the best films from the festival were shown at the Michigan Theater this past Tuesday evening.

This year’s selections offered a refreshing dose of unusual sports and unique humor. The festival opened with Metronomic, a 5-minute film from France about a team of “flying musicians.” The stuntmen swing off of tight-ropes and parachute off of cliffs, all while playing their respective instruments. Most amazing was the drummer, Freddy Montigny, who flew with his entire drum set.

Next was a film about canine sports, Dog Power, that covered much more than dog sledding. Focusing on the lasting relationships that form between athletes and their dogs in dog-powered sports, the film showed canicross (running with dogs), bikjoring (biking with dogs), skijoring (skiing behind a team of dogs), and various distances and team sizes of sled-dog racing. It was fascinating to learn about the breeding and care that goes into making dogs into athletes. One racer emphasized that the dogs are just as important a part of the team as the human. Banff Film Festival’s films often focus on skiing and snowboarding, climbing or mountain biking, so it was exciting and heartwarming to see a film like Dog Power.

Another feel-good film from the show was Four Mums in a Boat, the amazing story of four middle-aged British mothers who decide to compete in a race rowing a boat across the Atlantic Ocean. They all met one another while dropping their kids off at school, and took up rowing on the local river. After learning about the 3,000-mile race across the Atlantic, one of the mothers convinced the other three to sign up for it with her. The film showcases the trials and tribulations that the women undergo as they spend almost 70 days (20 more than planned) rowing across the ocean. From a loss of power (meaning they had to spend 10 hours a day hand-pumping ocean water through a filter to make it potable) and a broken rudder to rowing into Hurricane Alex, the women demonstrate admirable strength, endurance, and determination, and a great deal of humor.

Young Guns is a 30-minute film about two young rock climbers, was also a crowd-favorite. Kai Lightner was 15 years old when the film was made and Ashima Shiraishi was just 14. The two are gaining worldwide notoriety as the film opens, winning national championships and beating climbers much older than them. Friends both at the climbing gym and outside of it, they spend their spring break traveling together with their families to Norway, where extra challenging rocks put their skills to the test. Their quiet maturity and amazing climbing skills had the audience gasping with delight, especially when Shiraishi becomes both the youngest person ever and the first woman to climb a V15 boulder in Japan at the film’s conclusion.

Other films shown on Tuesday were Being Hear, a brief film about the importance of listening to nature, The Perfect Flight, a five-minute film about falconry, The Super Salmon, about the fight by many Alaskans to protect the Susitna River from being dammed, and Danny MacAskill’s Wee Day Out, a charming, amusing film about one man’s day mountain biking through rural Ireland. Banff Mountain Film Festival, which is locally sponsored by U-M’s Recreational Sports association, Moosejaw, and Bivouac, is a special treat each year. The films offer viewers the chance to see aspects of outdoor sports and life that often aren’t captured at the Olympics or other major televised sporting events, and the unique perspective that each filmmaker brings to his or her work casts each movie in a different emotional light. This year’s distinctiveness, with its focus on sports like falconry, rowing, and canicross, made for an extra special experience. Luckily for anyone who missed the festival -- or for anyone who is excited to see more outdoor films -- Banff Mountain Film Festival will be back in 2018.


Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library.


The Banff Mountain Film Festival world tour stops in Ann Arbor at the Michigan Theater every April.