11 February 2015

+JMJ+

Talking to You about Psychedelic Furs
(Part of my series on Rob Sheffield's Talking to Girls about Duran Duran)

Having neglected to ask you at the end of our discussion on Madonna whether you'd prefer to discuss 80s teen movies or cassingles, I have had to make that choice all by myself. And in a paroxysm of predictability, I picked 80s teen movies. Because I could.

John Hughes's movies were special because they had the sassiest girls, the cattiest boys, the most relatable boy-girl friendships and bumbling parents and big sisters on muscle relaxants. For those of us who were sullen teenagers, it shocked us how he got the details right, especially the music. "I'd rather be making music than movies," he said in 1985," describing himself as a frustrated guitarist. "Pretty in Pink was written to the Psychedelic Furs, Lou Reed and Mott the Hoople. The Breakfast Club was written in my Clash-Elvis Costello period."

That's how we got the
Pretty in Pink soundtrack, one of the defining 80s new-wave albums. You could complain that when the Psychedelic Furs did their remake of "Pretty in Pink" for the movie, it was about one-third as good as the original. I would counter that until this movie, girls never listened to the original; once "Pretty in Pink" became a song girls actually liked, it became a totally different song.

There's an idea . . . Do you agree that a song or a movie can become totally different when the audience reacts to it in a different way? Did the post-punk Pretty in Pink change when John Hughes heard in it the inspiration for a coming-of-age Cinderella story? The Psychedelic Furs didn't seem to mind very much. Perhaps they figured that you can never control who likes your stuff or why they like your stuff. And maybe they knew it's because you don't control your stuff to begin with.

Hughes would have seen that from their end, too, after fans wove an entire mythology for Pretty in Pink out of both facts and dreams.


. . . It's amazing how violently people argue over the end of Pretty in Pink. To this day, there's a popular legend that the original version of the movie had Andie choosing Duckie, except it supposedly got changed after test screenings. I'll believe this when I see it--but given that this scene had never shown up anywhere, not even in the DVD outtakes, I'm going to keep believing this "lost original" is a myth that just illustrates how much people love Duckie.

. . . Those final seconds of
Pretty in Pink will always be controversial--but they sum up why I will always love John Hughes movies. The sullen teenager inside me needs Duckie to set Molly free, and so the sullen teenager in me will go to his grave defending that final scene . . .

Now, this third movie in the "Molly Trilogy" has never been very meaningful to me. It didn't make my Top 5 John Hughes Movies list because I hadn't even bothered to see it before I wrote that post--and now that I have, it still wouldn't have the honour of edging Sixteen Candles out in a redo. (You'll never guess which one would.) And yet, like Sheffield, I manage to have an embarrassingly strong opinion about the ending. It may not be as intense as my opinion of the time travel paradox in The Terminator nor a hill I'd like to die on . . . but if I ever get sucked into a Team Blaine vs. Team Duckie face-off, I'll give it all that I've got.

So it really salts my popcorn when Hollywood decides to take something that has been meaningful to many people for a long time and to fool around with it in order to make money. Now, that's a pretty slick strategy and I can't really blame them for going for it--but neither am I going to let my emotions be a wave they can surf all the way to the bank. These days, when even a bad review is good publicity, because people will watch something just to see how awful it is, the best response to such a stunt is . . . total silence.

Or if total silence makes you uncomfortable, how about relative quiet, with the original movie's soundtrack playing gently in the background?

What I would have identified as "the Pretty in Pink song"

But isn't this just one big creation racket? The first stage would be the making of the movie; the second stage would be the making of its mythology, a cultural development that takes on a life of its own; and the third stage would be the making of its franchise, which is culture marrying the economy. (It's a second marriage for culture. Can you guess whom she divorced beforehand?) In this case, the moderate-realist philistine explains, it doesn't actually matter which guy Andie ends up with or who John Connor's real father is. All stories are equal; some are just more economically successful than others. Vote with your money . . . or with your text messages . . . and when you tune in for the results show, remember to use the hashtag on the screen in your livetweet.

(I still prefer total silence.) 

While it does look funny that people are willing to go to their graves for fictional characters, what we're really arguing about here is meaning. How does a movie get its meaning? How do we know that that meaning is valid? Can it have more than one meaning? If so, would those meanings fall under a hierarchy? And how would we determine that hierarchy? (This paragraph so far is your clue to the identity of culture's first husband.) Behind every heated dispute over what a movie really means is a shared assumption that meaning can exist outside of our minds . . . that the right answer isn't determined by the winner of a dispute but determines the winner even if he seems to lose . . . that if we all died gloriously in the Battle of Hollywood, this right answer would live on, with its cousins mathematics and virtue.

In a less dramatic nutshell: we can like it all we want, but we can't control it any more than the original creators do. (And perhaps we owe the vandal rebooters our thanks for reminding us of this fact. =P)

So what is this true meaning of Pretty in Pink?

"It has been suggested in some quarters that Duckie is, in fact, the Messiah," Sheffield writes. "The parallels are daunting: Jon Cryer and Jesus Christ? Practically the same name!"

Oh, Rob . . . I'll see your Jon Cryer and raise you John Connor.

Your Turn at the Jukebox VHS Player: Is there a movie that you would fight for?

Image Source: Pretty in Pink poster

11 comments:

Sullivan McPig said...

I'm with Billy Corgon on this. When asked about the meaning of one of his songs he said that it meant whatever the listener heard in it.
So I think the meaning of a movie can be different for everyone as well.
To me Rose has died at the end of Titanic for example, to my sister in law Rose is sleeping and dreaming. We are both right.

Sullivan McPig said...

Corgan.... Why does my auto correct think Corgon is a word?

Brandon said...

Pretty in Pink is the movie in the 'Molly Trilogy' that time has been less kind to, I think; it has not worn very well at all. The jokes are dated, the story is weak, and that color is an awful, awful color for Molly Ringwald. (The Breakfast Club, on the other hand, is as close to a timeless teen movie as a teen movie can be.) Which is not to say it isn't a classic in its own way, of course; it just has a lot working against it.

I think it's essential to the end that Duckie has to move on. It's a growing-up tale; and Duckie getting Andie is Duckie not growing up. I also think it's important for Andie as well as Blane to move past class obsessions, which couldn't happen with Duckie. Movies, novels, and the like are not structured by right and wrong -- but I do think that they have an objective better and worse, and Duckie ending up with Andie would cause problems for everything else in the story.

[My top 5 John Hughes movies would be: (1) The Breakfast Club; (2) Some Kind of Wonderful (which in some ways I find more enjoyable than The Breakfast Club, although I think the latter is objectively better); (3) Ferris Bueller's Day Off; (4) Home Alone; (5) Uncle Buck. (Despite the fact that I think it has dated better, I like Sixteen Candles much less than Pretty in Pink. It works in parts, but I find it a much less likeable story overall.)]

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sully -- Well, that's a more diplomatic stance than the one you took the last time Titanic came up in conversation! ;-) Then again, I can't imagine Titanic being the battlefield of anyone's last stand. LOL!

I see what Billy Corgan means, but I disagree completely. People don't randomly see things in movies or hear things in songs, but interpret them according to some "dictionary" of symbols that is part of the "literacy" of a whole culture. And sometimes dictionaries contradict each other. This is where I think at least a hierarchy of meanings can come in: if two contradictory things can both be right, then one of them is more right than the other. And yes, I'm making my last stand here! ;-P

Brandon -- Molly is able to pull off some pink in The Breakfast Club (another John Hughes movie with an ending people can't stop arguing about!), but not even 1986 excuses her prom dress in Pretty in Pink. LOL!

So what do you think of the ending of The Breakfast Club? (I know that Hughes has said it ends there and doesn't continue, but my heart doesn't accept that. =P) Was it goodbye or were their new ties able to withstand the peer pressure of a new school week?

Sullivan McPig said...

You're trying to pick a fight with me over Titanic? I can take you! ;-)

And why can't be two contradictory thing both be equally right? don't you think it's at the heart of every disagreement that either side thinks they are more right than the other? That doesn't always necessarily make it so though.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

For me, it's not about people, but about the principles that they're arguing about. So it's not that someone has to be right, but that something already is right and is right independent of what we think.

Maybe Person A happens to believe in that something, while Person B doesn't. Maybe neither of them believe in it although they disagree for years. Maybe what the each believe is a partial version of it and they just need to put those parts together. But in all cases, that thing exists, and what we wish doesn't matter.

But as Brandon pointed out, for this discussion, I really should be saying "goodness" rather than "rightness," because we're talking about art. So here it goes: some interpretations are just better than others. Take your theory that Rose has died: it has an artistic resonance that your sister-in-law's reading doesn't. It really does fit that Rose has come full circle and laid all her secrets to rest at last; it's the perfect time for her to rejoin all her fellow passengers on the Titanic. It could be that she's just sleeping and dreaming, but that ending lacks the same punch.

Sullivan McPig said...

I agree with you on my view of the ending having a bigger resonance. Thinking she died and rejoined the other passengers is a beautiful, though emotional ending for me.

My sister in law however is someone who feels bad at the thought Rose would be dead. Seeing the ending as I do would leave her feeling bad about the ending. It's thinking that Rose is sleeping and dreaming about the other passengers instead of joining them in death that makes it a beautiful and emotional ending for her.

I want to say I'm right, and my way of viewing the ending is the best, but still I don't think that makes it true except for me and others who think like me.

nerdy fact: even the movie script doesn't give the answer. It doesn't say if she's dead or dreaming, but leaves it open to interpretation:
"We PAN OFF the last picture to Rose herself, warm in her bunk. A profile
shot. She is very still. She could be sleeping, or maybe something else."

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Well, when I said that I couldn't imagine Titanic as a movie fan's final battleground, I meant that its "true" ending doesn't really have huge philosophical implications, unlike, say, the details in The Terminator.

(Just stop reading here if you're totally tired of me bringing it up all the time! #nohardfeelings)

The last time I got into a big debate with someone about it, I said that if there were different timelines and John Connor had had an original father, then it wasn't the T-800 who performed that "retroactive abortion"--it was Kyle Reese! And that would be a cruel irony in a movie whose message is that every human life matters.

Basically, different timelines means that human life doesn't actually matter at all and it's no use trying to save anyone because the universe is built to screw us; while a single timeline means that every life is worth saving and that we will never regret choosing to be heroes.

Of course, it could be that I am wrong and the universe really is a place where human life was a nice accident and nothing actually matters. My belief alone isn't enough to make anything true. But if I think that something this important is true, then I also feel obligated to fight for it.

Sullivan McPig said...

Don't get me debating time travel, because it's a pet peeve of mine how often they get it wrong!

But in my opinion: in Terminator there are no alternate time lines. Kyle Reese was always the father. Making it necessary to send him back, because otherwise John Connor would never have been born.

The time travel theory that is used here is that you can't travel back to change history, because you already did! Making the Terminator attempts doomed to fail from the start.

Brandon said...

E,

With regard to Breakfast Club, I don't think that anyone could go through that experience and not at least look more favorably at the ones you went through it with. But it does make sense to me that things would go roughly back to the way they were. Making new friends doesn't change the fact that you have your old friends; and while they learn to relate, the jock doesn't stop being primarily a jock, etc. And perhaps equally importantly, high school social life is structured less by making friends than it is by making friends with your friend's friends. I suspect that the most that could be hoped for is simply that they would be polite to each other.

Enbrethiliel said...

+JMJ+

Sully -- You and I are in wholehearted agreement on time travel! =D

And I'm so passionate about the issue that whenever I find a story that gets time travel right, I take note of it. If you like Middle Grade fantasy, you can try Susan Cooper's Dark Is Rising sequence and Diane Duane's So You Want to Be a Wizard?

I also have to follow up a lead on another novel that might have got it right: one of the characters in it is an archaeologist who excavates the tomb of a mysterious figure, then goes back in time to when that figure lived and realised that he was the guy! LOL!

Brandon -- Yes, the change would have been internal more than external.

One of my aunts says that they remained friends because of the two couples who fell in love. On the other hand, when I screened this movie for my first batch of students, one of them said she didn't think they remained friends because the exchange of clothing and other possessions at the end was a way of saying goodbye. In any case, I agree with you that they wouldn't have been able to be as mean to each other as they had been before.