Hey Gang, Here is Robert’s first article in his new series, John Hughes Movies: Then and Now. Feel free to email us at Returnto80s@gmail.com to send us a message about your experience with Sixteen Candles. Do you like it as much now as you did when you first watched it? In the meantime, enjoy this article!
My First John Hughes Film Experience: Sixteen Candles
by Robert Mishou
I did not see this film in the theaters. Remember, I spent most of the ‘80s on a military base in Frankfurt, Germany. I vaguely recall that Sixteen Candles did run in the American theaters for a week, but it did not come to any of the German theaters (and I wouldn’t have gone there anyway because the movies were dubbed into German). I first saw this classic on VHS; it was one of the tapes that made it’s way around all of the American kids’ households, being copied and copied, and copied. My friends and I watched it dozens of times and I added a few dozen more watches on my own.
My recollections as a fifteen year old high school sophomore (yes, I love Farmer Ted’s line, “fully aged sophomore meat!”): I loved Sixteen Candles. I thought it was a funny film full of characters that I knew from my own high school experiences. I laughed, I cringed, I hoped – I felt like I was in the movie with Samantha, Jake, and Farmer Ted. This was one of the first movies where I felt that I was not being talked down to. Hughes spoke to me like someone who understood what I saw and went through on a daily basis. The conflicts were real, if a bit exaggerated, and I could relate to how the characters were feeling. I could not say that I completely related to any of the characters, but I did care about them. I was no Jake Ryan, but I did have a bit more in common with Farmer Ted. I was not as daring as the rest of those teens at the party and I believed that there was someone like Samantha out there (and yes, I hoped to find her).
I loved Sixteen Candles so much that it guaranteed that I would never miss any film that John Hughes was a part of making. Many of you would probably agree that Hughes’s films helped us grow up. As his characters aged, we aged right with them. They, in a way became our friends, too. Sixteen Candles was the beginning of my journey through teenagehood with someone who understood what I was thinking, feeling, and struggling with.
No panicking here – I still love Sixteen Candles. While I do see a few things differently, I think the film still holds up as a pretty accurate portrayal of teenage life. It is funny in a completely non serious fashion and is a fitting example of the late John Hughes’s masterful way of speaking to an adult audience about teens in the ‘80s and to teens about themselves. My adult self overwhelming enjoyed the nostalgia of watching Sixteen Candles several times over the past week. I really enjoyed watching it with my own children (12 and 15); they loved the movie, which made me feel a bit more justified and not so aged and out of touch, like an old dog who cannot move past the days his glory days who prefers to live in his past. Vindication! While I still like Sixteen Candles – a lot, the reasons have changed a bit. I no longer look at the film as I did in those year of thoughtless youth. I can see the changes within myself and I am fine with those changes. I see the plot as a romance now, not the reality of teenage drama as I once believed. In addition, the setting is pretty dang ideal and a bit idealistic. Finally, the characterization, while good, is not very ambitious.
John Hughes has been known for being able to delve into the lives of teens and give the world a realistic perspective on how teens live. I fully agree with this, but this comes in his later films, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Some Kind of Wonderful, – it not here yet in Sixteen Candles. Samantha Baker pining for the unattainable Jake Ryan is intriguing and something most of us have gone through. I fully remember mine. Let’s call her L.K. (name withheld to protect the innocent). L.K. was gorgeous. She was tall and blond and athletic, and had beautiful blue eyes – those eyes! She was also very popular and an officer’s kid which meant that I had absolutely no chance. The fact that I was incredibly shy, had zero confidence, and could never actually speak to her or look her in the eyes may have damaged my chances of ever asking her out. I was Samantha Baker, just not with Ringwald’s red hair. Sixteen Candles is a complete Romance. Now, let me define the word “Romance” in a literary sense. I typically go to a trusted English professor’s website (Dr. Wheeler’s Website) for these types of things, and he clearly distinguishes the types of Romance – and there are several – and defines a modern Romance as a story where a young woman falls for a man who is somewhat unattainable and, “The two are prevented from forming a relationship due to social, psychological, economic, or interpersonal constraints. The primary plot involves the two overcoming these constraints through melodramatic efforts. The story conventionally ends happily with the two characters professing their love for each other and building a life together.” Sounds pretty familiar, doesn’t it? So many popular movies are based on this, that I personally get a bit weary of it and tend to be too critical of these plot conventions. But it does work. Despite all of the issues, both major and minor, we hope beyond all hope that Sam will find a way to get Jake to pay attention to her. We agonize and cringe over the embarrassing note/sex survey that unintentionally falls into Jake’s hands. We appreciate Sam’s irritation that turns into sympathy for Farmer Ted as she tries to help him out by giving him her “undies.” We absolutely gush when, as the crowd disperses after the wedding, Jake is standing there waiting to talk to Sam. I am not sure that there is a more satisfying ending than having Jake and Sam kissing over the birthday he has for her while the Thompson Twins croon the now classic lines of “If You Were Here“. I call Sixteen Candles a Romance not as a criticism, rather as a appreciative term of endearment.
In addition to this being a Romance, most of John Hughes films are set in or around Chicago. Sixteen Candles is not different and it remains firmly planted in a typical American suburb. Sixteen Candles is set in a suburb that is more than typical, it is ideal. Every scene is exactly what you would expect to see in a film that is not, should not, and has no reason to be concerned with the “where” it all happens. The film is character and plot driven, so the setting becomes completely secondary. I like this and it is not the case with the other Hughes films; in The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and Some Kind of Wonderful the setting become much more important. Sixteen Candles is full of, what has become, enviable images of suburbia: clean, neat neighborhoods lined with lush green trees and grass, uncrowded streets free from dense traffic and choking car exhaust, and spacious schools that are orderly and graffiti free. Go back and look at Jake Ryan’s house and the cars parked all over for the party – clearly there are plenty of affluent residents in this neighborhood – who, I might add, are doing a terrible job at watching of the Ryans’ house while they are out of town, or do not mind the occasionally loud, wild party. I have no criticisms here just an observation that I did not make when I was fourteen: this was a pretty dang nice place to live.
The setting is what it is, so this last part will seem more like I am being too critical of Sixteen Candles, but it will fit the idea of a Romance perfectly. The characterization is not very ambitious. Sixteen Candles is full of stock, flat characters that are underdeveloped. I firmly believe that they are underdeveloped because they need no development – we already know them! There is not a character in this film who is not typical (and therefore, a stock character). Here is what we have:
Jake Ryan, the handsome, rich, athletic type
Samantha Baker, the cute, innocent, newly sixteen heroine
Farmer Ted, the geek who finds a way into our sympathetic hearts
Caroline, the beautiful, rich prom queen
Long Duk Dong the exchange student
Snotty older sister who believes she deserves everything
The list goes on; the rest of the film is full a great minor characters who round out a typical high school – or high school film. It all works. We know them because we went to school with people like these characters, or we were these characters. One huge difference in my own views on these characters is with Long Duk Dong. In my former innocent, unaware days I saw him as one of the funniest parts of Sixteen Candles. Now, that has changed dramatically. Long Duk Dong is an offensive stereotype that propagates a completely unfair, inaccurate, and insensitive view Asians. I am unable to defend the use of this stereotypical portrayal, even in a comedy. Unfortunately, these stereotypes exist in many forms pop culture and have had some long lasting negative effects. I am an enormous proponent of using literature, be it written or any other medium, to help end stereotypes like this, rather than enhance them.
The theme of this and the forthcoming musing on the Big Five John Hughes films is to track changes – changes in me. I want to reflect on these films through my eyes as a teen who saw them the first time and as an adult who is watching them again. As I suggested in the short introductory article a few weeks ago, I am coming to terms with the idea that I am not the same person I was in the ‘80s. I have had many experience since then and I my worldview has changed in some ways. Sixteen Candles is a film I enjoyed in 1984 and still do today. It is not the perfect view of high school that I once thought it was, but it is what I wish it could be like. Sixteen Candles is a romantic fantasy that most of us would like to have acted out. The movie ends with Sam and Jake staring into each others eyes over that birthday cake. We have no idea what happens to them. Will they make it and stay together? We haven’t a clue. I like not knowing. This way I can make my own ending for these two. In my ending, they do stay together – they survive the trials and tribulations of being in a serious relationship. They get married – they have children – they stay in the suburbs. I can find no reason to ruin the fantasy that Hughes started for me with Sixteen Candles .