Blu-ray Review: THE BREAKFAST CLUB, a Criterion Collection Triumph
If STRANGER THINGS 3 doesn't have a BREAKFAST CLUB episode, I'm out.
The announcement that The Breakfast Club would be joining the Criterion Collection was met with a kind of uproar -- either from fans (like me) enthusiastic about seeing John Hughes' seminal 1980s teen drama preserved and restored in 4K; or from film aesthete gatekeepers who somehow missed the Collection's easy-to-read mission statement.
No matter: either way, the disk is here, and it's a beauty.
Restored for Blu-ray under the supervision of Universal Pictures (director Hughes, of course, passed away in 2009), The Breakfast Club looks like most mainstream American films of the '80s: flatly lit, dingily grey, and coming at the tail end of the last era in which art direction and production design were intended to be invisible rather than attractors themselves. (Look at that library: aside from being too impressive and enormous for the American public school system, it looks exactly like a library.) Hughes' camera is equally unobtrusive. Renowned for having shot some 1,000,000 feet of film for the 97-minute feature, Hughes finds key moments with his 7-person cast (5 teens; 2 adults) without ever seeming to be doing more than observing.
But we're not here for the look of the thing. The Breakfast Club is a hallmark in the history of cinema, being both film that an entire generation of North American teenagers personally identified with, and a script that an entire generation of film students desperately tried to write themselves, over the next twenty years.
It's a perfect bottle scenario -- five teens from different social groups, stuck in all-day Saturday detention -- and if the film's third act, in which the kids open up to one another due to their shared confinement, whiffs of contrivance, it also allows the five lead actors (Anthony Michael Hall, Emilio Estevez, Molly Ringwald, Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy) to put ball after ball over the far wall of the stadium in an uninterrupted string of performance home runs.
Each character -- the brain, the jock, the prom queen, the dropout and the weirdo -- grapples with that quintessential teen conundrum: the desire to fit in by adhering to established molds; the resentment those prescribed personalities inevitably bring. (My So-Called Life would build its entire premise off this idea, ten years later.) Rough edges notwithstanding, Hughes wrote the cinema's Catcher In The Rye, all dissociation and angst perfectly graded to the middle American white experience of the post-boomer, Ronald Reagan era. Like The Catcher In The Rye, too, The Breakfast Club manages to be both jarringly of its time, and paradoxically timeless.
Certainly, in a 2018 context, a few things stick out. The first and most obvious is Bender (Nelson), the maverick wolf of the group, who most kids (boys, at least) my age thought was exceedingly cool back in the '80s.... well, Bender seems pretty awful now. Part of this is because I'm 41 now and I'm supposed to find Bender awful, though I do wonder if teenagers now would find his excessive bullying and anarchic behaviour as magnetic as my generation did. Beyond this, though, there's the inescapable skeeziness of the character, a dyed-in-the-wool marquee boy for a time in American cinema we are (hopefully) moving past.
He abuses Claire relentlessly throughout the film and even sexually assaults her at one point; his comeuppance for this is to become her boyfriend, and (theoretically anyway) have all of his efforts validated as justifiable courtship. It seems like a trivial thing, but rape culture stems directly from the mythmaking around characters like Bender in popular culture, even if Nelson's turn here is perhaps subtler and more shaded than, say, those dipshits in Revenge of the Nerds.
I've also long been bothered by the late-film makeover of Allison, the "freak" character played by Ally Sheedy -- arguably a moment of acceptance and bonding between the two girls of the group, a kind of remaking of Allison as one of the tribe of "cool girls." But Allison's strength as a character -- Sheedy does more with her in gestures and half-mute squeals than most actors have done with their entire careers -- is so striking throughout the picture that taking away her wardrobe and eye makeup, and forcing/allowing her to "conform," feels like a cinematic neutering. Earlier in the film, Allison advocates for her right to enjoy sex outside patriarchal conventions of morality, challenges Andrew's mainstream self-deception directly, and makes herself a pixie stick sandwich for lunch. How is changing her, in any way, a victory?
And finally, a very dark note is struck late in the film when Brian, the nerd played by Hall, reveals that he's in detention because he brought a gun to school -- a scenario which, in 1985, must have felt unimaginably different from how we view such a thing today. Gun incident notwithstanding, Brian is (naturally) the character with whom I identify the most; if he's not quite a model of me as a teenager (closer to who I was in middle school), I recognize wholeheartedly his painful grappling with social behaviours, which he sees as a set of rules -- rules which he has arguably only half-received, and scarcely understood. ("I've laid lots of times!") It must be terrifying to be Brian.
Explored in greater detail in the disk's treasure trove of deleted scenes (50 minutes in all), the characters are as brilliant and funny today as they were then -- there are some real guffaws among the deleted pieces, from a version of the film that ran a startling 2 and a half hours long -- and one sequence even has the school janitor, Carl, essaying each of the students' future lives, in what might have been intended to be some sooth-saying foreshadowing of what happens after the credits roll. (I, for one, am glad there's never been a Breakfast Club 2.)
It's a bit of a head trip, then, to jump from the movie and those scenes, to interviews with the performers as adults. The disk is loaded. There's EPK material from 1985 and new material created for this release, and a bunch of stuff "in between" -- the most darling of which is a 15-minute clip from This American Life in which Molly Ringwald describes showing The Breakfast Club to her 10-year-old daughter.
Ringwald and Sheedy appear in new interviews, recorded in 2017, where they discuss how they were cast and what the shooting experience was like -- including a lovely remembrance of editor Dede Allen (Bonnie and Clyde; Dog Day Afternoon), who worked adjacent to the library set and worked through Hughes' enormous pile of filmed material, occasionally suggesting a cutaway or two to knit the improvised work together. A 12-minute video essay, narrated by Judd Nelson, peeks into John Hughes' notebooks, and does a credible job of outlining the entire creative process for the film, from early structural notes on the script to camera blocking instructions for each character's entrance.
There's also a wealth of archival material with John Hughes and other members of the team (the feature-length commentary, with Nelson and Hall, is from a previous DVD).
Indeed, the special features as a whole spread themselves across three eras: the making of the film in 1985; the "Flashback Edition" DVD in 2008; and the Criterion production in 2017. This has a kind of weird, Boyhood effect, as we leap back and forth through time with Nelson, Hall, Sheedy, Ringwald, Estevez, Paul Gleason and John Kapelos, all reflecting on a film that is, itself, about both a single point in time, and the awareness that that point exists in a continuum that leads to adulthood and change.
Ageless and nostalgic all at once, The Breakfast Club is Criterion's first essential disk of 2018. Sure, it's only January 2nd -- but I expect that status to hold for a while.