This is Not a John Hughes Post: In Defense of Syndication

by Patrick on August 7, 2009

By now, everyone knows that the film director John Hughes passed away yesterday.  He directed movies like The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Great Outdoors.  I’m not the guy to write a eulogy for him.  He made some very good movies, some movies that I’ve watched dozens of times, and a few that I’ve never seen (Curly Sue?).  Apparently, he was also a very decent man.  I highly recommend clicking through to this blog post about a young woman’s pen pal friendship with Hughes; it really is quite moving.

But I have something else on my mind.  I was a little bit too young to experience the Hughes oeuvre in the theater.  For instance, The Breakfast Club was released in 1985, when I was 9 years old.  I saw most of his movies the old fashioned way — in syndication.  For my generation, that is to say those of us who were too young for the Hughes canon in theaters, John Hughes was the lord of Saturday afternoon.  His films seemed to be in constant rotation on TBS, TNT, USA and, most importantly for me, WPIX, the local station out of New York City.  They were what happened on a rainy Saturday afternoon.  Eventually, I came to know every edited-for-TV line in The Breakfast Club.  I watched Ferris Bueller over and over, vacillating between hating Ferris (Come on, you never hated him?  He’s pretty smug, isn’t he?) and loving his carpe diem spirit.

I don’t have cable anymore, or any channels at all, for that matter.  I think what I miss the most is stumbling upon some movie I hadn’t seen in years, or in that rare case, had never seen.  It was as a teenager that I discovered the movies that would become my personal favorites for life.  They were movies about New York City in the 1970s.  They depicted it as an unpleasant place, a world of violence, death and graffiti, and it was completely captivating.  I spent my adolescent afternoons watching WPIX.  During the summer, they showed Yankee games with Phil Rizzuto and ads for the Money Store and Crazy Eddie’s (Where prices are INSANE!), and when it rained, they showed reruns of Sanford and Son, and movies.  Taking of Pelahm 123, The French Connection, Serpico, Fort Apache The Bronx, Network, Taxi Driver and Three Days of the Condor.  These movies, with their scruffy leads, burned out cops and wakachicka soundtracks, formed the foundation of what I thought about New York City and began an infatuation with movies that lasted well into my late 20s (I’m sorry to say that it’s waning at the moment, but keep making those Transformers movies, Hollywood).

When I heard John Hughes had died, I started to think about those afternoons I’d spent with his movies (it was always the afternoon when I was a kid), and those movies I’d seen because cable offered them up.  I wouldn’t exactly say it was serendipity, but I discovered a love for the movies through cable TV, and I don’t think I’m alone.  It was all about discovery.  After those NYC 1970s movies, I discovered the French New Wave (who most of those directors borrowed from) and art films like John Cassavetes Shadows.  But it all started with those movies on cable TV in the afternoon.

I fear the next generation will miss out on this.  For one thing, these cable channels have decided to produce more and more of their own original content, rather than blasting out movies of the past.  This is a good and a bad thing, I think, as it keeps a lot of writers/actors/directors employed and occasionally produces some great content, but something is lost, as well.  As the internet offers an infinite array of choices and complete “on-demand” options, are we losing something of the “stumble upon” nature of pop culture?  Would I ever have watched those movies if I could’ve simply chosen to watch anything I wanted?  Would I have chosen to watch Three Days of the Condor?  Maybe eventually, but maybe not.  Maybe something will come along that encourages this kind of discovery.  I don’t think StumbleUpon is exactly doing it, though.

I think the lesson here is that curation still has some value.  Wether TBS and TNT and the like knew it or not, they were curating my childhood, one movie at a time.  I for one will miss that when it’s gone.