Author Interview: Kevin Smokler
The author of Brat Pack America on how to properly define an 80s teen movie, the importance of studying generational relatability, and the detailing of John Hughes’ Shermer, Illinois
Whether one was a teenager in the 80s, was born then, or grew up in the decades proceeding Reaganomics, MTV, yuppies, and the fall of the wall: it’s quite difficult — maybe even impossible? — to not have watched one of the many teen movies which came out of the 80s. “You couldn’t ignore me if you tried.” “Life moves pretty fast.” “All I need are some tasty waves, a cool buzz, and I’m fine.” “Wax on, wax off.” “Nobody puts baby in a corner.” These phrases, along with their characters, have become a part of our contemporary cinematic folklore. They also changed the manner by which we thought about young people and film. With these two central tenants, Kevin Smokler’s Brat Pack America unpacks the convoluted canon that is the 80s teen movie.
Smokler’s love letter to a generation and the films they adored combines the analytical frameworks of cultural studies and film studies in a manner which speaks to the complexities of his subject-matter. Through his meticulous unpacking of a multitude of films, the author allows for his readers to understand, if not completely feel, the genuine confusion which often defined teenage life in the 80s. Yet, Brat Pack America goes far beyond the easiness that accompanies a heartfelt display of nostalgia. The book shifts our conceptualizations of place through its methodical explanations of when and where certain films were shot. Though location is often defined as a literal environment, for Smokler, the power of the 80s teen movies resides in its capacity to imagine new, unique spaces. By framing its analysis around this evocative argument, Brat Pack America gains access into both a generation and the particular nation which they lived in.
Kevin Smokler will be reading from Brat Pack America at Literati Bookstore on June 12th at 7 PM. In the week leading up to the event I was lucky enough to ask him a few questions.
One of the things I enjoyed most about Brat Pack America was the exhaustive scope with which you schematized the vast majority of teenage films from the 1980s. Still, I found myself wondering if there were any teenage/young adult films which you unfortunately had to leave out? Prior to the book being sent to the press, were there any films you thought might need to be taken out? I ask this, not because I believe your framework is in any way faulty. I’m just curious — maybe even a little bit fascinated? — as to how one navigates such a large body of work — especially when so much of it is deeply loved.
The answer to how is “with a weak flashlight in a very thick jungle.” Even after I had to get very strict as to what an 80s teen movie was (protagonist must be in high school, or thereabouts, the movie had to have been in theaters between 1978–1989) and wasn’t (Top Gun is not a teen movie, strangely I’ve been asked that no less than a dozen times), it still left almost 100 movies to watch, think about and see if I could fit into the story I wanted to tell.
The original manuscript ended up being 4 chapters longer then what was finally in the book. It dragged a bit and didn’t hang together as well as both my editors and I thought it should. So while it hurt to get rid of say, the chapter on horror movies (and all the subsequent watching of Halloween(s), and Friday the 13th(s) and Nightmares on Elm Street(s)), it the end it helped Brat Pack America feel like it fit into its clothes instead of wearing a tablecloth and calling it a suit.
Risky Business got left behind too which really sucked because I am crazy about that movie. So I talk it up whenever I’m interviewed or presenting as the place you go next after putting my book down. I’ll write some encomium to it someday.
I don’t know if I could conduct this interview without asking you, at some point, about Shermer, Illinois. Hughes’ vision for Shermer always appears to be complete. There is very little confusion regarding the attitudes, atmospheres, and overall aesthetics of this suburban environment. Yet, as you suggest, the brilliance of Hughes was not in his specificity, but in his capacity to depict a multitude of teenage issues with only a small number of spaces and character types. I was hoping you might be able to speak about how Hughes’ usage of limitation allows for an enhancement of imagination, particularly when it comes to the minds of the audience. Do you think Hughes was conscious of this practice or was he simply following his creative muse by depicting what he knew and believed the audience needed to finally witness?
John Hughes was deeply aware of what inspired and motivated his creative work even if it didn’t completely match up with his own background (Example: He was far more adventurous as a person than his characters were. He’d been to several countries and continents before he ever started directing films). I think “Shermer,” the idea of inventing a whole town, motivated him throughout his life ( When he died, his family found reams of stories, novels and screenplays about Shermer which never became anything more than big ideas) and the movies we got based in Shermer were to some extent riffs on a place he had already created, stories about a community that felt very real to him but were also wired into the place as myth, which is why his movies feel like fables about growing up in suburban Midwestern America rather than documentaries about growing up in suburban Midwestern America.
I’m not sure the limitations this puts on his work were done with the audience in mind though. Seems to me it was more about him choosing what motivated him and then, like any artist pushing as far as he could go within those limitations.
Your chapter on 80s teen movies set in Los Angeles was one of my favorite chapters. Throughout the literature of Los Angeles, there exists a tradition known as the nocturne. From Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, in which the private eye Philip Marlowe prowls the streets at night in search of clues only to realize that a lack of light results in a prolonged, enjoyable lunacy, to Jim Morrison’s chant in “L.A. Woman” — “City of Night, City of Night, City of Night” — there is no shortage of moments in which night in Los Angeles signifies a change in sensibility — often a loss of sanity. Do we see the adaptation of the nocturne in any 80s teen movies set in L.A.?
That’s such a great question. The most obvious example I can think of is Repo Man when night is not only seen as where Los Angeles becomes its true self, a venal, nakedly honest waiting room of the damned, an 80s Day of the Locust, but I think the mystery car in that film is as a kind of nocturne, a repeated image, a refrain that speaks to Los Angeles being a city of ambition and dreams but also greed and cruelty and the idea of a clear map of who to be laying just ahead and out of your reach.
When discussing Fast Times at Ridgemont High, you briefly mention how the character of Jeff Spicoli might be viewed as an older sibling to similar character types which appear later in American film — “Bill & Ted, Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, and Stifler from American Pie” (106). Can you think of any other 80s teen character types which might act as an older sibling to certain characters which later generations of American teens fell in love with? Do you have any favorites?
Absolutely. Veronica Sawyer from Heathers is probably an older more confident sister to Willow Rosenberg in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You can feel the youthful musical ambitions of Kid and Play in House Party in The Commitments and the kids in Sing Street. The line from Chris Knight and Mitch Taylor and pals in Real Genius to the gangs of friends in The Big Bang Theory and the staff of Pied Piper in Silicon Valley is not a very crooked one.
In the final pages of the book, you write, “A decade is only special based on your relationship to it” (325). As anecdotal evidence, I feel as though I must admit that as a teenager, whenever my family — much like the Girswolds, though my father would scoff at such a suggestion — traveled across the country on a road trip, as we often did in the summer, I would pass the time by watching movies on our Pontiac Montana’s 6 x 8 inch DVD player — the kind that folds up into the roof, because one never knows how much space will be needed. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Breakfast Club, Caddyshack, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dead Poet’s Society, Back to the Future: these films were the reason I was able to survive on those long drives down to places like Chattanooga, Tennessee, or Pawley’s Island, South Carolina. Though they might have passed the time, the other reason I watched them was because they incessantly appealed to, and at other times, completely reinvigorated, my teenage sense of self. I don’t doubt that the DeLorean has room for all. But I do wonder if the DeLorean might be unfairly construed as outdated, strange, and a little too particular. What might we lose and what might we possibly gain if such thoughts appear in the mindsets of future generations?
It’s only fair to the experience of teenagers born after the 1980s that, as great and enduring as the movies from that time might be, they aren’t going to be great or enduring in the same way for everyone, and some might not be either or at all. And that’s not anyone’s fault. It just means time passes and things are understood differently if you there or weren’t. I’ve watched The Karate Kid with teenagers who don’t get the kind of bullying Daniel LaRusso experiences in that movie b/c that isn’t what bullying looks like in 2017 at their high school. I’ve spoken to a dozen high school classes who frequently ask me why nothing “happens” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High because their experience with teen movies has many more quick plots points and emotional highs and lows.
That’s not better or worse, just different. It’s our job as people who write and people who love movies (all of the arts really) to give them context, to say what these movies meant and why they were born when they were, whom they inspired and what they mean now, to make them part of a family tree that continues to grow not petrifies back when they were news.
When I talk to teenagers, I always repeat this: “If you want to be taken seriously, study the world before you were born and realize that history got us to now.” When I talk to adults, I always repeat “Being an adult is no excuse to not know what’s going on culturally. Today’s music and movies and books are the children and nieces and nephews of what you grew up with. And don’t you want to know what they are up to and how they grew up to be who they are?”