Jeffrey Miller

A Writer's Life

Tag: Movies

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it” — Ferris Bueller

John HughesWhen I heard the news that John Hughes had passed away today, my first reaction was one of unabashed nostalgic when I thought about some of the movies he had made and how they entertained me. Although I was already in my mid twenties when such teenage angst films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club defined a genre and a generation, other Hughes’ films like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Uncle Buck were equally inspired cinematic accomplishments that still entertain me to this day. To be sure, a Thanksgiving hasn’t gone by since the 90s—and even with me living overseas—when I haven’t sat down to watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

I guess it’s only natural for us to feel a bit nostalgic and reflective when, after someone from our generation has passed away, we tend to look back at our own lives and the things that have defined who we are—even the movies we have enjoyed over the years. We might feel as though we have lost a little bit of ourselves but by waxing nostalgic we safeguard much of what is precious and important to us.

Although Hughes defined and genre and generation with his movies, before he became famous with his cinematic achievements, he had made a name for himself as a writer for National Lampoon. One of his stories would be the genesis for that 1983 classic film, Vacation:

If Dad hadn’t shot Walt Disney in the leg, it would have been our best vacation ever.

We were going to Disneyland. It was a dream come true. The rides! The thrills! The Mousketeers! I was so excited that I spent it the whole month of May feeling like I had to go to the bathroom. When school finally let out on a Tuesday, I sprinted home as fast as I could, even though we weren’t leaving until Friday.

Dad picked up our brand-new 1958 Plymouth Sport Suburban Six station wagon on Thursday morning. The Speedometer had only six and three-tenths miles on it. Dad said that it would be a pleasure to travel for six days in a car that smelled as good as our new Plymouth. It was nice to see Dad excited about our trip. For months Mom had to act moody and beg to get him to drive out to California.

“What good will it do to the kids to see their country from an airplane seat?” she wanted to know.

Finally, Dad gave in and said we would get a station wagon and drive the 2,448 miles from 74 Rivard Boulevard, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to 1313 Harbor Boulevard, Anaheim California.

It took almost all day Friday to pack the car. Dad loaded and unloaded it again and again to save a square foot here, a square inch there. Then he simonized the car and hung litter bags in the front and back seats, attached a compass to the dashboard, and put a first aid kit in the glove compartment. Then he called everyone outside to take one item apiece out of the car so he could close the back.

After dinner, Dad ran the Plymouth up to Richie’s Marathon Service to gas up and have Richie check under the hood and see if everything was A-O.K. When Dad backed out of the driveway the car scraped bottom. Not a little scrape but a scccccccrrrrrrraaaaaaape!

Dad got back at 8:00. We heard the Sccccrrrraaaaape! And know it was him. Richie had said that everything was beautiful under the hood. The car was gassed up, there was plenty of oil, the tire pressure was perfect, the AAA maps were organized in the glove compartment, and the speedometer read exactly 20.00 miles.

“Okay, all you Indians! Time for bed!” Mom said.

“But it’s only 8:30!” I protested.

“We, have to get up at 4:00 in the morning! I want to make Chicago by lunch!” Dad said, shooing us upstairs.

The telephone rang at 9:45 the next morning. It was Grandpa Pete calling to see why we hadn’t gone yet. We had all overslept – even the baby, Dad was furious. I could hear him screaming and pounding his fists on the bathroom sink.

Classic Hughes yes, but it’s his movies that we will remember him the most. Ask anyone who grew up in the 80s what their top ten or twenty movies of the decade are and most likely there will be a John Hughes’ film in that list. To be sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if there weren’t at least one or two of Hughes’ films on most people’s lists of their favorite all-time movies. Make no mistake about it, he had an enduring influence on pop culture with his films that touched and inspired moviegoers.

Ferris Bueller is right, life moves pretty fast and if you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it. John Hughes gave us many cinematic memories that made us all stop and look around at life. With his movies, he made sure that we didn’t miss much.

Sci-Fi Saturday Afternoons

Beginning of the End

The other day I wrote about how when I was growing up in Oglesby, Illinois I used to watch Family Classics on WGN-TV every Sunday afternoon during fall and winter. 

While Sunday afternoons were usually reserved for “family classics”, Saturday afternoons on the other hand were all Sci-Fi. 

For about 3-4 hours on a Saturday afternoon, WFLD-TV Channel 32 served up a cornucopia of Sci-Fi gems from episodes of The Outer Limits to classic science fiction and “B” movies from the 50s. Saturday afternoons were spent with Godzilla and friends as well as a host of giant spiders, grasshoppers and other atomic age mutant creatures and visitors from other galaxies. 

Of course, there were some classic Sci-Fi movies from the 50s like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still, War of the Worlds, Invaders from Mars, Forbidden Planet, Them and The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Inasmuch as these films defined an era of atomic energy and the “red scare” these were some fun films as a kid even if some of the hidden meanings and themes were lost on you. Years later, when I got into watching films more and talking about them with friends and colleagues—not to mention studying film for a few semesters at Southern Illinois University—that’s when a lot of those themes started to make sense.  

It’s no wonder that to this day, Invasion of the Body Snatchers remains one of the definitive “red scare” Sci-Fi films of that era.  

Be that as it may, back when I was a kid watching all those Sci-Fi flicks the only thing that mattered to me was just being entertained and perhaps, fueling my own imagination. Week after week it was one monster, mutant insect, or alien after another. Sometimes, I wondered if such creatures did exist.  

Some of the films were good; others were bad—very bad. Take for example, The Cyclops (1957) one of those atomic-age films about the side effects of radioactivity and one that I watched last weekend. 

Susan Winter undertakes an expedition to a remote area of Mexico, hoping to find her fiancée, Bruce Barton, who’s plane-crashed there some time ago. The area is suspected to have a good supply of uranium, so Susan has promoted this to wealthy Martin Melville to get money for her expenses. In addition to Melville, she is accompanied by guide Russ Bradford and pilot Lee Brand in his small-engine craft. But the plane crashes, stranding the four in an isolated valley, which they soon discover is highly radioactive and inhabited by mutated life forms—giant insects, enormous lizards, and a 25-foot-tall human male with a deformed face and just one eye. 

Pretty scary stuff, huh? Well, not really, but what is interesting is this same popular radioactive theme with insects, reptiles, and humans growing big which brings me to the film I watched today (and one I haven’t seen probably since I was a kid) The Beginning of the End.

Reporter Audrey Ames is driving along a highway in Illinois when she is stopped by the military. She then finds out that a small town was destroyed and everyone has seemingly disappeared. She then goes to a lab run by the Department of Agriculture. While she is there she meets the lab’s director, Dr. Ed Wainwright. Ed then tells her that strange things have been happening ever since he discovered that a bunch of grasshoppers managed to get into a silo containing a batch of radioactive wheat. They soon discover that the grasshoppers have grown to monstrous proportions and not only are devouring the local vegetation, but have developed a taste for human flesh as well. Now the locusts are marching towards Chicago and the military is threatening to destroy the city with the atom bomb.

Sounds like it would make for a pretty scary movie, but sadly it is a rip-off of a better bug flick, Them. Interestingly, James Arness who starred in that classic Sci-Fi flick is the brother of Peter Graves the lead in the Beginning of the End. Nonetheless, the film is fun to watch even though the rear projection special effects of the giant grasshoppers are archaic (and hilarious to say the least) by today’s special effects standards, but that is what makes the film a B movie classic.

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