Book Review: Kevin Smokler’s Brat Pack America

51zfd5mo9clMovies are a global business. This is something close to an axiom given how Hollywood iconography has swaddled the globe. Audiences from Berlin to (formerly) Bombay became acquainted with silver screen legends and the various tics and traits of East Coast mobsters and Los Angeles starlets. And, occasionally, for the art house crowd, world cinema would reciprocate. However, the places and setting were just as much fiction as the action on the screens. Golden Age Hollywood was a collection of sound stages and back lots. The American New Wave revival of the 60s and 70s were rooted in two locales: gritty New York or sunny Southern California. America, it might seem to an outside audience, consisted of two distinct locales separated by a giant question mark. Yet, as illustrated in Kevin Smokler's Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to 80s Teen Movies, something happened starting in the late 70s. As coast-centric filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas shook up the status quo and then became the status quo, a series of films rooted in spaces often overlooked popped up and greatly expanded the cinematic map of the United States. This is Smokler's "Brat Pack America", a period of teenage focused film making largely centered in the 80s, featuring few actual members of the famed Brat Pack, but more embodying its ethos. The heart of Smokler's work centers on the late filmmaker John Hughes, a Chicago area transplant and bard of the posh North Shore. Hughes crafted films (often conflicting with studio heads who urged him to head west to Los Angeles) rooted in upper-middle class suburbs that were distinct and real. Aside from a few pick-up shots and sequences, films such as Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Home Alone, whether directed or produced by Hughes, are settings you can visit. Smokler even provides a list of addresses of filming locations, much like a Hollywood tour guide selling maps to the stars. The impetus for this book comes early in a revealing anecdote of a disappointing search for Hill Valley, California, the central setting of 1985's Back to the Future, along with its two sequels. Smokler came to learn it existed only as a back lot, a place of balsa wood fronts and facades, often used interchangeably with other films (1984's Gremlins used the same set, albeit covered in a Californian's conception of snow). Nevertheless, Smokler's faith was refueled when he tracked down an actual location from the film: Pasadena's Gamble House, a historic landmark that filled in as Doc Brown's family mansion. Personal bits like this are a nice counterpoint to Smokler's analysis of the several dozen films beyond Hughes he covers. His heart seems more into certain films than others and the sheer amount of celluloid he sifts through often means he covers films with similar styles and themes resulting in occasional redundancy. Perhaps less emphasis on an overview, and more emphasis on a selective curation would have conveyed more punch. But, what makes Brat Pack America more than a litany of famous films set in famous locations is Smokler's guiding theory of these films. Though there is an emphasis on often overlooked locales, the films embodying what "Brat Pack America" is all about broke ground because they spoke to the concerns of teenagers in compelling new ways. Smokler relates that previous teenager populated films were either vapid musicals, raunchy Porky's-esque comedies, or simplistic anti-authoritarian ragers. If teens popped up on screen before the late 70s they were often side kicks, background characters, or presented through the eyes of adults. The films populating "Brat Pack America" took seriously the existential angst and feelings of alienation and identity crisis teenagers felt. Their issues and concerns weren't ever portrayed as the end of the world. But, to the characters populating these films, that's how they felt. It brought a sense of seriousness, maturity, and respect to a subject matter rarely given consideration, opening up new frontiers of empathy and narrative possibilities. Smokler's grand unified theory of 80s teenage films is compelling and an important addition to the growing canon of 80s retrospectives and revivals. From the glut of 80s reboots, to the nostalgic success of Stranger Things, to the pastiche of Turbo Kid, the 1980s are increasingly being mined, for good and ill. What Brat Pack America demonstrates that the well is far deeper than sheer nostalgia and worthy of far more reevaluation. Brat Pack America is published by Rare Bird Books. Purchase Brat Pack America at your local bookseller for $17. 
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James Orbesen

James Orbesen is a writer and professor living in Chicago. His first book on the comics of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely is forthcoming from Sequart. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Guernica, Salon, Jacobin, Chicago Review of Books, PopMatters, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere.