Sixteen Candles (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Video
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (26th July 2019).
The Film

Sixteen Candles (John Hughes, 1984)

Synopsis:
Suburban teenager Sam (Molly Ringwald) wakes on the morning of her sixteenth birthday to discover, dishearteningly, that her family are so focused on her sister Ginny’s (Blanche Baker) upcoming wedding that they have forgotten about Sam’s celebration. Sam’s life at school is no easier: a sophomore, she is in unrequited love with handsome senior student Jake (Michael Schoeffling), who is involved with the privileged Caroline (Haviland Morris).

Sam must contend with her family – including her father, Jim (Paul Dooley); her mother, Brenda (Carlin Glynn); two sets of grandparents, and foreign exchange student Long Duk Dong (Gedde Watanabe), who is living with Grandma and Grandpa Baker. At school, Sam finds herself the object of the unwanted affections of freshman student Farmer Ted, aka ‘The Geek’ (Anthony Michael Hall), who is followed around by two tech savvy friends, Cliff (aka ‘Wease’, played by Darren Harris) and Bryce (John Cusack).

Ted tells Wease and Cliff that he can ‘score’ Sam, and they demand proof – her underwear. At the school dance, Sam humiliates Ted; but later, they encounter one another in the school garage. Ted tells Sam about his bet with Wease and Bryce and, taking pity on him, Sam gives him her underwear.

Ted plans to use Sam’s underwear as a badge of maturity which will enable himself, Wease and Bryce to gain access to a house party being thrown by Jake for the senior students. The morning after the party, Jake finds Ted trapped under a glass coffee table. The pair bond, and Ted tells Jake that Sam has a crush on him; in response, Jake expresses his growing interest in Sam, suggesting to Ted that he is alienated from the ‘high maintenance’ Caroline.

As Jake and Sam are set on what seems to be the path of true love, are they able to connect across the social divides the separate them, and amidst an escalation in the preparations for Ginny’s wedding?

Critique: The directorial debut of John Hughes, whose films about young people would for many come to define the culture of the American teenager in the 1980s, Sixteen Candles (1984) is often commended for its sensitive and three-dimensional depiction of teenage life. Subsequent to Sixteen Candles, Hughes would direct and/or write a further five teen movies between 1984 and 1987 (including, of course, The Breakfast Club in 1985 and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in 1986); indelibly associated with the ‘Brat Pack’, these were pictures which changed the manner in which young people were represented on film and in television, delivering teenaged characters with much greater depth and subjectivity than had been afforded them in the past, and therefore paving the way for the likes of, for example, Kevin Williamson’s work on Scream (Wes Craven, 1996) and Dawson’s Creek (1998-2003).

Sixteen Candles was not intended to be Hughes’ directorial debut. Hughes had already written the script for The Breakfast Club and intended to direct it, but whilst prepping for that picture and looking at actress’ headshots, he found Molly Ringwald’s headshot and decided to write a script around the kind of character he imagined her to inhabit (see Ringwald, 2018: np). The script for Sixteen Candles was, at the time, easier to sell to a studio who could see the resemblance – however lean it may have been – between the Sixteen Candles project and proven successes like Bob Clark’s Porkys (1981). On the other hand, as Molly Ringwald has said, the script for The Breakfast Club ‘read more like a play’ and was therefore probably a more daunting project for potential backers (ibid.).

Betty Kaklamanidou has noted that one of the ‘lessons’ of Sixteen Candles and other high school-set teen films of the 1980s is ‘the division of the students into a “caste” system (the cheerleaders, the jocks, the nerds, the “bad” boys)’ (Kaklamanidou, 2013: 68). As a young person growing up in the North of England during the 1980s, where social division was – and remains – based predominantly upon economic difference (ie, in terms of socio-economic ‘class’), this was an aspect of US teen pictures of that era that was probably recognisable to US audiences but, to an outsider, felt utterly alien. Certainly, in Sixteen Candles there is a fundamental difference between the seniors, sophomore students and the freshmen. Ted tells his friends and fellow freshmen Wease and Bryce that they’re going to crash the seniors’ party, and Wease and Bryce worry whether or not they will make it out of there alive. Ted tries to reassure them by reminding them that he has Sam’s underwear (which Sam has given to him out of kindness but which the others believe Ted has acquired through sleeping with Sam): this badge of sexual conquest, tied to a rite of passage, will give them safe entry to the seniors’ party, Ted suggests: ‘Wease, we got $70 and a pair of girl’s underpants’, Ted says, ‘We’re safe as kittens. This is a great social opportunity for us’. However, as the trio enter the party their out-of-placeness is immediately signalled when Wease accidentally knocks over a carefully-placed stack of beercans, thus drawing attention to the freshman students’ entry. Fundamentally, the tension between the seniors, sophomores and freshmen is explored in the Sam-Jake relationship: Sam lusts after Jake but knows that fraternisation between seniors and sophomore students is considered a social impossibility. However, as the narrative progresses Jake increasingly comes to realise Sam’s positive qualities and begins to experience reciprocal feelings; Sam and Jake’s attraction to one another cuts across the high school caste system and is as taboo-busting as Romeo’s relationship with Juliet. Meanwhile, Caroline ends up sleeping with Ted, their relationship (which, again, cuts across the freshman-senior divide) mirroring that of Sam and Jake.

Hughes’ films have their devoted fans but can be something of a ‘tough sell’ if the viewer sits outside the demographic represented in the pictures themselves. Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, in an area of the UK known for its association with poverty and deprivation, my personal relationship with Hughes’ films was always something of a struggle. In the eyes of myself and my friends who were – as friends usually are – from a similar social background to me, these films seemed largely to be about very privileged young people complaining unjustifiably about their lot, and generally acting in an entitled and self-obsessed manner. ‘What has she got to complain about?’, we would ask ourselves upon seeing Sixteen Candles for the first time. Bender in The Breakfast Club felt more identifiable and rounded to us, though his eventual acceptance of his more privileged schoolmates also seemed like a sop to the system – a reactionary suggestion that in order to achieve acceptance, one must simply want to fit in (to paraphrase Patrick Bateman in Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho, a novel of the same decade that punctured with brutal irony the emphasis on conformity found in Hughes’ films – together with numerous other American pictures of the 1980s).

Additionally, owing to the differences between the UK and US educational systems, especially the manner in which the films emphasised the differences between ‘jocks’ and ‘nerds’ or between ‘seniors’, ‘sophomores’ and ‘freshmen’ (terms that were utterly alien to us), it was difficult to find a way into their narratives. In effect, they might as well have been science fiction pictures about an alien culture. (On the other hand, the outrageousness and savage irony of John Waters’ films, such as Cry-Baby and Hairspray, felt more relatable – along with Michael Lehman’s Heathers, 1989, which deconstructed Hughes’ essentially warm view of adolescence through lashings of black humour and violence; Arrow’s Blu-ray release of Heathers has been reviewed by us here.) Arguably tellingly, during my later teenage years, I had a girlfriend who came from a more well-to-do family, which was also much more stable and well-adjusted than the families of most of my friends, and she was a huge fan of Hughes’ films perhaps because she could interpolate herself into their narratives with relative ease.

Looking back on the films thirty years later, however, with a greater understanding of US school culture that has grown through exposure to stories about American high schools throughout the subsequent decades (from television sitcoms like Saved by the Bell to slasher pictures such as Wes Craven’s Scream, 1996), I find it easier to relate to and understand Hughes’ films – and see why they were so praised by American critics for their sensitive handling of issues facing American youth during the 1980s. In more recent years, Hughes’ films have often been criticised for being wholly ‘white’ and containing very few non-white characters, but this sidesteps the fact that Hughes’ subject matter is precisely the milieu of a white suburbia that is parochial and homogenised, with all its small-mindedness and prejudice: when his characters deliver dialogue that challenges the sensibilities of today (for example, Jake’s assertion to Ted that he ‘could get a piece of ass any time I want. Shit, I got Caroline in the bedroom, passed out cold. I could violate her ten different ways if I wanted to’), it’s too easy to forget that Hughes is foregrounding the failings of his characters – to confuse the voice of the character with the voice of the author.

Sixteen Candles has attracted some criticism for its handling of the character of exchange student Long Duk Dong; this criticism has some validity, the character of Long Duk Dong displaying an extremely insensitive amalgamation of various cultural tropes associated with China, Japan and Vietnam. The character is also burdened with a name which is essentially a ‘cock’ joke. When Long Duk Dong first meets his American girlfriend, Marlene (Debbie Pollack), at the school dance, she asks him his name. ‘Dong’, he replies. ‘What’s your first name?’, Marlene asks him. ‘Long’, he says, resulting in the raising of eyebrows. To make matters worse, Dong’s appearances on screen are accompanied each time by a non-diegetic gong. Towards the end of the film, a hungover Dong is discovered asleep in Sam’s family’s front garden. ‘No more yankie my wankie’, Dong asserts when Sam’s parents try to wake him.

In 2018, Molly Ringwald wrote a thoughtful and well-articulated article for the New Yorker, to coincide with the Criterion Collection Blu-ray release of The Breakfast Club, expressing her conflicted feelings towards the films she made with Hughes: on the one hand, she says, Hughes pioneered the production of ‘art for and about teen-agers’, in films that were ‘about the minutiae of high school’ and often ‘from a female point of view’ (Ringwald, 2018: np). On the other hand, Ringwald suggests that Hughes’ scripts often had an element of ‘crassness’ – an emphasis on bawdy, vulgar humour – that hung over from his days as a writer for National Lampoon (ibid.). Though they sometimes made their way into the finished pictures, these moments were sometimes teased out during redrafting: for example, Ringwald points to a scene in the original script for The Breakfast Club in which Mr Vernon spies on a female gym teacher who was to swim naked in the school swimming pool, or the moment in the shooting script for Sixteen Candles in which, after Sam has given Ted her underwear, her father asks, ‘Sam, where the hell are your underpants?’ (ibid.). An embarrassed Hughes rewrote the scene after Ringwald’s real-life mother asked him why a father would ‘know what happened to his daughter’s underwear’, noting that ‘It’s not funny […] It’s creepy’ (ibid.). Ringwald’s article is predominantly about the sexual politics of Hughes’ films, reflecting her status as an actress in them, but she makes one statement in particular that seems to sum up Hughes’ pictures oscillation between sensitivity and vulgarity/‘crassness’: ‘It’s hard for me to understand how John was able to write with so much sensitivity, and also have such a glaring blind spot’ (ibid.). In fact, Hughes’ films are often like their characters – including Sam: they express self-interest and self-absorption but are punctuated by moments of genuine sincerity and insight – such as, in Sixteen Candles, the beautifully-written and well-acted heart-to-heart that Sam and her father have the morning after the seniors’ party.

Ringwald’s comments drew a backlash from audiences who had grown up on Hughes’ films, but she highlights a fundamental issue with Hughes’ work: the teen films he wrote are both progressive and reactionary. They offered young people a ‘voice’ that had very rarely been heard in American films previously: whilst Hollywood had made teen films since the 1950s, most of these were deeply patronising, and Hughes’ pictures bucked this trend. The films also, as Ringwald admits, provided their audience with a message that it’s okay to feel different and out of place: Ringwald points to an incident in which she was approached by Emil Wilbekin – who is both gay and black – and Wilbekin told her that, despite the homophobic slurs used casually by their characters and their overall ‘whiteness’, Hughes’ films taught him ‘that there were other people like me who were struggling with their identities, feeling out of place in the social constructs of high school, and dealing with the challenges of family ideals and pressures’ (Wilbekin, quoted in Ringwald, 2018: np). The films consistently highlight the importance of not judging people on their appearances: in Sixteen Candles, Farmer Ted and the other ‘geeks’ are initially treated with condescension by the other characters, but as the film progresses Sam, Jake and others grow increasingly sympathetic towards Ted and the others. However, on the other hand Hughes’ scripts are filled with bawdy vulgarity – which by itself isn’t necessarily a negative trait, but the more vulgar jokes are often obvious and arguably as tired as the lewd jokes on a seaside postcard. When Jake and a friend discuss Sam, Jake’s friend telling Jake that Sam is ‘too young to party serious’, Jake’s friend reminds Jake of his relationship with the sexually available Caroline; Hughes underscores the sexual difference between Sam and Caroline by cutting to a tight close-up of Caroline’s bare breasts as she showers. It’s a crude joke, but one that typifies Hughes’ approach. Perhaps the scripts were hampered by Hughes’ well-known dislike of revising and redrafting his work – operating on a ‘first thought, best thought’ principle. Sixteen Candles has a somewhat episodic structure, some scenes coming across more like a series of comic sketches strung together by a theme – much like the roughly contemporaneous National Lampoon pictures, for example, which is unsurprising given Hughes’ previous career as a writer for National Lampoon. In its second half, Sixteen Candles loses focus on Sam and diverts its focus onto Ginny’s wedding – mirroring the way in which Sam’s sixteenth birthday has been ignored by her family. This is to the film’s detriment, arguably, as Sam’s perspective guides most of the rest of the film. Hughes’ approach to structure coalesced more fully in The Breakfast Club (1985).

Hughes’ films generally drive towards his rebellious teenage characters establishing, by the end of the narrative, a sense of conformity: they will grow up to become the next generation of suburban parents. The films look back to the era of Hughes’ own childhood, with the white picket fence nature of suburban life seeming to have changed very little since the 1950s and 1960s (though the politics of high school have evolved considerably): several times in Sixteen Candles, Hughes uses the musical stings from 1950s-era television shows Dragnet and The Twilight Zone to comic effect. Suburban family life may be chaotic – at times, verging on anarchy – but it is essentially stable, and therefore the young people in Hughes’ films accept it largely unquestioningly as their inevitable future. (The Breakfast Club contains a more outwardly questioning approach to this topic than most of Hughes’ other pictures, however.) In Hughes’ films, adolescence is a stage in life which leads to a sense of romantic maturity – represented through heterosexual pairing and a sense of acceptance, or at the very least tolerance, of those who are different. The films explore the collision between expectation and reality. At the start of Sixteen Candles, Sam wakes on her sixteenth birthday and is astonished that she hasn’t gone through some miraculous transformation (‘I decided that turning sixteen would be so major that I’d wake up with an improved mental state that would show on my face’, she narrates, ‘All that shows is that I don’t have any sort of a tan left’): but the transformation takes place later, when she and Jake overcome the taboos that stand in front of their burgeoning relationship.



Video

Sixteen Candles is presented on Arrow’s Blu-ray in 1080p, using the AVC codec, and filling a little over 26Gb of space on a dual-layered Blu-ray disc. The presentation is in the 1.85:1 ratio, which would seem to conform to the aspect ratio of the film’s original cinema release. Sixteen Candles was photographed on 35mm colour stock.

Arrow’s Blu-ray presents the viewer with the option of watching the original theatrical version (with a running time of 92:35 mins) or an ‘extended’ cut (with a running time of 94:01) that restores the famous cafeteria deleted scene (‘I don’t want him to know that I eat!’) – first encountered by the film’s fans in the television version of the movie.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray releases uses as its source a new 4k restoration from the original 35mm negative. The presentation looks excellent. The level of detail is superb throughout, closeups being particularly rich in fine detail. There is no damage to speak of. Colours are naturalistic and consistent. Contrast levels are equally pleasing, with richly-defined midtones being accompanied by a subtle drop-off into the toe and evenly-balanced highlights. The encode to disc presents no apparent problems, the presentation retaining the structure of 35mm film. The result is a very pleasing, filmlike viewing experience.

Some full-sized screengrabs are included at the bottom of this review. Please click to enlarge them.

Audio

Two audio options are available: the original mono mix, represented via a DTS-HD Master Audio 1.0 track; and a newer surround sound mix, carried via a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. The former will be preferable to purists, but the surround sound mix is naturalistic and immersive. Both tracks have good depth and range without any audible distortion. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are included; these are easy to read and accurate.

Extras

The disc includes:
- ‘Deleted Scene’ (1:28). If the ‘extended’ version of the film is selected, this scene is included in the main feature, but it can be watched in isolation here.

- ‘Alternate Home Video Soundtrack’ (92:35). Selecting this option plays the full film with the soundtrack used to accompany its original home video release – which, for reasons relating to rights, substituted some of the music tracks for others.

- ‘Casting Sixteen Candles’ (9:06). Jackie Burch, the film’s casting director, speaks about the casting process. Burch talks about how she first met John Hughes, discussing how Hughes wrote the script for Molly Ringwald. Burch reflects on what the actors brought to their roles: for example, how Anthony Michael Hall ‘bonded’ with the character of Ted. Burch describes Hughes as ‘a Chicago guy’ who was ‘not Hollywood at all’ and had a particular skill at writing scripts that were ‘so real’ and didn’t talk down to ‘kids’.

- ‘When Gedde Met Deborah’ (19:20). Actors Gedde Watanabe and Deborah Pollack converse about their roles in the picture, as Long Duk Dong and Marlene respectively. They talk about when they first met, at the audition, and they discuss Hughes’ approach to directing their performances. They offer some amusing anecdotes: eg, Pollack stood on a crate and walked on tiptoes in order to emphasise the difference in height between her character and Watanabe. Watanabe and Pollack are reputedly good friends off-camera, and they have an excellent rapport here.

- ‘Rudy the Bohunk’ (6:26). John Kapelos, who plays Ginny’s fiancé in the picture, is interviewed about his role in Sixteen Candles. He discusses how he came to be in the film and talks about the scenes in which he was involved – including the staging of the wedding sequence at the end of the picture. Kapelos also reflects on what makes Hughes’ films unique.

- ‘The New Wave Nerd’ (8:19). Filmmaker Adam Rifkin, who was on set for much of the shoot and worked as an extra on the film, talks about his experiences with Hughes. Rifkin’s opportunity came after his school was approached to provide extras for Sixteen Candles. After initially scoring work as an extra, Rifkin approached Hughes and asked him if he could come back to the set to watch Hughes work, in order to learn the craft of filmmaking. Hughes, who Rifkin describes as ‘so down to earth and so nice’, immediately accepted.

- ‘The In-Between’ (7:38). Gary Kibbe, the camera operator, talks about his work on the picture, discussing working with Hughes and the film’s cinematographer, Bobby Byrne. Hughes talks about how he worked up from camera assistant to camera operator and, later in his career, director of photography. ‘You never know where the breaks are coming from’, he says, ‘You used to get jobs, and I had no clue how I got it’. He suggests much of the work he got was via behind-the-scenes word of mouth. Kibbe talks in more general terms about the relationship between the camera operator, the director and the director of photography, and he talks about some of the potential pitfalls of the profession.

- ‘Music for Geeks’ (8:19). Ira Newborn, the film’s composer, discusses his working relationship with Hughes, which began on this picture and continued over several pictures. Newborn reflects on Hughes’ use of popular music and the strengths and weaknesses of this – eg, in playing a pop song under a dialogue scene. Newborn talks about some of the music he wrote for Sixteen Candles and what this contributed to the picture.

- ‘A Very Eighties Fairytale’ (17:21). Journalist Soraya Roberts narrates a video essay looking at Sixteen Candles from a modern feminist perspective. Roberts reflects on Sixteen Candles’ position within Hughes’ body of work. She suggests that Hughes was ‘a republican ad man’, but his work focused on young women because he considered them ‘more thoughtful’. Roberts talks about Hughes’ working relationship with Molly Ringwald, and considers how Ringwald bucked the trends in the 1980s associated with female leading roles. She talks about how Hughes’ films were in some ways a reaction against the raunchy teen sex comedies of the early 1980s.

- ‘Celebrating Sixteen Candles’ (37:58). This archival documentary, included on the film’s previous DVD and Blu-ray releases, features interviews with many of the film’s cast. It’s a thorough examination of the picture that makes a good case for the film’s importance in terms of 1980s cinema, and teen films more specifically.

- Trailers & Promotional Spots: Teaser (1:30); Trailer 1 (2:50); Trailer 2 (2:42); TV Spots (1:01); Radio Spots (13:42).

- Image Galleries: Shooting Script (123 pages); Production Stills (101 pages); Poster & Video Art (18 pages).

Overall

Arguably a little too episode in its structure and a little too reliant on the caricatures and bawdy humour that were National Lampoon’s stock-in-trade, Sixteen Candles benefits greatly from Molly Ringwald’s nuanced performance – making the character of Sam, who in a lesser actress’ hands could simply have been a whiny brat, into something much more sympathetic. Hughes’ approach to narrative became more developed in subsequent films, with The Breakfast Club in particular having a much stronger sense of thematic development. That said, Sixteen Candles is undeniably an important picture in the evolution of the American teen film – offering a new type of film by and about teenagers that didn’t speak down to its adolescent audience and incorporated hitherto ignored teenage anxieties and concerns.

Arrow’s new Blu-ray release of Sixteen Candles contains a superb new presentation of the film which easily eclipses previous home video presentations; the main feature is supported with some excellent contextual material. Fans of the 1980s teen film or of Hughes’ work will find this to be an essential purchase.

References:
Kaklamanidou, Betty, 2013: Genre, Gender and the Effects of Neoliberalism. London: Routledge

Ringwald, Molly, 2018: ‘What about “The Breakfast Club”?’ The New Yorker (6 April, 2018) [Online.] https://www.newyorker.com/culture/personal-history/what-about-the-breakfast-club-molly-ringwald-metoo-john-hughes-pretty-in-pink

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