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John Hughes makes a %*[#!! point

From the Nov. 22, 1987, Deseret News

One of the problems with modern movies is that writers and directors seem to have lost the art of subtlety. Anything goes . . . so anything goes.

But movies are a very literal medium. They not only reflect life, they blow up life into ridiculous proportions — especially in terms of the way films are showcased.

On that huge screen, where close-ups can make audience members feel like a fly on an actor's nose, and given Hollywood's "bigger is better" mindset, subtlety is something that can mean a lot.

Movies are a literal medium, and hints, nuances and gestures mean as much as going "over the top." A wink or nod can influence a movie moment more than reams of dialogue or screaming actors or explosions or car chases.

But the subtlety is difficult to achieve. It requires talent and work and a sincere desire to get it right.

So we see gallons of blood instead of profoundly affecting death scenes; nudity and simulated sex scenes instead of actors exchanging looks that tell us their characters are truly in love; and a constant stream of profanity instead of saving those words for dramatic emphasis.

Writer-director John Hughes, who understands how comedy works on the screen better than most contemporary filmmakers, shows in his latest movie, "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," that he also understands how to use profanity.

Hughes is the writer of "Some Kind of Wonderful" and the writer-director of "The Breakfast Club," "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" and "Pretty In Pink," among others. He is not always a director known for being subtle but he is a director who remembers quite accurately the angst of being young. And he has become most adept at setting up and delivering funny comic moments.

In "Planes, Trains, etc." he works for the first time with adult actors in the leads — Steve Martin and John Candy as two road-weary travelers who are grounded when a Chicago snowstorm diverts their plane and they find themselves on the road together trying desperately to get home for Thanksgiving.

The film is not without spotty profanity and crass jokes, though such elements are not really gratuitous as they develop Candy's vulgar character. But there's one scene that illustrates very well the problem with profanity in the movies.

Now don't misunderstand; I'm not condoning profanity per se, or suggesting it's really necessary. In most movies it is not.

Profanity can pack a dramatic punch, however, when it is used sparingly, saved for emotional impact. "Ordinary People," for example, uses profanity during two scenes that are forcefully connected, and a strong dramatic point is made.

But one of the problems with cussing in the cinema is that filmmakers tend to use it so much that it just becomes another word, losing its value and offending a large segment of the moviegoing audience. Eddie Murphy uses so much so often that it loses emphasis and gets tiring rather quickly.

In "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" Hughes not only uses a scene with profanity to make a dramatic point, he turns it on its ear as a comedy sequence that shows just how silly it is to punctuate sentences by using that famous R-rated profanity as every other word.

The scene has Steve Martin suffering the final straw, the ultimate indignity after a string of comic mishaps when a car rental company fouls up his request for transportation. So he returns to the counter in the airline terminal and proceeds to swear outrageously (and even sounds somewhat uncomfortable with the word, as if his character doesn't ordinarily use it) as he demands satisfaction. The woman at the counter is naturally offended by his language but the punchline has her using the same word to describe his predicament.

It's a very funny scene, both in the context of the film and in a larger sense as it lampoons the overly common use of profanity in the movies today. But it also makes a point.

Let's hope some other filmmakers out there get it.