Reflections in the Dark

by Michelle
JMDb writer-in-residence

Not too long ago, one Thursday afternoon when I was sick and my husband was out of town, I sat down in front of the television and started flipping channels. There’s something liberating about being sick and home alone on a weekday afternoon. Whenever I find myself in this situation, I flip past Bravo and Discovery, BBC News and the History Channel, and head straight for TBS.

One has to admire TBS for being so aggressive in its mediocrity. It makes no false claims about artistic merit or educating the masses. What’s not to love about a television station that still runs Mama’s Family and Saved by the Bell? Better yet, who can resist a network whose programming relies heavily on movies starring the lesser members of the Brat Pack?

We’re talking Molly Ringwald here. You know, back before that forgettable sitcom Townies, before she moved to France and married some guy named Valery and pretty much disappeared…back when it looked like she was going to be a movie star. As I sat on the sofa with a bag of microwave popcorn in one hand and a cold San Miguel in the other, watching the opening credits of Sixteen Candles, I thought, “Thank God for Ted Turner.” I could imagine no better way to spend that particular afternoon than watching my very first date movie, a movie that shuttled me back two decades in time to a hot afternoon in Alabama, back when “paint-spattered” was an acceptable fashion term and going on a “date” meant that my mom had to talk to his mom to decide who would play chauffeur.

It was Sven Delaney’s mother who drove, I remember that clearly. This was 1983, we were Baptist, and they picked me up in a station wagon, of course, one of those long sleek numbers with wood paneling and little silver ashtrays filled with secret cigarette butts. At 4:30 on a Saturday afternoon, Mrs. Delaney dropped me and Sven off at the East entrance to Springdale Mall, with instructions to meet her in that exact location in exactly two hours. I wore a slouch top that my mother had made, with a purple plastic necklace I’d ordered from the Esprit catalogue. This was the eighties, remember, and subtlety was not in fashion. I have no idea what Sven wore. It did not matter. I loved him, which meant of course that I did not truly see him. He was tall and blonde and had an interesting name, and that was enough for me.

I remember there being some embarrassment at the box office. Sven’s mother was financing the operation, but my own mother had given me five dollars and insisted that we go Dutch. “I don’t want him thinking you owe him something,” she said, shoving the money into the pocket of my home-made pedal pushers. (I can’t imagine what payment my mother thought he would try to extract. I was twelve, Sven was thirteen, and the closest we ever came to physical intimacy was one time during Sunday school, when Sven and I shared a Bible and he helped me find John 3:16.)

He bought the tickets, I bought the popcorn, and then we sat painfully close to the screen—Sven was heroically nearsighted—and said not one word to each other while we waited for the movie to start. Looking back now, I realize that I didn’t see much of the movie that day. I spent the whole time calculating my popcorn grabs to coincide with Sven’s, so that we could brush hands in the bag. I kept waiting for a scary part so I could reach over and grab his arm, but the scariest moment in the movie comes near the beginning, when Long Duk Dong swings down from the top bunk bed and says to Molly Ringwald, “What’s happenin’, hot stuff?”

I never clutched Sven’s arm, we never held hands, and during the part where Anthony Michael Hall makes out with teen hunk Michael Schoeffling’s slutty girlfriend, I was so embarrassed I got up and went to the bathroom. In hindsight, the entire movie was, for me, an exercise in sexual frustration. Watching it again, however, at the age of 32, I realized that it’s a damn good movie. I laughed my head off, and it wasn’t just the combination of influenza and San Miguel. Molly Ringwald is a charmer, her grandparents are deliciously clueless, and there is something simultaneously depressing and hilarious about having one’s sixteenth birthday totally overlooked by one’s parents.

What is it about Sixteen Candles that makes it stand the test of time? And does it have true staying power, some element of universality that surpasses the slut-glam style of the eighties and makes it a movie for all teenagers in all times? Or am I giving John Hughes unfair credit simply because, for me, Sixteen Candles was the right movie at the right moment, a film that spoke to my adolescent angst the same way David Lee Roth spoke to my adolescent lust?

Well, my husband was gone for several days, and it took me almost a week to get over the flu, so I had time to give this issue some serious thought. And I decided that Sixteen Candles does, indeed, deserve a rewind. At heart, this flick is about what all great teeny-bopper flicks are about: hope. What other message can one take from a film that allows uber-geek, freshman Anthony Michael Hall, to persuade the shy-yet-hot redheaded sophomore, Molly, to hand over her panties. And he doesn’t just get to carry the panties around in his pocket, he actually uses them for economic gain. As if that weren’t enough, he ends up doing the groove thing in a Rolls Royce with the hottest girl in school. All this way back in 1983, a good decade before the Internet boom launched geeks into a long-deserved chic-dom.

As the credits rolled, I found myself getting all nostalgic. It wasn’t just Molly Ringwald I was pining for. Whatever happened to the Stray Cats and the Thompson Twins, who lent their decidedly eighties-style talents to the soundtrack? Whatever happened to jelly shoes? More importantly, whatever happened to Sven? I wonder where he is now. I’d trade my old collection of chunky necklaces to know if he ever loved me the way that I loved him. I spent three of my most formative years daydreaming about that boy. I wanted to marry him. The last conversation we ever had was in 1988, the summer after our senior year of high school, at a Monkees concert at the Mobile Civic Center. I ran into him at the refreshment stand, where he was buying a Coke and hot dog for his date. I was drunk on Mad Dog 20/20. I said, “Sven, do you remember our first date?”

“It was our only date,” he said.

“I’d like to know one thing.”

As he paid for the refreshments, I thought about what that meant, how the girl was going to owe him at the end of the night because she didn’t bother to go Dutch.

“Why didn’t you kiss me?” I said.

“We were twelve.” He peeled the paper off the straw and slid it into the little hole in the plastic lid—always the gentleman.

“You were thirteen.”

He shrugged. “My mother told me not to.”

“It’s not too late.”

He glanced around to make the sure his date was nowhere in sight, then leaned forward and planted a wet one on my lips. To be honest, the kiss wasn’t very good. But it was, after all, the decade of disappointment. For the generation that came of age in the eighties, the best thing we had going was the occasional John Hughes movie, that particular brand of cinema created just for us, a simple, engaging story in which the put-upon teenager always came out on top. The best we could hope for were two beautiful hours in the dark when we could forget about Ronald Reagan and trickle-down economics, all the things that were going wrong in so many ways we couldn’t begin to count them. We had the movies, and that was good.