As the near-hysteria that greeted Back to the Future’s recent anniversary conclusively proved, ’80s movies are still capable of generating a huge amount of affection in audiences today, inspiring feelings that seem to go beyond mere nostalgia or sentimentality to something much more profound. At the same time, it’s no secret that the ’80s are often viewed as the decade that quality forgot in terms of cinema, the period in which franchises, sequels and lazy, easy money-grabbing by studios took over from the auteur cinema and personal visions that characterised American films in the ’70s.
That paradox is explored by Hadley Freeman in Life Moves Pretty Fast, a revisionist take on ’80s mainstream cinema that’s as funny and sheerly enjoyable as it is subversive and critically insightful. As she humorously acknowledges in the introduction, Freeman isn’t interested in unearthing undiscovered gems of ’80s movie-making, or in offering appraisals of “serious”, already-lauded works.
On the contrary, Freeman’s tastes (mostly formed, as they were for a generation of us, by a whole lot of time spent in local video rental stores) lie firmly in the (often disreputable) Hollywood mainstream. “No one needs telling that Blade Runner, or Aliens, or Scarface, or Full Metal Jacket are Good Eighties Movies,” Freeman notes. (Though one might add that Pauline Kael, who very brilliantly trashed all of these films, would certainly have needed telling.) “I wanted to write about why the Fun Eighties Movies – like Die Hard, Steel Magnolias, Pretty in Pink and Adventures in Babysitting — are also Good Eighties Movies” (p.7).
As such, Freeman’s focus is openly and unabashedly personal. She selects films that she absolutely adores, and bases each chapter around a valuable “lesson” that she feels that the movie imparts: “The Princess Bride: True Love Isn’t Just About the Kissing Parts”; “Pretty in Pink: Awkward Girls Should Never Have Makeovers”; Steel Magnolias: Women Are Interesting”. As the book’s title (drawn from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) suggests, and its subtitle, “The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Any More)” makes clear, Freeman is deeply concerned with how American cinema has changed since the ’80s, in ways that, for the most part, can hardly be viewed as positive.
Indeed, the most important aspect of Life Moves Pretty Fast is the contrasts that it draws between Hollywood then and Hollywood now, and its conclusion that a whole lot of quirky, personal projects that were cheerfully greenlit by studios in the ’80s would stand no chance of being made today.
Freeman sets about this task with great humour, acknowledging that she could easily be taken for a “Mad Ol’ Granny Time, sitting in my rocking chair and reminiscing about the glory days of art when people made PROPER movies like Twins and Weekend at Bernies” (p.289). Ultimately, however, her conclusions are both sobering and convincing. Comparing ’80s movies to their allegedly more progressive ’00s counterparts, Freeman finds the newer films to be a good deal less progressive in terms of their attitudes to a range of social issues.
Especially strong in this regard is Freeman’s attention to gender and women’s roles. Whether it’s the awkward, quirkily-dressed teen heroines of John Hughes, the female friendship films exemplified by Steel Magnolias or the intelligent treatment of abortion in Dirty Dancing and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Freeman finds ’80s movies to be a lot more “politically engaged and female-friendly and even moral” (p.15) than their more contemporary equivalents, and a vast improvement on the retrograde likes of Juno and Knocked Up. As such, her analysis both draws on and valuably challenges the work of critics such as Susan Faludi, who famously argued in Backlash that the ’80s represented an absolute nadir in terms of female representation on screen.
Freeman isn’t blinkered: she acknowledges that ’80s cinema could be hugely problematic on a number of issues. Yet she’s very clear about what ’80s Hollywood movies offered that contemporary ones don’t: namely, a sense of ordinary people’s lives and relatable, everyday scenarios.
That the book feels open and expansive rather than insular or hermetic is also down to her skill in using her personal enthusiasms to rove as widely as possible. Encompassing stats and some great, insightful interviews (with Molly Ringwald, Kathleen Turner, Robert Harling, Amy Heckerling, and Ivan Reitman, amongst many others), each chapter has a clear sense of purpose and argument while also making room for pleasing digressions. Freeman’s take on When Harry Met Sally…, for example, is at once a gleeful celebration of a movie that she openly admits was life-changing for her; a shrewd analysis of what’s ailing the contemporary Hollywood romcom; and a loving tribute to Nora Ephron. Only the chapter on Ghostbusters, which she reads – very interestingly – in terms of its take on male friendship and masculinity, gets a little tangled with its segue into Top Gun and other Bruckheimer/Simpson productions.
Freeman’s jokey, hyper, somewhat Caitlin Moran-style prose – complete with capital letters for effusive points, funny footnotes and “amirite?” interjections — occasionally grates. But for the most part, her enthusiasm is more disarming than irritating, and, unlike Moran, it doesn’t blunt the sharpness of her insights, either. She’s wonderfully astute on the trajectory of Eddie Murphy’s and Tim Burton’s careers, and her demolition of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films – which she dismisses as po-faced, pretentious, and thoroughly dubious politically – is especially delicious. The lists that she uses to break up the chapters are also great fun: check out, in particular, “Top Five Steve Guttenberg Moments” (only five, really?!) and inevitably, “The Ten Best Power Ballads on an Eighties Movie Soundtrack”.
For readers who grew up loving a lot of mainstream American movies, but became increasingly alienated from them as the ’00s progressed, Life Moves Pretty Fast will have a special appeal, as Freeman brilliantly and entertainingly elucidates both the roots of our enthusiasm and of our current discontent. Amusing, engaged, and infused with its author’s own infectious movie love, Life Moves Pretty Fast is a terrific piece of work, and Freeman overlooks enough movies to make a possible sequel an exciting prospect, too.