Books

'Life Moves Pretty Fast' Hits Some Slowdowns

Freeman frequently complains about Hollywood's stereotypes about what male and female audiences are willing to watch, yet her own tastes are pretty stereotypical.


Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don't Learn Them From Movies Anymore)

Publisher: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks
ISBN: 978-1-5011-3045-8
Author: Hadley Freeman
Price: $16.00
Format: Paperback
Length: 339 pages
US Publication Date: 2016-06
UK Publication Date: 2015-05
Amazon

This may be the summer of 2016, but a lot of people seem to be obsessed with the movies of the '80s. Perhaps you've clicked on one of the many online articles incredulous that this summer marked the 25th anniversary of Tim Burton's Batman and the 30th anniversaries of Ferris Bueller's Day Off and Top Gun. Or maybe you've heard that this fall on US TV, FOX is bringing us a Lethal Weapon TV series while remakes of Ghostbusters and Adventures In Babysitting are about to hit the box office.

So it makes perfect sense that Simon & Schuster would decide to reissue Hadley Freeman's Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don't Learn Them From Movies Anymore), which was originally published a year ago in the UK. The US edition, which features a bonus chapter mostly about the 1987 comedy Baby Boom, comes in a cover made to resemble a stack of brightly colored VHS tapes and advertises that you can learn “how to be cool” by watching Bill Murray, “how to be funny” from studying Eddie Murphy, and watch When Harry Met Sally to see how “relationships really work”. Unfortunately, this makes the book sound much more fun than it actually is.

For example, what's the first thing that comes to your mind when someone mentions Dirty Dancing? Today we quote “Nobody puts Baby in a corner” or remember the epic “I've Had The Time of My Life” dance routine. Hollywood often paints it as the ultimate feel-good “chick flick”. Dirty Dancing is what Jess watches to cheer herself up with after a bad break-up in the pilot of New Girl, or something the teenage daughter on The Goldbergs used to bond with her embarrassingly overprotective mother in a recent episode.

In Freeman's book, however, the first chapter is all about Dirty Dancing's “real message”: the horrors of illegal abortions. The author does give a cute anecdote about how her ten-year-old self went to see the movie three separate times in order to look cooler than her friend who went to see Can't Buy Me Love instead, and features some interesting backstory about the film's original development and marketing from writer Eleanor Bergstein, but this eventually trickles down in a multi-page rant about how modern movie studios are unwilling to show realistic portrayals of teens' sex lives. At the end of the chapter, she tries to liven things up with a top ten list of “The Best Power Ballads on a Eighties Movie Soundtrack”, but its placement here seems strange.

There's also a little bit of false advertising going on here, as the press copy makes it out to look as if this book discusses much more than it actually does. Many iconic '80s movies, like Stand By Me, Highlander, The Goonies, The Little Mermaid and more, get barely a passing mention in the text, and the author admittedly points out in the introduction that she “pretty much” ignores anything in the horror, action, sci-fi, or war genres.

These type of books, like the excellent Talking to Girls About Duran Duran by Rob Sheffield or Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont's Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? before it, are supposed to be fun, guided tours through pop culture's past. People like reading about the things they loved in the past, and how popular or underrated those things were, and if these things are punctuated with amusing “Me too!” moments from a likable writer's past or a little behind-the-scenes information on such, then you've found a great book.

Freeman doesn't completely fail on this front, as her chapter on The Princess Bride is easily the most enjoyable. In addition to her memories of seeing the then-underrated film in a movie theater with her little sister, who then became obsessed with it, Hadley gives a well-researched account on the making of the movie and the friendships amongst its stars. Parts of the chapter on Ghostbusters, however, describing the cast's script-writing process and the film's overall message about friendship and hard work are also good, but they also unnecessarily include some completely ridiculous ideas about the “accidental homoeroticism” of The Lost Boys and Top Gun.

The book is also weighed down by the “why we don't learn them from movies anymore” part of its title. Freeman is not a fan of today's influx of superhero movies, and she makes that blatantly obvious by implying they are all mostly the same and that is all Hollywood is willing to produce these days. An entire chapter is devoted to the Batman movies, but despite a few mentions of her teenage admiration for Tim Burton and his version's sense of fun, Freeman mostly complains about the seriousness of The Dark Knight trilogy, repeating the same clunky “Bush post-9/11” analogy that various newspapers tried to set forth during the release of the movies.

It's also interesting to note that for someone who frequently complains about Hollywood's stereotypes about what male and female audiences are willing to watch, her own personal tastes are pretty stereotypical. About 1986's US Air Force-themed Iron Eagle, she says “apparently guys really love this movie” and dismisses Weird Science as being a “dopey-ass teen comedy” that men “retain a strong fondness for”, while referring to Steel Magnolias as a “proper women's movie”, and praising Dirty Dancing's objectification of Patrick Swayze.

But despite the fact that she frequently gives away the entire plot of a movie covered, reading Life Moves Pretty Fast will likely make you want to watch or re-watch at least one of the movies it discusses. Freeman ends the book with a top 20 list of “Eighties Movies I Didn't Look at Properly in This Book That You Really Need in Your Life”, leading us to think that a possible sequel is in the works. Hopefully, like most of the movies it details, the next one won't be so serious.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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