Life Moves Pretty Fast: the pleasures and pitfalls of 1980s cinema

Hadley Freeman's readings of 1980s films escape the anxiety of snobbery, but more daring would have been welcome.

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Life Moves Pretty Fast: the Lessons We Learned from 1980s Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Any More)
Hadley Freeman
Fourth Estate, 336pp, £12.99

Watching Ghostbusters at a movie theatre in Manhattan when she was six, Hadley Freeman had to wedge herself into her seat with her mother’s handbag so she wouldn’t slip down the back. She didn’t want to miss this – a film she would come to deem “the best, the most brilliant, the most extraordinary, the most deftly created piece of auteur film work of all time”. Freeman realises that this is the sort of thing cineastes normally say about the likes of Citizen Kane or Vertigo rather than a comedy about rogue ectoplasm but, she writes, “I thought they did this just as, when asked who they’d like to have at their dream dinner party they say Mother Teresa or Nelson Mandela, as opposed to who everybody would actually like, which is, obviously, Madonna and Bill Murray.”

Freeman is that undefeatable quarry: the merry philistine. Cultural tastes being the last refuge for the snobberies and attendant anxieties that used to attach themselves to class in Britain, there is great value for a writer as punchy and vivacious as Freeman in a sincere passion that horrifies the room. And decades don’t come much more horrifying than the 1980s. The 1960s always knew they were cool. The 1970s have received their revisionist due. But the go-getting, greed-is-good, need-for-speed 1980s? When the producer Jon Peters, the man who once permed Yentl’s hair, “commanded the kind of industry respect once accorded to [Robert] Altman”?

There’s a lovely moment near the start of this book when Freeman phones the film historian Peter Biskind, the king of 1970s revisionism and all things Altman-esque, for advice. “You should really write about Salvador,” he tells her. “That’s a fascinating film.” She doesn’t have the heart to tell him that by “1980s cinema” she doesn’t mean Oliver Stone’s piercing disquisition on US foreign policy in Latin America – she means Three Men and a Baby.

“I love the silliness of 1980s movies, their sweetness, the stirring music,” she writes. “I adore montages and anyone who doesn’t thrill to a power ballad is lying to themselves.” Naturally, readers at this point muster their best Larry David squint to ascertain if she is being ironic and she is, kind of, about three-quarters of the time. The rest is spent truffle-hunting and coming up with a series of endearingly heartfelt observations – burrowing into Dan Aykroyd’s script for Ghostbusters, for example, to find the warmth of its male friendships rooted in the death, a couple of years earlier, of John Belushi; or discovering in awkward, cardigan-clad, plain-Jane heroines such as Ally Sheedy in St Elmo’s Fire and Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink – “the first girl I’d ever seen on-screen who felt recognisable to me” – a welcome respite from the glittering makeover queens of today’s romcoms.

The teen movies of the 1980s were “so much more innocent and politically engaged and female-friendly and even moral” than those of today, she writes. There are no films, of course, quite like the films that beam into your teenage cerebellum but there are larger tectonic forces at work. You can play the “X wouldn’t get made today” game with almost any film made before 2000. For one thing, the audience is younger and more international than in Freeman’s day – an explanation she entertains but brushes aside in favour of a series of generalisations as broad and billowy as Mel Gibson’s mullet: “American culture has grown increasingly conservative since the 1980s.” America’s first black president? Gay marriage? The rollback of the Confederate flag? Let’s put it down to bad timing. “Before the 1980s young women didn’t tend to do too well in teen films,” she writes. “By the 1970s teen films were utterly devoid of admirable female characters.” What about Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause? Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween? Jodie Foster in Freaky Friday?

It used to be the right that specialised in this sort of thing: fretting about youthful morals being bombarded with liberal Hollywood propaganda. Now it is the left, complaining of the opposite, although Freeman possesses a secret weapon untapped by the Michael Medveds and Andrew Breitbarts of this world: a sense of humour. “There is still a large part of me that believes I haven’t actually had sex yet because none of my sexual encounters has started by lip-syncing ‘Love Is Strange’,” she writes of Dirty Dancing, a film whose frank portrayal of teen abortion wins it many points, even if her definition of “pro-choice” also includes Fatal Attraction because of the scene in which Michael Douglas begs Glenn Close’s psycho killer to get an abortion. Hmm, maybe.

Freeman’s thinking tends towards the tautological: I like Dirty Dancing. I am a feminist. Therefore Dirty Dancing is feminist. But movies are a mercurial, ideologically impure medium. It’s perfectly possible to detect a pernicious right-wing agenda in a film, turn it 90 degrees and see Trotskyite malfeasance in every nook and cranny – at least, if the movie is any good.

I’d have liked a little more daring in her readings, a little more sympathy for the devil. I happen to think that, for all the misogyny of Fatal Attraction, both real and imagined, Glenn Close’s performance is of such stature and the points that her character, Alex Forrest, makes are so reasonable that it is entirely possible to watch the film from her point of view. Michael Douglas’s character is a dick. He does owe her something. That rabbit is asking for it. Freeman’s tolerance levels for ideological impurity usually hinge on whether she likes a film or not. John Hughes’s Republicanism is quietly forgiven and the beloved Ghostbusters defended from charges of sexism because Sigourney Weaver rolls her eyes at the lecherous Venkman to such effect. “To accuse Ghostbusters of sexism is to apply a very basic algorithm to its sexual politics.” Got it. Sass from a woman in a supporting role makes up for ghosts offering oral sex.

The films of Judd Apatow, on the other hand, repeatedly come in for a mauling for the “raunch” and unchecked “misogyny” of their man-boy protagonists, unlike, say, Barry Levinson’s Diner, which takes great care “to emphasise the cruelty of the young men’s immaturity”. Freeman must be forgetting Apatow’s role in shepherding and shaping projects for Lena Dunham, Kristen Wiig and Amy Schumer, whose Trainwreck is ripping it up at cinemas this summer. Apatow’s raunch is unisex and will, in a few years, be forgotten: what distinguishes him are his honesty, sharp but not mean, and the complicated truths he tells about the gulf between what men and women expect from one other and what they are likely to get. Calling him a woman-hater is inadequate.

Disapproval rarely works when it comes to the movies. Nobody was ever persuaded out of their reaction to a film by someone else frowning. Enthusiasm, on the other hand, is its own argument, irrefutable, and, when not waylaid by its boo-hiss politics, Life Moves Pretty Fast moves along on great gusts of the stuff. Freeman’s chapter on Eddie Murphy is worth the price of admission alone. Everything clicks into place: sharp-as-a-tack observations on Murphy’s testy relationship with Richard Pryor, racial politics and the way disguise liberated him from the box of his own superstardom but, above all, an unfakeable yodel of appreciation for a performer who “could swear like opera singers can sing and say more with his eyes in two seconds than other comedians manage with their voices in a year”. Don’t tell Peter Biskind: I think Hadley Freeman just found her Salvador

This article appears in the 13 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Battle for Calais