Hadley Freeman is a self-confessed eighties movie fanatic, so much so that she has written a book outlining why American cinema in that decade was a golden age. She joined Jenny Lacey in front of a packed audience at Watershed to discuss Life Moves Pretty Fast, which takes its title from one of her favourite films, the John Hughes’ classic Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (her joint favourite being Ghostbusters). More than just being a good way to spend a few nostalgic hours, Freeman showed how we – and especially filmmakers of today – can learn a few important lessons from the eighties’ big screen hits, illustrated with clips from some of the best.
The down-to-earth Freeman made clear that it is the entertaining, well-made mainstream movies which she reveres rather than the pretentious, highbrow type. This includes genres which are today often considered trashy, like romcoms and teen films. Unsurprisingly, it was the widely hailed master of teen films, John Hughes, who came up first in the discussion. Freeman had heaps of praise for Hughes as well as many insightful anecdotes about his life and work, but what inspired most enthusiasm from her about his work was the way he always took teenagers seriously and never shied away from tackling important social issues.
Hughes’ championing of the weird, unconventional kids was also celebrated by Freeman, who pointed to the lack of makeovers in his films (excluding Allison in The Breakfast Club, who Freeman adamantly believes should never have ditched the black and donned an Alice band), perhaps best shown by Andie’s refusal to neglect her unique look and conform to the rich kids’ style in Pretty in Pink. This was compared to teen films of the nineties and beyond, where a makeover for the heroine depressingly becomes an almost mandatory feature.
One film in particular that I came away thinking differently about was Dirty Dancing, as Freeman drew attention to its undeniable but routinely undetected status as a feminist film. The clip where dancer Penny returns in agony after having a dangerous illegal abortion was aptly chosen to show how it explicitly deals with feminist issues. Freeman noted how if you try to think of a contemporary romantic drama which so openly deals with abortion, you will be hard pushed to name even one, whereas it was commonplace in the eighties – a mark of the increasing conservatism in film which disappoints the writer.
Being Jewish herself, Freeman was also struck by how Dirty Dancing is not only told through the female gaze, but specifically a Jewish female’s gaze. Again, this is a perspective which Freeman argued would be practically impossible to find in a contemporary romantic drama. After hearing her take on the film, it is hard to believe it is so readily dismissed as another unremarkable chick-flick.
If there is a feeling that stuck with me after the talk, aside from the desire to go and have an eighties movie marathon, it was that audiences today are being let down. By highlighting the endless ways in which the narratives of films nowadays are less progressive than their eighties counterparts, Freeman proved her point that there are a host of reasons to look to that era of cinema for life lessons and not much to celebrate about today’s blockbusters. It would be refreshing if the film industry was to share her infectious passion for the 1980s and create more mainstream films which could live up to those admiringly referred to in the talk. At least for now there are countless classics to re-watch.