One of my favourite movie websites is The Shiznit. If you’ve never had the pleasure, do check it out. What I like about it is it’s a site that has a habit of asking the question I wanted to ask, but in about half the word count. Were he around today, I’m quietly confident that George Orwell would follow The Shiznit on Twitter.
The reason I bring the site up here – and thus prove my point about my own wordiness – is a question they asked Edgar Wright when on the junket trail for The World’s End. For they cut straight to the nub of it: what’s the film about, and then, what’s it really about?
On the surface, Hadley Freeman’s new book, Life Moves Pretty Fast, is her love letter to the 80s movies that she grew up with. Under the surface? It’s still that love letter, but it’s also a fascinating examination of how movies have evolved today, and how major movies are increasingly avoiding the substantive issues and relatable scenarios that underpinned the best of the 80s movie output. Why, she asks, don’t we make movies like they used to anymore? By the time you get to the end of page 306, you’ll have a fair idea, if you didn’t before. With the bonus of getting to read about Rick Moranis along the way.
After all, it’s little secret to most of us who follow cinema that the creative risk has seeped out of big movies. And what’s interesting about the approach that Freeman takes is that her book isn’t about niche films of the decade. It’s about the big ones. The ones that we used to endlessly watch on VHS, tolerating every blur on the screen and every degradation of the audio. Given that most film books steer clear of the centre ground when looking back so relatively recently, it makes Life Moves Pretty Fast instantly accessible.
What helps too is that Freeman’s clearly put her back into speaking to the people who have insights. In particular, Dirty Dancing writer Eleanor Bergstein has plenty to offer, and it’s hard not to feel a little deflated when Ron Howard says that “I doubt very much I could get a studio to make Cocoon today”.
Freeman frames her book using well chosen examples. Some are more obvious than others: Ghostbusters and Back To The Future are shoo-ins for inclusion, for a start. Furthermore, if you had a wager that the name of John Hughes would crop up more than a dozen times, then go and collect your winnings at the window right now. Yet what’s interesting here is that in examining films generally regarded as big ones, there’s a thorough, engaging explanation of what’s actually going on in films that were very much mainstream.
Ghostbusters, argues Freeman, is a film where guys are content to just be friends. Back To The Future? Well, it’s not really Marty McFly’s film. It’s the George and Lorraine story, and both characters have shades of grey about them. One of the strongest chapters covers Dirty Dancing, a film I can’t say I venture towards that often. As Freeman explores, it’s the fact that it so openly talks about the issue of abortion, talking to an audience that rarely gets exposed to it in a modern movie. And to wrap it into such a piece of popular entertainment. Even in the 80s, we learn, it took quite a battle.
Freeman’s writing is bursting with love and enthusiasm for the films themselves, and it’s utterly infectious. When she gets to the chapters on The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally in particular, you can almost visualise the steam rising from her keyboard.
Some of the arguments she posits are inevitably going to be familiar to those who care about movies already, and maybe slipping in a full chapter about one film slightly less on people’s radar would have been welcome (although each chapter ends with a list, the contents of which could fill a watching list for a while). That, and one or two of the modern targets of her criticism are already well-beaten ones, with the likes of Judd Apatow and Michael Bay for a start taking a hit or two (although Freeman doesn’t go through the motions at all with her analysis). There’s perhaps a deeper story to be told behind why the likes of their films have particularly struck gold.
Yet it’s a minor criticism for a book that manages to be both thought-provoking and hugely entertaining. Freeman is no snark, and thankfully no sycophant. No, she’s a movie fan, who wants the movies arriving now to be better. That’s something we can happily get behind, and her book is one we can happily recommend too.
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