Three new memoirs by people who grew up in the 1980s argue that movies were their saving grace. Those bigger-than-life projections offered a lifeline to worlds of wonder, but not just any kind of movie mattered: Only the teen movies of the 1980s really understood these kids and offered them solace.
Scoff if you like, but several of these movies have already taken their place in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry. Such films as “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “Back to the Future” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” now sit in places of honor next to classics such as “Gone with the Wind,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Lawrence of Arabia.”
Kevin Smokler’s memoir, “Brat Pack America: A Love Letter to ’80s Teen Movies” (Rare Bird Books, 288 pp., $16.95 paper), is a love letter to those movies that portrayed teenagers “as they had never been shown on-screen before . . . real people at the center of their own stories,” instead of filtered reflections from adult eyes. Smokler also argues for the importance of “place” in teen movies, of locations so vividly depicted that viewers want “to enter the movie itself.” He notes that these stories were generally set in small towns or suburbs, where they projected an innocent atmosphere of “poodle skirts, pompadours, and letterman sweaters.” Smokler singles out screenwriter-director John Hughes as “the cartographer of Brat Pack America,” with Hughes’ fictional suburb of Shermer, Illinois, serving as the “capital city” of teen movies.
Hughes is also the focus of Jason Diamond’s coming-of-age memoir, “Searching for John Hughes: Or Everything I Thought I Needed to Know About Life I Learned From Watching ’80s Movies” (William Morrow, 304 pp., $15.99 paper). The founder of the literary website Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Diamond was not the cool rich kid who showed up to school with “a wealth of ski lift tags hanging from the zipper of his North Face jacket.” He grew up in a Chicago suburb that could have passed for “Teenland, U.S.A.” and was about 13 when he began to think of living his life as a John Hughes story. Diamond points to “Sixteen Candles” as the movie that established Hughes as the 1980s version of “what J.D. Salinger had been to a previous postwar generation: an adult giving voices to teenagers.” In his 20s, Diamond decided to legitimize his obsession by writing a biography of Hughes. However, the more things in his own life didn’t turn out as he had planned, “the more I’d cling to his films and their portrayal of the fictional universe that look so familiar to my own world.” Eventually, Diamond grew up, went to work and got married. By the end of his memoir, he explains, “I was no longer searching for John Hughes. . . . I was my own person and wanted to tell my own stories now.”
Hadley Freeman acknowledges that these films have had a rotten reputation, “dismissed as being drecky” and “faintly embarrassing.” But in “Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned From Eighties Movies (And Why We Don’t Learn Them From Movies Anymore)” (Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $16 paper), she’s determined to elevate the place of 1980s teen movies in the film pantheon. A writer for the Guardian newspaper in England, Freeman was born in New York and remembers how teen movies captivated her. “Everyone I know in my generation feels exactly the same way,” she writes. They provided the template for what is funny (Eddie Murphy), what is cool (Bill Murray), and what is sexy (Kathleen Turner). Altogether, they “taught me more about life than any library or teacher ever would.” In response to the pooh-poohs of previous generations, she smartly invokes the “thirty-year rule” to put things right: In the natural course of generational change, the teen movies dismissed as trash 30 years ago are now finding redemption as “their original fans grow up and insist that the culture of their youth was ACTUALLY really important and ACTUALLY nothing’s been as good since.” She concludes by aptly quoting Ferris Bueller: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”