Neil Calloway wonders if judging films by today’s standards is worthwhile…
It’s started, and we’re only going to see more of it; the reassessing of old films according to today’s political climate. It’s inevitable, and if we’re honest, has been going on in other ways for years. Think of all those articles about films that were ignored for awards a decade ago, or the rehabilitation of 1970s New Hollywood Cinema that came when Easy Riders and Raging Bulls was published. Reappraising films is a big part of film criticism.
Recently, two pieces have come out that look again at films from the 1980s. Molly Ringwald has written an article from a 2018 perspective on her collaborations with John Hughes, notably The Breakfast Club, where she claims her character is sexually harassed by Bender, played by Judd Nelson, and notes that despite this, they end up as a couple by the film’s end. It’s a fair observation, and one that shows not only how quickly films date, but how often we ignore problematic elements of films we love. It’s harder to ignore when it’s a film’s star who is pointing out the uncomfortable truth of the narrative and not some academic whose job is just to come up with alternative readings of films. It also stops the lazy headlines about “snowflake millenials” not being about to cope with sex and violence that accompanied some recent assessments of old Bond movies. This isn’t someone taking offence for the sake of taking offence, it’s someone who was there being a critical friend to a piece of work, and a writer-director, that they love.
Another re-evaluation of a classic 80s movie came with a critic’s round table discussing Working Girl on its 30th anniversary, to be found here. It’s fair to say the film, perhaps surprisingly given the fashions featured in it, has dated rather well. Far from being Reaganite propaganda, it shines as a feminist classic, with elements that are so relevant to today it’s almost spooky; Kevin Spacey’s cameo as a lecherous businessman is probably closer to reality for both him, and a certain Manhattan property developer turned politician than anyone could have realised when the film was made. It’s exactly the sort of film that would have acres of newsprint and gigabytes of Tumblr posts devoted to it if it came out now. For what it’s worth, in my opinion it’s also far superior to Hughes’s fine but perhaps overrated work.
Reappraising films – reappraising anything from the past – is not only welcome, it’s necessary if you want to learn from it. The trouble comes if you impose today’s standards on art from the past. The Breakfast Club would probably be more diverse, a little more equal, if it was made today, but that doesn’t stop it being a decent film. A friend of mine recently pointed out that Ferris Bueller would be a Trump supporter today, an amusing take on the politics of the film, and one that probably fits in with Molly Ringwald’s view of her work with John Hughes. Just because time and circumstance bring new insight into a film, it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it completely.
Neil Calloway is a pub quiz extraordinaire and Top Gun obsessive. Check back here every Sunday for future instalments.