Saturday, July 03, 2010


Looking Back at Future From the Present

By Ali Arikan
Today marks the 25th anniversary of Back to the Future, which is only five years shy of the three decades Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) accidentally travels back in time in Robert Zemeckis’ post-Capraesque science fiction comedy. Indeed, a similar scenario might not have the same effect now as it did in 1985, since the main differences between 1980 and 2010 seem to be more technological and only slightly political in nature (the post 9/11 world has more in common with the latter days of the Cold War). The significance of Back to the Future is the asymmetry of the ethos and the lifestyle of the two time periods with the post-war boom of the mid-'50s in spectacular contrast with the post-recession gloom of the mid-'80s. As per the title of Rudolph Maté’s 1951 sci-fi allegory, it shows a metaphorical collision of two worlds, of hope and despair, of the promise of triumph and the reality of tragedy.

The film opens on a variety of clocks and their cacophonous tick-tock-tick-tocks, the elemental and unstoppable passage of time represented by a pan across classical clocks, pendulum clocks, one where a little figure of a man hangs from the minute hand a la Harold Lloyd’s clock tower stunt from 1923’s Safety Last! (which would later be recreated by Christopher Lloyd’s mad-scientist Doc Emmett Brown at the Hill Valley clock tower), a novelty one of Felix the Cat (a tip of the hat, perhaps, to the classical zaniness of those early cartoons) and an owl with its huge, curious eyes — Marty’s father George (Crispin Glover) lies that he was bird-watching just before he met his mother Lorraine (Lea Thompson) — among others. Then we are treated to a host of Rube Goldbergian contraptions made from household objects such as a coffee machine and a can opener. Suddenly the TV comes alive, and the anchor gives the latest on the case of the stolen plutonium, claimed by a group of Libyan terrorists. As the newsreel ends, the door opens, and we see Marty’s feet as he enters the house and calls out for Doc. He sets his skateboard down, which slowly wheels away under the bed and comes to an abrupt stop when it hits the metallic box with a sign that reads “Plutonium.” All this is in one magnificent opening shot, in which Zemeckis deftly weaves his motifs and foreshadows the later events and themes to come. In fact, Zemeckis and his cinematographer Dean Cundey are uncharacteristically patient with their shots, most of them lasting just less than a minute, uncommon then, unheard of now.

Even though the film’s 1989 sequel is fashionably maligned for being convoluted and exposition-heavy, the original Back to the Future has an equally inelegant set-up. The mechanics of time travel, the familial dynamics, George’s relationship with his bully supervisor Biff (Thomas F. Wilson), as well as Marty’s troubles at school are laboriously told, and the film only ramps up once Marty finds himself in the past, and even then, some of the gags are overly cute (“Well, that is your name, isn't it? Calvin Klein? It's written all over your underwear.” Ho-fricking-hum). What elevates the film above and beyond similar high-concept comedies that followed, however, are the combination of the elements of its execution: the whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts.

With his longtime writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis fashions here a subtly subversive script that plays around with the paradoxes of time travel when Marty inadvertently takes over his dad’s place as his mother’s high-school crush, injecting Oedipal angst (“You’re so hoooaaa…young”) into the surface wholesomeness of Norman Rockwell Americana. The influence of executive producer Steven Spielberg (whose misunderstood 1941 also was written by Gale and Zemeckis) is palpable: the feel of Hill Valley, in both the present and the past, has more in common with the ironic small towns of Poltergeist and Gremlins. Obviously a throwback to Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, Hill Valley implies that something unpleasant might be bubbling under the surface. As in Gary Ross’ Pleasantville, the most successful one of the numerous films inspired by Back to the Future, it argues for diversity and progress, however uncomfortable the process might be.

The film’s universal appeal stems from its ultimate premise: the ability to go back and make things right. Earlier in the film, as she knocks back a massive glass of vodka, the “old” Lorraine laments “we all make mistakes in life, children.” Her redemption will come from her son as Marty truly understands what it was that made his parents who they are. Beyond the obvious “cool” factor of seeing your folks as their younger selves, the implication is the true bridging of the generational gap. If the film has an uncomfortably Reaganite ending, in which mindless consumer capitalism of the '80s is vindicated as its own reward, it is, nonetheless, built upon the concept of the nuclear family. This is the flipside of It’s a Wonderful Life where communal content and personal happiness are not mutually exclusive. It’s a fantasy, as our current economic climate also attests, but then so is the film.

Still, though, Marty McFly has more in common with George Bailey than the film’s slightly cynical conclusion suggests. His adventure in the '50s is literally based on self-preservation, but this is only derivative of his true goal. Recall the aforementioned scene at the dinner table, as Marty looks longingly, sadly, but lovingly at his parents, wondering where it all went wrong. The same look adorns his face just before he says goodbye to Doc, and the frequent times he runs into the younger selves of the townsfolk. Ostensibly selfish, his quest is, nonetheless, for the good of the community: personal success is just a welcome by-product. Back to the Future has a joyously optimistic view of the human race: it believes that, given the means, we would stand up to the physical laws that govern the universe (which Carl Sagan famously called “god”) just to make our loved ones happy. No wonder the film’s signature tune is called The Power of Love.

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What I love most about this film (and part II) is the attention to detail. A passing mention of the crazy man obsessed with breeding pine trees, Marty running over one when he goes back to the 1950s and when he returns the mall is now Lone Pine Mall instead of Twin Pines Mall. I also wonder why Lea Thompson was so great here and never this good again playing so many variations and ages of the same character. Come to think of it, where is Lea Thompson?
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