Because today is #BacktotheFutureDay – the day that Marty arrived in the future in BTTF2 – I’m going to shake up the usual format of this blog, and punt my weekly autism post until next week. Thanks for understanding, loyal readers!
Today, October 21, 2015, marks the semi-official day that popular nostalgia for Back to the Future becomes as potent as the force that Back to the Future itself employed regarding the 1950s. When we look back on the 1980s through the lens of Back to the Future, we see a lot more than life-preserver jackets and Huey Lewis. We miss a time that an utterly original screenplay – and not a focus-tested, pre-branded product – could produce the #1 film of the year. We miss comedy blending so (apparently) effortlessly with sci-fi. We miss Robert Zemeckis only using 32 effects shots. We miss a time of melody-based instrumental soundtrack music that took over films. Whatever else you want to say about blockbusters of the last twenty years, they don’t have instantly recognizable original instrumental themes like those from Jaws, Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Beverly Hills Cop, The Terminator, and Back to the Future.
And yet, the brilliant title Back to the Future has always implied that the future is as important as the past. We are riding on a constant time-stream, always wondering if, and hoping that, we’ve done enough for the past on behalf of the future. Perhaps that’s one reason that there are so many partisans of the second film (I’ve already made clear that I think it could have been significantly improved) – it centralizes and dramatizes this oscillation between memories and aspirations. Other time-travel stories are about this, but the stakes are different – often survival of the species. We’re more like Marty McFly than we are like John Connor. And so today we pause to reflect on a milestone, telling ourselves that we did enough. Right?
Are we ever finished? The word “Concluded” in today’s subject line is an invocation of the final title card of BTTF2 – where the franchise promises that the next installment will be the final one, announcing “To Be Concluded”. Apparently Robert Zemeckis even insisted on including footage from BTTF3 afterward, so that viewers wouldn’t feel as hung out to dry as he had felt while watching the end of The Empire Strikes Back. (Steven Spielberg would later say that BTTF2 and BTTF3 were released too close together – six months apart – for both to be entirely successful, a release strategy that might also be credited to Zemeckis’ insistence on closure.) The phrase “To Be Concluded,” clearly pilfered from mini-series comics at the time, for example the original Wolverine comic book series, causes its own wave of nostalgia today beyond thoughts of comics: you mean there was a time when filmmakers actually promised that a franchise would end? Yes, Virginia, there was.
It’s worth recalling Robert Zemeckis’ integrity, because he certainly isn’t taking much of a victory lap today. Compared to the way 2001: A Space Odyssey was understood in 2001 as a Kubrick project, compared to how often Spielberg’s name has come up in relation to 2015’s #1 film so far, Jurassic World, and how often George Lucas’s name is coming up in relation to the 2015 film that will eventually earn even more, Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, Zemeckis is like an odd man out. This ought to be his time: Cast Away 2, namely The Martian, is the #1 film of the month. But I guess you’re only as good as your latest, and The Walk failed to break into a run. Still, for the guy who made at least two of America’s favorite films, one being Forrest Gump, it’s a little surprising that his name is so rarely mentioned in all the Back to the Future hype.
Is Zemeckis becoming as obsolete as a fax machine? You’d almost think so, to read this, where he says Back to the Future wouldn’t be made in today’s, uh, future. Let me add to Zemeckis’ sentiments and say that the past wouldn’t have worked either. For a movie that’s so much about time and timing, Back to the Future was in fact quite the beneficiary of good timing. The script was completed in 1981, but had it been made then, and released in 1982, it’s hard to imagine that it would have enjoyed quite the same reception as it did in 1985 (becoming the #1 film of the year, #8 film of the 1980s). Had the film been set in 1952 and 1982, what we consider the 50s and 80s would barely have been recognizable. Even if the filmmakers had set their story in 1955 and 1985, from Hollywood’s perspective, anything made in 1982 would more or less have reflected the industry’s 70s hangover – shaggy teens, deep alienation, overt liberal bias. (And of course it wouldn’t have starred Michael J. Fox, who wasn’t yet even a TV star.) Hollywood’s most Reaganite movies happened after Reagan was re-elected – Top Gun, Fatal Attraction, Wall Street. It’s the difference between the existentially conflicted First Blood (1982) and the take-no-prisoners Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), between the still-underdoggy Rocky III (1982) and the screw-you-Commies Rocky IV (1985). (Those two Stallone sequels were the #2 and #3 films of 1985, after BTTF).
Back to the Future also caught, even as it superseded, a wave of teen-oriented flicks that was only a minor tide in 1982. Part of this wave reflected the end of single-screen venues and the opening of multiplexes in malls; Hollywood developed products that mallgoers might recognize as their own. John Hughes was nobody in 1982, but after the base-hit successes of Porky’s (1981), Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), The Outsiders (1983), Risky Business (1983), and WarGames (1983), Hughes got a budget to make Sixteen Candles (1984) and follow it up with The Breakfast Club (1985) and Weird Science (1985) and others. Of course, Back to the Future was seen by people who never saw any of those films, but they’d heard something about this teen film boomlet, and the slammed lockers and bully-nerd conflicts of BTTF was one way to see what it was about. (Also, thanks to Ghostbusters (1984) and Gremlins (1984), the latter of which was also teenage-oriented, America was prepared for clean, slick comedy-sci-fi in a manner that it wasn’t in 1982.)
Back to the Future has become such a THING that it’s hard to place it alongside the John Hughes/Brat Pack generation – it’s fair to say that when your friends, or a network, is having a Breakfast Club/Ferris Bueller-style movie marathon, BTTF isn’t part of the party. Yet BTTF was, as much as any script Hughes ever wrote, a commentary on adolescence. What do teens want to do? Escape, particularly by using their new power (a license to drive, which was also the title of a film back then) to drive fast. No onscreen teen ever drove faster than Marty McFly (“let’s see if these bastards can do 90”) – and part of the brilliance of that original film’s script is that he’s immediately punished for that. Another part is that Marty must drive that fast just one more time, but in a far more sophisticated way, to save himself. If Back to the Future can be read as happy-ending-attenuated, reverse-Oedipus – instead of killing his father and marrying his mother, Marty (as Oedipus tried to do) spurns his mother and restores his father – Marty McFly can also be read as a clever reversal of the density destiny of the person who came along in the decade America coined the term “teenager” to become the most famous exemplar of the type, James Dean.
October 27, 1955, coincidentally or not (don’t expect Zemeckis or Gale to hurt their legacy by getting on the record about this), saw the release of Rebel Without a Cause, and September 30, 1955 was when Dean, in a nowhere-town in central California that may as well have been called Hill Valley, died in a car crash at the age of 24 – the same age as Michael J. Fox when Back to the Future was made. (In mythology, Dean was in a drag race; in fact, Dean was driving to a drag race; his speed at the time has been long disputed, but most sources reported him as driving way too fast when he hit a 1950 Tudor moving hesitantly onto the main road – echoed in the final moments of Back to the Future Part III.) By dying a month before his star-making, uh, vehicle (East of Eden, also set in rural small-town California, was already in theaters), Dean performed his own sort of time-travel, making himself into a memento mori for audiences to better appreciate the symbolic value of his character in Rebel, Jim Stark. Dean/Stark (“you’re tearing me apaaart!”) would symbolize “teen angst” for decades, at least up until the peak of John Hughes’ career. If Jimmy Dean is now in some sense trapped in 1955, both a teen for all time and a cautionary tale, Marty McFly, after a few fits and sputters (the DeLorean and the hoverboard aren’t entirely reliable), has driven, skateboarded, hoverboarded, and ran his way to transcending 1955, 1985, and time itself, becoming America’s favorite teenage hero without superpowers (can you think of another one?).
However, to say that Back to the Future appeals to 1950s nostalgia is not quite enough, because that statement suggests that the film’s approach is something like American Graffiti or Grease or Happy Days. But Marty McFly, for all his surface good-boy, parent-loving tendencies (and for all the star associations with Alex Keaton, the Reaganite boy who argued amiably with his hippie liberal parents on Family Ties), is never quite comfortable in the 1950s. Marty’s and in turn BTTF’s perspective on the 1950s is entirely post-modern; it’s less of an Eden of an innocence and more of a quirky hothouse of repression that Marty can take or leave. Certainly the Hill Valley of the 1950s is sanitized beyond, say, the messy California town of The Wild One (1953); but then, the 1980s is somewhat sanitized as well. Marty is much cooler in the first film than we may remember him from the sequels; he plays guitar in a “too loud” band, he’s often late to school, and while skateboarding to it he waves at a bevy of attractive aerobicists who wave back. Marty isn’t sent to the 1950s as some sort of “fitting punishment” because he had always wanted to go there (as in films like Tron); nor is the resolution based on a comeuppance for Marty, where he, say, learns to appreciate what he has (as in the superficially comparable It’s a Wonderful Life). In other words, despite the photo that shows his existence to be threatened, Marty is not invested in the 1950s in the way that the word nostalgia suggests.
The general perspective of the Back to the Future series reminds me of a song from Billy Joel’s An Innocent Man, a 1983 album that, like the work of Huey Lewis and the News, also had one foot in the 50s and one in the 80s. In the chorus of “Keeping the Faith,” Joel sings “The good old days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” There’s a way in which this perspective both enabled the two sequels and stimulated our ongoing interest in the 30th anniversary (as evidenced by all those fake internet memes). Marty is part of Generation Sample, using bits and pieces of every decade as he sees fit (“I am Darth Vader, an extra-terrestrial from the planet Vulcan”) – but there’s nothing mean-spirited about his game. The title of the film says it all: we can use the past, use the future, use the present. Sobchack called this “bland nostalgia posing as futurism or bland futurism posing as nostalgia,” but it’s also possible to see the film and its franchise as disrupting the naïve faith that America is always inevitably improving or that Martin Luther King’s arc is bending toward that better day.
Back to the Future put nostalgia in its post-modern place, as a potential great kick but not a symptom of delusion, and that’s surely one reason that this month we’re indulging in a bit of nostalgia for 1985 and who we were when we first saw Back to the Future. I know I am. Whether or not the BTTF2 filmmakers got every single detail right, they had more or less the proper approach to the 2010s. Caseen Gaines’ book reveals that there was a “no Blade Runner” rule on production design, and it’s hard to imagine that 2019, when Blade Runner is set, is going to look more like Blade Runner than BTTF2 looks like 2015. In other words, BTTF2 set us up for someplace between utopia and dystopia, for ongoing problems (like crime and drugs) and ongoing joys (like tech). And today, on Back to the Future Day, we celebrate that perception, that perspective, and that perspicacity.