[Should you need a plot synopsis, try here. You can also download this article as a podcast.]
I first saw Back to the Future when I was eleven years old. Probably not the most discerning consumer, but always good for a poster quote, I immediately declared it “the best film I’d ever seen”. A year on from Ghostbusters, and weeks after The Goonies, with Highlander a year away, competition for my all-time-favourite film was stiff in those days. Oh, for that time when every new Hollywood blockbuster was more marvelous than the last, and the wait for a sequel was an interminable, indefinite one. I bought a skateboard as a result, and tried to get my mum to tow me around behind her car; eventually, this request was granted, but only at low speed around the Sunday school car park. The soundtrack album was the first cassette I bought with my own pocket money. I bought the Panini sticker album and filled it: if you never saw one of these, they’re books that tell the whole story of the film scene-by-scene, and you buy packets of stickers until you’ve collected the whole set; I have a vivid recollection that, accidentally or not, several of the Back to the Future stickers were taken on set showing things that weren’t in the film – Einstein the dog in the front seat of the time machine being played by a stunt driver in a dog mask, Michael J. Fox rehearsing the Johnny B. Goode number in a tracksuit, Fox’s stunt double taking a fall in the skateboard chase. This may say something shocking about the randomly exact nature of my memory (I dread to think how much art and culture has been shunted out of my brain to make way for these obscurities), but it’s also a testament to how auxiliary products and merchandise extend the life of a film in the minds of its viewers, anchoring remembrances of the text with a range of prompts across several media. I think I saw it twice at the cinema and never again. Until now. I’m teaching it this week on a course on American cinema. We’re up to the Eighties now, and this is one of the films up for discussion. Thankfully, my memories of the film are not crippling partialities that might prevent me from thinking about it critically: this is, after all, a film about nostalgia.
What was impressive about Back to the Future a quarter-century ago (ouch!) remains so today – it’s a tightly structured, internally consistent piece of work: in shuttling between two time zones, 1985 and 1955, it sets up a mass of cues to link them; Marty McFly’s skateboard ride to school seems like a minor transitional scene (and a chance to squeeze in another hearing for ‘The Power of Love’), but it’s a guided tour of Hill Valley, feeding you a set of memories that will later be referenced in similar shots of the town in 1955. It’s a remarkably efficient set-up that ensures that Hill Valley 1985 feels familiar, a home to return to, and keen-eyed viewers will be attuned to the little differences between the two versions of the place – Twin Pines Mall becomes Lone Pine Mall after Marty runs over one of the saplings in ’55; the same episode of The Honeymooners is on TV in both times, a technical marvel in 1955 that becomes a background flicker thirty years later – its resonance changing over the years (watching it in the 80s, his hair still oiled, his body still twisting like an awkward teenager, George is shown to be stuck in the past); Doc Brown ’55 is seen holding a portrait of Thomas Edison that was seen in the opening shot of his automated home; on his way to school, Marty waves to the girls at the gymnasium, an action he will repeat during the skateboard chase back when the gym was a diner; the clocktower is the centrepoint of the town, the film set and the plot throughout. Nearly every element of the opening ’85 section will be shown to resonate with 1955, or will later be altered by his actions in the past. This is a very contained sort of butterfly effect, where disruptions in the course of history affect components of the narrative without affecting world events. It’s a solipsistic kind of time travel: even as a kid, I recognised that this version of time was nonsensical, throwing up all kinds of paradoxes; why is Marty’s personality unchanged by his parents new-fangled go-gettery when he returns to 1985 (they notice nothing strange about him)? Who wrote Johnny B. Goode before Marty went back in time and gave Chuck Berry something to plagiarise? Where did the earlier versions of the McFly family go after Marty returns to a changed Hill Valley? This was time travel as narrative framework rather than as scientific possibility: the ability to travel in time is a magnificent gift to screenwriters, since it makes events malleable in the same way that word-processed scripts are malleable. The life of the McFlys becomes an adjustable plot. It’s a teen movie that eschews the social problem aspects of other teen movies, and tilts towards the wish-fulfilment end of the genre; Marty gets to outwit the school bully, and outsmarts his parents with his privileged knowledge of their time – instead of agonising about turning into his parents, he gets the chance to go back in time and make them turn into people closer to himself. Imagine if Rebel Without a Cause‘s Jim Stark (the James Dean film was released in the US a week before the setting of the 1955 events in Zemeckis’ movie) could go back and sort out his emasculated dad, and you’ll understand what kind of play Back to the Future is making with the conventions of the youth drama – Back to the Future II even references Rebel directly, with McFly going nuts whenever anyone calls him chicken, and climaxing with a Chickie Run car chase.
Back to the Future cuts against the grain of dystopian science fiction that emerged in the 80s (see, for example, Escape from New York, Outland, Blade Runner, The Terminator, Robocop). It also seems to exhibit what Stephen Prince refers to as “ideological conglomeration”, where ambiguous politics prevent the film from alienating sections of its potential audience:
Given their high production costs, American films need to attract as many viewers as they can, and the broad-based appeals they offer are often incompatible with strict ideological or political coherence. This is why the tradition of ‘message’ filmmaking in the American industry is so minimal and toothless. To maximise its commercial (audience) base, Hollywood film operates through a process of conglomeration, mixing a variety of sometimes disparate ideological appeals into an ambiguous whole. American film foregrounds narrative and character emotions, and while those narratives may manifest on occasion a political view, more often this is a matter of metaphor and implication. To be overtly political except in the most general terms (e.g., affirming patriotism or family) is to risk loss of market share. Thus, Hollywood has mostly regarded political filmmaking as being incompatible with box-office success, except in times of exigent circumstance, such as World War II. But here is a paradox. Box-office success requires a degree of topicality. Filmmaking that is vital, vibrant, and connected with the concerns people feel in their lives offers a powerful incentive for going to the movies. In many cases, the indsutry resolves this paradox by designing films so that their sociopolitical dimensions are matters of implication, material forming the background of a narrative, and conglomerated values. This process is a basic mechanism for linking film to a multitextured society from which viewers and profits alike come.
Back to the Future is not a political film. It avoids broad commentary on the politics of either of its time zones, except to make swipes at the apparent absurdity of Ronald Reagan’s ascent from gunslinging movie star to rocket-stockpiling president (the 1955 cinema is showing Cattle Queen of Montana, in which he co-stars with Barbara Stanwyck).Reagan even referred to the film in his 1986 State of the Union address, citing it as a good example for young people, but also using it as a springboard for some “creative” extrapolations of science into religious, then patriotic territory:
Tonight I want to speak directly to America’s younger generation, because you hold the destiny of our nation in your hands. With all the temptations young people face, it sometimes seems the allure of the permissive society requires superhuman feats of self-control. But the call of the future is too strong, the challenge too great to get lost in the blind alleyways of dissolution, drugs, and despair. Never has there been a more exciting time to be alive, a time of rousing wonder and heroic achievement. As they said in the film Back to the Future, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
Well, today physicists peering into the infinitely small realms of subatomic particles find reaffirmations of religious faith. Astronomers build a space telescope that can see to the edge of the universe and possibly back to the moment of creation. So, yes, this nation remains fully committed to America’s space program. We’re going forward with our shuttle flights. We’re going forward to build our space station. And we are going forward with research on a new Orient Express that could, by the end of the next decade, take off from Dulles Airport, accelerate up to 25 times the speed of sound, attaining low Earth orbit or flying to Tokyo within two hours. And the same technology transforming our lives can solve the greatest problem of the 20th century. A security shield can one day render nuclear weapons obsolete and free mankind from the prison of nuclear terror. America met one historic challenge and went to the moon. Now America must meet another: to make our strategic defense real for all the citizens of planet Earth.
It’s a tenuous, opportunistic leap from “say-no-to-drugs” rhetoric to “missile defences in space” via “squeeze-God-in-there-somewhere” grandstanding, but it shows how flexible the film is in allowing all of those associations to bounce off it. It’s worth remembering that a later Robert Zemeckis film, Forrest Gump (another one in which an outsider is dropped into a history of which he never seems a part, and manages to affect its course, even inventing rock n’ roll again by teaching Elvis to dance), was similarly co-opted by right wing conservatives during the 1994 campaign to re-elect George Bush to the Presidency; attempting a return to “traditional” family values as their key electoral theme, they promoted a view of Gump as a damning indictment of the counterculture of the Sixties and invoked an ideal nuclear family epitomised, at least in the public consciousness, by the 1950s. So, in both cases, the 1950s Golden Age America was posited as a quasi-mythical place of good, wholesome values.
To be honest, I suspect Back to the Future of being politically timid rather than sinister, but watching it again it’s hard to ignore the soft-pedalling of the era’s social conservatism and civil rights issues. The imperatives of “family entertainment” are not enough to explain the convenience of the fact that Marty McFly travels to a pristine and glorious past set just a couple of weeks before Rosa Parks stayed in her seat on the bus and gave Martin Luther King Jr. a prominent public platform in defending her cause. Portrayals of the 1950s as a prelapsarian museum-piece of innocence and virtue are themselves outdated, now that the era is just as likely to be shown as a site of repression, racism, mind-numbing conformity, social control, paranoia and institutionalised sexism and emasculating office-dronery (see season one of Mad Men for the most recent version of this revisionist approach). It’s not that there wasn’t prosperity and optimism in postwar America, but that it was defensive and exclusionary, and historical depictions that elide that downside and efface those inequities are increasingly intolerable, coming across like a wish for a time when things seemed to an empowered majority to be just fine, rather than a wish to rectify the actual problems that were present: it’s probably no coincidence that the nightmarish marker of McFly’s deadline is a fading photograph, a nutty bit of physics but a blatant sign of the destruction of the nuclear family or, more importantly, Marty’s erasure from the sphere of representation.
For Zemeckis and executive producer Steven Spielberg, whose influence on such a high-concept, family-orientated blockbuster can be felt throughout, the 50s are memorialised as a set of cultural references, especially the music, television, and the kinds of science fiction they had both clearly been influenced by: Zemeckis directed an episode of Spielberg’s SF anthology series Amazing Stories (1985-87), and the latter’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. had set out his desire to revisit and revise the lexicon of tales of alien visits to Earth. Marty McFly gets to become a SF character, and to observe credulous 1950s-folk being whipped up into terror when faced with advanced technology. Sandbagging the film against the weight of social history by hiding behind harmless pop culture is a crafty technique. But, to return to that idea of conglomerated ideology, I’m left uncertain about how exactly the film wants us to remember the 1950s. It’s not a simple case of showing it as a time sexual innocence: although Marty’s mother evokes 1955 as a time of chivalry and virtue, time-traveller Marty gets to see that she was far more “experienced” than she let on, hinting at the hypocrisy of soft-focus remembrances of the period. But it might also be seen to allegorise and reinforce the Reaganite notion of power as self-assertion, as George McFly changes the entire course of his life by beating down his enemy, seizing his woman (who conveniently likes a guy who can defend her physically) and effectively turning the tables to make the bully servile. Freedom, it seems, requires the suppression of someone else, or at least, unfreedom is simply a product of your own state of mind, and can be corrected at the throw of a punch.