not merely superfluous, but ridiculous
Because this website is going to act as a comprehensive repository of all my internet writing, I’m transferring over my old work from previous blogs. This post was originally published on 29 March 2013.
Tonight I plugged one of the more shameful gaps in my pop culture knowledge by finally watching Back to the Future, thanks to The Loft’s Cult Classic films. (for those of you who aren’t familiar with Tucson, The Loft is a locally-owned movie theater that shows arthouse films, crazy B-movies, and regularly re-runs older films that still draw an audience. Easily the best theater in Tucson).
I’ll get to the deep ideas in a second, but the main thing I noticed about the movie is how great it looks in terms of costumes and set design. You don’t see movies that look like this today, possibly because audiences prefer more “natural” looking films, but the heightened and exaggerated reality of the film’s look was great. The characters are all dressed like comic book characters, with set uniforms and persistent color coordination- Marty McFly is always wearing red, Biff always has some black on him, George McFly as a teenager is always wearing blue (in 1985 George Mcfly is wearing monochrome clothes, a visual hint about how the creative impulse Marty sees in the past has been drained out of him). The characters keep returning to the same colors, the same costumes- when Marty dresses in 50s clothes, the look of the clothes mimics his denim jacket/down vest combo. Most movies seem to dress their characters indifferently, but here the costumes elevate the characters to archetypes, and emphasize the playful Weird Tales-esque pulp feel of the movie. Director Robert Zemeckis keeps making little nods to the sci-fi pulp tradition, and the costuming helps give the film a sense of elevated reality.
The other thing that creates a sense of heightened reality are the sets on which most of the movie takes place- the downtown area is fairly obviously a one-block small town built on a studio lot, but this actually works to the movie’s advantage. It gives the town a distinctive sense of place, and when we go from 1985 to 1955 and Marty goes back to the square, we experience the uncanny feeling of being in a place that’s essentially the same but somehow different. I personally experienced a bit of deja vu when Marty first goes downtown in 1955- for some reason, I’ve seen Back to the Future Part 2, but never the original, and it isn’t until I saw the 1985 set in 1955 that I realized the same set is used for the 2015 sequence in Part 2.
Part of me chalked the film’s distinctive look up to the crazy fashion trends of the 50s and 80s, but more likely Zemeckis is the cause. Zemeckis spent most of the last decade making films with computers that tried to approach the look of real life, and not too many people liked them (which is too bad, because one of the last of his motion-capture films, Mars Needs Moms, was really starting to strike a good balance between cartoony and realistic). The popular critical narrative here is that Zemeckis lost his way in the Uncanny Valley while his directorial gifts went to waste (before he came back with the Denzel Washington vehicle Flight late last year), but the truth is, Zemeckis has been trying to navigate the gap between fantasy and reality before he’d ever heard of CGI. All of his films, with the possible exception of Cast Away, take place in a sort of heightened reality with colorful characters and larger-than-life events. Who Framed Roger Rabbit is the most obvious precursor, but Forrest Gump fits the bill just as well, as do Contact, What Lies Beneath, and Romancing the Stone. It just seems to work a little better in live action for some reason. Beowulf and The Polar Express both take advantage of the CG cameras to do some crazy camera movement, but nothing in either of those films is nearly as impressive as a brief shot in Back to the Future where Michael J. Fox is playing “Johnny B. Goode,” and as one of the swing dancers is lifted into the air upside-down, the camera seems to move right between her legs and towards the stage.
(on an unrelated note, I wonder what Spike Lee would have to say about the movie changing history so rock ‘n roll is invented by one of the three whitest actors of all time)
Of course, all the cool visual stuff wouldn’t make the movie as well-remembered as it is if the story didn’t resonate (for an example of this see The Goonies, which seriously looks amazing but only has an okay story, so it’s mostly considered a slightly-dated kids film these days). Between this and Frequency, I can safely say that the best time travel movies are the ones that involve sons meeting their fathers (Looper counts too, if you remember the saying “the child is the father of the man”). There’s a huge appeal to the idea of going back to the past and making your present more comfortable, but I think it’s the idea of meeting your parents when they were your age- would you be friends? rivals? could you see your own flaws reflected in theirs?- is incredibly powerful, incredibly suggestive. Hopefully you wouldn’t have to put up with your mother throwing herself at you, but it’s pretty funny when it happens to someone else. How many Freudian interpretations of this movie have been written? Does it need one, or is the movie just its own Freudian reading of itself?
The question I had leaving the theater had to do with the movie’s understanding of fate and free will. Obviously the future can be changed in the movie’s universe, but do the people within it ever change? On one hand, Marty’s parents have a better relationship as a result of their alternate meeting- rather than it just being a chance that Lorraine seems to regret more and more as time goes on, it’s a moment where George finally turns into the type of guy she would like even if she didn’t spend a few days taking care of him. But is that why there marriage is going better, or is it because he’s more successful at work, has more money and leisure time, and these differences keep her from hitting the vodka too hard? Likewise, George and Biff’s relationship isn’t changed so much as reversed. And I don’t remember Part 2 all that well, but the stuff I do remember involves future Marty sinking into a rut similar to that of his father. Is the whole series suggesting that the McFly clan is always going to regress toward a mean of suburban mediocrity unless they keep getting help from their future selves? Honestly, the screenwriters probably didn’t even think that far ahead. But the the movies’ ability to raise these questions at all is part of what makes them great.