Cinema: The Art of Time. From the very beginning, before the grammar of visual storytelling had been codified, before anyone even tried to tell a complete story on film, the essence of the motion picture was to capture a stretch of time, preserve it and make it accessible for someone who wasn’t there when it was made. As the form grew, it became possible to harness the very flow of time itself, to channel it into something new and meaningful. The director’s art, as per the title of Andrei Tarkovsky’s book on filmmaking, is sculpting in time. Naturally, an art that prizes motion and change would often circle themes related to time: the course of a human life, the effects of memory, death. Even the anarchic comic tradition of American cinema pokes at the interplay of time and finitude. The Everyman, from Harold Lloyd to Christopher Lloyd, hangs on to the almighty clock for dear life. A witches’ brew of imagination and ingenuity is what makes cinema possible and keeps both men up there to this day.
At any rate, Back to the Future makes me smile more than a bagful of kittens. I don’t often discuss the titles of movies in these posts, but this one is perfect, with its bidirectional momentum signalling the film’s playful approach to the idea of time travel, the four simple words succinctly explaining exactly what the hero is trying to do. Marty McFly finds himself in a sort of Kiddie Kafka existence, with an aggressively antagonistic high school principal, a panel of humorless squares judging his rock competition, and a father still being tormented by his high school bully after three decades. Not unlike a certain girl from Kansas, though, Marty will get whisked away to another world and spend all his time there trying to get back home.
Back to the Future works on the level of drama because it pushes hard against all the notorious pitfalls of putting time travel into a story. For starters, the operator of the time machine is a bored, half-asleep (at first) teenager who takes a little while to grasp what Doc Brown’s modified DeLorean can do. When disgruntled Libyan terrorists attack the inventor, Marty jumps into the car in the hope of escaping them spatially, not temporally. Suddenly sent back in time to a date of someone else’s choosing, Marty realizes he didn’t bring enough fuel to get back. In other words, the time machine sets the stage but is immediately hamstrung so it won’t become a crutch in case Marty messes anything up. He’s presented with two crucial deadlines: getting his future parents together for the big school dance to ensure he’ll eventually be born, and getting the DeLorean to just the right spot where a famous lightning bolt can zip it along back to his own time. These two events happen on the exact same night, of course.
The science fiction conceit is a lot of fun, and it’s certainly satisfying to watch the film as an adventure story in which a young man outsmarts all the forces arrayed against him and manages the impossible, but the real meat of the film, the “high concept” hook that sets it apart, is a child going back in time to see what his parents were like at his age. The overall joke isn’t exactly revolutionary, but it rings true: Marty finds out they act very much the same way he does. For all the pyrotechnics, the shot I recall the most is the one in which Marty and George run their hands through their hair at the same time. For all the humor about the differences between the 1950s and the 1980s, the basic human problems are identical. Marty sees the same insecurities and urges in George and Lorraine that he himself has felt. Empathy is no small thing.
The comedy of Back to the Future revolves around repetition and doubling. (The sequels would play these concepts to the hilt.) Most memorable, perhaps, is the almost word-for-word recapitulation of a scene in which Biff Tannen coerces George into doing his work for him. “The Man from Space,” an episode of The Honeymooners, appears twice, first as a rerun and then as a new episode. The imagery captured on black-and-white TV ties in with Marty’s radiation suit, mistaken in 1955 for the uniform of an extra-terrestrial thanks to the testimony of comic books. There is a certain amount of condescension toward the past in the film. A few of the jokes are noticeably artificial — “Lorraine, if you ever have a kid who acts that way, I’ll disown you” being the prime example. But as much as 1955 Hill Valley is really a nostalgic construct, the jokes land on Marty for his ignorance just as often as they land on the earlier generation for its innocence.
This story has an effective payoff for everything. A string of events leads to Marty finally getting his chance to fulfill his musical ambitions while at the same time leaving room for George to stand up for himself at last. Appropriating Chuck Berry’s music and style without shame, the “Johnny B. Goode” sequence still works marvelously as an encore, a moment of gratuitous joy after the tension of the scene has been resolved, a break from the action before the movie rushes headlong into its real climax. Every character has an arc (well, every male character, at least — Lea Thompson’s Lorraine serves a more functional role), including the 1955 version of Doc Brown. Viewing Marty’s videotape from the future and catching a hint of something terrible, Doc wrestles with the metaphysical conundrum of learning about his fate so he can prevent it. When, at the end of the film, Marty doubles back to the moment he first entered the DeLorean, Doc incidentally provides a great rebuttal to any qualms about plot holes or the science of time travel.
Back to the Future has been described, on the internet at least, as a perfect movie. It owes much of that reputation, surely, to the intricately structured script of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. There are many small pleasures to be had with this film. The gangly, offbeat brilliance of Crispin Glover’s George McFly. The frizzy-haired enthusiasm of Christopher Lloyd’s Doc Brown. The thorough 1985-ness of putting Huey Lewis & The News on the soundtrack. The exquisite comic effect of Michael J. Fox yelling. But the full experience, again, comes from the storytelling. They really caught a lightning bolt here.