Sunday 26 September 2010

Back to "Back": Notes on the return of Marty McFly

At last, the first must-see blockbuster of 2010. After a summer spent watching pre-eminent American producers scrimping and saving (Prince of Persia; The Losers), or reaching for 3D as a revenue-generating last resort (Clash of the Titans), it's a greater pleasure than usual to return to Back to the Future, and an era when the major studios had both money to burn, and some confidence in what an audience might want to see of a Friday evening. The reputation and reach of Robert Zemeckis's 1985 film has only grown in the years since: giving boyband McFly their name, for one, and sparking a flurry of erroneous Tweets earlier this year when some bright spark Photoshopped the time-travelling DeLorean's readout to suggest this was the year Marty and Doc were all set to zoom off to in the closing moments. (In fact, their destination is 2015 - so you've got five years to devise your next witty BTTF-derived Facebook update, providing the Mayan prophecy set out in 2012 doesn't intervene.)

Final-scene pleas for sequels have become commonplace in event movies - but this boyishly charming film remains one of the few where the process of sequelisation feels thoroughly earned by that conclusion. It's a toss-up between this and the no less pop-culturally savvy E.T. for the title of The First Truly Self-Aware Blockbuster - which may be the reason BTTF gets away with this much Huey Lewis, not only on the soundtrack, but in the singer's brief cameo as the high-school music teacher who judges Marty's band "too loud". (At the risk of going all Patrick Bateman on you, I've always found "Back in Time" preferable to "The Power of Love", the then-ubiquitous break-out single, positioned front and centre as the film opens.)

The two-man Libyan terrorist team operating out of a VW camper van now seems a quaint touch, but otherwise irony and hindsight are as central to the narrative structure as the flux capacitor is to the DeLorean, as is a sense of things and wonders to come: while following Marty's progress, Obama-era viewers might care to consider in passing the less pyrokinetic (yet more significant) journey undertaken by Hill Valley's foremost black resident, Goldie Wilson, in proceeding from put-upon busboy to mayor. (Some compensation, possibly, for the Enchantment Under the Sea sequence, where Marty's rendition of "Johnny B. Goode" apparently gives no less an individual than Chuck Berry the idea for rock 'n' roll - which, while funny, smacks a little too much of white moviebrats trying to reclaim rhythm 'n' blues for themselves.)

The question of historical perspective hovers over the film throughout. It's not too difficult to read BTTF as an attempt to rewrite American history along conservative lines, flat-out ignoring the 1960s (too progressive) and the 1970s (Vietnam); as Marty's grandfather says at the family dinner table, "Who the hell is John F. Kennedy?" Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale take a hard line on crime: poor Uncle Joey, announced as a jailbird in 1985, is confined to a playpen in 1955, and resigned to his fate. ("Get used to those bars, kid," Marty urges the nipper.) What the film does achieve is to unify the conservatism of the 1950s with its 1980s equivalent - to make momentary sense of how Ronald Reagan rose from Hollywood bit-player in one time frame to most powerful man in the world in the other. "No wonder your President is an actor," 50s Doc proposes, marvelling at Marty's unmarvellous, briefcase-sized JVC camcorder, "He has to look good on camera!"

For Marty, the journey is - as he puts it in his closing words to 50s George and Lorraine - "educational", chiefly about discovering that his folks, schlubbily sexless and wholly uncool in the present tense, once had desires similar to his own: the film is unusually sophisticated in its appeal to both adult and teenage audiences. This being a PG-rated family feature, it isn't, of course, allowed to go too far: yes, Marty ends up in his own (younger) mother's bed, stripped down to his purple Calvin Kleins, and yes, the two of them very nearly kiss - ew! - in the car park before the dance, but clever plotting means fate intervenes whenever matters threaten to get too far out of hand.

It's the upside of Twin Peaks, which similarly meshed the 1950s with a more contemporary aesthetic and morality, but plumped for the unhappy ending: there, Laura Palmer found out the hard way about the needs of her parents. It may not be coincidence that the tramp roused from his slumbers by Marty's return to the present is none other than Jack Nance, the regular Lynch player caught napping somewhere in time between Eraserhead and Twin Peaks. And what of BTTF's Twin Pines Mall, eventually reduced - in one of the film's subtlest gags, thrown away late on - to the Lone Pine Mall after Marty ploughs the DeLorean through Old Man Peabody's prized front yard?

For all the above speculation, Back to the Future remains not just a model, but a miracle of crisply economical screenwriting: after the opening half-hour of pure, undiluted set-up, Zemeckis and Gale manage to resolve the George-and-Lorraine subplot within 90 minutes, a feat which - in this age of unspeakably flabby blockbusters - serves as its own testament to just how hard that middle hour works. In fact, the film proves in such a rush to set up a sequel for itself that another look reveals how the screenwriters bungle the ending. Viewed objectively, the world hasn't improved when Marty returns to the present; it's just shifted its axes. Now George is the big-shot, rich off the back of his (terrible-looking) sci-fi opus A Match Made in Space, and Biff is the one reduced to menial labour. The dynamic is still that of bully and victim, only now the McFlys have a nice new car in the garage: this was 1985, after all.

Back to the Future returns in selected cinemas from Friday.

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