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I saw this about a month ago with big_daz, nigelmouse and his chum called Andy (I think), and hugely enjoyed rediscovering what a classic it is. It isn't just that it has all the standard elements of a good film (plotting, direction, acting, character, dialogue, setting and that little bit of magic which makes them all work together). It has an energy and freshness which has stood the test of time really well, and packs huge riches of detail and ideas into its two short hours.

I think it has gained something with the passage of time, too. Watching it in 2013 inevitably means approaching the film itself as a form of 'time travel' back to the 1980s, in a way that wouldn't have applied to the original audiences, and this in turn lends extra resonances to the central time-travel story. Within the film, the scenes from the 1950s are quite explicitly presented as 'filmic', what with their representation of a perfect small-town America recognisable from (for instance) It's a Wonderful Life, complete with brightly-coloured diners, high-school dances and larger-than-life characters. Knowing as you watch the film that you are now viewing the 1980s through the same kinds of filters, and that you cannot do anything else because they are no more real and present today than the 1950s were when it was made, somehow makes the 'time-travel' experience of watching the film both more and less immersive at the same time.

On the one hand, it offers a route into the (possible) mind-set of the original 1980s audiences by dangling the idea that the 1950s scenes probably looked much to them as the 1980s scenes now do to us. On the other, the studiedly filmic nature of the 1950s scenes remind us that no film offers a 'true' representation of the time it is portraying - including the one we are watching. In other words, just as we might be slipping into thinking that we are really communing with the spirit of the 1980s by watching this film, its own internal time-travel scenes also remind us that we are not. I wonder how all of those resonances will change and evolve as more time passes? Will there come a time when future audiences are slightly puzzled by what is meant to appear so different about its 1950s scenes and its 1980s scenes anyway?

Lots could be said about all sorts of elements within the story, but I am sure they have already been written about on the internet somewhere, so I will focus on just two particular things which occurred to me on this viewing, but which I had never really thought about before.

One is the portrayal of the black character (naturally there's only one), Goldie Wilson, which I suspect was meant to be positive, but is actually tropish and ill-thought-through. Early on in the film, we learn that in 1985 this character is mayor of Marty's home town (Hill Valley), and currently running for re-election. But when Marty returns to 1955, he finds a young Goldie sweeping floors in Lou's Diner. Here's the key scene (but give it 20 seconds for Goldie to actually appear):



I suspect that what audiences were originally meant to take away from this scene was a warm fuzzy feeling about how socially progressive the 1980s were by comparison with the 1950s. While the '50s characters scoff at the idea of a 'colored mayor', the '80s audience (and indeed the early-21st century audience) can feel smug about how that's, like, totally not an issue any more. Unfortunately, the character's agency is badly undermined by nasty little case of White Man's Burden. Goldie may have (undirected) ambition, declaring that one day he will be somebody, but it takes white guy Marty's accidental comment that in the future he will become mayor to channel those ambitions into a specific goal and really inspire him with a sense of purpose. So the very dynamic of the film itself reveals just how fragile and incomplete the supposed progression from the '50s to the '80s actually was - and it's not like we have got much further today, either.

The other problem with Goldie Wilson is that in 1985, Hill Valley is shit, and in particular considerably worse that it was in the 1950s. Now obviously there are all sorts of extra-diegetic reasons we could come up with to explain this which have nothing to do with Goldie. Maybe the town has been badly affected by state-level economic or political problems beyond the control of its mayor. But what we see on screen is that between 1955 and 1985, two things happen to Marty's home town: Goldie becomes its mayor, and it develops all sorts of serious social and economic problems. The rather inescapable conclusion is that in spite of his declared intention (back in the 1950s) to "clean up this town", Goldie's mayorship has actually been nothing short of a disaster for Hill Valley. I fear nobody on the script-writing team ever quite sat down and thought hard enough to notice that the knock-on consequence of the "yay in the 1980s we have black mayors" scene is actually an extended narrative about how incompetent black elected officials are.

My other line of thought was to wonder more generally what we should make of a story in which the people of the 1980s (as personified by Marty) try to fix their problems by going back in time to rewrite the 1950s. In the film, Marty needs to badger his parents into being more assertive and ambitious, so that he (and they) can enjoy a better life in the 1980s. I suppose every generation wishes the one before had taken a longer view of the consequences of their actions - that's what hindsight is. But this film's particular concerns do seem to me to reveal something of the zeitgeist of 1980s America specifically. It certainly seems plausible that the 1950s dream of prosperous small-town life must have looked pretty deluded to many Americans by the 1980s, after the Vietnam war, the Cold War and a series of recessions, and that many people did rather wish the previous generation had been less beholden to convention, developed a little grit, and conceived of wider horizons and grander aspirations.

Anyway, like many an SF or fantasy classic, I think there are good reasons why this film has become something of an icon over the years. It's fun, yes, but has some surprisingly good thinky mileage in it to boot. Here's looking forward to its thirtieth anniversary in another two years' time, when we really will stand in exactly the same relation to 1985 as the film did to 1955.

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Comments

( 16 comments — Leave a comment )
parrot_knight
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:07 pm (UTC)
I hope and expect that the BFI will do something for the thirtieth anniversary of Back to the Future - 1955 then and now, and 2015's impression of the 1980s, for example.
strange_complex
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:15 pm (UTC)
Yep, there is a lot of good scope in it. Though personally I'm more about hoping that the National Media Museum will do something for it instead (or in addition), so that us poor benighted northern types can attend.
parrot_knight
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
Of course! The more, the merrier..!
parrot_knight
Oct. 31st, 2013 07:30 pm (UTC)
I wonder how the vision of the 1950s shown can be related to Tea Party politics, too?
whatifoundthere
Oct. 31st, 2013 11:11 pm (UTC)
I loved this post. From time to time I think about how little time-settings meant to me when I was young, and how I scarcely noticed period details (whether they were real because the show was genuinely old, or artificially created for flashbacks or past settings). I watched and loved Back to the Future when it came out, but the 50s setting-within-a-setting scarcely hit my radar, and in fact I'm pretty sure that anything short of powdered wigs or dinosaurs would probably have felt to me like some equally distant past. I remember being surprised as an adult that Happy Days was a 1970s show supposedly set in the 1950s -- somehow NEITHER the seventies-ness NOR the fake-fifties-ness of it made any impression on me when I watched it in the 80s! The show was just a bunch of people doing silly things, and to me, it differed from no other sitcom that I watched in that regard. When I was very young I watched a lot of old reruns, stuff like Mister Ed (cancelled well before I was born) alongside "contemporary" sitcoms like Three's Company (whose run coincided perfectly with my youth), and so far as I was concerned, all of it was set in the same vague time period, not "contemporary" exactly but let's call it TV time.

As an adult I'm often startled by the retro-ness of 80s stuff I lived through the first time. When I was teaching university students, a lot of them wore retro Care Bears and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles T-shirts that were rendered unfamiliar even though I was steeped in that stuff as a kid, and which were overlaid with this "ironic" affection -- not ironic in the sense that my students didn't sincerely enjoy this stuff (they really did) but rather, ironic in the sense of being knowing, sly-winking about the fact that Strawberry Shortcake's day has passed but that we love her anyway.

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts on Super 8, a contemporary horror-ish film set in the 80s. There's no time travel in that film, so you don't get the interesting instability that you describe so well w/r/t BttF; but the supernatural/alien plot arc I think serves a similar purpose, and the 80s is definitely being deliberately played as another way to make the film feel creepy and unreal. Super 8 had a lot of flaws, but I was really taken with the period stuff, which was engaged in lovingly and became for me a very important part of the film. Though of course if a 12-year-old were to see it, I imagine she would be as unaware of those aspects of it as I was of BttF's period elements when I first saw it in the theatre.
strange_complex
Nov. 1st, 2013 10:40 am (UTC)
Thanks! :-) I very much recognise what you say about not noticing period details as a child, and have mused on why that is myself. The same goes for cultural details, too, so that I have only realised in retrospect that some of the books I enjoyed as a child were actually quite clearly and explicitly set in America (for example).

I guess a lot of the stories we experience in our early childhood take place in very non-realistic settings anyway (fairy-land castles with princesses, farms full of talking animals etc), so that it takes us a long time to develop an expectation that the world of a story should have any kind of relationship at all to the real world we know. As you suggest with the idea of 'TV time', I think kids are very accepting of the idea that any kind of story world will just be strange and alien anyway, so that what adults would read as historical period markers just get chalked up by kids as more generic markers of the particular world of that story.

I'm afraid I haven't seen Super 8, but I've just read the Wikipedia page for it, and it sounds pretty cool. I will add that to my Lovefilm list, and let you know what I think some time when I get round to seeing it.
(Deleted comment)
strange_complex
Nov. 1st, 2013 02:48 pm (UTC)
Oh yes, of course, sorry - you're right about the band. But indeed - we just get yet another White Man's Burden scene with them as well, don't we. *facepalm*
howlin_wolf_66
Nov. 1st, 2013 04:49 pm (UTC)
Interesting point about Goldie being directed by a white guy's agency... I'd never looked at it that way, before.

The other point... Well, if the film doesn't imply something, then it's easy to think up other reasons... and if you can think the best of something, then why wouldn't you? (Not directed at you personally - just rhetorical!)

Also, I like the point about the potential wish fulfilment of going back in time to 'fix' your mistakes... You just uncovered different layers that make me love one of my favourite films, even more. :-)

howlin_wolf_66
Nov. 1st, 2013 04:52 pm (UTC)
Also, following this food for thought, I'm going to add you, if that's OK? :-)
strange_complex
Nov. 1st, 2013 08:32 pm (UTC)
Of course, and I have added you back. I think those of us still actually writing on LJ should stick together!

I'm afraid the non-public parts of my journal tend towards the miserable at the moment, as my Dad has recently been diagnosed with cancer, and I am using LJ to work through all the nasty emotions that throws up. But I'm sure that will lift eventually, and I'm pretty committed about keeping up my film and book reviews, so there will always be at least some of those amongst the mix.

Looking forward to getting to know you!
howlin_wolf_66
Nov. 1st, 2013 11:15 pm (UTC)
Am here for all moods - the light and the dark; to steal a line from another movie: "If you were happy every day of your life, then you wouldn't be a human being, you'd be a gameshow host".

Best wishes to your dad, and hope to come to know you better. :-)
matgb
Nov. 1st, 2013 09:30 pm (UTC)
Nature of paradox. Going to disagree with you about Goldie—it's established fairly well in the film that Marty is messing up his own present/past by being in the 50s, and that everything he knew to be true before going back would have happened without his activities.

Ergo, Goldie was going to be mayor already, regardless of whether Marty said anything, as he already was before any time travel happened.

(I really dislike the way time paradox is portrayed in the film, but it is at least fairly consistent and unless someone has actually managed to prove/disprove quantum theory without me noticing we don't actually know it's wrong, yet)
strange_complex
Nov. 1st, 2013 11:17 pm (UTC)
OK, yes - you are right logically about that. But I'd still suggest that the way the scene with Goldie is played makes it pretty clear that, in story terms, we are supposed to be witnessing the pivotal moment when he first decides to become mayor. It's not consistent with the way the storyline with Marty's parents is treated, true, but I'm pretty sure most viewers would come away from that scene in the diner thinking "Ah, so it was down to Marty's suggestion all along!", and not worry too much about the consistency aspect.
foxy76
Nov. 3rd, 2013 04:40 pm (UTC)
I clearly remember going to see this film when it came out - my dad came and met me and my brother at the Harrow Odeon after work. I was really excited to see it and had a bit of a girly crush on Michael J Fox! My brother wanted to see Teen Wolf, and we went to see that around the same time. I think I probably preferred Teen Wolf at the time!

I can't believe that it has been almost 30 years since those films!
strange_complex
Nov. 3rd, 2013 07:40 pm (UTC)
I know - doesn't it make you feel old?! It's lovely to hear how it had such an impression on the miniature you, though. As for Teen Wolf, I still don't think I've ever actually seen that. I know I was already watching Hammer horror films by the time it came out, so was probably very snobbish about the idea of a modern teen horror pastiche. ;-)
foxy76
Nov. 4th, 2013 06:33 pm (UTC)
It really made me feel old in the context that the time elapsed since the film was made is the same as the time travelling period!

When we saw Teen Wolf it was in a spirit that is probably long lost now, when the Odeon seemed huge and hundreds of kids would turn up to throw popcorn at each other. There were home made adverts for local shops and that 'Butterkist, butterkist, ra ra ra!' advert! It was riotously good fun :-)
( 16 comments — Leave a comment )

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