There aren’t many movies from my youth I actually remember going to see, but “Back To The Future” is one of them.
It was the summer between junior high and high school, and I was filled with the sense of having completed an awkward trial and was eagerly anticipating what lay ahead. A friend said there was a movie I had to see, and unable to get a ride, we set off on the long trek on our bikes to catch a nighttime show. When the film was over, we were so ablaze with adolescent energy we went riding off into the night in the opposite direction, across the train tracks and into the strange parts of town, as if inspired by deep forces to go off into the unknown. We rode in silence, each of us filled with imagination for what adventures life had in store for us.
Since then I’ve watched “Back To The Future” many times, and last night, noting that the movie is available for another week on Amazon Prime, I watched it again. I enjoyed it more than ever, having just come back to my hometown after a dozen years back East, but was surprised to discover things I’d never noticed before. Quite understandable, as our perception of a work of art changes over time depending at what stage of life we find ourselves, and is also influenced by the broader context of what’s happening around us. And so this time “Back To The Future” felt like a subtle slice of Hollywood propaganda, but not the typical kind, for behind the time-travel adventure and classic hero-vs.-villain and boy-gets-girl themes lies a clever critique of the myth of progress.
It came to my intention shortly after the film’s introductory scene, when Marty, running late for school, leaves Doc Brown’s place and jumps on his skateboard. As he grabs hold to the back of a pickup truck, we see that his town is characterized by the blight of suburban Southern California, with strip malls and fast food stores and every other kind of commonplace eyesore. When Marty arrives at the sun-drenched high school that plays a pivotal part in the film, we see graffiti scrawled on the building. A few minutes later, in the scene in the town square, it all became clear: the businesses in the background consist of adult book stores, pawn shops, and an X-rated movie theater, and the area — like my city’s once-charming downtown has become — is crawling with riffraff. A van drives by with a bullhorn announcing that the mayor is running for re-election, and that “progress” is his middle name. This is the likable character Goldie, the African-American who works at the soda shop and encourages George to stand up for himself. Goldie is going to night school and vows to make something of himself one day, eventually fulfilling Marty’s prophecy that one day he will become mayor. Needless to say, when Marty is zapped back to 1955 he discovers Hill Valley’s lost golden age of cleanliness and order. Another van drives by announcing that the mayor is up for re-election, and that he will focus on jobs, education, infrastructure, and lower taxes. In one of the best and most subtle social commentary gags in the film, his middle name is also “progress,” though his priorities are of a more pragmatic character.
When Marty’s week-long adventure comes to a close and he blasts back to the future, he is relieved to see a homeless man sleeping on a bench and that the movie theater is back to showing pornography rather than John Wayne movies. At least he knows he made it back and everything is the same. Except that it’s not, for while the town has the same problems, Marty’s family has changed. When he wakes up the next morning, he discovers that his family is healthier, more confident, more successful, more socially popular, and slimmer. Gone is the alternate reality of apathy, alcoholism, and unfulfilled dreams.
“Back To The Future” shows us that while you may not be able to stop the march of progress, you can still control the circumstances of your own life, and that courage, determination, ingenuity, and standing up to bullies is always rewarded in the end. — CHRISTIAN CHENSVOLD
Re: “… like my charming downtown has become…”.
Thomas Wolfe said it 80 years ago: You can’t go home again.
Excellent analysis. Very impressive. Even if times do change for the worse, you through hard work and the right choices can change for the better.
I’m not following what the ‘propaganda’ is. A once sleepy, largely white, underpopulated town of the past has changed in the future, becoming more homogenous, ugly, urbanized. This is the reality – not propaganda – across large swaths of America….and it’s not “Hollywood’s” fault.
I rewatched this film at the beginning of quarantine, having last seen it in 2015 upon its 30th anniversary – and the year in the future to which the characters travel in the sequel. The last time I had seen it before that was 2005, when I was a senior in high school. Unlike so many pieces of cinema (or art, in general), it’s one of the films I like more upon each viewing. There are a lot of subtleties laid throughout, and each time I’ve seen it, I notice something new, as you’ve mentioned as well. “The Twin Pines” shopping plaza in the original 1985 being altered to “The Lone Pine” shopping plaza upon Marty’s return is one of my favorites, and something I didn’t notice until seeing it for the third time. The film’s full of little things like this, and it’s a big part of what makes it charming. What’s striking to me is the fact that the film managed to be a commercial box office success, a wonderful representation of pop culture and the ’80s zeitgeist, and has matured into a classic which has aged well, worthy of being revisited time and again. I don’t know how many post-2000 movies will hit all three of these criteria as we look back on them.
We are now further away from the release of Back to the Future than Marty was from 1955.
When I had that pointed out to me five years ago, it made me feel like a lot of time had passed. It put things into a different perspective.
For example, the 20s are the decade before my parents’ births. The 50s are the decade before my birth. The 90s are the decade before my children were born. To my children, the 50s must feel as far away as the 20s feel to me—full of old-fashioned yet enjoyable music, nice but antiquated clothes, and sometimes impenetrable social conventions.
The past is a foreign country indeed.