Monday, November 15, 2010

Movies: Back to the Future, I & II

When I was a kid, I videotaped Back to the Future II off HBO and watched it again and again and again. I had only seen the original movie once, and even then probably missed the opening sequence, because when I watched it on DVD last month, it was completely unfamiliar. What surprised me most was the quality—or lack of quality—of the film. Accustomed to the texture of classic as much as contemporary films, this thing looked like it was shot on VHS by a group of fifth graders on a ten-dollar budget. This is not to detract from its brilliance; I was totally captivated.

Plenty of websites are dedicated to the analysis of the technical possibilities and impossibilities of the film, but as much of a nerd as I am, my attraction to these movies has little to do with time travel (despite the fact that one of the other few movies I obsessively watched on VHS as a child was also structured by time travel: Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure). Though I am fascinated by the presentation of various “presents” and futures based on seemingly minor edits of the past, I’m more interested in the characters’ emotional development. These aren’t “deep” movies dedicated to character development, but they manage to convey something essential in their sweeping way: our emotional health and stability is derived from our parents’ emotional health and stability.

I could be critical, and insist on deconstructing the movies’ typological characters—Biff of the 1950s is the same bully as Biff of the 1980s, who is the same bully as Biff of the 21st century—he never grows, changes, learns to do anything other than beat Marty McFly over the head for stolen homework. But Biff is a mere personification of everything in the world that is base, lazy, complacent, gross in appetites and behavior. Marty, the plucky hero, the uncertain dreamer, he who knows what is right, though he is often in deeper than he would like, is the counter force, everything in our would that has potential. So long as that shoot is protected and cultivated, the future is promising.

Analysis aside, everything about these movies is simply so fun and imaginative that I spent the four hours watching them yelping in glee. I felt the same way watching ET. There is a quality of wonder and creativity particular to movies of the 80s, and I don’t think this is subjective (I was born in 1982). Culturally, we are so savvy today, so postmodern, so ironic. Nothing ruffles us. We are so cool, we’re cold. We’re dead. Our films are filled with fast cuts and flashy effects and explosions and noises and slick, shining bodies; even our arthouse flicks are cool, over-experienced, jaded. Before the 80s, movies were stuck—grotesquely over-produced in Hollywood, emotionally flaccid in the arthouse. I’m making sweeping generalizations here, and I’m not saying that brilliant movies weren’t made before and after the 80s (obviously—I do enjoy grotesque over-production and slick bodies and emotional impotence, I swear!). I suppose I’m saying that for a moment in the 1980s, movies were as plucky as 1980s Marty McFly, with the potential do amazing things, though still lacking a bit in tools with which to do them. I’m just afraid that, cinematographically at least, we are living in the alternate future of Biff-world.

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