Not that Far After All: The Once and Future Film

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Time doesn’t make sense. Even with help from Doc Brown’s flux capacitor and a DeLorean, I stumble over its mysteries.

In 1985, when Back to the Future came out, 30 years seemed like an eon, an unfathomable distance with Dwight D. Eisenhower on one side and Mr. T on the other. Marty McFly jumped back three decades and crashed into a world populated by soda jerks and poodle skirts, crew cuts and the cute, ridiculous naivete of “Mr. Sandman.”

Thirty years have come and gone since Marty out ran the Libyans in the early hours of Oct. 26, 1985. What’s changed since then? Not much.

Yes, we have Google and Twitter. Yes, we have the unimagined-in-’85 achievements of marriage equality and a black president—although ’55 black busboy Goldie Wilson did grow up to become the mayor of Marty’s Hill Valley, Calif. But the pop culture of today mirrors 1985: kids on skateboards blast heavy metal through earphones, girls pair neon headbands with ripped, off-the-shoulder sweatshirts, multiplex blockbusters and tours from U2, AC/DC and Van Halen dominate the summer.

Why does the distance between ’55 to ’85 seem so massive compared to the quick hop from ’85 to now? Could it just be a trick of my 40-year-old brain? I was ten when Back to the Future came out. Maybe my middle-aged mind won’t surrender to the truth that childhood, Hulk Hogan and the Teenage Mutant Turtles are long gone.

But no, my youth might be spent, but earlier this year Hulk Hogan announced he wanted to get in the ring one more time at WrestleMania 32 in 2016, and those Teenage Mutant Turtles returned to the big screen last year and will again next year with a sequel. (TMNT also returned in 2007, which was a reboot of the ’90s film series, which came from the 1984 comic.) Everything I adored as kid has legs 30 years later: Motley Crue, The Avengers, Taco Bell, Saturday Night Live, Vans, Swatch watches.

Say Goodbye to the Jarring Cultural Transitions of Yesteryear
When Marty goes back in time, the lack of cultural touchstones leaves him untethered. While the film gets in occasional gags about the primitive technology—“Oh, honey, he’s teasing you, nobody has two television sets”—it leans heavily on humor about the nifty fifties. As Marty stumbles around Hill Valley, the gee-golly sound of “The Ballad of Davy Crockett” floats from the record shop and the movie theater marquee advertises Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana.

If director Robert Zemeckis made Back to the Future now, he’d struggle to find pop culture shifts to shock Marty McFly. Same as in 1985, our marquees herald Tom Cruise films and Mad Max sequels. Record shops may be dying, but U2, Prince and Madonna remain global icons with fresh albums and world tours. Who in 1985 remembered who sung “The Ballad of Davy Crockett?” (It was The Wellingtons and the song spent five weeks at No. 1—two weeks longer than U2’s “With or Without You.”) But U2 retains the cultural capital to team with Apple, the hippest tech company on the planet, to push an LP. The idea Sony would use the Wellingtons to sell Walkmans in 1985 is absurd.

Zemeckis dropped his hero in at the eve of America’s great artistic revolution, the moment before youth became the driving cultural force and the underground pushed above ground.

As Back to the Future scholars know, Marty’s revved up blues guitar riffs and duck walking on stage at the “Enchantment Under the Sea” dance inspired the style and strut of Chuck Berry. (“Chuck, Chuck! It’s Marvin! Your cousin, Marvin Berry! You know that new sound you were looking for? Well listen to this!”). In 1955, Berry, the architect of rock ’n’ roll, changed music by telling modern stories set to juiced r&b. But less than a decade later, Eric Clapton steamrolled Berry’s innovations with his own—“Johnny B. Goode” seemed quaint next to Cream’s “I Feel Free.” Six months on and Cream (and everybody else) felt dated in the bright light of Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” A reminder of how fast and radically guitar styles shifted: Marty used the composed cacophony of Eddie Van Halen’s eruptions to torture his dad into asking his mom out. Van Halen’s aesthetic conquered rock in 1978; in 1955 it functioned as sonic waterboarding.

Everything in music mutated at the rate of guitar as new gods toppled old. In seven years, Elvis went from kid to king to B-movie actor and Dylan evolved from coffeehouse folkie to rock revolutionary to chilled out Nashville cat. In seven years, The Beatles bounced from teen idols to psychedelic freaks to a breakup and hip-hop left the Bronx to become the ’80s defining contribution to pop.

All the 20th century arts evolved at these rapid rates. A Humphrey Bogart action sequence consisted of him slapping a guy and taking his gun; Steven Spielberg figured out how drop Bogart’s swagger into an art film (check out the color pallet in Raiders of the Lost Ark) with stunts, sets and action sequences that still haven’t been topped. Dick Van Dyke and Mary Tyler Moore’s slept in separate beds during the Kennedy administration; by Nixon every character on M*A*S*H (most of whom were married) hardly slept between tent hopping, boozing, cross-dressing and openly attacking the insanity of war and America’s conflicted relationship with race. Across mediums artists crashed through borders and mashed together genres. Then the ethos of the ’80s—money! money! money!—arrives and art becomes a commodity like the Duke brothers’ orange juice futures.

Art and money have always enjoyed an awkward, if-mostly-functional friendship—hey, Shakespeare loved cashing those royal checks. But during the ’60s and ’70s art came from the artists and the money followed, it pushed and prodded, but it didn’t run the show. The Beatles and Led Zeppelin redefined music first, then managers, executives and accountants figured out how the bands (and the financiers) could make millions doing it. Movie studios helped Spielberg and George Lucas’ invent the blockbuster, but their record box office receipts came as the directors blended an auteur approach to filmmaking with exponential advances in technology and classic, epic storytelling. As time rolled on, industries figured out how to cut the revolution out of the process and still mint money. Slice the art from Raiders of the Lost Ark, and you get Michael Bay. Subtract groundbreaking sonics from Led Zeppelin but keep the commercial appeal, and you get Bon Jovi.

When Doc Brown sends Marty back to 1985 he says, “It will be like you never left.” But we didn’t know we’d never leave 1985. We can’t as long as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles keep selling, which, if Michael Bay has his way, won’t be until he’s finished a trilogy, prequel and spin off.

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