Jun 29, 2010

Back to the Future

I want to begin with a classic. Perhaps The Film Critic will one day feature brand new, just opened movies. At present, whatever is on my mind is what will be found here.

I watched Back to the Future yesterday for the thousandth time. Can someone tell me how it is possible that The Prestige is ranked higher than "BttF" on imdb's top 250 list? (I haven't actually seen The Prestige so I actually would like to hear from someone who has). I could go into great detail about how most of the imdb rankings are wrong, but that will have to wait. My object in writing this post is to contend that "BttF" should be considered one of the best 10 movies ever made. Sure it's lighthearted and the time travel thing unravels under closer scrutiny (though it is not nearly as unravelly as the time travel in, say, The Terminator), but it is, in my view, a perfect film. The acting is spot on, the story balances outrageous with plausible; violence (did someone say date rape?) with tenderness; and let's not ignore the fantastic humor. There is an intelligence about the comic moments in "BttF" that is endearing and enduring. I still laugh when Christopher Lloyd says... everything he says. Crispin Glover - genius, "You're going to go touch her on her... (holds up bra)." Michael J. Fox - great physical comedian. It's subtle.You don't think about it even though it makes you laugh. He falls backwards through the barn door. He stumbles over the curb edge as he enters downtown Hill Valley in 1955. Just little things.

One of the most obvious reasons this is a top tenner: quotable lines. I must give my hubby credit for insisting upon this criteria. He is right. Quotability is what can make a movie memorable. It isn't the only thing, but if it is there, it almost guarantees a memorable viewing experience. The Prestige, I'm relatively certain, can claim nothing of the sort.

I am really trying to think of anything critical that could be said about this movie. Doc Brown's attempts to embellish descriptions of simple things like dates and dances gets one too many treatments, but it is still funny when he describes the dance as a "rhythmic ceremonial ritual." Speaking of the dance, one of my favorite moments of the film is when the family is sitting together having dinner in 1985 and the daughter, in her annoyed tone of voice, calls the dance where her parents met the "Fish Under the Sea Dance." Lea Thompson corrects her, "No. NO. It was the "Enchantment Under the Sea Dance." I honestly feel silly writing this because anyone who reads this has also seen this movie one thousand times and probably, like me, finds themselves quoting it weekly.

Let's turn now to the awesome set up for the skateboard chase in 1955. The set up: It's 1985. Marty is late for school. He must arrive with haste as we are about to discover that he is having some issues with tardiness. So, what would any teen in the 80s do? Skateboard. But why not use all the cars that are already driving around town to get there faster? I think this opening scene does more than just establish Marty's ingenuity with the skateboard. It also gives us something with which to contrast the teens we are about to meet from 1955. Marty, the average 1985 teen is a little lazy, trying to get there the easy way. When his band is rejected by the loser band-selection committee, he immediately contemplates giving up. He is ready to let people who clearly have no idea what cool music is tell him he is no good. Now, one might contrast Marty's "get there the easy way" approach with stories we've all heard parents tell about how they had to work harder as kids than we do/did. The teens portrayed in the 50s are clean-cut, confident and even wage-earning (Marty wishes for a Four-by-Four, Biff owns a cool car, presumably because he has a job).

Cleverly (this is a movie about time after all) Marty has a punctuality problem. He is late throughout the movie, even getting to the DeLorean later than scheduled to get back to 1985 (Doc: Looks at watch, "Damn. Where is that kid? Damn, damn.") His dad is late as a teenager too. He misses school one day because he oversleeps. He is late to the car where he is supposed to have a staged encounter with Marty. Fate steps in and George is forced to stand up to Biff instead.

1) Marty and George meet in 1955. With camera behind the counter, both Marty and George turn to reply to teenage Biff when he shouts, "McFly." Marty's and George's mirrored motions are perfect. It illustrates a recurring theme in the movie: that we are more like our parents than we are willing to admit; that they did grow up and experience childhood in much the same way we did.
2) The long shot of Doc Brown's apartment in the opening sequence. One take. The camera movements had to be perfectly timed. It seems simple and obvious to show a bunch of clocks at the beginning of this movie, but it still works. And it is cool when we find out that it wasn't just a gimmick to make Doc Brown's apartment seem crowded or to make us think about time, but that Doc Brown had them all set up as an experiment. Movies are meant to tell a story visually. The opening sequence of this movie tells SO MUCH about Doc Brown. We know he is a tinkerer whose inventions sometimes don't work very well. Or let's at least say, we know he is an absent-minded inventor. We know he didn't sleep in his bed the previous evening. We know his mansion burned down. We know he has a dog who hasn't been in the apartment in a few days. We know he has a lot of clocks. We know some Plutonium was stolen in the area, and before the camera ever switches to the second shot of the film, we see Marty's skateboard hit the box of plutonium under the bed. We know he has all of his morning routine things set up on automatic timers. Almost none of this information is conveyed through speech. I appreciate it so much when a filmmaker forces me to pay closer attention. You have to do a little reading in this scene, but the camera movements give you cues about when to really dial in to the visual. It is simply brilliant.
3) Marty sits up into the shot when George kisses Lorraine. Marty was fading from existence because his parents haven't kissed/fallen in love yet, but the instant their lips touch, Marty is revived and immediately starts playing guitar again. This shot cannot but remind me of Roy Scheider's first close-up glimpse of the shark in "Jaws," just before he begins insisting they are "gonna need a bigger boat." Incidentally, I think it is so precious that Marty worries in the beginning of the film that he will "never get the chance to play in front of anyone." His  debut, ironically, occurs in the past where no one he knows gets to hear him play, but we can assume it bolsters his confidence none-the-less.
4) Doc Brown opens the door, shuts it, opens it again and yanks Marty inside. He is wearing a mind-reading contraption. The camera angle and the look on his face are completely priceless. He attempts to read Marty's mind, "You want me to make a donation to the Coast Guard Youth Auxiliary." Failing miserably, "Do you know what this means? It means... that this damn thing doesn't work at all." He yanks off the device, grabs a handful of stuff and rushes out. Finally reaching another building on his property, he says, "Goodnight, Future Boy." And slams the door in Marty's face. The entire sequence I've just described  is so well edited that I am left speechless just thinking about it. I left out other good parts because you all know them so well. Everything, from Marty finding the Doc of 1955 to Marty relating the story of Doc's fall earlier that day through the just-slammed door, is flawless entertainment, and you all know it.

Go watch this movie again. I'm sure you all own it, at least a VHS copy. Or, do the Netflix thang. I will send a prize to the comment regarding Back to the Future that makes me laugh the most. I promise it will be a unique and conversation-inducing prize.

A related note: As I type this, NBC is using the theme music from Pirates of the Caribbean over some sort of Wimbledon montage. I don't know how tennis and pirates could possibly be juxtaposed. (I'll offer another prize to anyone who can adequately (or heck, humorously) relate tennis to pirates.) Oh wait, we have faded into Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves music, and it appears I was mistaken. They are talking about the Olympics. Huh? Oh, there it is. London will host the Olympics just as they are now hosting Wimbledon. That transition was a stretch. It was a big commercial for the London Olympics. Um. Did I miss something? Roger Federer is playing tennis sometime today. Isn't there some big tennis thing going on? Why am I not watching tennis? But my brain tells me to be happy because I am thinking about Captain Jack Sparrow for some reason. Don't notice that NBC had nothing to talk about for 6 whole minutes, just go to your Jack Sparrow happy place.

Thanks for reading. More to come. I like parentheses.


  1. There was once a professional tennis player named Guy Forget. Similarly, a pirate often smells bad and has a bad attitude. He is the type of guy you would like to forget.

    Another way to look at it:

    Mario Power TENNIS was one of the five most PIRATED video games of 2009.

  2. So happy to have you, Gorvey. Big laughs. I don't see how anyone could top this. I'll give the contest 'til Monday, then I'm calling it.

  3. There is a direct historical connection between "real tennis" and piracy. Tennis, as a sport, and not just a parlor game between drunk noblewomen, was popularized in Europe, during an age of vast colonial expansionism. At a time when the nations of Europe were in constant competition for the resources of the New World, tennis became increasingly seen as a cultural phenomenon that linked European culture. For example, while the Religions of the Spaniard Nobleman and English Nobleman were at odds, the wealthy elite could at least come together over an indoor game of Tennis. One cannot over state the popularity of Tennis with the European elite. The pirates that trolled the Caribbean, in all ways rejecting European Burgoise culture, mocked and ridiculed, "that feminine game of women and limp wristed boys" (attributed to early Caribbean pirate Jean Fleury). Pirates would collect tennis gloves (early iteration of the sport) and later Rackets as a sort of Trophy. In their mind, tennis was a symbol of wealthy excess, and these trophies, often strung in large lines with fishing net, became more ominous to some than even the famed "Jolly Roger" flag. Here's where the history gets REALLY interesting. At the beginning of the French Revolution, members of the Third Estate signed what is historically known as "The Tennis Court Oath". It was this Oath which forced Louis the XVI to formally concede to the masses and make the clergy and the French nobles join with the 3rd estate. When writing to his advisor Jean-Frédéric Phélypeaux, King Louis referred to the deputies who signed the oath as (and this is my rough translation), "Scoundrel Pirates scheming on a Tennis Court." The irony of the epithet was not lost on the lower classes of France, who took great joy in being considered "pirates". Meetings of revolutionaries, frequently and constantly called "Boucaniers", would often take place in and around Tennis Courts. Because of pirate ships docked in European ports decorated with vast numbers of Tennis rackets, and Louis the XVI conflating the 3rd estate with pirates, the Revolutionaries of France continued to associate "piracy" and "That Noble Lawn Game" for years to come. It became, in all ways, a game of the "common man". In fact, when Napoleon destroyed the land and palaces of the French Noblemen, he saved many of their indoor Tennis Courts. He is quoted as saying, "It would be a great shame to destroy these meeting places of the noble pirates who saved our country from the evils of power."

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  5. Winner! Amazing. Even if this wasn't true, you would win, but something about the extreme outlandishness of it all that makes me believe. Thanks for the history!!

  6. Its mostly false. The Tennis Court Oath and the names of people are real. But the connection between pirates and tennis was completely connected in my head. I had fun writing this actually.

  7. LOL. Very convincing with all the history-like terms. I am awarding you the fiction prize!

  8. You totally had me. You still win the prize for believable fiction. I haven't spent enough time around you recently. I should have remembered not to trust your answer. Still it made me laugh, and that was the point. Well done!


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