Reading the Future

By Kristen Sheley
Originally written for Writing 122 at the University of Oregon
December 8, 1997

Since the beginning, Hollywood has made films that not only entertain but also contain messages and jokes on a deeper level. Most of these deeper messages may be completely unintentional by the filmmakers, but through careful viewing and sometimes over the passage of time since the film was created, one can find many little hidden jokes or subtle jabs at everything from human nature to long-held stereotypes to the pop culture itself.

One film that is stuffed with double meanings cleverly concealed is the 1985 blockbuster, Back to the Future. In the film, 1980's teenager Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is propelled back in time to the 1950's and interacts with his then-teenaged parents. I've seen this movie nearly 100 times and it is one of my favorites. Even after seeing it so many times, however, I still catch new little details.

The film's main character, Marty McFly, is a "typical" teenager from the 1980's. He's into rock n' roll, skateboarding, cars, and girls. He comes from a family that's lower-middle class, with a bullied father, a mother who has all but given up on life, and two siblings that look to follow in the same footsteps as the parents. Marty has a friend, however, named Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). Doc is the stereotypical mad scientist, with a plethora of inventions that usually blow up or work incorrectly. Doc Brown's latest invention, which he reveals to Marty in the local shopping mall parking lot one night, is a time machine constructed from a DeLorean -- and this invention actually works! Why a DeLorean? The filmmakers have admitted that their choice for a time vehicle centered mainly around the automobile's gull-wing doors. Says co-writer and director of the Back to the Future films, Robert Zemeckis: "...We [Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale] had this idea for a joke that the farm family was supposed to see the car and think it was a flying saucer. And the only car that had gull-wing doors that opened like a hatch was a DeLorean. The car also looks like a spaceship because it was stainless steel."

Marty's mother, Lorraine (Lea Thompson), reflects at the beginning of the film how when she was a teenager, girls weren't supposed to call boys or chase after them. But when Marty travels back in time, he sees his mother do just that....and more! Lorraine is no "Good Girl" from the 50's, but showcases behavior more reminiscent of the 1980's "Bad Girl." "You remember the bad girl," writes Sandra Tsing Loh. "She reigned in the go-go eighties. ...Bad Girl has out-of-control hormones....tells us something is terribly wrong with society. Bad Girl challenges the status quo."

At the age of 47, Lorraine lectures her children how, "I never chased a boy, or called a boy, or sat in a parked car with a boy." But when Marty meets his future mother as a 17-year-old, he finds himself at the receiving end of her affections and observes his mother do all that...and more! When he takes her to the "Enchantment Under the Sea" dance, Lorraine shocks her future son by telling him that she loves to "park" (which was slang for "make out"), takes a nip of some liquor, smokes a cigarette, and then initiates the first move by kissing poor Marty. Aside from the fact that this is his mother, he is shocked to see her behavior contradicting everything she preached to him in the future!

The time period of 1955, which Marty goes back to, is the idealized version of the 50's that everyone likes to remember. As Marty walks into the courthouse square of his home town, Hill Valley, we see that the seedy is now clean and pristine. The movie theater that was once playing porn is now playing a Ronald Reagan film. The parking lot that was in the center of the square in 1985, before the courthouse, is now a lawn. The Hill Valley of 1955 is much cleaner than the 1985 world, and it seems to symbolize the memories of all those who were around in the 1950's -- people generally recall the good in their lives. What isn't anywhere to be seen in this world is the threat of polio, and the fear of nuclear annihilation and Communism.

In retrospect, the 1985 world that is portrayed is pretty interesting as well. The film was released in July 1985 -- so that was the present then. But now, in 1997, it is twelve years in the past! The 1985 Hill Valley is filled with stereotypes and trends from the 1980's -- aerobic classes, skateboarding, Walkmans, terrorists, shopping malls. Marty's favorite bands were tremendously popular in the mid-1980's -- Huey Lewis & the News and Van Halen. In 1985, the present-day segments -- which bookend the 1955 parts -- weren't given much thought or heed by the viewers. After all, we lived in the time then. But now, they offer a slice of the 1980's as seen through the lense of the camera. At the end of the film, when Marty returns to his present, he finds that his family life has changed for the better. Instead of the lower-middle class slobs he left, he find that he is in a family of the ultimate stereotype from the 1980's -- the yuppy! His now-successful parents play tennis together. His sister works in a boutique. His brother is a businessman of some sort who is such a workaholic, he goes to the office on Saturdays! In the driveway is a BMW.

Another favorite thing of Marty's from the 1980's -- Pepsi -- is given an amusing role in the film. When he first arrives in 1955, Marty enters a cafe and orders a "Pepsi Free." The cook stares at him as if he is a moron. "If you want a Pepsi, pal, you gotta pay for it," he says. While this is a good for a laugh, it is also one of the oldest tricks in the book -- advertising. In the 1980's, companies started putting their products in films as a subtle form of advertising. "The relationship between the ad and the movie, accordingly, is a parasitical one, with the ad taking its life from the creative body of the film," writes Jack Solomon. In more subtle forms of advertising in the film are Nike sneakers (which Marty wears), Toyota trucks, JC Penney, Walkmans, Kal Kan dog food, Burger King, DeLorean cars, JVC Camcorders -- the list goes on and on.

The third film in this time travel series, Back to the Future Part III, offers many interesting stereotypes on the old west and western genre. It starts from the moment that Marty travels back to 1885 -- when he enters the time, he finds himself in the path of hundreds of Indians on horseback emitting war cries. (Not only that, the location that is about 20 miles from the middle of Hill Valley happens to strongly resemble Monument Valley -- which has been used in nearly every Western.) The Indians have been portrayed this way for years in Western movies. They don't do anything to Marty in the film; it's just part of a joke that subtly jabs at those old Westerns.

Another obvious jab is the name Marty gives himself in 1885 -- Clint Eastwood. Clint Eastwood's name is practically synonymous with "cowboy" or "Western" today. It's not entirely surprising that Marty chooses such a name for himself, since he is a product of pop culture influence by being a teenager in the 1980's. (His reply to the outlaw when he is challenged to a showdown: "Yeah, right. When? High noon?") Clint Eastwood is part of pop culture as this brave "man with no name." Which, naturally, makes it all the more funny when an old cowboy tells Marty that, if he doesn't go out and face the local outlaw, "Everybody everywhere will say Clint Eastwood is the biggest yellow belly in the west!"

The western town of Hill Valley is similar to the 1955 one in that both are somewhat inaccurate portrayals. Instead of focusing on the idyllic memories of the baby boomers, however, the Western town follows the other cinematic Western towns -- which, in a way, are nostalgic memories for baby boomers, who grew up on the genre. Even the way the camera pans and draws back upon Marty's first view of the town copies the same technique used in another Western.

The local outlaw of Hill Valley, Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen, follows the Hollywood tradition of Western outlaws by wearing all black. He can also shoot pretty well and twirl a mean lasso. When he enters the Palace Saloon and we get our first look at him, the room empties....except for clueless time traveler Marty. This is also typical of those old Westerns and tells the audience immediately that this is the bad guy before Tannen utters one word.

Doc Brown goes against the stereotype in this film when he falls in love with schoolteacher Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen). Most eccentric/mad scientist-types are single -- and Doc was for the first two segments of this trilogy. But Clara is not your typical female. She has pluck, she loves science, and she's a fan of Jules Verne. Says Mary Steenburgen of her character, "I think they [Doc and Clara] were both kind of misfits in whatever time they were in. But when they're together, everything makes sense."

The showdown between Marty and Buford Tannen that takes place borrows from many Western films. The camera angles, the music, some of the dialogue ("Draw") -- all of it has been done many times before. In an "in" joke, Marty borrows a trick from the Clint Eastwood Western film A Fistful of Dollars when he wears the front of a cast-iron stove under his sarape that protects him from getting shot. Also, it is interesting to notice that Marty's old west clothes strongly resemble Eastwood's from that film.

Another stereotypical event in Back to the Future Part III is the climactic train sequence, where Doc and Marty have to hijack (or in the words of Doc Brown, "borrow") a locomotive and harness it to push the DeLorean up to 88MPH so it can return to 1985. Like many Western films where outlaws hijack a train, Doc and Marty have to jump from running horses to the train, then run down the top of it to the front. When they confront the engineer, both pull their bandanas over their faces like Western outlaws from films past.

Many filmmakers today have been raised on films with stereotypes in them so well that they may not even realize that the films they make have them in there. Most of the times, stereotypes are completely unconscious gestures brought into a film -- and in a weird way, they also draw viewers to relate better to the film. In the case of Back to the Future Part III, those who have followed the Western film genre will understand and see far more of these hidden stereotypes and in-jokes much better than the typical viewer. Stereotypes are a way of shorthanding character descriptions, even if they may be inaccurate. It's nearly a given that, as long as there are films, there will be cinema stereotypes.

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