Moving Ahead, Looking Behind, Getting Nowhere

In the pantheon of writers whom I respect and trust, Harlan Ellison is among the few at the core. He’s been creating seminal science fiction for over 40 years and criticizing film for more than 30, and he continues to have the courage and conscience to cry for moral and intellectual depth in popular entertainment. I think that’s a rare thing. So when he calls Back to the Future “a celluloid thing as trivial as a Twinkie and... equally as saccharine” with a story that is “by turns cheaply theatric, coincidental, obvious and moronic” it worries me, because this is a movie that I cannot deny I highly enjoy.

I don’t know if only being about a year older than the decade of the 80’s itself makes me an appropriate or a poor candidate to study it. I only know that I am completely shaped by my childhood (which is, of course, a very 90’s thing to think) and my childhood is wholly comprised of the 1980’s. I think the 80’s must have been an ideal time to be a child in America, because the entire country seemed to be full of naivete, which is the best substitute you can find after you lose your innocence.

So, back to the film: I first saw it in 1985, the year that is the “present” in the storyline. I was six, and it swept over me like a tidal wave, making me permanently infatutated with time travel scenarios. Ellison makes the points that the film was written “with seemingly no knowledge of the vast body of such literature”, that it explores the fantastic prospect clumsily and with no imagination, and that it was plagiarized in part from a Heinlein novel. As a child, being unaware of these things only provided me with more pleasure. I was one of the millions who didn’t care if what they saw was old and creaky as long as it was what they wanted to see.

Used though the formula may be, Back to the Future itself is far from creaking. It postulates that one can only travel to another era in a flashy car barreling at a recklessly dangerous speed, preferably chased by something lethal, be it a deadline or a bazooka. The necessary catalyst for a temporal warp is not ingenuity or even standard gasoline but plutonium, which causes us to make a subconscious association with nuclear technology. The film’s fixation with loud rock and roll spans both eras, the 80’s and the 50’s, as a way teenagers can “rebel” without actually hurting anyone, or even challenging anything. All of these things are linked to what was a huge preoccupation for every American in the 1980’s-- power.

Which brings us to Ronald Reagan. There is no one more appropriate to spearhead the decade of the yuppie than the man who presided over “the biggest peacetime spending splurge in U.S. history”. In the “me” decade, material gain was power, and Reagan was determined to make our nation the most powerful on Earth, by stockpiling nuclear weapons well past any logical tactical advantage. The amount of warheads still around today, even after numerous arms reductions, could destroy every human living more than once. Clearly this buildup of “defense” is useless per se, it is the tough-guy attitude surrounding it which seeks to instill fear, and stave off war.

To understand this “John Wayne” mentality, we have to keep in mind Reagan’s acquaintances with war, movies and war movies. As Benjamin Barber says, “We must look west, to where the President’s political disposition took form...Hollywood.” Though Reagan never served overseas in World War II, he was in Hollywood starring in military training films, and therefore he is (next to Eisenhower) the president most remembered in uniform. Through movies, the country was able to remember Reagan in a role he never fulfilled, that of a soldier willing to die for his country.

A blatantly cinematic characteristic of Reagan’s outlook is his stark contrasting of our country with the Soviet Union. For the duration of his presidency, they were no more and no less than the alien, the enemy. Says Gary Wills of Reagan: “...Every threat to his miniature country of the mind comes from outside, and from one place.” That location is, of course, the Kremlin.

Why was it so necessary to demonize the Russians? Simply, without a clear villain, Reagan could not cast us as the heroes. This was the ultimate act of glorification, the biggest “feel-good family hit” of all. Through Reagan’s rhetoric, we assumed ourselves destined to win a titanic struggle for freedom, and we loved him for causing us to feel that important. Reagan confused life with the movies on so many levels (thereby making us confused) that it was impossible to extricate the man from the myth, from the image.

Back to the Future is a perfect example of the country’s willing to reciprocate the blurring of reality and fantasy where its leader is concerned. As Marty McFly wanders into Hill Valley in 1955, one of the first things he sees is a movie marquee advertising Reagan’s starring role in a Western. Doc Brown, the wacky but rational scientist, finds it highly implausible that Reagan could become President; he sarcastically responds to Marty’s earnest statement with a prospective cabinet for Reagan filled with other contemporary stars. When Doc gets his hands on Marty’s video camera, he begins to see the shape of the future. He utters what is probably (meant to be) the line of greatest social insight in the entire script: “No wonder your president has to be an actor. He’s got to look good on television.”

What does this actually mean for us? I’ll get to that in a minute, but first a couple of things should be noted. Melding fiction and fact even further for our country of spectators, Reagan responded to the film publicly. Wills tells us he “quoted it seriously in his 1982 State of the Union Address”, but even he smudges the borders between film and history without knowing it. Back to the Future was released in 1985, the year it claims as its own. For Wills’ statement to be accurate, there would have to be real time travel involved.

To explain what is going on with regard to Reagan in the film, it is useful to have on hand Roland Barthes’ outlook on semiology, the study of signs. It allows us to delineate and label the ways we already think about cultural symbols, and understand why we receive them the way we do. There is a signifier (form), an object which stands for another, and a signified (concept), a second object which is being seen “through” the first. The dual entity created by this is called a sign, quite simply. That sign, which often carries with it signified meanings we recognize and interpret without being aware of the process, can itself be applied to a concept or an idea. The synthesis of these two elements is what Barthes defines as myth--a second-order sign.

A quick example from Back to the Future out of the countless that are in plain sight is this: Marty plays in a loud rock band (signifier) which stands in our culture for rebellion (signified). When we combine his talent (sign) with his fear of rejection (concept) we have a myth--a tragic situation out of which he eventually rises proclaiming the staggeringly trite motto “You can do anything if you put your mind to it.” But when we try to incorporate Reagan into this system of logic (the Barthes, not the motto-- although “good old Yankee know-how” is certainly a Reaganist value as well) we don’t know quite where to begin. After careful consideration, I see it this way: Reagan is a first-order sign, carrying with him all our associations of him as both a President and an actor (both of which roles seem to give him the chance to embody separate myths) who is quoted by Marty, thus elevating the pair of film and public figure to the level of myth. When Reagan himself later quotes from the film, choosing to focus on one aspect of its many layers of meaning, he makes a different myth by combining himself and the film in a different way. In this rare fascinating instance, first- and second-order sign are interchangeable. This is what Reagan was all about.

We have to go through all this just to realize how Back to the Future consciously quotes Reagan. Almost any facet of the film can be recognized as a yearn to return to the “family values” simplicity of the 50’s. (Marty isn’t pleased to discover his mother smoked and drank like a normal teenager, he’s shocked--and not just because she lied to him.) In fact, I’d bet the era depicted reflects much more the sappy television programs of the period than the real world itself. What we have here is a romanticized view of a romanticized view.

And how the film glorifies the 80’s is even more startling. Again it’s materialism, and power. You know everything’s all right in the alternate present because everyone in Marty’s family has a better job. (Biff, naturally, is now working for George, not the other way around.) And the object of Marty’s desires is not a musical scholarship or a better guitar or even really a record deal, but a big black 4 X 4. (The way the film handles black issues is an altogether different topic.) The DeLorean? Well, it gets you there, but it ain’t, you know, boss.

So did Ellison know what he was talking about when he called Back to the Future “flapdoodle”? Well, he only really attacks the movie at a story level, ignoring the excellent cinematography, editing, and music which if nothing else create a terribly exciting piece of flapdoodle. But I think there is something else going on. I think the film was so on the pulse of the moment (which it achieved, ironically, by being thirty years out of time) that much of what it says it did not realize it was saying and perhaps did not mean to say, and statements like that are best viewed in hindsight. More important than the fact that children love sugar more than just about anything is the realization that when you love the movies, you can’t help wanting to be in them.

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