I’m new to wordpress but when I heard there was a Blogathon on the subject of Things I Learned From The Movies, I had to jump in. As the title suggests, I’m starting off with Back to the Future, a movie that may very well be my new reigning champion in the Favorite Film arena. Now, I can go on about the filmmaking merits of the pitch-perfect script, casting, effects, performance and production design, but instead I’m going to focus on the emotional impact it had on me and how it helped me better understand my parents.
My father and I don’t see eye to eye on a lot. Over the years, we’ve had more than our share of knock-down, drag-out verbal sparring matches that resulted in nothing but emotional bruising. I’ve often joked that we only really talk about baseball and movies. My mom and I have a lot more in common but sometimes I have a hard time understanding her way of seeing things. Hell, when I told my parents I was switching from a psychology major to film, they laughed. I’m sure that’s the way it is with most parents and their kids. Different generations, different worldviews and all that.
I think that’s why Back to the Future was the topic I chose to focus in on for my inaugural Blogathon post- because it’s an heirloom. My father passed it on to me. Michael J. Fox was even the first movie star I saw in person when he filmed The Hard Way a block away from my grandparents’ home in Deal, NJ. I can’t remember when my dad suggested I watch it, but I remember my dad pointing out Michael when he walked by on that set. I had a Back to the Future 3 storybook for some reason. But I really learned to appreciate it my freshman year of high school.
Back then, I was a staple at the local library. Island Heights is probably two square miles of land right on the Toms River. There are less than 2000 residents and as a dry town, it’s not known for its lively atmosphere. It didn’t help that I had one friend in town at that point. So I made good use of the library’s movie lending policy when my parents got me TV/VCR set for Christmas in 8th grade. Back to the Future quickly became a go-to for quoting as I replayed the scratched plastic tape again and again while I did homework, lifted weights and wrote.
When Bart and I started writing movie reviews for the Asbury Park Press, I began my habit of reading up on trivia on this ‘hidden gem’ of a website called IMDB (hey, it was the dial-up internet days, everything was a secret then). BTTF’s writer Bob Gale had said in an interview that the idea for the movie came when he came across his father’s yearbook. In it, he learned his father had been class president. Gale thought about his own class president, someone he was not close with. This made him wonder if he would have been friendly with his father if he ever met him in his younger years.
This blew my mind. I went to the same high school my father and his sisters had gone to in the 1970s. I quickly made a beeline to the library and looked for my father’s yearbooks, as both he and my mother had lost theirs in a basement flood when I was very young (something that would have traumatized me, the King of Nostalgia). It took me a while, but I eventually found him, complete with his ‘most common quote: “You fish!”‘.
Toms River, the town that surrounds Island Heights, is a lot like Hill Valley in BTTF, in that in the 1950s, there wasn’t a whole lot around. I found an old map of Ocean County from 1950 and marveled at how few roads there were. Route 195, the main highway I use to get to work, wasn’t even on the map at that point. Dad says there used to be a drive-in movie theater about two blocks from our respective high school. I’m almost grateful that wasn’t present when I was in school, as I would have just walked to the movies every day undoubtedly. My dad’s old neighborhood has that same ‘Smalltown America’ feel that Hill Valley has.
That’s not even getting into the Toms River courthouse and the Hill Valley similarities.
What was interesting was that my father, a man who lived for baseball when I was in high school, wasn’t what I pictured at all. While he did play for the school team, he was far from an uberjock. Instead, I noticed a computer club and chess in addition to baseball on his activities list. Considering he still tells jokes about how much his friend spent to buy the first mass marketed calculator, it made sense in a way.
The more I watched the movie, the more it got me thinking about Marty’s discoveries. While my dad was not a science fiction writer, as far as I’ve gleaned so far, he was a first generation Star Wars fan. Ironically, that was a movie my mother, a non scifi fan, recommended I watch.
Let’s talk about science fiction for a second. George McFly is a pushover that secretly wants to write a scifi novel in the vein of his favorite show, Science Fiction Theater (which sounds a lot like Mystery Science Theater 3000, a show my father also passed down his love of). Marty is shocked by this because in his world, George is a sadsack that life has run over time and again. His father as an older man is an embarrassment and an annoyance to the confident Marty, who is still sure of himself enough to live life to its fullest. Marty has dreams, he has the girl, he wants things for himself and can’t understand how his father could be so submissive to a bully like older Biff Tannen.
That’s life, really- what teenager doesn’t spend high school thinking they’ve got things figured out better than previous generations? I’m humble enough now to realize I sure as hell was that way. Due to some time travel shenanigans, Marty has to convince his father to be more confident in a ruse meant to draw George and his future wife together, insuring Marty’s existence in the future. He inadvertently inspires his father to be bolder, to stand up for himself.
My father has given me a lot of life lessons to learn from. Some are good- I remember specifically being told ‘If you’re going to do a job, do it right or don’t do it at all’- and others are more of the ‘don’t replicate this behavior so you can improve yourself’ variety. It’s been pointed out we have a similar smile in certain reactions, we both have had hot-cold relationships with our own fathers and we both found ourselves in careers we didn’t expect. We even have a particular way of standing that I didn’t even realize until it was pointed out to me. This mannerism proves that despite my protestations of being very different from him, I have, in some basic ways, echoed my father.
Would I have been friends with my dad in high school? College? Maybe. Our personalities are very different. We handle our conversations differently, gravitate toward different types of people, argue differently, live by different philosophies and drives. Then again, if we were bonding over the movies of the time or appreciating the new tech that had just been released? We’d be okay I think. In reality, we shard some of the same teachers decades apart, so maybe there would be some commiserating about that. Maybe we’d catch a Yankee game on TV and argue about how Ralph Houk was managing the aging Yankees. It must have been frustrating, coming of age just as the Mickey Mantle and Yankees were on the way out- a situation I was spared as I grew up as Jeter’s Yankees became empowered. Maybe we’d head to the boardwalk and beach- a place we both, years apart, would spend time working at and reflecting near.
My mother? I could have seen us getting along. While my uncles joke that she was a strict no-nonsense nun of a teenager, I’ve seen the pictures from her ski trips, had the ‘is that a bottle of booze in her hand?!’ moments looking through photo albums and marveled at the more carefree look on her face in old photos taken by the beach. She dated more than I ever did and seemed to have more friends than I had for most of high school, but my mother’s attitude is one I’ve adopted more from over time. If I had to casually start a conversation with a teenager version of my mother or father, it would probably be a lot easier to talk books or music or education with my mom. Even today, our conversations bounce around to different topics at a breakneck pace.
Marty is shocked when he sees his mother drinking, smoking, surprised to see her young and interested in boys and dances and not yet exhausted by life’s sneak attacks. I get that, to a degree. Picturing my mom cruising around in a red Camaro clashes pretty drastically with my mother today. She says she’s never gotten a ticket too, which makes me wonder how she handled driving a car like that without “stretching the engine’s legs”. And I’ve come across pictures of her from high school and college where I didn’t recognize her for a few seconds. When I hear about all the concerts she used to go to, it’s difficult to imagine sometimes. Fortunately, my mom still enjoys life and isn’t broken down by life like Lorraine McFly.
I haven’t yet returned to her high school to look at her yearbooks, but maybe that will be one of my little adventures while I’m in this rehabilitation period. It will be interesting to see what I can find, as my mom’s beloved Red Bank Catholic materials were lost in that aforementioned flood. That alone makes me feel like we would have been friends- from what I understand, she had a lot of pride about the school she went to and was involved in a lot of activities. God knows that was me in high school- it’s a veritable game of Where’s Waldo looking for me in my yearbooks. I popped up everywhere, trying new clubs- an experiment she encouraged. Hell, she was the one who suggested I should give stage crew and drama a second chance. I was too stubborn and convinced baseball was more important.
Turns out my best friends from Monsignor Donovan? All theater kids. Oops.
Prior to my recent hospitalization for the heart problem, I had moved to a new apartment and as such, had to prepare boxes for the arduous trek to our new digs (approximately 500 feet across the complex). One of the boxes included a ‘baby box’ my mother had compiled for me over the years. She had managed to keep scholarship letters, test results, essays I’d written, emails from my first days in college- it was a surprising collection of personal information I had never known about. Among the belongings was a book she kept, charting my progress from birth. There were little journal entries, notes on allergies and illnesses, quotations- it was a glimpse into how I grew up before my brain was able to process memories.
The reason I bring this up is because I came across an entry that my mom wrote to me from 1988. This is significant because that would have made her the same age I am now. In the note, she talks about how she walks me off to the bus stop every morning and while she knows the neighborhood is probably safe, she watches the news and sees how dangerous things are becoming in the world. She wrote ‘You won’t appreciate this until you’re so much older’, but awareness of the world around you, continued vigilance, is just a necessary part of life.
This was my Bob Gale moment. I put myself in my mother’s then-32 year old shoes. More than ever, I got my mother. I felt connected in a way that I never had before. I love that she kept including stories about my vocabulary development, the different dinosaurs I could name, how I loved ‘busting ghosts’ and how I corrected her as she was writing the entry that I love Leonardo best of the 4, NOT 5, ‘Teenage Turtles’. Forget about Marty meeting his Uncle Joey. This was like patting my five year old self on the head.
It made me really want to hug my mom. I sent her a long, long text just as Back to the Future ended at around 3 am, that unfortunately never made it to her phone. The basic message was I appreciated what she had done. What she and dad had and have done. It hasn’t always been perfect, but that box really drove it home: I wouldn’t change anything.
Think about Marty’s return back. He’s still alive- great. But because of his interference, his dad is now a successful author, his mom is healthy and off the booze, his siblings are both 80s yuppie workers and Marty gets to ride off in a massive gas-guzzling 1985 Toyota SR-5 pickup. That’s all awesome (by 80s standards) but man, how messed up is Marty going to be. The entire life he had? Gone. Will he be getting new memories to overwrite the ones he lost from that original timeline? Did he ever burn that rug he warned George and Lorraine about at the dance? Did they take it easy on him? If so, what effect did THAT have on Marty, because if it was traumatic enough for him to bring it up, it must have been pretty damn important to his development.
I love the Titanic. Would I stop it from sinking? If it’s me? Probably not. Why? Because if it makes it to port, JJ Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim survive. Astor never has his place bought out by George Zukor, thus maybe that’s one less studio that survives in New York, affecting the way movies are developed and perhaps even eliminating companies and the movies that affected and inspired me to write about and make movies in the first place. Even worse? Monmouth University, where my mom went, has Guggenheim connections. Maybe that building is never sold to the campus and the school never takes off. If she doesn’t go to school there, she doesn’t meet my dad and boom, I’m not born.
Back to the Future got me through some rough times. It was on during countless grading sessions where I felt like quitting or a failure. It was the first movie I watched on my iPod after open-heart surgery. I watched it at a time when I needed to be more of a Marty and less like a George in high school, to the point where I stopped hiding my writings and started sharing them (sound familiar?) to some moderate success. No best seller yet (working on it!) but it was a start. If anything, I’m still working past being Marty from BEFORE he goes back to 1955, fearing what others will think of his work and reject it.
If you really want to expand Back to the Future to its trilogy form, the message really is driven home across each movie before being laid out by Doc- your future is whatever you make of it, so make it a good one. It’s the message I left for my students in their yearbook farewell this past June. And it’s crucial on the bad days to remember this- the future can be changed if we’ve got the nerve to do it. George learns that from Marty.
Marty continually rewrites his own personal history, hoping that when he does get back to his home, that he will still recognize the people he cares about. Yet even as he hops from time period to time period, he’s able to make connections that help him better understand how he came to be and how his life became constructed the way it did. I guess I’ve always tried to understand that in my own life- how little events create big moments in our lives.
Don’t get me wrong- I don’t watch these movies to go into deep philosophical meditation. I can tell you all kinds of things I learned from BTTF that are more whimsical and equally true:
*Don’t speed near manure trucks. Ever.
*Treat busboys, janitors and waitstaff like equals. You never know if they’ll end up mayor.
*Terrorists won’t fall for pinball parts for very long.
*Avoid making deals with said terrorists if you think the above plan is smart.
*It’s not a good idea to A) work for or B)hire the man who once attempted to take advantage of your wife (ooh, timely considering this election).
*Should you travel through time, don’t mention contemporary things even when contradicted, such as roads not yet named for presidents. Jake is AWFUL at this in 11-22-63 and apparently he learned by watching Marty bs his way through getting directions.
*Think fourth-dimensionally. Colliding with a wall when time traveling makes for a short vacation in the past/future and a big repair bill.
But what I learned most from Back to the Future is the power of a good story. Bob Gale pursued the idea of his father’s life in high school and turned it into a concept that he then fleshed out with Bob Zemeckis. It became a beloved film that has inspired millions of fans. Here we are talking about it, 31 years after the executives wanted to rename it Spaceman From Pluto.
It’s a movie my dad gave to me, a movie I passed on to my students in class and will hopefully impart to my kids and a movie I’ll be enjoying when 1985 is seen in the same light as 1885 was when the movie was made. My wedding is the same date as the Enchantment Under The Sea Dance. Its poster hangs on the wall right as you enter my classroom, beneath the door that proudly displays an OUTATIME license plate. It’s taught me to be a better screenwriter and no matter how many times I watch it, I always see something new. But above all, it will be the movie that finally gave me the ability to see not just my parents as authority figures and family heads, but as people with pasts not so dissimilar to mine in some ways.
Until next time,