Tuesday, December 04, 2007

The Movies of My Life #1

As a serious filmgoer, I've learned to recognize what makes a movie great. Things such as technique and directorial style can only be appreciated once you've learned a thing or two about cinema and about the filmmaking process. But when you're younger, you don't think about those things- a movie either works on you, or it doesn't. And sometimes, just sometimes, a movie will carve out a special place in your moviegoing heart, and it stays with you, until it's almost impossible for you to be objective about the movie. Occasionally, this backfires on you, if you watch it when you're older only to find that it hasn't held up. But a truly special film only improves with age and grows dearer to you long after you've grown out of so many others. Movies like these are like an old broken-in baseball glove that you still play with long after most people have traded theirs in for new ones, or a favorite pair of blue jeans that fit just right. In these rare instances, Thomas Wolfe be damned- you can go home again, if only for the two hours or so while the movie's running.

Ever since I wrote the piece called "11 Key Films in My Life" about 2 1/2 years ago, I've been kicking around the idea of expanding the idea into a semi-regular feature on my blog. But I never actually thought to act upon that impulse into today, when I stopped in at Borders. I had a coupon for 40% off a DVD boxed set, and while I had planned to buy a gift for a friend, my intended purchase wasn't in stock. So I did what anyone with an hour-long lunch break, a coupon that expired today, and an insatiable urge to buy a DVD would have done- I looked for something for myself. But only, you see, if it was the right movie. I don't buy just to buy, you understand. Well, sure enough, the right movie soon presented itself.

When I was a kid, movies were a family outing. And having a younger brother meant that we only went to movies that were appropriate for him. Of course, these movies were mostly Disney rereleases and some other animated fare, which I'm guessing didn't always thrill my parents. All this changed when I was seven years old, when my mom took me to see my first movie without my brother. My folks had already seen Back to the Future with friends, and they decided that I was mature enough to enjoy it (and oblivious enough for the more adult stuff to fly over my head). I remember the ride to the movie theatre- I was so jazzed to be watching a movie for grown-ups, PG rating be damned. And needless to say, the movie more than lived up to the anticipation.

I grew up as part of the Star Wars generation, but although I always enjoyed George Lucas' original creations, they were never MY movies. I was more into Indiana Jones- his world seemed more comprehensible to me, and the idea of a whip-cracking archeologist (and Eagle Scout, which became more significant to me later on) was super-cool. But no movie was cooler to me back then than Back to the Future. I would estimate that by the time I enrolled in middle school, I had seen Back to the Future more than any other movie. Like Dr. Jones and The Muppets, Marty and Doc Brown were my friends.

But back to today's trip to Borders. Now, I know what you're thinking- if Back to the Future is so damn special to you, why did you wait all these years to buy the DVD? It's sort of complicated, I guess, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that you can only get the original movie in a box set with the two sequels. I kind of enjoy Parts II and III, but after the sheer perfection of the original movie, they just didn't stack up. Fact is, I think the BTTF sequels had as much to do with the cooling of my love for the original movie around the time I started seventh grade. Did I have my own ideas about where Doc Brown took Marty and Jennifer in the flying DeLorean, ideas that just didn't jive with Zemeckis' convoluted future? Did I simply prefer Claudia Wells to Elisabeth Shue? Who can say?

Thankfully, my falling out with Back to the Future was only temporary. Catching up with the movie again in high school only made me appreciate more how wonderful an entertainment it is. For me, it hasn't aged a day. Sure, some of the 80s jokes have dated, but in a way, this only deepens my love for the movie. In the hands of Zemeckis and co-writer Bob Gale, the 80s are as much a period as the 50s, and now that they feel just as distant as that earlier time, I'm able to feel nostalgia for both. I'm really looking forward to watching this with my (currently purely theoretical) kids and having to explain to them the Pepsi Free joke and the gag about Ronald Reagan. But the DeLorean is more or less self-explanatory. After all, any car with doors that open up like birds' wings is bound to be cool to a seven-year-old.

But even from a purely grown-up perspective, Back to the Future is pretty much perfect. It all begins with that dynamite premise- a teenager goes back in time to see his parents in high school- and goes from there. It's a career high point for practically everyone in the cast, with the possible exception of Thomas F. Wilson, who was just as good if not better as the gym teacher on Freaks and Geeks. I also like that, despite the movie's slightly rose-colored view of the 1950s, it never comes across as sanitized, like Grease did. One of the movie's masterstrokes is that Marty is made privy to the sins and foibles of his parents' youth. Even before she tries to make out with him, Lorraine (his future mom, let's not forget) confesses that she's "parked" before, then busts out a bottle of booze and a cigarette. So just as Marty sees that his parents weren't the celibates he imagined they were, we also see how the Eisenhower decade wasn't nearly as simple as bad-boy thugs, cowlicked nerds, and young ladies who didn't put out because they weren't "that kind of girl."

As I stood in the store, face to face with an important part of my childhood, it dawned on me that I didn't care if I was spending extra money for two movies that were more or less dead weight. Suddenly, it felt like the right time to buy Back to the Future on DVD. And watching it tonight drove this home. Seeing it again for the umpteenth time, I discovered that Back to the Future was that rarest of creatures- a movie for everyone. It's not simply that it contains something for every audience- fun characters, sweet effects, skateboards, rock'n'roll, high school romance, Huey Lewis, a whiff of incest, Biff forever messing up the "make like a tree" line, and so on. It's that it has something to say to practically every one of us who wondered about the people who became our parents, and about the parents who had to change so much for their children, and in a way that's funny and exciting and surprisingly moving (especially Marty's friendship with Doc) and eternally cool. To put it another way- give it another spin, and bring the kids. You don't need no credit card to ride this train.


Jason_alley2 said...

Beautiful, dude. Beautiful.

James said...

Loved this. I first saw BTTF when I was in 5th grade, after my parents purchased it from a McDonalds, of all places. I watched it in the back of the family van during a road trip and have been a huge fan ever since.

I wrote an article about "25 movies every college student should see" to give the university paper some filler material and included it. It really is just about perfect; the music, the clever but not smirky period references, the performances, on and on. The line "Last night Darth Vader came from the planet Vulcan, and said that if I don't ask Lorraine to the dance, he'll melt my brain," might be my favorite.

God, how I hated those sequels. Could Zemeckis have done a better job sucking the fun out of the first one?

Adam Villani said...

This came out in the summer between 6th and 7th grades for me -- between elementary school and junior high. Pretty much perfect for that time in life. It still holds up.

I think the sequels are unfairly maligned - they're not great the way the original was, but they had their fun moments, especially #3.

Paul C. said...

Yeah, I don't hate parts 2 and 3 or anything. They just don't live up to the original. Part 2 in particular feels like Zemeckis is trying too hard.

James said...

I agree; way too hard. Part 2 took itself so damn seriously it forgot to let anybody enjoy it.

And was Biff really suited to be a supervillain? I'd argue no.

Jason_alley2 said...

I barely remember Part 2 - I've only seen it once, in the theatres when I was 11 - but I remember being pretty disappointed. I should probably check it out again one of these days.

I really enjoy Part 3. It's creative and funny, and the romance between Doc Brown and Mary Steenburgen is touching.