Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Robert Zemeckis, part V: Tempus fugit


And now, we really find out what we've gotten ourselves into: the uninterrupted run of classics, super-classics, and near-classics that can compete with the work of any director, living or deadnot to mention a great movie, in and of itself, as well as the beginning of something even bigger than just one film, no less than a trilogy worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the mightiest franchises of a singularly-befranchised decade.

Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis
With Michael J. Fox (Marty McFly), Christopher Lloyd (Dr. Emmett Brown), Claudia Wells (Jennifer Parker), Lea Thompson (Lorraine McFly, nee Baines), Crispin Glover (George McFly), and Thomas F. Wilson (Biff Tannen)

Spoiler alert: severe

The proverbial boffo box office occasioned by the release of Robert Zemeckis' previous film, Romancing the Stone, naturally came as a surprise to most contemporary observers: after all, by 1984, Zemeckis had neither made a movie that was noticeably profitablenor one that was particularly good.  Yet even when people in the industry had a chance to view a rough cut of the film, they failed to recognize how strongly it would resonate, and that's how Zemeckis got fired from Cocoon.  But this seeming bad luck freed Zemeckis' schedule, permitting him, along with his writing partner Bob Gale, to rededicate themselves to the project they'd been tenderly nurturing since 1981.  Presently, they would return to the sheltering wing of their mentor, Steven Spielberg; and the movie they all wound up making together, Back to the Future, went on to become the blockbuster of 1985, securing Zemeckis and Gale a home in the filmmakers' pantheon forever.

BttF achieved this pinnacle for very good reasons—I'm sure I don't need to tell you that it deserved its commercial triumph (not to mention its monumental place of pride within our pop cultural landscape).  So, even if it's only with high-powered hindsight that Zemeckis and Gale's filmmaking career remotely resembles a straight line, it's clear to us, from our privileged position, that the Two Bobs were always heading towards a fated appointment with total success.

Still, from the very first frame on, we find Zemeckis plying his trade in much the same way he'd been doing since his very first feature, as well as in the same incorrigible manner that Gale's partnership had always encouraged: BttF is Zemeckis and Gale applying themselves, yet again, to one more goofy-as-hell live-action cartoon.  The miracle of it, then, is that it marks the point where passion and maturity had, at last, found their ideal balance within the aesthetic soul of our two storytellers.  It's the full integration of the lessons Zemeckis and Gale had been taught by each of their previous features.  Here, the madcap, stereotype-based comedy of I Wanna Hold Your Hand combines with the deceptively-complex screenwriting of Used Cars and the special effects fetishism of 1941, and if this sounds like it should be completely intolerable, well, maybe it would have been—except it is leavened by Zemeckis' invaluable experience directing Stone, which finally taught him what he should've always known: that movies that allow their characters to be recognizable human beings, even avowedly ridiculous ones in the midst of avowedly ridiculous situations, are almost always more palatable than movies which do not.  (And furthermore, Stone introduced him to the lens of champion cinematographer Dean Cundey, thereby beginning an association nearly as productive, if not quite as replete with opportunities for top-flight shadowy goodness, as Cundey's collaborations with the one and only John Carpenter.)

Thus, if you but add the essence of Spielberg's mentorship—huge-ass emotions, showcased within referential and self-consciously mythic spectacle—you have yourself Back to the Future (and even the title is suitably mythic).  It is, in every frame, a film infused with a zany streak a mile wide (dear Lord, it even has a Billy Zane), but it remains anchored securely by a serious approach to its story's foundations—and, as if we could forget, by the truly huge appeal of its co-leads, Michael J. Fox (who was never better than he was in these films) and Christopher Lloyd (and perhaps you could say the same thing about him, although that's a much nearer-run thing).

Pictured: a deeply human performance.

Or maybe it's just as simple as those nine notes that, more than anything, define this trilogy: if you're looking for the one, overriding reason that BttF works so brilliantly, then you need look no further than Alan Silvestri's triumph of a score.  Strictly speaking, it is fantastic all the way through—it's a very present score—but, obviously, it works at its most ingenious level when Silvestri focuses upon his many variations of BttF's infinitely-malleable central theme, a simple (yet legitimately transcendent) piece.  Every bit the peer of any John Williams composition, it's nevertheless more flexible than anything Williams ever did, capable of serving nearly any emotional purpose you want to put it to, just by varying the tempo and the volume.  Thus, in one moment it is a soaring feeling of discovery; the next, it is exhilarating thrills; then it is romantic and coy; and, at last, it is melancholy, even tragic.  Silvestri sells the bond between Marty McFly and Doc Emmett Brown in a way that even the performances don't—and which the script itself (rather wisely) doesn't so much as begin to explain, even though almost every ounce of its impact depends upon our complete investment in this deeply unlikely relationship.  (Indeed, for a film that is as eager to expound upon its mechanics and to reveal its backstories as BttF is, one of the canniest moves it ever makes is to respond to the question, "Why does this teenager hang out with this crazy, dangerous 60 year old man?", with its tart non-answer, "Because they are the best of all possible friends.")

So: we begin in the laboratory of Hill Valley's local mad scientist, and, as if Zemeckis thought that simply introducing such a Saturday morning stock type wouldn't be enough, we get a full shotgun blast of Zemeckian zaniness right in the face, the very instant the title card fades: a room filled to the rafters with clocks.  (This movie, in case the words "Back to the Future" had not yet clued us in, is about time.  It's the same trick Zemeckis pulled in Stone, if a little regressive in the elegance of its function.)

It's called foreshadowing!  BttF does a lot of it!

In comes Marty, to whom we are introduced by his hip mode of transportation (skateboard) and by his hip taste in tunes (Huey Lewis and the motherfucking News) and, of course, by his hip pretensions to artistic expression, by way of his incredibly misjudged use of Doc's industrial-sized speaker system.  It is not the classiest introduction to a great hero I can imagine, but this scene lets us know not just everything we need to know about Marty himself, but everything we'll need to know about Marty's movie: it sets up our central plot device, Doc's plutonium-powered time machine; it sets up our central character, a somewhat brash asshole, albeit with a certain amount of Michael J. Fox-like personal charisma; it sets up the film's abiding tone of barely-constrained silliness; and, when Marty realizes he's late for school, it sets up its enticingly breathless pace.

As mediated through a musical montage set to some even louder Huey Lewis.

Finally, however, it immediately grounds us in Zemeckis' very specific vision of BttF's initial setting—more, I suppose, to emphasize the contrasts between our "present," of 1985, and our ultimate destination, of 1955.  This is something not every time travel film bothers doing, and it pays enormous dividends here in terms of both humor and of pathos.  Yet from the distance of 2016, it becomes even more special, because under Zemeckis' heightened direction and Lawrence Paull's fussy production design, all the scenes set in the 80s wind up feeling as much like living dioramas as the half-nostalgic, half-satirical, and all-cartoon recreation of the 50s.  (The moment of Marty's return, particularly, is a cruelly subtle takedown of Reagan's America, bound up in a funny riff on the end of The Wizard of Oz—yet, even with the homelessness, uncollected trash, and porno theaters that constitute contemporary Hill Valley, we can't even disagree with Marty's happiness, because, after all, he's home.)

But, to get the rest of that nifty plot out of our way: Marty suffers through a bad day at school as well as at home, and especially at home, where he returns to find his dad George once again being humiliated by Hill Valley's favorite bullying manchild, Biff Tannen.  Meanwhile, his mom Lorraine, drifting in and out of a drunken haze, accuses Marty of being a slut, because he has a girlfriend.  (We learn further that his older brother and sister still live at home, too, because they're losers whose crappy parentage has already doomed them—the same way it's dooming Marty right now.)

Marty, however, has to keep a science-related appointment with Doc Brown, and so heads out in the middle of the night to help document his latest and most bodacious experiment: a DeLorean with a time machine built into it.  (And it cannot be overemphasized how wonderful everything about Doc's time machine is: as a stainless steel, gull-winged novelty car, it's beautiful; as a DeLorean, it's such an abundantly weird choice that it must be remarked upon in dialogue; and, above all, it's mobile; essentially, it is the most perfectly cinematic time machine ever created, and the magical phrase "88 miles per hour" was simply bound to pass into the common lexicon.)

(The optical effects are bitchin', too.)

With enough plutonium, Doc's DeLorean can send you anywhere in history.  Unfortunately, Doc Brown's plutonium was provided by Libyan terrorists (of all the many things in the BttF screenplay that are impossible to imagine in a movie today, this may rank the highest), and the Libyans have just found out that they've been duped into supplying an eccentric inventor, rather than the A-bomb maker they thought they'd hired.  In short order, the Libyans kill Doc, and Marty, running for his damn life, accidentally flees in the DeLorean, and into the past.

Marty, now stranded in time, seeks out the Doc of 1955.  The younger Brown can help him, despite the inaccessibility of plutonium, for Marty's foreknowledge of the future provides them with a way to generate the many jiggawatts of power [sic] he needs for the return trip—namely, by harnessing the bolt of lightning already foreordained to strike the Hilly Valley clock tower in seven days' time.  Unfortunately, en route to Doc's place, Marty has managed to meet not only an even more vicious younger iteration of Biff Tannen, but his father and his mother, the latter of whom has fallen head over heels for her own son.  This, as you might imagine, is not very good for Marty's continued existence.

Worth it?

And of course you'd imagine that this spells the end of Marty's wordline, because you've been trained by your many viewings of BttF, and its absolute legion of imitators, and by the Grandfather Paradox it trades upon, to believe that this is a remotely acceptable time travel scenario, even though it's intensely, intensely stupid.  Yes: the Two Bobs' wretched time travel does provide a tremendously good foundation for their themes (the meanness of the world demands that you prove your mettle in order to thrive in it; the past has been whitewashed by the self-delusion of those who lived through it; seriously, don't fuck your mom, even if she is Lea Thompson, and therefore no one would blame you).  It's likewise a handy way to develop their narrative stakes (even if it is almost entirely the result of Zemeckis' masterful filmmaking that you don't notice how silly the ticking clock is, nor how remarkably lumpy BttF actually becomes, as it barrels through two entirely separate climaxes).  However, in the moments that the future and past collide the most violently, it comes close to breaking the film completely, untethering it not just from logic, but any kind of believable psychology, too.  (The bit where "Darth Vader" appears isn't just the worst part of this movie, it would be the worst part of almost any movie, and the callback to Marty's unexposed ruse in his reupholstered version of 1985 at the end is the second worst.)  Well, the script's categorical dismissal of butterfly effects can be swallowed down, like broccoli—there is no profit in it for me to get pedantic on you, and explain how the outcome of human coupling is dependent on such ridiculously exacting conditions that the very air that Marty displaces when he arrives in 1955 has probably already foreclosed the possibility of his conception—but the sheer volume of problems here will always stick in my craw.  So, by the time we get back to 1985, and see the implausibly convenient changes that Marty's intervention has wrought, it's goodwill alone that even keeps an illusion of coherence going as we fly into BttF's unforgettable stinger and the prospect of an even trippier adventure in the far-flung era of 2015.

But then, very few films have managed to build up as much goodwill as BttF has by this point, and if it wants to squander a little bit of it, then that's an indulgence we just have to accept with a shrug of the shoulders, because in every other respect, the thing is almost magically perfect.

It's just not a fight worth picking.

Filled with seemingly throwaway moments, almost all of them wind up informing crucial turns of the plot: from the way they crowbar in the necessary information about the lightning bolt, to Marty's skateboarding (which turns out to be a necessary skill for survival in the lawless world of 1955), it's striking how vanishly few lines wind up being anything less than essential.

Indeed, an astonishing number of lines actually serve triple duty: exposition, humor, and character—probably the best joke in the whole film comes when Doc Brown apologizes for the crudity of the model he's built of downtown Hill Valley (an effort which clearly took him at least two hours).  Yet what should be nothing but a eye-rollingly transparent attempt to make a scene of dry exposition more cinematic winds up not just a great gag (I'd call it subtle, if the model car didn't catch on fire, which is also the best part); it's also a further revelation of the Doc's meticulous, obsessive, eccentric, and mistake-prone mind.  Likewise, back in 1985, the very shrillness of the living hell of Marty's home life, which should be merely enervating, winds up generating sympathy for its inhabitants, precisely because it's so terrifyingly arch in its construction—while, at the very same time, Lorraine is setting up expectations that the film is going to undercut in a terribly weird and exciting way.  (A bit of production history trivia: the Two Bobs' script was put in turnaround because there wasn't enough sex in it, and they were advised to go to Disney because their film was too tame.  In case you need to be reminded, this is the movie where an unconscious, helpless Marty McFly is undressed, "tended to," and God alone knows what else, by his own mother, who rather explicitly wants to fuck him senseless.  Anyway, Zemeckis' frank engagement with the sex lives of the McFly clan is one of the more fascinatingly unique aspects of BttF; and, if anything, it's honestly even nervier today than it was back then, even if—at the decisive moment—they do back off from Lorraine's creepy-hotness just a little bit too easily.)

It all comes down, however, to the beautifully rock-solid emotional core of the relationship between Marty and Doc.  I am certainly pleased when George finds the grit to stand up to Biff, and wins Lorraine's heart with his newfound normative masculinity; but I am legitimately touched by the pervasive feeling of loss that casts a pall over even the most frivolous interactions between Marty and Doc Brown's past self, and in the final scene between the two of them—which entwines humor with honest thrills as well as honest feelings, in the new and better Zemeckian tradition—I actually mist up a little, even though I know fully well, every time I watch the damned thing, that it's all going to be okay.  (Fucking Alan Silvestri, you genius.)  The finest images in the film are maybe the finest in the Zemeckis canon (though they do not comprise his most technically proficient shot, since they're rudely cut in twain by some very untimely editing).  Regardless, it's what they concern themselves with that strikes me like a dagger in the heart: namely, the tension between our foreknowledge of Doc's fate, and Doc's recalcitrant insistence upon the integrity of his timeline.  It remains Doc's victory, true, and his celebration is absolutely earned; but as he dances between a pair of burning skid marks, we know—and he knows too, though he hasn't decided to admit it yet—that he's also dancing on his grave.  It is at this moment, if it hasn't happened already, that our friend Robert Zemeckis at last becomes great.  And, for almost two decades to come, there was no stopping him at all.

Score:  I am having the worst time deciding whether Back to the Future's temporal shenaniganry, which is clearly an issue that affects me and me alone, is worth docking it a point or not.  So, let's err on the side of awesome, and award this wonderful film, which is possibly the best film of 1985 along with its most popular, the full 10/10, even if I'd never be truly happy with any score I gave it.

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