Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Back to whose future?

It is, they say, Back to the Future 2 Day: the date Marty McFly arrives on from 1985 in the sequel and lots of spoiled millennial are making smart remarks about hoverboards. I have to say that I have a huge soft spot for the films – they're sharply scripted, do odd things in a blockbuster setting (intergenerational incest as a comedy plot driver?) and revel in pop culture without being entirely driven by immediate cultural pressures. And yet because I'm a literary critic here I am about to pull apart the thing I love.

I used to think that the series was entirely progressive. Look, 1955 Hilldale has unsegregated diners! The 1985 Mayor is Goldie Wilson, a black man! The dystopian 2015 Hilldale is a creation of unrestrained capitalism, polluted, dangerous and brutal! 1985 Hilldale is a wreck, caused by Reaganite economics. The Brown mansion has been sold off to developers. While the suburbs are tidy and aspirational and life for their inhabitants revolves around the Mall (formerly a farm) and the golf club, the town is a hollow shell: the park benches are sponsored and occupied by the homeless, the clock on the town hall goes unrepaired, the cinema is now a downbeat fundamentalist mega-church, and local businesses tend towards the porn and pawn variety as you can see in the second half of this clip.

It looks, on the face of it, like an indictment of 1980s America. The solution, however, is a fantasy. 1955 is a fake. The town is neat and clean, the races are starting to respect each other, the businesses are independent and their products All-American.

And yet…the goods the 1985 characters desire are all foreign, from De Loreans to BMWs to that scourge of the environment, the 4x4. In all the films, politics are absent other than in the broadest terms. Social and environmental degradation is the product of individual bad eggs in the form of Biff rather than the collective failure of the people: democracy clearly provides no counterpoint to evil (though as future Biff strongly resembles current Presidential candidate Evil Donald Trump, perhaps Spielberg's right).

Culturally too, the films' weakest point is their strongest dramatic moment: when Marty celebrates his continued existence by leading the band in a rendition of Johnny B. Goode and thus revolutionises music. That's right: the white boy from the future teaches the black band how to play one of the foundational rock and roll songs of (ahem) 1958 by Chuck Berry, not a man who needed white people to show him how to do anything and even steals his moves. Unforgivable and that's not even considering the appalling caricatures that are the 'Libyan terrorists'.

We have a word for this: appropriation. Thus a film which along the way appears to promote racial harmony in its ideal setting actually removes agency from the minority. And let's not even get into the discussion of why the heavy metal improvisation at the end of the song is somehow meant to be a vision of a better, inevitable future…

So is Back to the Future progressive in any sense? We can see what the director likes: old cars, neat town squares, good weather, racial harmony and individual fulfilment within a cohesive community. He doesn't like bullies, pollution or isolation. But looking more closely at what constitutes the ideal society, we find something like a white supremacist, bourgeois idyll in which a yuppie version of the white picket fence American Dream can be achieved if only the one or two bad apples can be defeated. A BMW for dad, an SUV and the girl for the hero, a slim waistline for Mom and Van Halen for all (actually I could live with this last bit). It all starts to look a bit repressive under the surface.

Which all means that I've managed to ruin one of my favourite films for myself. Damn it. Still, as the philosopher said, better a man dissatisfied than a pig, satisfied (eh Dave?).

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