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Patrilineal Problem Solving: Can-Do Courage, Clock Towers, and Taking the Past Out of the Present

Back to the Future by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale

In Act 1, we meet Marty McFly – spunky, rebellious, energetic, and decidedly troublemaking. We see the contrast between what he aspires to be (a big-time Rockstar), and what he’s afraid he’s cursed to become (the “zero” he believes his dad, George, to be). Jennifer, his girlfriend, offers him her therapist’s insight that one’s anxieties are often a direct result of parental influence in childhood; he replies “in that case you can kiss me off right now. You’ve met my old man.” Subsequent references are made to the fact that his father’s father was also a “loser.” The question looms: is loserdom inextricable from the lineage? Is it in the genes? In the Michael Arndt paradigm, this would constitute the dominant values of the world – the belief we are doomed to repeat our parents’ mistakes, to turn out similarly pathetic, in Marty’s case. The underdog values would be represented by the soon-to-be introduced DOC – a man who thinks outside the box, disregards rules customs, and who might offer the secret Marty needs to break the curse of parental transmission.

The inciting incident isn’t clear to me. First, roughly ten minutes in, he gets rejected at the audition, his girlfriend urges him to send an audition tape to a record company, to which he retorts that he doesn’t think he can handle “that type of rejection,” and then reflects, “gosh I’m starting to sound like my old man.” Then – when her father comes to scoop her up, she writes her number and “I love you” on a note, and the volume soars on the lyrics “that’s the power of love.” Then – Marty heads home to find out that his father’s car has been ruined by the bully Biff, and finds his father groveling and apologizing to Biff, and we get a sense for how things are around the McFly household – lifeless, sloppy, with a dad who will go to any lengths to avoid confrontation and minimize risk in life (nicely contrasted with reckless Doc, a man who welcomes risk and confrontation in all of their potentially terrifying glory). All of these seem equally “world flipping,” or “new-possibility-introducing,” moments, though none of them feel profoundly inciting.

*** quick revision: after a second look at the film, I think the “I love you” note and “that’s the power of love” lyrics, actually serve as the clearest inciting moment: the idea that through love anything is possible, including the breaking of patrilineal curses, serving as the thematic and philosophical centerpiece of the film. In the climactic scene later, George’s big breakthrough is borne out of love.

Next, we get a scene that frames the philosophical stakes of the film in their entirety. The family is seated at the dinner table, the TV blares in the background, and George spills peanut brittle all over the table while reassuring Marty that it’s better he didn’t get the music gig because of “what a headache” navigating a music career would be. His mom, pale faced as can be, eyes shrouded in lifeless apathy, announces that her brother, “jailbird Joey” didn’t make parole, so he won’t be coming home after all. She drinks Vodka and comments on how shameful it is that Marty’s girlfriend calls him, and that “in her day,” a girl wouldn’t think of being so desperate, and then tells the tale of how her and George became an item; her family took him in and she felt so sorry for him, helpless boy that he was, that they just…sorta…ended up together. Marty’s siblings are distinctly nerdy copies of their parents – sister like mother, brother like father. The family motto, much to Marty’s dismay, is that “life happens to you.” The scene feels blatantly Campbellian: the kingdom is in disrepair and in desperate need of an emergent savior.

The film, and the first act in particular, is laden with metaphor – the clearest example of which is the clock tower. We see Marty full of self-doubt, contrasted by his girlfriend Suzy’s belief in him, his talent, and his potential to be whoever he wants to be in the world. If “the power of love” is the thing that will allow him to transcend his familial limits, it is interesting that just as they are about to kiss – a kiss incited by Marty’s slick, seductive – but heartfelt – badassery (polar opposite of his father, and the sort of persona he wants to step into), it is no accident that it is a noisy busybody soliciting money to “save the clock tower” who interrupts him, right as he is on the verge of concretizing the way of being he aspires to live into, through a kiss with the woman he loves. Marty’s desire for break the familial curse is thwarted by the solicitor’s attempt to keep the past (the clocktower) alive – to keep the past in the present and perpetuate it into the future.

When Marty lands in the past (Act 2), it isn’t by choice exactly. Doc is being fired upon and Marty does his best to dodge the bullets and inadvertently takes the car across the speed threshold into the past. At 40 minutes he meets his young father and witnesses him bullied by young Biff, then proceeds to follow him and witnesses his not-yet dad in a tree, spying on a girl through her window with his binoculars. Marty is shocked, almost devastated, “my dad’s a peeping Tom.” When George falls out of the tree and into oncoming traffic Marty pushes his dad out of the way to save him and inadvertently ends up taking his dad’s place in the historical unfolding. Marty has begun to get a taste for how bad things were for his dad in high school – how anxious and socially-crippled he was, and how badly in need of a friend and mentor. The midpoint is Marty’s realization that his mother is falling in love with him and that he has created a major wrinkle in the time continuum, and that in order to fix it – and make sure sure his parents end up together – he’ll need to fix his dad and get him to step into his courage.

Also cleverly placed – that young George McFly writes science fiction about aliens coming down to earth. Is his writing itself a wish fulfillment – a “being saved from above” fantasy? Marty uses his dad’s science fiction obsession to scare him into asking Lorraine to the dance to right the situation, but that feels thematically separate from whether they are making the case, in the writing, that someone like George must secretly hope that someone will drop into their world to save them, the way Marty actually does for his high-school father. The film is unambiguous in its case that it is better to be courageous and voluntarily confrontive than not, and that this way of being will make your life better in all ways imaginable – relationally, financially, creatively. There’s no sentiment expressed in the film, except by George – in moments when we might say it’s his fear talking more than his essential self – that there’s anything virtuous, whatsoever, about a timid, fearful way of being.

I was struck by how seamlessly the film moves from light to dark as it progresses. At the top – the consequences are all fun and games, but when George goes to play-act the confrontation with Marty and instead finds Biff, arms-deep in Lorraine’s dress with Lorraine crying for George’s help, the moment is truly unsettling. It’s easy to chuckle at the first-act McFly’s – bumbling, ineffectual mess of a family that they are, in all of their harmless self-debilitation – but by the end we get a taste for how dire the consequences can be when good men can’t find the courage to stand up.

In the version of the script that I read there was a scene that didn’t make it into the actual film: Marty is trying to get George to punch him, trying to get George to tap into his anger, to unlock his capacity for courage and assertiveness. Marty is encouraging George to punch harder and George responds with five pathetic punches before accidentally punching the tree and then – yowling with pain – whips around and punches a duffel bag clear across the yard, astonishing himself with his own strength. It occurred to me how similar Back to the Future is to Little Miss Sunshine: the hero’s inner journey is pretty subtle, and not terribly dynamic, but it is actually the father figure in both films in whom we see subtle, incremental change before their big breakthrough in the climactic scene. George’s sending the bag flying across the yard is a great example of that, and a powerful image of discovery, discovery of a power the likes of which George could not have been more oblivious to, in himself. I think they should have kept this moment in the film. Watching George discover his power in the moment he floors Biff is moving, no question, but I think his making the discovery on the practice field, beforehand, actually makes that culmination with Biff more riveting. We know George needs to find his courage and learn to stand up for himself (and others), and we know he has a “fight” approaching, we just don’t know how real that fight will turn out to be. I don’t think him accessing some of that power early in the film spoils the ending, or cheapens it. I feel that the duffel punch actually heightens George’s final breakthrough; there’s something powerful about watching a character apply their “practice field” lessons when it matters most.

*** Second quick revision: after a second look, I actually like it better without the practice punch; it lends the flooring of Biff more heroic significance. George wasn’t able to bring himself to throw a powerful punch until Lorraine was in real jeopardy. It's not until the moment of greatest danger, the moment requiring the greatest self-sacrifice, that he finds the courageous and aggressive potential he needs to save Lorraine from Biff. Marty is the protagonist, but it is George who throws himself on the cross; it is George who becomes the redeemed, and redeeming, savior of the future-McFly’s, back in the future.