In 1972, while studying film at University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts, Robert Zemeckis (a classmate of George Lucas and John Milius) filmed an eight-minute short, titled “The Lift.” Filmed at the iconic Bradbury in Los Angeles, the project required Zemeckis to use angles, lighting and music to heighten the tension with no dialogue. In the process, the young prodigy brought an inanimate, mundane object to life.
The talented Mr. Zemeckis went on to direct his first feature, I Wanna Hold Your Hand, in 1978, starring Nancy Allen (Robocop), Marc McClure and the late Wendie Jo Sperber. The latter two later co-starred as Marty McFly’s (Michael J.Fox) siblings in Back to the Future in 1985. The film, co-written by Bob Gale (his production assistant on “The Lift”), has become a staple of pop sci-fi, and 80’s nostalgia. As concept designer and production illustrator Andrew Probert explained to me in a 2003 interview, the filmmakers scratched the idea of a refrigerator as time machine (partly for legal reasons; imagine the lawsuits from parents with kids who locked themselves inside appliances). The story idea, however, came from Mr. Gale and Mr. Zemeckis imagining going back in time and meeting their parents; would they be the chaste, studious teenagers as most parents claim to have been when discussing with their kids the finer points of growing up?
It was brilliant, not because it was the umpteenth film to tackle the idea of time travel. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s saw serious drama influenced heavily by the French New Wave. Well before the smug, and unclever, self-awareness of today’s hipster flicks, the 1980’s were arguably the decade of the teen comedy. From Cameron Crowe and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High to the entirely absurd but entertaining and eminently quotable Better Off Dead (referencing, of all things, Tatum O’Neal’s refrain about money to Ryan O’Neal in Paper Moon), to the social commentaries of the sainted John Hughes, most films of the genre dealt only with the teenager’s immediate surroundings—classroom settings, bullies, and the like. But Mr. Zemeckis offered simultaneous fantasy, science fiction and Freudian analysis. At the center of the conundrum, Lorraine Baines (Lea Thompson) infatuation with future son Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox).
I submit there are two or three films from my childhood that are so quotable that I and my best friend of fifteen years, Ken Metzger (also a writer for Cinemalogue), have memorized almost every line of dialogue. Today’s ADHD generation, and even many among my generation, may have missed little gems scattered throughout Christopher Lloyd’s lines, “Old man Peabody had this crazy idea about breeding… pine trees.” Don’t ask me why I recall it from memory, or why it’s funny, but Mr. Lloyd’s delivery, and following cockeyed glance are thoughtful touches that add something to the eccentric, mad scientist—part Albert Einstein, part Leopold Stokowski.
Why did this MTV-generation film become part of Americana? I think, in similar fashion to John Hughes’ films such as The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles, it created a world that respected teenagers, however seemingly absurd the context may have been. If at the age of sixteen you could have gone back in time, would you panic or look at the situation at face value? You’ve just met your mother in 1955, and she has the hots for you. What do you do? Do you wallow in existential angst or do you ask your mad scientist friend—the only one who takes you seriously because the townspeople think he’s a kook—to help keep you from unraveling the fabric of the space-time continuum. Says Marty, ” …if there’s no music, they can’t dance. If they can’t dance, they can’t kiss. If they can’t kiss they can’t fall in love, and I’m history.”
Thank god for the Marvin Berrys of the world, stoned enough to see Marty’s point… or we’d all be frozen in some kind of cosmic limbo—a David Lynch nightmare. And who wants that? Maybe a hipster.
Bonus: Mr. Probert’s cover design for the “Tales From Space” comic book featured in the movie was duplicated in more than one episode of the NBC series, “Heroes.” His work can be seen here.
Back To The Future is showing at 12:30 a.m. Friday, November 27, and Saturday, November 28, at the Inwood Theatre’s screening lounge in Dallas.