Not really an essay, but more an extremely long train of thought in which I talk about Back to the Future by talking about a lot of different things that are not Back to the Future.
from the article “Deadly Youth,” by Chuck Stephens about the film Gohatto (1999) by Nagisa Ōshima, which is very much not related to BTTF or American “Teen movies” per se but a quote that kept bouncing around in my brain as I wrote this
“The vision of pure youth, because of its fragility perhaps, reminds one of impermanence, thus of death. In fact, youth is beautiful precisely because it is so short-lived.”
I find Back to the Future’s approach to youthfulness very interesting! When I watched it I expected it to be a moralizing tale but it was not… instead i got a really interesting take that really embodied its current moment and feelings of youth (albeit a very specific constructed image of youth and teenhood) and I find it interesting in how it is a Classic™ despite also being incredibly dated. Its datedness adds to its timelessness! I think its embrace of the foolishness of youth and lack of condescension gives it a lot of appeal. The story is told from Marty’s perspective and while it is a flawed and ultimately self-centered perspective (especially when viewed through a current lens), it is one that feels very honest and believable specifically because of its limitations. I find it interesting that BTTF, while a story about time travel, and about considering the consequences of the past on the future and vice versa, is very much a story about the experience of the present. It is a present that is not our present, not anymore, but it conveys the feeling in ways that have connected people for several years now.
The thought that sparked this entire thing is how I was idly musing on how, for me, the movie 17 Again is basically just Back to the Future, but…. Bad. To give it its due, it’s a fun movie, not attempting to be a masterpiece or anything, and I am aware that it’s extremely unfair to compare a random, not-exactly-popular movie to one of the Most Beloved Classics of All Time and all that. 2009 Zac Efron does a great job, my mother and I got some good laughs out of it, and overall it succeeds in having a solid plot and being generally entertaining. Perhaps it neither accurate nor fair to say that it is “bad,” because it does succeed in what it intended to do, but I will say the way it relates to the audience as well as the concept of the “teenager” was something I did not care for when I watched it. Thus it was interesting, when later upon watching Back to the Future for the first time this year, to compare the two, especially regarding their perspectives on youth and the passage of time. Both 17 Again and Back to the Future have fantastical elements centering around the world of high school and the tension between parenthood and teenhood, parents and children across generations, but are ultimately fairly small-scale stories where the stakes have less to do with external worldwide impact and more to do with the characters’ familial relationships. Both were made, as all “teen” movies and media are made, by older adults presenting a personal vision of what constitutes youth and teenhood,. The main difference between the movies lie in the different perspectives regarding awareness of time, and ultimately, in an implied way, mortality itself. 17 Again presents a teen story from an adult view, one that is highly, painfully aware of the passage of time and its implications, while Back to the Future, despite being about time travel and its consequences, is a story steeped in the limited, slightly naïve perspective of youthful present.
Personally, while I was entertained, I ultimately found 17 Again’s adult over-awareness of the passage of time (and in an implied way, the existence of mortality) used in a dismissive and condescending way that kept me from connecting with the story and enjoying its fantasy. On the other hand, BTTF’s inhabiting of its present, and accepting the foolishness and limitation and absurdity that comes from such a perspective, allowed me to enjoy and connect to it much more despite it, like 17 Again, also centering an assumed-generic white masculine teen experience. The former is a moralizing tale, the latter presents a power fantasy. Neither are bad types of stories on their own, and it might seem fruitless to compare apples to oranges–there are well made moralizing tales, and there are off-putting power fantasies. (I don’t talk about it much here, but the genre of this kind of teen movies for GIRLS re: Freaky Friday, 13 Going on 30, also have a kind of “fabulous lesson” thing going on that is also. Still, I find it interesting to look into but I feel like the Girl experience has extra layers to it that I don’t want to get into right now) compare the two and talk about their concepts of idealized “youthfulness,” especially masculine youthfulness.
Like all my writings, this is a subjective take, and it’s been a while since I’ve seen the former so I’m working off my impressions since then. But when people have made “teen” movies in the past couple decades I always have to wonder is it like… really intended to entertain for teens, or is it for adults who miss their youth but also feel disdainful and superior towards contemporary teens? I say this as someone who was a very pretentious “I’m not like oTHER teens” teen myself at that age. But then again the story of 17 Again is very much less about the experience of teenagerhood as much as it is about One Man’s Middle-Aged crisis and the funny magical adventure he goes through to deal with it, with a lot of jokes in the vein of “gee aren’t the younguns weird and shortsighted” along the way. Which on its own is not a bad story or a bad theme, but feels awkward for something ostensibly FOR young people to watch. Not that young people can’t also appreciate stories that seem to center an old or middle age crisis (After all, Pixar’s The Incredibles and Up are marketed towards children,) but it’s interesting how that becomes reflected as an interesting relatable default.
Obviously the movies, like all movies, are written and made by older people and thus present a perception of youth and teenhood that is culturally constructed (and in the sense of BTTF, a kind of deliberately more innocent and “wholesome” perceived picture of teenhood as opposed to their more edgy contemporaries), but it’s something that is just really interesting to me. Back to the Future’s strength for me lies in the limits of Marty’s perspective and imagination and the worlds it presents are structured around that. And that’s something that could be annoying and frustrating depending on how its presented, but to me personally it comes across as ringing very true, and kind of reveling in that interesting but brief period of time that is adolescence. Especially since due to the nature of media, Back to the Future is a sample of constructed idealized 80s teenhood in and of itself, where Marty McFly (and by extension, a major part of Michael J Fox’s impression in cultural memory) is kept in a precious stasis.
I originally posted these thoughts on my defunct Evangelion blog, so in a way I must return to my roots as well to detour a bit. The Evangelion franchise is very interesting to me because its stories, its original stories, do feel a lot about growth, and learning and moving past harsh truths, and yet the appeal of it over time has been its pronounced somewhat frozen state as a nostalgic work, in which multiple reproduced images of the characters and iconic scenes are brought back as callbacks to itself as the years have passed. It is a series about the fragility of youth, the limited but intense perspective that comes from that youthfulness, and that transitional stage of adolescence, and ends with the need for moving forward from the fear of rejection and frustration into growth, painful as it might be. Due to the medium of animation, the impression of the main characters are one of perpetual youth, always on the brink of change but not quite, an aspect even more pronounced in the Rebuild movies that show the consequences of time passing for other characters, but not for the pilots, who in the universe of the movies themselves are “cursed” from physical aging, frozen within the very text at the stage in which they exist in the minds of the fans and consumers.
Eva and BTTF are very different pieces of media, but they do approach a lot of overlapping themes–the earnest short-sighted solipsism of teenage boys, the subconscious desire to reform a frustrating reality according to ones desires (and the consequences of such), the fear of rejection, the necessity but also shortcomings of traditional masculine confidence. The discomfort and “mystery” of perceiving women. You can ascribe a hero’s journey to them, but it is one that is half-consciously stumbled through rather than a consciously pursued victory. The waking up to unfamiliar ceilings (thrice over) The presence and desire of unconditional love outside the frustrating bounds of the familial-romantic systems. The childish habit of of conceiving of the world and future of adult life through the limited lens of the age one is in. The eternal perception and association with that transitional adolescent stage. The hope of taking destiny into your own hands: “Anywhere can be Paradise as long as you have the will to live / the future is whatever you make of it, so make it a good one.” Back to the Future is a live action movie series, but it is one that has a very cartoonish, stylized feel to it in how its world and characters are presented, and indeed even after the end of the movies the characters are also preserved in the cartoon format, both in the animated series as well as the Telltale game (and the comics, if we are counting that as “cartoon”). The format of the cartoon allows the image of the characters to exist beyond the physical, and expand upon the timeline of their story in interesting ways. As before, Eva is a reflection of an experience told by someone looking back upon it.
The original movie to me, is very much less about growth, and more about fantasy, adventure, wish-fulfillment, and overall a sensation of living in the moment. Back to the Future really ended up catching my attention and heart specifically because enough it’s really not a very…moralizing tale. In the next two movies there is development and lessons learned, but it is something that builds upon the first, and doesn’t come across as talking down. I know there’s lots of interesting discussion about how the original movie is very materialistic in its scope, but there’s something kind of…honest about that I feel. Marty is a fairly decent average kid who wants to Get Laid and Not Die and also whose idea of a icing on the cake of a happy ending is getting a new car, and he gets it. It’s not about the Proud Teens getting put in their place by the Wiser Adults and whatnot. If Marty does learn things, its from his own experiences, and from people he feels on the same footing with–Doc is an older friend, but they both mentor each other emotionally in a way, so they don’t have that “guidance” or teaching relationship per se. There is a kind of background anxiety in the first movie specifically about growing up and becoming like his parents, but the resolution of the first move is not about the acceptance of internal growth and change, but rather that Marty gains (albeit accidentally) the ability to change the world around him, and shape even his own parents to an ideal. This is, by all accounts, a terrible “moral,” but since the movie is not concerned with moralizing it revels in the fun and interest of that youthful, innocent expression of unwieldy (if unintentional) power.
The Marty that grows up and develops outside of the movie’s scope, after the end credits of Back to the Future 3, will no longer be the Marty that we will know and love–in a way, he doesn’t exist beyond that ending, and thus all impressions we have of Marty’s apparent future is forever unwritten and exists in our impressions we have of him through that very small but strong window of time we see his character expressed. Perhaps that is why, in that case, the metaphorical curtain falls at that point, because the story has come to a close, and the ways in which we insert ourselves into the character (either as teens or children ourselves, or adults experiencing the adventure vicariously) emerging from the sense of escapist fantasy into our own more complex and difficult lives. Since while our own teenhoods and youths may be varying, and not necessarily at the level of idealization in movies (whether Back to the Future or otherwise) it is always interesting to have that image to look at, as relatable or unrelatable as it may be for us personally, either as an escape from, or an acceptance of, the fleeting nature of youth.
That being said, I mentioned above that Back to the Future indulges in its youthful fantasy rather than moralizing, and part of that fantasy is not just the triumph of wealth and prosperity, but also the staving off of the power of death. The movies are ultimately humorous and lighthearted, but throughout the series the specter of death, especially violent death, hangs heavily over the series. Marty McFly embodies the intensity of teen-boy impulsiveness and inadvertent power not just in his ability to preserve himself, but in bringing back Doc from dying with barely any consequence–a defiance of every major myth about life and death since the beginning of time, in which all the strength and skill in the world cannot turn back the inevitable without some kind of sacrifice or sense of intense wrongness. That, even more than the capitalist-materialist wish fulfilment, is the ultimate Power Fantasy of Back to the Future–the triumph over time, and destiny, and death, untainted by a smirking cynical adult framing–especially a triumph that comes from determination and love–and the one that keeps bringing me back to that expression of a teenhood and youth that was never my own, and yet is compelling to me nonetheless. Is it foolishness? Maybe. But it’s a reflection of living, and it’s certainly a lot of fun.