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Back to the Future: A Pastoral

July 11, 2008

Ah, the power of love. I’m still a little bit in a funk from last week’s installment of the Summer Classics series at the Kentucky Theatre, the mid-1980s wish fantasy fulfillment, Back to the Future (1985). It’s hard to believe that the summer film series has canonized Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis alongside Hitchcock and Kubrick, yet I do give the theatre credit for breaking with its newfound tradition and not prefacing the film with a singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” In Lexington we recognize progressivism whenever we can.

Each week at the Kentucky Theatre summer classics series, a host introduces the film, usually by offering some tangential musings that don’t seem relevant. However, this time he rightly contextualized Back to the Future as an artifact of 1980s greed and a paean to the Reagan-era’s optimism for the promise of material consumer culture. In Zemeckis’s film that culture examines itself, begins to tally the damage of its excesses, and fantasizes about the possibilties of “going back to the future” and undoing some crucial mistakes.

Back to the Future overtly attempts to speak to these sweeping cultural anxieties. The famous opening shot of Doc Brown’s clocks gets interrupted by the din of television advertising: “October is inventory time, so right now, Statler Toyota is making the best deals of the year on all 1985 model Toyotas. You won’t find a better car at a better price with better service anywhere in Hill Valley…”

This is the white noise of a 1980s consumer culture that is struggling to come to the grips with its unprecedented opulence and extravagance. Again we are reminded of this greed in the sequence where Doc and Marty evade Lebanese terrorists and travel back to the Golden Age in America’s recent past, 1955. The scene takes place in a newfound mecca of materialism: the massive parking lot of the suburban “Twin Pines” shopping mall, which, like so many other suburban developments, occupies what used to be farmland.

In an unintentional way, then, Back to the Future is a pastoral, an aesthetic achievement that articulates a desire to return to a Golden Age, or, as Raymond Williams describes it, an “idealisation, based on a temporary situation and on a deep desire for stability, served to cover and evade the bitter contradictions of the time.” No other attitude toward life better contains and evades contradictions than the pastoral, yet as we see in Back to the Future, no other trope is as problematic as the pastoral.

I was only three years old when this film appeared, so I don’t recall many of the bitter contradictions of the Reagan era, like Cold War strife, indiscriminate government spending pitched alongside the promise of infinite growth. But it’s clear, at least judging by the resurgence of 1980s history and popular culture during the past few years, that we are again turning to question the consequences of our own unchecked growth. What frightens me about Back to the Future is that the film depicts an earnest attempt to criticize a culture’s irresponsible behavior, yet it seems that the opportunity is a lost one.

Zemeckis is the master of skunky ideology, and he has several go-to motifs that he returns to time and again, usually in a not-so-subtle fashion. His hobby horse in Back to the Future, dramatized and made even more palatable by Spielberg’s contrived action sequences, is a blind faith in scientific progress as a means by which we can return to the stability of a bygone era, even as we careen into a future of uncertainty. The fantasy and (science) fiction of Back to the Future is that by virtue of our own discoveries, we can fix our situation. Of course, Doc Brown’s continued warnings to Marty that too much interference with one’s past can endanger existence in the future seems logical, but the ultimate worldview here suggests that we can gain hindsight and bypass the consequences of our mistakes. Further, it is our ability to refine ourselves via scientific progress that allows for this to happen.

The ending of Back to the Future seems to confirm this. All is right in the world when we realize that Marty’s time travel has saved Doc’s life, thus enabling Doc to continue on to the future with a sort of Faustian affinity for unlimited knowledge. “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads!” This is the mantra of Zemeckis’s science fiction thriller, which is in every form a naive pastoral.

At least one person agrees with me.

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