*Back to the Present

No, this hasn't come to pass.

No, this hasn’t come to pass.

I was under the impression that the young people of today had seen and done it all – nevertheless, I enabled a fourteen-year-old boy to feel the sensation of shock, by informing him that I had only very recently seen the Back to the Future movies for the first time. So, as we are now in 2015 (not to mention that, thanks to an unavoidable summertime hiatus, it feels like about a century and a half since I last posted anything on this so-called ‘blog’), I must set down in words the many thoughts I have had regarding Back to the Future Part II, a film made in 1989 that is set in this very year.

By a strange quirk of fate, I cannot discuss the ins and outs of Back to the Future Part II without first giving a nod to Party of Five, a show that is one of the few things that prevents the entire nineteen nineties being a big old bowl of sludge that I can barely remember stuffing down my throat. On the night I was scheduled to watch Back to the Future Part II, I was also cramming in an episode of Party, all six series of which I had been rewatching, since, it seems, Restoration times. Well, you can imagine my distress when it dawned on me that it was a novelty episode, a thing that always brings the words ‘Writers’ Strike’ to mind. By the way, the most irksome example of this phenomenon occurred in my favourite television series of all time, thirtysomething, in a hatefully boring chapter in which Hope was in a position to imagine at length the lives of a couple who had lived in the Steadman house earlier in the century, with much reading out of letters.

On this occasion, though, I cheered up when it became apparent that the theme of this Party episode could not have been more germane to Back to the Future, as it was about different realities: namely, what the five young Salingers would have been up to had their parents not perished in that infamous car crash. I will say that the most obvious result of these individuals not having been orphaned was a bevy of different hairstyles, including Bailey ‘I’m Mr Responsible’ Salinger boasting frosted locks, and Charlie Salinger’s great love, Kirsten, still looking like an exceptionally pretty alien despite a short and shaggy crop. I continue to be unable to conclude whether I am glad or sorry that the viewer does not get to meet the, by this time, almost mythical Salinger parents, just as I’ve wrestled hard with the question of whether or not it’s a good thing that Lawrence Kasdan has buried the original epilogue of The Big Chill, which, apparently, featured its talkative Boomers as their younger selves at some hippified Thanksgiving dinner.

In any case, and as an ex-colleague of mine used to say when trying to get rid of subscribers who were telephoning him to give their views on how the New South Wales land and enviroment law looseleaf service could be improved, this episode of Party did give me ‘food for thought’. In short, it seemed that almost all the Salingers would have been better off if their parents had stayed home that fateful night, given that Claudia is touring the world as a professional violinist, and Charlie and Bailey are living it up, sans the dreary responsibilities they had due to the absence of the mater and pater. (I must confess that I can’t really remember what little Owen was up to, but then, who cares?) Julia, on the other hand, rather than having had a varied boho lifestyle – with micro careers in, inter alia, a publishing company, an art gallery, as a book author and as an internet columnist, and, also inter alia, having a short-lived marriage to a garage mechanic, and an even shorter period of toying with ‘going lesbian’ – was at college and still dating her high-school sweetheart, Justin. In the episode in question, Julia did, however, have a flirtatious exchange with Griffin, the garage mechanic. So, the important point is that, whether her parents were dead or alive, she ended up with Justin, and that it’s a tangled situation either way, as had she not been orphaned, she may have spent years lusting after Griffin and feeling unsatisfied with Justin, instead of getting him out of her system, and achieving an un-reached goal of mine, of being divorced by age twenty. The thing is, though, that this alterna-reality was imposed on the Salingers by desperate storyliners; unlike Marty McFly, they didn’t know what was happening to them.

When I did finally watch the first Back to the Future, I had many questions as to how McFly’s time travel, from 1985 to 1955, would have affected ultimate outcomes. As well, because I was myself young in the nineteen eighties, I am obsessed with that decade, and so was dying to see a 1989 vision of 2015, as is the thrilling premise of Back to the Future Part II; similarly, my father came of age in the nineteen fifties and thus trotted off to see the first Back to the Future upon its release, so that he could drink in a nineteen eighties version of the decade he loved so much. In my experience, it’s not that you’re exactly happy when you get to puberty, but that things do at least become more brightly coloured, like in The Wizard of Oz, giving whatever moment in time in which this occurred an enduring vividness. I fantasise almost every day about strapping myself into a big old time machine and going back to 1985, when houses were cheap and we were not persecuted by computers night and day, but it’s not that I want to be young again – there are just a lot of things that I miss. So, I would like to go back not to revisit my younger self, but either as a way more attractive version of myself as a seventeen year old (because I truly believe that being really popular in high school stands you in good stead forever) or as the person I am now. And if I were to go back as the adult version of myself, I could spend more time appreciating people who were going to be dead in a few years, as in Peggy Sue Got Married when its heroine speaks to her long-deceased grandmother on the telephone, as opposed to my not appreciating them properly, or even appreciating them at all.

At any rate, I feel that anyone who watched Back to the Future Part II without having watched the first – though I doubt that this has ever, in the history of the world, occurred – may well think they’d downed some ‘Electric Kool-Aid’, in the manner of the layabouts in Psych-Out, a 1968 film that was either an almost inconcievably clueless ‘headsploitation’ or a rather clever satire on the mores of flower children. Nonetheless, in Part II, McFly is still wearing braces with pastel jeans and stupid hair, looking as ‘worst of the eighties’ as does Ally Sheedy when she wears legwarmers for the purposes of exercise in WarGames. In other style news, ‘Doc’ has started dressing like Karl Kruszelnicki. Elisabeth Shue, as McFly’s girlfriend, looks about twenty years older than he does, but it’s not that she looks old, if you don’t consider twenty-six to be old for a high school student, that is; Fox was just a very youthful-looking twenty-eight year old. Now, I won’t be getting into the nuts and bolts of the story of Back to the Future Part II, as in order to do so, I would simply be cribbing from Wikipedia, because I don’t recall most of what happened. Too, Crispin Glover getting on his high horse and refusing to reprise his role as McFly Sr led to plot somersaults that threaten to make me go insane if I think about them for too long. Therefore, I will confine myself to selected highlights of what director Robert Zemeckis and his croneys saw as being ahead for us in 2015.

In what would have been good news for Rupert Murdoch, we still have newspapers but lawyers have been abolished. There are flying cars and there are hover boards.  The shark we like to call ‘Jaws’ presents himself to the populace not as a film character but as a hologram, and holograms are all the rage generally. Dust jackets on books are a thing of the past. Rubbish bins move around, instead of, due to the threat of terrorism, being almost extinct. Rather than a view out of a window, you can have a prettier view on a screen. A cab fare may be as high as $174.50 but there are 247 television channels. Dogs are walked via humanless leads. From Pizza Hut, you can buy a tiny ‘pie’ that you simply hydrate, though I feel this would be more trouble than having a smoking hot one delivered to my door. A girl’s bedroom could still be festooned with Michael Jackson posters, including, strangely, one for 1979’s Off the Wall, rather than 1982’s ubiquitous Thriller. Huge earrings and layered hair are still in fashion. So, from this list, you could cherry-pick yourself a much better version of 2015 than the one we are living in now, but you could also cherry-pick yourself a much worse one. Either way, Part II demonstrates, yet again, that the future is simultaneously never as different and much more different from the present than anyone ever realises it’s going to be.

Given that I associate westerns with midday movies that bored me pretty much to death as a child, and the song ‘Wild, Wild West’ by the Escape Club, I saw Part III mainly for the sake of completionism. This film primarily made me wonder how is it that McFly’s antecedents look exactly the same through the ages; geez, your paternal grandfather and maternal grandmother might be identical to your father and mother but they wouldn’t be married to each other. It also made me wonder afresh why Mary Steenburgen has gone so far in what is a competitive field, but that is a question for another day. The thing that preoccupies me most about the Back to the Future trilogy is that if you were able to go back thirty years and change everything, not only would the intervening thirty years have been different, you would have become a completely different person. In the words of the great Cybill Shepherd, in Picture This, a most interesting documentary about the making of Texasville, the sequel to The Last Picture Show, none of us would be where we are or, indeed, who we are without our experiences. Certainly, it would be handy to be able to travel forward and backward in time to find out, first, if you were right to persist in the face of widespread discouragement in your dream of becoming a ‘hoofer’ on Broadway, and, second, to choose an alternative career if you weren’t right to persist, but who would you even be if you were able to avoid all that awful stuff?

Talking to that fourteen year old, who is the son of my oldest friend, from whom I was inseparable when I myself was fourteen, and nearly sending him into a coma with how there was a point in history when seeing something on television was likely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I was feeling rather sorry for him. This was not merely because of his having to listen to me rave on, like I was the Ancient Mariner and he was on his way to a wedding reception. It was because, while he could speak so knowledgeably about the Back to the Future movies, he would never know the nineteen eighties for himself, just as my father probably felt sorry for me because I would never know the nineteen fifties first-hand – and there was, after all, a much bigger psychological gap between the nineteen fifties and the nineteen eighties than there is between the nineteen eighties and 2015. I was also thinking about how strange it is to be able to remember so vividly being fourteen, and yet now to be middle aged, downing booze and talking about relationship breakdowns, like something out of a John Updike novel. Did this boy feel sorry for me, because I’m just so damn old? Almost certainly, though it’s possible that one day I’ll have some science-fiction-ish glamour for him because I can actually remember the nineteen eighties, the way people who can actually remember the nineteen sixties have for me, no matter how amazingly boring they may be. But, on the other hand, he too is going to be Updike-ing up before he knows where he is, all the joys, and the more frequent sorrows, of high school safely behind him.

2 Responses to “Back to the Present”

  1. Amy says:

    This article resonates with me greatly. If I was given the opportunity to jump in the Delorean and gun it to 88, I would not seek out the Gettysburg Address or Kennedy assassination. My first stop would be to be a Coles New World in the mid-eighties for the purpose of enjoying long-extinct food and beverage.

    • My god, I love it, Amy – thank you! Sorry, I was so late to approve and reply to your comment – software vagaries mean I only just saw it!

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