The View From 1985A
Back To The Future was originally released 35 years ago, on July 3rd, 1985, meaning we’re now further removed from it than 1985 was from 1955. I had a professor in college who would talk about how Back To The Future was the perfect distillation of Reaganism.
Just like Ronald Reagan was going to fix America by acting like a man, tossing out Jimmy Carter’s wussy sweaters and instructing the band to start playing “Hail To The Chief” again (Carter had discontinued it), Marty McFly travels back in time, teaches his own father to start acting like “a man,” and his reward, just like what Reagan promised, was entirely materialistic. He has a new truck, his parents can afford vacations now, and Biff Tannen now works for George McFly, rather than the other way around. Big malls and shiny guitars, the American Dream!
(I always thought it was a little funny that future George McFly decided to keep Biff, the guy who famously tried to rape his wife in high school, around the house as a handy man. “That Biff… what a character!”)
Back To The Future was both a reflection and a riff on America’s collective desire to return to an imagined halcyon age — specifically the fifties, before everyone started to fight about everything (or so a sheltered, suburban white person, or the average Reagan voter, might have imagined it). This desire manifested in electing Ronald Reagan, the cheesy fifties movie star, famous for snitching on “commies” and arresting student radicals, the president of the country. This was commented upon directly in the movie.
DOC: Who’s the president in 1985?
MARTY: Ronald Reagan.
DOC: The actor?! Then who’s the vice president, Jerry Lewis?
Reagan naturally loved the movie, supposedly laughing so hard at this scene that they had to rewind it. Reagan even quoted the movie in his 1986 State of the Union address. (“As they said in the film Back to the Future, ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.'”)
Even as it joked about Reagan, you could extend the Back To The Future-as-metaphor-for-Reagan policy to virtually every aspect of the film. All Goldie Wilson, the black soda jerk at Lou’s Malt Shop, needs to become successful is a positive attitude and a willingness to pull himself up by the bootstraps (possibly inspired by Marty?). (“Mayor… I like the sound of that…”) The American Dream was still alive, doggone it, all it took was a little initiative (and definitely not social programs).
Back To The Future wasn’t entirely alone in these ideas. American Psycho parodied this same all-you-need-is-a-little-willpower mentality when Patrick Bateman tries to “help” a homeless bum in an alley. “Get a goddamn job, Al. You’ve got a negative attitude, that’s what’s stopping you.” (He then realizes he has nothing in common with the man and stabs him to death). Rambo similarly tried to solve the problems of the present by fixing the past, not quite by going back in time, but by rescuing the (largely mythical) American POWs and essentially winning the Vietnam War retroactively. I had a history teacher in high school who told us that it was those pencil-necked politicians who wouldn’t “let” the military “win” in Vietnam, so you can imagine how powerful those movie myths were (he also had an NRA sticker on his podium). Again Reagan aligned himself with the movie myths, saying “I saw Rambo: First Blood Part II last night and I know what to do next time [a hostage crisis] happens.”
The 1950s weren’t so great for a lot of people, but there is a distinct sense that for 1950s pop culture, utopia existed in the future, whereas for 1980s pop culture, it was in the past. Specifically the 1950s, or at least a whitewashed and retconned version of the 1950s, where bullies who called black musicians “Spook” got what was coming to them. “Make America Great Again,” drawing on the notion that our best days were behind us, was originally a Ronald Reagan slogan.
If America’s best days were behind us in 1985, what does that mean for us 35 years later? Back in the late aughts I used to joke that watching a block of TLC programming (with shows like Toddlers and Tiaras and whatnot) was like falling asleep and waking up in the alternate future from Back To The Future 2 where Biff is the president (also known as “1985A”). And who was the model for the character of Biff? You guessed it, Donald Trump. Now Donald Trump is actually the president. I wonder if he also hates manure?
If there was a sense that America’s best days were behind it in 1985, 2020 feels like an alternate timeline created by a rogue time traveler who has fucked up severely. I don’t entirely blame Back To The Future for many of the myths it embodies, it was even critical of a few of them. The fact is, I’ve seen it probably 100 times, maybe more than any other movie. Watching it in 2020, there are aspects of it that seem dated or silly, naturally.
The character of Marty McFly, the guitar shredding jean jacket kid from the ‘burbs who got to school by holding onto cars while riding a skateboard, seems like he was concocted by the same producers who came up with Poochie, the wisecracking hip-hop surfer dog from The Simpsons in “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.” Marty’s Eddie Van Halen-influenced band, The Pinheads, get rejected from the school talent show, by Huey Lewis in a cameo as a school administrator, on account of they’re “just too darn loud.” The guy driving the pick-up Marty hitches a ride on, incidentally, was wearing a Mountain Dew hat, perhaps the least believable of the film’s 12 paid Pepsi references. Back To The Future oozes with the kind of “rebellion” reimagined as advertising so ubiquitous in the 80s.
But Michael J. Fox (famous at the time for playing a precocious Republican on Family Ties), maybe one of the best actors of his generation with the benefit of hindsight, makes Marty feel real. Back To The Future is paced and executed just about perfectly. Christopher Lloyd gives another goofy-on-paper character recognizable humanity, every bit of foreshadowing is clear, and every line lands. Not many movies truly are “fun for the whole family,” but I have particularly fond memories of Back To The Future. It might be the most commercially slick movie ever made, the perfect cinematic equivalent of its own theme song, by Huey Lewis & the News — slightly saccharine and wildly overproduced, but impossible not to tap your foot to. (Huey Lewis being another parallel between Back To The Future and American Psycho).
The narrative arc of Back To The Future was essentially Ronald Reagan’s vision for America. We would rewrite the past as something manlier, more noble, and in the process create for ourselves a brighter future, where everyone gets a shiny new pick-up truck and a hot girlfriend to take to their house on the lake. 35 years later those myths are approaching middle age. Like Eddie Murphy’s character in The Distinguished Gentleman, our own Biff Tannen simply swiped Ronald Reagan’s slogan and adopted it as its own. We’ve watched it mutate, like a meme or a game of telephone, from the movie cowboy Ronald Reagan’s reclaiming the myths of the frontier and the “prestige of the white man” into the game show businessman Donald Trump’s ideal of being an asshole at all times and never having to apologize.
With more distance from 1985 than Marty McFly had from his parents’ first date, I’d like to believe we can treat our nostalgia a little more critically this time around. That we can acknowledge that there are consequences to whitewashing past mistakes. Though to some extent it’s clear that we’ve already failed.
Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can access his archive of reviews here.