Back to the Future
Unlike many other great pops-men in the film world, Robert Zemeckis is a legitimate auteur, which is to say, he has a unique vision he aims to see fulfilled in his finished product and one which requires a significant amount of effect on his part. I’ll never forgive him for Forrest Gump, a wretched a combination of schmaltzy artificial cotton candy and “I’m above politics and thus more moral than you” traditionalism that nonetheless must innately be entirely political, which manages to one-up itself by just plain having boring wallpaper as a central character (who also happens to be deeply problematic and inhumanly insensitive in its glamorization of the mentally handicapped here rendered as inoffensively cute, innocent, and above all too-moral-to-be-human). Quite a long-winded barn-storming gasping rage of a sentence, but the film had a vision. One which alternated between boring, problematic, and scary, but a vision nonetheless, one which he sought out and achieved through what loosely approximates filmmaking “craft”.
For all the Oscar-glory beset upon Forrest Gump, however, Zemeckis’ mark upon the film world will forever be epitomized by this mid-’80s piece of pure pop filmmaking dressed up in its finest hat and tails. Among all of the more conventional strengths of a winning entertainment – likable character acting, sympathetic direction, a witty screenplay, great, holistic production detail – the film boasts a great strength in its witty, literate satire of 1950s US properness and superficial “gee willickers” flustered high spirits. Furthermore, the film all but knows that this image is exactly that – an image – and it plays it for human comedy and the fundamental appeal of the dream (or is that nightmare?) of witnessing your parents as teenagers and exposing them for the lies they tell as adults about their teenage years.
Beyond all this, it’s unique among ’80s puff pieces in that the narrative is not merely a clothesline to hang other strengths upon, for the strengths are often core to the narrative premise and the way it develops. When the film begins …well it begins on one of the loveliest bits of non-narrative character building ever as the camera pans around little bits of an apartment we quickly learn belongs to Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd). We haven’t met him yet, nor do we meet him for a slight while, but our sense of him as a slightly raving madman from olden Hollywood beached somewhere in the 1980s has been developed wholeheartedly.
First, however, we have to meet Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a typical SoCal teenager struggling with typical SoCal teenager problems: lame parents, school bullies, a girlfriend, wanting to be a famous guitarist and having no idea what he’s doing, school teachers/ principles labeling him a slacker, and, of course, a time-travelling mad scientist bro he’s taken to befriending as a fellow outcast. Naturally, and probably for the best, Back to the Future centers on this last issue, and slowly weaves in the others as McFly finds himself back in good ol’ 1955, meeting his parents Lorraine (Lea Thompson) and George (Marty McFly) as teenagers, destroying the space-time continuum by accidentally hindering them from falling in love, and having to pick up the pieces of his tomfoolery. You know. Kids stuff.
And Back to the Future is kids’ stuff, frothy and ready to please. Yet, it deals with serious issues in a fully-formed, cohesive manner, exploring time paradoxes with zest and thought and genuinely poking around at the universe of time. It’s not quite as fully formed and adventurous as a bit of sci-fi storytelling as the wildly messy, escapading Part II would be four years later, but it’s far more than a light-hearted comedy probably should have in a sane world. Even better, it genuinely plays around with the human spirit and finds humanism in the “children seeing their parents as teenagers” situation, exploring how time, not innate personality differences, makes us all lame in equal amounts. It’s a great equalizer, the end result capturing a certain low-key gliding humanism that refuses to die down.
A particularly amusing late-film number has McFly ravage “Johnny B Goode” to a white-bread ’50s audience and go loopily over-the-top like a child exploring something he doesn’t know how to handle – the film revealing him for the privileged teenager he is. It captures elegantly (rambunctiously) the stereotypes of the ’80s – loud, reckless, overbearing – and essays them in such a gleefully over-the-top fashion – Marty kicking down all the loudspeakers like a parody of an ’80s rocker – it can’t but know they’re stereotypes. The scene posits a timelessly caricatured quality to the whole film that doesn’t specifically “mock” Marty’s parents and their time period because it is as busy mocking Marty and his time period. Even the friendship between Doc Brown (a ’50s caricature) and Marty (an ’80s caricature) posits a certain connection between the cartoons of different eras. In the end, it sees a certain eternal connected-ness between the ages and has all the fun it can while doing so, giving us humanity at its lightest, not through a grimace or a leer but through a smirk.
None of this is really acidic or caustic or bitter in any way, but it’s all lightly mocking and genial, even if it’s undeniably pointed and clever. Above all, it’s fun. Quite fun. Heck. With two great broad comic performances at its core (Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd kick up some unbelievable chemistry together), it’s 1.21 gigawatts of the purest fun imaginable.
Pee-wee’s Big Adventure
The tagline of Pee-wee’s Big Adventure tells us it is “the story of a rebel and his bike”, and it couldn’t be more appropriate. Most obviously, that really is the extent of the story: Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) has his bike stolen, and he tries to find it. That takes care of the “bike” portion, but I would like to focus on “rebel”. For the film is, for lack of a better term, rebellious. It’s a particularly madcap, nervy little wolf in sheep’s clothing, fully committed to its rebellious childhood aesthetic and its simultaneous affirmation and shockingly anxious fear of childhood desire left out in the cold. It’s an exploration of growing up without maturing, and it is undeniably fascinated with what it finds – as for whether it is more excited or scared, it cannot particularly tell.
When I think of the film, the bit I tend to look to most readily isn’t one of the more showy bits, but it is the most worried. Pee-wee, suspecting fellow man-child Francis Buxton (Mark Holton) for stealing his bicycle, rushes toward his mansion and we cut to, of all things, Pee-wee trying to drown Francis in his family pool with characteristic commitment and abandon. Around the same time, Pee-wee amasses a smorgasbord of evidence about his stolen bike, including a pen. When asked of the significance of the pen, he responds “I bought this pen exactly one hour before my bike was stolen. Why? What’s the significance? I DON’T KNOW!”. The film captures him not only as a lighthearted child or a fluffy curio but something very close to a maddened, frothing-at-the-mouth lunatic, a child’s mind in an adult body with a sense of need completely unrestrained.
Of course, this is also the Pee-wee character. Originally Reubens’ one-man stage show, the essence of the character was an adult in a child’s body, a mentally unstable figure who craved for adult desires – sex and alcohol – without an adult’s sense of restraint or social conscience. After a brief, expletive-filled appearance in a Cheech and Chong feature (yes, that most mature of adult genres, the stoner-comedy) where his rampant personal tension served as a foil for our two heros’ laid-back, non-committal charm, Hollywood got the idea to tone him down a bit and give him his own full-length feature. This was 1985, the tipping point, and the film captures him balanced right on the knife’s edge between his earlier adult sensibilities and the late ’80s childishness of the often fantastic “Pee-wee’s Playhouse”, very much a children’s TV show, but a fascinating one at that. For this reason, because the character is most unclassifiable here and specifically here in a way he never was before or after, this film captures him at his most fascinating and kinetically watchable.
To some extent, it is still a one-man show; Reubens is the undeniable MVP of the production, giving a slap-dash performance that borders on insanity and capturing everything that made the spirit of classic Looney Tunes characters like the aggravated, flustered Daffy Duck and the smugly superior playground bully of Bugs Bunny. It’s a wonderful, mirth-filled yet dangerous performance, and the star of the film.
There is another star behind the screen, however: Tim Burton, in his first feature film. Admittedly, he’s almost restrained here, but the big brother of having Hollywood watch over him for his first film actually gives him a certain energy largely created by his undeniable joy at the little ways he is able to subvert things around him. Of course, the rambling, episodic nature is one way of generally screwing with the need for narrative story-telling. The way the whole film exists on a perpetual high is another. But his greatest trick is the look of the film, giving us color-coded madness and contrasting the soft colors of the film’s quasi-’50s aesthetic with the hard colors of the undeniable ’80s dancing around the whole thing. It also all looks fake, and that seems the point. It’s an undeniably chintzy looking film, everything plastered together with locations that seem like a madman’s version of 1950s hysteria and conformity (and a commentary on the more feverish way the ’80s recreated this artificial spirit with cheerful abandon, not unlike Back to the Future in that regard). Of course, Burton would go on to massage a more cohesive visual style predicated on exactly this wacky “from the movies” ’50s aesthetic, but it’s delightful here to see the same form still in the womb, pushing up against the film’s more mundane style and creating a fascinating tension.
It’s an altogether unclassifiable film, not really an adventure, not much of a fantasy, and not especially funny as a comedy. Its episodic nature also largely keeps it from ever particularly working as a narrative. But the flurry of anarchic chaos attains a critical mass and refuses to be batted down, climaxing with the film’s only truly restful bit and even then working in a rather deft, caustic little parody of Hollywoodization. This finale, with Pee-wee watching a film version of his adventure, captures the film at its brightest and most giddily aware of its own self, saying loudly and quite clearly that Pee-wee does not and cannot belong in a film, for his unbridled energy cannot work as a serious Hollywood product. Of course, the fact of the matter is this is Pee-wee in a Hollywood film, and the film’s pastiche of what it ought to be like is as much a proud statement that it exists in its current fashion as anything else. It is particularly invested because Burton, having created a film that looks like a pastiche of the 1950s found only in American movies and television, and thus assumedly conveying how fake the whole film truly is, then goes about not making a film that ever could have existed in the 1950s as a narrative. That is fascinating, and not a trick that he would pull off again – his other films were bemused, off-kilter versions of ’50s films, but this one is positively torn and frayed.
It is him saying “look, I made this, and I got over on you, Hollywood, most mightily, I will now laugh in your face”. Burton would go on to do this at least once more, before he became stagnant and safe in his for-hire weird aesthetic. But as of 1985, Burton was not yet done laughing in Hollywood’s face as he went off to the bank with his own Pee-wee-esque appetite for destruction and personal satisfaction. But we’ll get to that soon enough.