Previous Entry: Forrest Gump
Connection: director (Robert Zemeckis)
Back to the Future (1985)
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale
Starring Michael J. Fox, Christopher Lloyd, Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, and Thomas F. Wilson
116 minutes, rated PG
In third grade, I managed to convince myself that a long-haired man driving a large blue car was trying to kidnap me. This was in the fall of 1984, and I had seen this same man in the same blue car every morning as I walked from my house on Prospect Avenue to Dr. Howard School. At first, I only noticed the car (it was painted a very pretty powder blue color), but on subsequent days, I began to notice that there was always a man sitting in the car. On a couple of occasions, he pulled the car out of its parking space and seemed to be following me as I walked up the sidewalk. Once or twice, he waved at me.
In retrospect, I can see that I had made a pretty big deal out of nothing. The man in the car had never offered me candy or anything, right? He never tried to talk to me. He hadn’t suggested in any way that I get into his car. He was, more than likely, a man in my neighborhood who existed on the same schedule, heading to work every day at the same time that I was heading to school. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. The long-haired man in the large blue car scared the hell out of me.
My mother was reasonably certain that I was inventing a problem. That I was seeking attention. That I was fighting back at all the changes that she had foisted into my life that year. My parents had just divorced. Mom was working many, many hours at multiple jobs. We had been uprooted from small-town life into the bigger-by-comparison metropolitan jungle. Traffic was heavier, the playgrounds were scarier, and schools were not equipped for the one-on-one attention that I had grown accustomed to. My mother believed that my insistence I was seconds away from being kidnapped on any given morning was designed to make her feel guilty for all the recent upheaval.
As I think on it now, she was probably right. There is certainly no evidence now to suggest that the scary man in the scary car was ever anything more than just some dude in a car. But I wouldn’t let this go. I saw it like this: regardless of his intent, there was a man in a car, and that man scared me. My mother was so convinced that I was making this up that she never even investigated my claims. She just rolled her eyes and sent me off to school every morning, seemingly ambivalent to whether or not the man in question was a figment of my imagination or a genuine pervert ready to pounce as soon as I stopped to tie my shoes. This upset me almost as much as the scary man did.
Like I said, though, this was the 80s. Readers who grew up in this era can vouch: this sort of thing was taken very seriously by teachers and the administration of schools. Hours of classroom time were devoted every week to making sure that we, as children, knew what to do if we were approached by strangers. The television shows that we knew and loved were devoting “very special episodes” to the whole notion that any one of us could be kidnapped at any time. The entirety of the grown-up world seemed hellbent on keeping that thought in the back of our minds. So . . . when I didn’t get the response that I wanted from my mother, I reported the long-haired man in the large blue car to my teacher.
All hell broke loose. I feel a bit badly about it now, because it certainly didn’t make my mother look very good. The school grilled her repeatedly on why she wasn’t taking my concerns seriously. She kept insisting– perhaps, rightly– that if this strange man was going to abscond with her son that he probably would have done so by now. She kept insisting that what I wanted was attention. Well, if attention was, in fact, what I wanted, I got it.
I was brought in to the principal’s office with a police officer, who asked me to describe the car and the man as best as I could. It’s telling now that I was intentionally foggy with some of the details when I made my report. I couldn’t really describe the man any better than just “older with long grey-hair tied into a ponytail” and my description of the car was contradictory to the drawing that the police officer requested I do. I was a kid, so I didn’t understand makes and models. I just knew that it was a powder blue car with four doors. I had no license plate number or other identifying features. Just a color and proof that I could count to four. My drawing of the car made the car look like more like a Volkswagen than a large sedan, and when the police officer called me on this discrepancy, I began to cry. Like, legitimately shed tears. I was upset that my mother didn’t believe me. I felt like the police officer was intentionally trying to poke holes in my story. I had no real quantifiable reasons for being scared of the stranger in the blue car, but I was. All of this manifested itself in a blubbering, sobbing, and inarticulate mess.
Eventually, my teacher– a woman who still stands as one of my favorite teachers I have ever had– made arrangements with the parent of another child in my class. This child also lived on Prospect Avenue, albeit a few more blocks north, and it was not out of the way for her mother to pick me up and give me a ride to school. If nothing else, it would make me feel better and would keep me from breaking down into emotional fits whenever anyone said “blue” or “car”. It was a simple arrangement: I would wait on my porch until I saw them drive by. Then, I would walk a few houses down to the corner, where they would be waiting for me. It made me feel safer, and it was adequately surreptitious (I was afraid of my mother’s reaction when she knew that I had used my “made-up story” to finagle a free ride to school).
It was in this manner that I became friends with Shannon Boyle.
Shannon was a very, very pretty girl. Everybody thought so, and I had been harboring a secret crush on her since the first day of school. She was popular, though, and ran with a crowd of older girls at recesses and lunch. Aside from the idle comments made in class, I never really had occasion to be made to feel worthy of speaking to her until we were forced to ride together in the back seat of her mother’s car on the way to school every day. It turned out that we had a few things in common: we liked the same kind of music, had interest in the same sorts of books, watched the same television shows. Our back-seat conversations began to bleed over into conversations during school. We began to trade books. We elected to be partners for various projects in class. We used back-seat time to help each other finish up the math problems that we didn’t understand from homework the night prior.
One thing that I did that Shannon really admired– and was a big stepping stone in my becoming friends with her– was write. Being and becoming a writer was something that I had wanted to do even in grade school, and I spent an inordinate amount of time filling notebooks with stories. My stories and poems were being published in the fledgling school newspaper. I had won a couple of “Young Author” scholastic awards. I liked writing, and I was good at it, even if my final products were distinctly juvenile. Well, Shannon really liked my stories and she would often take my notebooks home with her over a weekend, so that she could read the stories I had written. Sometimes, she would challenge me with new ideas for stories that she wanted to read. She was a pretty girl, and I had a crush on her. Writing stories for her kept her attention. Having her attention made me just a little more likable to other boys in the class.
This, ultimately, turned out to be something that would have been obvious had this been a friendship that blossomed in college instead of in the backseat of her mother’s car on the way to third grade: Shannon and I were not really friends. And, I mean, we were, but it didn’t occur to me at the time that I never saw her or spent time with her outside of school. I knew where she lived, but had never set foot inside her house. I wasn’t welcomed into her playground circle of more-popular girls. And I didn’t seem to notice then that the times she was interacting and included with my group of friends were mainly in the confines of our classroom. Even more importantly, I didn’t seem to notice then that some of those kids, the boys in my group, were being included in her life outside of class.
1985. It’s the summer between our 3rd- and 4th-grade year. Shannon and I have really only been friendly for less than a year. I had become involved at the end of the prior year with the Cub Scouts. A good number of the friends I had made the previous year were also involved, and this was an excellent way for me to maintain my friendships with them outside of class. Especially in the summertime.
It was at a Cub Scout event of some sort a couple of weeks into July that one of my friends idly mentioned that Back to the Future, a movie that had not been available at this point in theaters for very long, was one of the funniest movies he had ever seen. I knew the movie, and was interested in it, but had not seen it yet. For me and my family, movies had to be second-run before we went to see them. As more friends arrived, I began to get more and more excluded from the conversation because it seemed that I might be the only person in attendance that hadn’t seen this movie. I was able to contribute in small ways (“I like Michael J. Fox, too.” “The theme song by Huey Lewis is really, really great.” “I like time-travel fiction, but a lot of it doesn’t make much sense.”), but the inside jokes in regards to the film’s plot and narrative were lost on me. I had no context for the quotes being thrown around. I felt very excluded, but this movie was brand new and it seems my friends had seen it recently, so there wasn’t much I could do to turn the conversation to other topics. Everything that was mentioned or discussed somehow found its way to a juncture that somehow led to Back to the Future.
I don’t recall if I found out that day or on another one, but I eventually learned that all of my friends had seen this movie in the theaters on the same day at the same time. They had been invited to see the movie as a group by none other than . . . Shannon Boyle. I don’t know if it was a birthday party or just a general gathering of friends, but I was very hurt to not be included. I made every attempt to not act like this revelation was bothersome to me, but I was hurt all the same. The more I thought about it– God, I was an overly-emotional little shit– hurt became anger, which eventually became hatred. Hatred for Shannon, who seemed to have actively excluded me. My thoughts on the matter ran the gamut, from general “I thought you were my friend” to the more particular. I was arrogant (and emotional) enough to believe that these friends that she had invited, the friends that she had actively excluded me from, were my friends. People that she was only that close enough to because she had become friends with me. Again, hindsight being what it is, I realize the stupidity of this thought-process now, but, at the time, it was a very real concern and it only served to make me more angry.
I was angry enough that I confronted her. I actually walked to her house– a bigger feat now because we had moved, and I no longer lived just up the street– and confronted her on her porch. I asked her why she would do something so hurtful as not invite me to a summertime gathering of friends, and I will never forget the reason she cited. She said to me, “I didn’t think you’d be able to go.” I called her on that, reminding her that she wouldn’t know that I was unable to go if she hadn’t asked about my availability, and she added insult to injury by saying, “I didn’t think you could afford the ticket. Your family is poor.”
She was correct. My family was poor. And I had no idea until that moment that she had been judging me for that fact.
I felt very rejected, enough that I kind of disappeared from friendly gatherings for a week or two. I didn’t want to see anybody because it stood to reason that if Shannon was judging me for being poor, then my other friends probably were as well. I began to equate everyone I was friendly with to her and that rejection, due in no small part to the fact that I knew that the stories I was writing and the imaginative tales that I had to share with others were a large part of why I was so popular with this particular clique in the first place. If my ability to weave an effective narrative was the only reason that Shannon valued me, then it made perfect sense to me that this was my only value to other friends I had made. Shannon was a pretty girl. She was popular, and everyone had a crush on her. They would have done whatever she told them to do, right? The fact that, save a couple of examples, Cub Scout activities were the only interactions I had outside of class with most of these “friends” only made my paranoia that Shannon’s shallow attitude toward me was “the norm” all the more palpable.
A week or so later, I had been taken to Charleston, Illinois to visit my father for a week. I already felt rejected by my father for reasons too explicit to get into here, so I was not in a good headspace for most of that visit. Mostly, I spent the week reading from the pile of paperbacks I had brought with me because I was too exhausted to even bother dealing with him after we got into a huge argument on our second night at his home. Guess what that argument was about? About whether or not I could go with my stepbrother to the second-run theater in Mattoon to see . . . wait for it . . . Back to the Future. My father (who I should admit, was, at this point, months behind on child support to my mother) insisted that we could not go to the movie because my mother had not given him extra money for “extra things” on the visit. I was livid. First of all, the second-run theater only cost a damn dollar, but I was yet again being denied the opportunity to see a movie because I was poor. This truth actually helped me to redirect some of my anger at Shannon. I could now be mad at my father, instead. We were poor, and it was largely his fault.
I did not see Back to the Future for almost seven years. It was almost an act of defiance on my part to avoid doing so. It was only a movie, yes, but it was also a constant reminder that my family was irrevocably unstable financially. It was also a constant reminder that people were judging me for it.
By the time I actually sat down to watch it, the third film in the trilogy had been released. I finally watched the entire trilogy with my childhood friend, Paul, while we were vacationing for a week at his aunt’s house in Antioch, Illinois. Paul’s family had been very supportive of me through the years. They had covered for me, more than once, over the years because my family did not have much money– including, I would later learn, most of the fees and monies associated with my involvement with the Cub Scouts. Never once did they judge me for that. Never once did they ever make me feel uncomfortable or unwelcome for being poor. I felt “safe” with them, and Paul and his parents were instrumental to the many years it took for me to understand that being poor did not make me a bad person. They helped me understand that my rejection over Shannon’s shallowness or my anger toward my father’s irresponsibility was not my fault. It was not something that I had to own. It was a flaw in their character that I could either choose to forgive them for or not. If I was choosing to not forgive them, Paul’s family made it very clear, that they were not judging me for that either.
By the time I actually sat down to watch this movie, it was very clear that my pure enjoyment of it was a sure sign that I was unfairly blaming a movie for feelings of despair. There are many movies that I don’t watch because they make me feel shitty, but all of them are movies that I have seen before and felt shitty after watching them. These might be movies that made me feel things that I didn’t want to feel. Maybe it’s a movie that reminded me of feelings or moods and events that I wanted to forget about. There are movies that have made me stop and reassess things that I might have done or said to other people. But Back to the Future? The movie was not the cause of my problems. My biggest problem in regards to Back to the Future was my obstinate refusal to see it.
There are two things, in closing, that I think it’s important for readers to know. One, most importantly as an addendum to the entry, I saw Shannon Boyle almost five years ago It was the first time I had seen her in almost twenty. It was one of those “small-world” coincidences where we ended up at the same funeral. It was her grandmother’s funeral, so she was very pre-occupied with all of the difficulties inherent to those who are left behind. We didn’t speak much or for very long, and I certainly, given her grief, never brought up the feelings of resentment that I had been harboring for years. She did mention, in passing, that she had recently discovered an old folder that had a story that I had written for her, a story that had been tucked away in a box in a closet for more than thirty years. She said it was hand-written, about ten pages long, and was about me, her, and several of our friends at the time being trapped in the grade-school library during a tornado. I remembered actually writing the story. I mentioned being interested in seeing that story again, so she friended me on Facebook and we made mutual promises to keep in touch. We never did. Maybe there was a wishing well on our individual birthdays or the occasional like on a photo, but, as of this writing, when I tried to contact her to see if she was even comfortable with me sharing this story, I discovered that I had been unfriended with no idea whatsoever of how long ago it has been since I was purged. I decided not to contact her, and chose to change her name instead. Two, I think that Back to the Future is an inarguable classic, that deserves a solid placement near the top of any list that tries to rank the best movies of the 1980s. I can only think of one or two movies that I myself would place above this one– and even that listing would be based more on that film’s impact on me and less on that film’s general film quality. I only mention this because I fear sometimes that readers get confused that I am continually publishing entries about movies that are not really about the movie. This film has become important to me, though, because of the things that it isn’t really about. Yes, it’s about time travel. Yes, it’s about ambition. Yes, it’s about family. Those things are obvious. But, less obviously, one could also argue that the film is about transformation and free will. Maybe, oddly, I love this movie for all the reasons that I avoided it for so long.