The Violence of Back to the Future

With all this free time (here today, gone in three weeks) between semesters, I've been watching some of the classics of the past decades, including the first two Back to the Futures. They are quite impressive. I don't know what Spielberg is up to these days, but once upon a time, he could lay out a solid storyline.

Watching the first Back to the Future and admiring the ever amusing Christopher Lloyd, I was reminded of one of the objections to the film: that it teaches violence as a solution. I've always considered this a rather petulant objection, and I was struck once more by (1) how inaccurate that objection is; (2) how stupid that objection is.

The film is about assertiveness. Marty's dad is a wimpy guy who gets some spine and voila, it changes his future. Spielberg carries the theme into the next two films, although he changed it slightly (possibly in answer to the objectors) by making Marty's assertiveness a matter of "Just saying, 'No'." But it's the same idea in different form.

However, let's suppose that the film is a kind of Hamlet meets Rambo declaration of the uses of violence to improve life, this is such a wrong-headed message because...? I suppose when the bully starts harassing the girl, Marty's dad should have called the police, lectured Biff on his non-PC behavior, written a strongly worded article, tried a diplomatic solution. And when Biff started wrenching on his arm, Marty's dad should have called a cease-fire and asked the UN to get involved.

Now, granted, movies (well, any created thing) set up their own problems or strawmen that they then solve. Which is why evil capitalist businessmen abound in droves in Hollywood. Set 'em up, kick 'em down, shake your finger a lot. And Biff is an over the top villain, but the basic problem remains. This guy is a bully who pushes people around. A martyr would take it. A Rambo would shot his head off. In a fantasy, he would be turned into a frog. In a Disney movie, he would fall on his own sword or trip over a cliff or something. In an Anne Perry novel, he would suddenly confess and tell you all about his bad relationship with his evil father. Jean Luc Picard would lecture him about free will before blowing up his ship. The Vulcan would have nerve-pinched him. But the easiest solution is just to hit the guy. Yet the objectors never seem to stop to think about the problem as an actual problem: here's a situation, what do you do about it? Which question is, I think, the whole purpose of fiction.

I suppose what the objectors dislike is that Marty's family benefits (oh, horrors) from this punch, which, as I've noted in my (1) response kind of misses the point of the punch, or what the punch represents. It's a kind of weird literalness which insists on taking the action literally but subjectifying the result to a bizarre degree. So, the movie was JUST about the punch, but the viewers won't understand that it's JUST about the punch, they will extrapolate, in a very right brained way, the punch for use in their own lives. So viewers are too left-brained to see the punch as symbolic but too right-brained to say, "Hey, this is just a movie."

When, the fact is, standing up for yourself violently, can make a difference in the future, good or bad. The whole point of turning the other cheek, etc. isn't that the Rambo approach doesn't work. Christ was advocating an alternative for entirely separate reasons from the effectiveness of violence. He was saying, "Let it go, even though you could take the guy's head off." Which is very different from saying, "Hey, this doesn't work." The Romans believed bulldozing Palestine would solve their problems in that area, and it did. It didn't solve them for anybody else, but it certainly solved them for the Romans. (Their particular end-of-the-line came from an entirely different direction.) On the positive side, the Revolutionary War worked too. Of course, the French Revolution didn't, but Waterloo certainly worked for the British.

Back to the Futures, I will admit, I think the truck in Back to the Future I is a bit much. I can well believe that Marty's dad learning to stand up for himself and not get pushed around could result in a slightly nicer home and a better relationship between the parents and more motivated kids and a writing career for the dad. I don't buy that any of that translates into a new truck. After all, a more assertive father might have decided that Marty shouldn't have any kind of car ("Pay for it yourself, son. I did when I was your age.").

Since, it's Christmas, I will end by commenting on the Sermon on the Mount (where the "turn the other check" statement is found). I think the purpose of the Sermon is to establish a standard, a palpable conception of moral righteousness, a center against which to compare ourselves. Do we hold grudges? Do we forgive? Trust? Do we hold by the truth? Do we stand up for our beliefs? Do we love our enemies? (And enemies includes all those people on the other side of the political spectrum and horrible bosses and faulty leaders.) It isn't about how to manage a political situation any more than the Creation vision is about how to create a world in six easy steps. Jesus made it clear on more than one occasion that he had no intention of involving himself, pro or con, in Rome's particular brand of diplomacy. He wasn't preaching about insurrections or cease-fires, he was saying, "This is the best kind of behavior. This is where you start." And he also said, "It's hard." "I came not to send peace, but a sword." "Be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves." "A sword shall pierce through thine own soul also." And the cross and the scars and the long, dark nights before the Voice spoke. It isn't about a situation out there that we can apply labels and arguments to, it's about me and you and everybody individually. And that's more than enough to grapple with.


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