Any faithful student of the cinematic form will admit that a film can be two-faced. It can wear the movie-screen as a mask, as it were. In a short video-lecture by the philosopher Slavoy Zizek, the latter provides an interesting analysis of The Sound of Music, pointing out such a type of filmic “double-speak.” When we follow the superficial thread of the film’s narrative, claims Zizek, we encounter a good-natured Austrian family living in fear of the rising threat of German fascism. However, a closer look suggests that the film’s true subject is a conservative Arian family fending off a gang of corrupted, cosmopolitan Jews. The Austrians are fair-haired and dressed in traditional garb, whilst the “fascists” are portrayed as black-haired, mustachioed banker types. The same ideology that is seemingly condemned by the film’s content is thus reaffirmed in its very form.
Something similar occurs in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future, a masked film if ever there was one. On the surface BttF seems to be a lighthearted science-fiction take on the typical coming-of-age narrative (our protagonist learns to overcome his fears and in so doing to pursue his dreams), but under the surface looms a dramatic and ideological reversal of the concept of destiny. The film’s real message is not “Be yourself”, “Live in the now”, “Follow your dreams”, or “Enjoy your life”. Our protagonist runs the risk of being erased from history. His true task then is not merely to “be himself”, but rather to restore balance to fate as such by becoming the cause of his own existence.
Let me make this clear by taking a closer look at the narrative. Marty Mcfly is a typical teenage boy growing up in a small American town. All he wants is to drive brawny cars, to have sex with his girlfriend, and to be a rock-and roll-superstar. The only thing standing in his way is a deep-rooted fear of rejection – a character flaw that he shares with his dad. Things aren’t easy for Marty. His father is a coward who lets himself be publicly humiliated by his boss; his mother is a prude who is out of touch with contemporary sexual mores; and the school principal scolds him for being a “slacker”, telling him that, like his father before him, Marty will never amount to anything. If we are to believe the principal there is a curse on the Mcfly family name.
This is where we encounter the first of many parallels with Sophocles’ play Oidipous Tyrannos. Like that of Marty Mcfly, Oidipous’ family is on the wrong end of fate. At his birth, Oidipous’ parents are told by an oracle that their future son will come to slay his father and lay with his mother. It is this internal threat that leads to Oedipus’ banishment from his home. Marty Mcfly is equally forced from his oikos, but in his case the threat is external. A group of Lybian terrorists shows up out of nowhere necessitating Marty to jump into Doc Brown’s time machine and to travel thirty years into the past. As a result of his banishment Oidipous fails to recognize his biological father and mother and ends up killing the one and sleeping with the other. Marty, in a similar fashion, takes his father’s place in his mother’s bedroom and thus compromises his own genesis. Both Oidipous and Marty are victims of fate, but where the one learns to acknowledge its inescapable power, the other comes to master it.
The two-facedness of Back to the Future resides precisely in its hidden reversal of the Sophocles play. Where Oidipous kills his father in a fight, Marty must teach his father how to fight. Where Oidipous sleeps with his mother, Marty must prevent his promiscuous mother from lusting after him. Where Oidipous rejects Tiresias’ prophecy, Marty functions as a prophet to doctor Emmett Brown by informing him about his future inventions. And not only does Marty regain his life by manipulating those of his parents, he even improves it by giving his father fame and fortune and by making of him a true man in the eyes of his mother. Oidipous is but an actor in the grand play of destiny. Marty, on the other hand, becomes its author.
What is the message here? It is certainly not that of Sophocles concerning the futility of wanting to escape fate. Neither is it the film’s superficial celebration of self-realization. No, the true message conveyed by BttF is that we must become the cause of our own creation. We must escape time and tradition by serving as our own origins. What we are dealing with here is a radical disavowal of the power of fate. We are not our parents’ children, nor are we our teachers’ students. We are not the products of tradition or history. We can acknowledge parents, teachers and tradition – we can call them ours – only by subsuming them under the goals that we set ourselves. Where Sophocles wanted us to recognize our insignificance in the face of divine powers, Zemeckis wants us to become gods unto ourselves.
Yes, we want to live in the now, but therefore we need first to redirect the course of history. Yes, we want to be ourselves, but therefore we need first to correct our creators. The enjoyment whereof we dream will become available to us only once we rid ourselves of our parents’ joyless communion, and win for ourselves what they lost with our birth, namely freedom from destiny. It is only by reinventing our parents’ lives that we come to lay claim to our own.
So let us finally return to Zizek and the theme of two-facedness. Back to the Future, like The Sound of Music, has two stories to tell. One is explicit and superficial, the other hidden beneath the surface. What seems to be a story about self-discovery and acceptance, is in reality a call for drastic genetic revision. It is not us who are flawed; it is the life that we were born into. Being oneself does not amount to accepting one’s heritage or embracing one’s fate; rather it means revising every aspect of history that keeps one tied to an unchosen and imperfect birth. With this in mind, the ultimate question would be the following: Is it more daunting to embrace an unchosen destiny, or to be creator of a reality whose imperfections are due only to one’s own faulty choices? Back to the Future confronts us with what is perhaps the true existential dilemma of our time. I could not pretend to have a solution, and will leave it to the reader to come up with one.
Willem de Witte