Back to the Future is a film I adore, and I distinctly remember watching it as a senior in high school, laughing along to the jokes, feeling the mental sizzle as iconic lines burned themselves into my memory and wondering why I hadn’t seen it sooner. Unlike many of the films I love, Back to the Future wasn’t something I was brought up on as a child, but something a close friend of mine introduced me to.
We met in the summer between fourth and fifth grade, at a tennis camp which neither of us enjoyed nor attended voluntarily — my parents’ last ditch attempt to inspire some degree of athleticism worthy of three prior generations of swimming, running, tennis ball thrashing Tunggals. The only thing tennis camp inspired was a great deal of sweat and indignation, intensified because I forgot my water bottle on the first day. Andrew gave me one of his.
Seven years later, I was backstage with my band about to perform “Johnny B. Goode” at a school concert. Sure, I had a sunburst-red Les Paul hanging from my shoulder, but I wasn’t Jimmy Page as much as I was Lawrence from School of Rock, before he puts on sunglasses and a cape. The pre-cape Lawrences of the world hardly introduce their bands before an audience, and I sure as hell didn’t know what to say.
“Say, ‘This is an oldie. Well, it’s an oldie where I come from,’” Andrew suggested, sensing my nerves, as friends do after years of classes, choir rehearsals and debate conventions. “You know, like Back to the Future.” It was a reference I didn’t get yet, but I knew that movie was famous enough that it might break the ice for the audience. So I said it, eschewing both Jimmy Page and Lawrence for Marty McFly, and tore into that immortal B flat blues riff.
Some time after, I finally got around to watching Back to the Future. Some time after that, I watched its sequel, the one where franchise-villain Biff Tannen becomes the rich tyrant of Hill Valley. Some time later, Biff Tannen was elected President, and the February after that, Andrew texted me about how jealous he was that Milo Yiannopoulos was going to speak on my campus. To quote Marty McFly, that was heavy.
Back to the Future is Andrew’s favorite film trilogy — not the original Star Wars movies, not The Lord of the Rings, not Toy Story. So it boggles my mind how he, or anyone, could see Biff Tannen as the hero of the story, let alone a valid presidential candidate. The writers of the films certainly don’t, admitting that Biff, who owns a casino, poses in front of a portrait of himself and seizes political power, was based on Donald Trump.
In a video essay about the career of George Lucas, Alejandro Villarreal edits together clips of Lucas’ own interviews to create a retrospective on the Star Wars creator. Lucas says “I only hope that those who have seen Star Wars recognize the Emperor when they see him.” I know for a fact that Andrew has seen Star Wars. We made a fan film for a school project once.
Finding that a friend I’ve known for so long differs from myself on such a basic level is difficult to process, but what’s even more frustrating is how film as a medium seems to betray its own limitations. Films are messages and lessons conveyed through good stories, humor, thrills and tears. Films are empathy machines, as Roger Ebert says, allowing us to see the world from another perspective, filtered through a camera lens. But what if the machine doesn’t work on everybody? What if the message is lost in the machinations of a plot, a good belly laugh or a well-timed scare?
I don’t have any answers, but if there’s a film out there that does, I’m all ears.
‘When Harry Met Movies’ is a bi-weekly column from Associate Editor and Co-Chief Film Critic Harrison Tunggal about movies that shape us and why we love them.
Featured image via Universal Pictures.