The ‘Dance Movie’

The ‘Dance Movie’

A poetic analysis of that lesser-appreciated cinematic genre: the Dance Movie.

Form:

I have a confession to make. I’m quite partial to dance movies. Movies about dancing. Those faintly ridiculous films in which dancing not only features, but is a key ingredient in the very fibre of the main characters’ lives. Films like Dirty Dancing, Footloose, Step Up, Step Up 2, Step Up 3D, Save the Last Dance, Breakin’, Breakin 2: Electric Boogaloo, You Got Served, Strictly Ballroom et cetera.

It’s one of my many guilty pleasures. Anyway, these films, it has to be said, are something of a different animal to the conventional Hollywood movie. Yes, they have plot and narrative and pathos and all that good stuff, but they exist to do more than simply tell a tale. They exist to celebrate dance. See, the dance movie’s hook is the whole dancing thing – we know even before the opening credits that we’re going to see some hot moves, regardless of any subtextual social commentary/ politics/ comment on the human condition/ whatever.

The titles allude to this. Dirty Dancing would probably be better called ‘The Abortion Scandal’ or ‘The Summer I Lost My Virginity’. Footloose might be titled ‘Overcoming Christian Dogma’. And what about all those dance movies that tackle the theme of interracial relationships? (eg: Save the Last Dance, Breakin’). ‘He’s Black and She’s White’ perhaps?

Structurally, the dance movie pretty much goes from Dance to Dance, via Dance. A big dance at the beginning, lots of little dances along the way as the narrative works through its complications, and a big celebratory dance at the end, when all is well. There is literally no deviation from this format, and if there is, it isn’t a dance movie.

Language and Imagery:

With such a clear emphasis on dancing, the dance movie is largely preoccupied with capturing what we can call ‘hot moves’. All these films feature key set pieces sprinkled evenly throughout the narrative, in which great pains are taken to make dancing seem as exciting as is humanly possible. These sequences are always frenetic and busy – lots of bodies throwing lots of shapes and fast editing to make it all that more kinetic. Then there’s the montage…

The Montage (yes, it deserves its own subheading)

A key feature of the dance movie is that bit, somewhere in the middle, where someone needs to get better at dancing in order for the plot to reach resolution. This is where a montage comes in – a little cut up of dance sequences set to energetic, motvational music, by the end of which the protagonists are significantly better dancers than they were, three minutes hence. I love it. Below is a little rundown of some classic dance movie montages:

Dirty Dancing: Johnny and Penny teaching Baby to Rhumba. Song – ‘Hungry Eyes’ by Eric Carman

Footloose: Kevin Bacon teaching his shitkicking hick buddy to barn dance. Song – ‘Let’s Hear It For the Boy’ by Deniece Williams

Breakin’: Turbo, Ozone and Kelly training to form a new breakdancing crew. Song – ‘Ain’t Nobody’ by Chaka Khan

Step Up 2: The misfit dancing  form a super dance group to compete in the upcoming underground street battle. Song – ‘Shake Your Pom Pom’ by Missy Elliot

Save the Last Dance: The black guy teaching the white girl how to dance ‘street’. Song – ‘You Know What’s up’ by Donnell Jones

Imagery:

Needless to say, some of the dance movie’s most memorable images are taken directly from the montage sequences. The beauty of the montage is that it’s got almost no purpose other than to show off some dancing, make the protagonists look sexy, and include a few comedic bloopers – perfect to create memorable snapshots.

Rhythm:

The beauty of the dance movie is that it has no delusions as to what it is and as a result, a dance is never far away. These films, as you might expect, have a definite rhythm, with regular peaks of dance-fuelled excitement, culminating in a mind-blowing explosion of dance insanity. The narrative is constantly leaning forward towards this culminating moment, be it Dirty Dancing’s swan lift, Footloose’s barn dance or Strictly Ballroom’s rule-defying competition win.

Any quiet moments exist purely to allow the characters to ‘develop’ and/ or reveal poignant facts about their troubled pasts, which makes the subsequent dances all the more important. We care a lot more about Johnny’s ability to cha cha cha after we find out about his subjugated life as an exploited dancer, for example. These moments of pathos tend to come after the montage, setting up a melancholic penultimate act before the victorious ending. Dramatic stuff.

Tone:

Dancing aside, the dance movie is almost uniformly melodramatic. There’s always some troubling context surrounding all the dance action that drives the narrative forward, and it always leaves the protagonists in some kind of dramatic flux: Love triangles, social pressures, mysterious pasts, lost dreams, racial conflict, et cetera. Further to this, there is always a point reached where things get so screwed up that not even dancing can save the day, until, of course, dancing saves the day. You know when these bits arrive because a)no-one is dancing and b)the soundtrack gets all minor key.

But it isn’t all doom and gloom. These films always, and I do mean ALWAYS, end in celebration, a huge triumph where dance has enabled the protagonists to overcome their problems. Yay.

Subject matter:

The central message behind every dance movie is as follows:

“No matter who you are, no matter what you do, all of life’s problems can be overcome through dance.”

And when I say ‘problems’ I mean everything up to and including racial injustice, class prejudice, gang warfare, bereavement, parental conflict, religious oppression and poverty. At this point, I ‘m tempted to make some overblown statement about how these films are fundamentally about the resilience of the human spirit and flight of the soul in the face of oppression etc etc, blah blah blah, but I won’t. I’ll leave you to make those conclusions – here’s the ‘Hungry Eyes’ montage from Dirty Dancing, for inspiration. Enjoy.

-Unseen Flirtations

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Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day

A poetic analysis of Groundhog Day, directed by Harold Ramis, written by Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin, released in 1993.

Form:

Groundhog Day follows a clear narrative line, with plot development, a climax, resolution and all that good stuff. However, what sets it apart from other films (and what makes it so damned special) is its quirky central premise – that the same day is being repeated over, and over, and over (and over) again. What we get is a film that is stuck in its tracks, failing to get much further than its own introduction. Narratives can be loosely broken down into five sections: Introduction – Development – Complication – Climax – Resolution, a format that is playfully manipulated to create circular plot that the protagonist is required to break out of. Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is introduced and developed, but the complication is that his story becomes stuck and he literally can’t go forward. Meanwhile, his narrative (his personal development) continues apace, and this is what the audience is watching. In this sense, the film operates on two levels; the circular, time loop plot and the linear narrative. Phil is trapped in the former and the audience can watch his development in the latter until the cycle is eventually broken.

Language:

One of the reasons that Groundhog Day is so distinctive and memorable a film is that it plays around so delightfully (can I say that?) with film language. Ramis sets up a fairly average sequence of events that structure Phil’s day. It’s just a normal day. But, with the repetition of these events – waking up to ‘I Got You Babe’, meeting Ned ‘bing’ Ryerson, having lunch with Andie ‘blood sausage’ McDowell, et cetera, the film is given a grid of circumstances for Phil to inhabit. Every shot, every pan, every edit, becomes a familiar cue for the audience and we eagerly anticipate the next variation of Phil’s day. The writers have given themselves what I think is the greatest source of creativity: boundaries. Literally repeating itself, Groundhog Day works off a limited vocabulary of scenes and set pieces and the writers are subsequently forced to be as inventive as possible to prevent the narrative from being as redundant as the plot. The creativity comes from Phil’s varying responses to this and the limitless possibilities his changing moods throw forwards. Clever stuff.

Imagery:

As stated above, the repetition of key scenes/ images is what gives Groundhog Day a sense of drive, but the subtle variations of these repetitions is what makes the film so fascinating. Because Phil is the one variant in a relentlessly unchanging landscape, the audience finds themselves scrutinising him with an unusual level of intensity. We notice his increasing scruffiness in the first two acts, as he gradually gives up hope, and his sharp return to form as he plans for redemption fall into place. We notice small details of background that become increasingly important as Phil begins to explore the town of Punxsutawney. The puddle he keeps forgetting to avoid, the game of Jeopardy on TV that he develops a sixth sense for, the ‘background’ characters he eventually shares intimate moments with, and so on. This is a film about the ordinary becoming extraordinary, a theme that is played out with subtlety through increasing focus on various images.

Rhythm:

I can’t quite work out if writing this thing would have felt like the most exciting thing ever or chore. Probably both. As stated in ‘Form’ (above), Groundhog Day is a film that sticks, skipping like a scratched record very early in the plot. Naturally, an uneasiness is created by this as we realise that the film is quite literally going no-where. At the end of every day, Phil will indeed wake up, again, at 6.00, midway through the second verse of ‘I Got You Babe’. Thankfully, the character of Phil is so compelling that we don’t simple abandon his narrative, but actually become drawn into it, keen to see how he will cope with purgatory. However, while the plot is even and cyclical, the events that unfold are not. The film takes us through confusion, boredom, crisis, tragedy, comedy and more, with careful editing of each day to fluctuate the rhythm as is necessary. Some meetings with Ned (Bing!) are longer than others for example. The writers have given themselves enough flexibility to ensure that each repeated day is a completely new experience (despite being same ol’ same ol’…).

Tone:

I’ve kind of touched on this in ‘Rhythm’ (above). For me, Groundhog Day is a truly complete movie experience, largely due to the range of moods it throws forward. The over-arching tone is comic, watching our pathetic anti-hero battle with his own fate and negotiate various funny situations. But, within that, we get a tangible sense of tragedy throughout. Phil is trapped, in a heaven or hell of his own creation and this is deeply disturbing. In the film’s third act we see Phil take himself to the brink of oblivion and beyond, deciding to end his life in spectacular fashion (driving off a cliff in a high speed police chase having taken the town’s groundhog hostage). The high drama of this is met with what I feel to be the coldest response the writers could muster – waking up again, to start the same day. The pain and joy this creates is summarised in that beautiful/tragic montage of Phil continuing to commit suicide in every way imaginable, culminating in a graceful slow-motion fall from the top of a building. This is joy and pain, release and tragedy all rolled into one. On the one hand Phil can live like there’s no tomorrow (which is great) but he’s faced with an infinity that will be shaped by his own imagination (which is terrifying).

What’s all the more remarkable is that the writers do not shy away from the comedy that underpins this tragedy, or vice versa. Phil’s suicides become a running gag of sorts, and when he eventually opens up to Andie McDowell in the café, he does so with a casual sense of indifference that invites us to laugh. “I’m a god” he says, and we have to smile. If not, we might cry.

Ultimately, the film, for all its comic moments and saccharine-sweet “let’s live here” ending, is actually quite dark. Phil is forced to dismantle his entire person and discover the meaning of love and face his own mortality, before he is allowed to move on. The over-riding tone of this resolution is relief, but a relief swathed in joy. We have seen the trauma he undergoes for his ‘happy ending’, and I don’t think the writers are asking us to question the validity of his redemption.

Subject matter:

Reading back over what I’ve just written, I don’t think that it’s an accident that there are scattered references to religion and spirituality in here. For me, even as the 11 year-old I was when this film was first released, Groundhog Day felt important because it is a discourse in what it is to be human. One of life’s greatest challenges is routine; the simple fact that as we age, life becomes a cycle of stuff that we must negotiate and deal with whilst attempting to work out what it all ‘means’. From a pessimistic point of view, life is exactly like a broken record – a grid that we inhabit until we die. And how do we prevent this grid from defeating us? Do we bludgeon forward and do the same thing we did yesterday, hoping change will greet us tomorrow? (like Phil’s first few repeated days) Do we indulge in hedonism with bad food, money and sex? (like Phil experiments with) Do we admit defeat and let our lives die? (like Phil). No. Phil tries all of this and none of it works. So, what is this film fundamentally about?

Sounds cheesy, but the answer is love. Phil can only move on in life when he gives himself up to love completely and without equivocation – the love of art (literature and music….), the love of others (helping as many people as he can, trying to save a dying homeless man he used to ignore, catching a falling boy from a tree…), self love (learning an instrument, reading widely, learning to ice-sculpt…) and, of course, true romantic love. The film culminates in a ‘perfect day’. Phil’s deep, rich, new-found love, puts his own well-being as secondary to that of the people around him, and as a result, he doesn’t even have to try to woo Andi McD. She comes to him.

One of the film’s most poignant lines is, ironically, one of its most cheesy, when Phil announces ‘let’s live here’. He makes his own heaven out of what could very easily be hell – a deeply profound and spiritual idea. We create our own fate and shape our own destinies, regardless of how restrictive the grid of living may appear to be. What a film.

-Unseen Flirtations



Black Swan: A review in tweets

Black Swan: A review in tweets

Saw Darren Aronofsky’s latest, Black Swan, last night. A run down of my thoughts on the film in reverse chronological order, as posted on Twitter.

The true skill of Cassell, Kunis, Hershey and Ryder is in their ambiguous depiction of Portman’s delusions.

RT @truphtooph It’s one of the few films where the first act drags. Really laboured setting up that white swan/black swan metaphor. #blackswan (Note: I disagree…)

By the time you reach the 2nd act it’s like a personal invite into the protagonist’s nightmare. #blackswan

Far fewer behind the head POV shots than in ‘The Wrestler’, but no less personal.

The end product is not only pitch-perfect, but perfectly paced. #blackswan

The delusions are uniformly terrifying and reality is consistently comic #aronofskysmind #blackswan

Postman wisely keeps the anguish high and the sinister undertones low. #blackswan

The moment of tragedy and the moment of triumph are one and the same. #blackswan

Darren Aronofsky’s wound fixation is one of the most powerful forces in modern cinema. #blackswan

Cassell can switch on the pantomime villain act at will and with skill. Excellent. #blackswan

The end product is not only pitch-perfect, but perfectly paced. #blackswan

 

What I forgot to say:

Form – As is typical of Aronofsky’s work, Black Swan builds steadily towards a powerful crescendo, wracking the tension up by degrees until the inevitable happens. Like an accident in slow motion.

Language – In terms of storyboarding (the language of film), Black Swan is heavy on ambiguity. Lots of fast panning, playing with reflection, slow POV shots that take us into scene with the protoaganist et cetera. All of this combines to create a heightened subjectivity- we are in the same world, imagined or real, as Nina. And, like her, we have to pick our way through it, working out what’s real and what’s not.

Imagery – Aronofsky doesn’t shy away from ‘look away’ moments that must be desigend to linger in the mind after the credits roll. Mundane, ordinary living is juxtaposed with crazy moments of magic realism, like spikes in an otherwise even heartbeat. The power of these images enahnces the surreal nature of the film, making us alert to Nina’s delusions.

Rhythm – The slow build towards the final act is a steady climb, interrupted by peaks of action and little explosions of tension. The film is generally steady in its development but avoids (in my opinion) being laboured in the establishing of that black swan/ white swan metaphor. (see Truphtooph’s RT above) The final act is a frantic exposition of plot that mirrors the mayhem of Nina’s emotional turmoil. It works incredibly well on both a narrative and conceptual level.

Tone – Surprisingly light actually. And in a number of ways. First, the everyday experiences that Nina undergoes are presented as mundane, with no effort to highlight any sinister subtext. In places humour is actively manufactured, with jokes and set pieces that seem intended to release tension and give the audience room to gather themselves. That said, the darker undertones of Black Swan are unwavering, unsurprisingly so in light of the plot. From the outset, we are presented with a character on the brink of an abyss, creating a tension that fuels the narrative. What I find interesting is that the release of tension almost sets the overriding tone for the film, making the final chapter as relieving as it is dramatic.

One other thing: Black Swan is incredibly sexy. Largely due to the simple fact that sexuality is a powerful element of raw, human instinct – an urge that we can only repress so far. The audience is frequently reminded of this fact in heterosexual and homosexual contexts, with sexual relationships contributing to the film’s sub-plots. And (of course) it makes everything a bit more sensational. Sex sells and all that.

Subject matter – NOT ballet, repeat NOT BALLET. Black Swan is about ballet as much as The Wrestler is about professional wrestling. Which is quite a lot actually (sorry to contradict myself, stay with me), but not entirely. The film is a deeply subjective character study that explores thmes ranging obsession, sacrifice and the power of the subconscious over the conscious. It also touches upon the impact of physical experience on the conceptual understanding of self. To this end, it doesn’t even concern itself with human relationhips. The people around Nina are less fixed, realistic characters than projections of her subconscious, so it’s not entirely useful to dissect their various interactions. So I won’t.

-Unseen Flirtations

Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss, Act One, Scene Four

Romeo and Juliet’s first kiss, Act One, Scene Four

ROMEO [To JULIET]

If I profane with my unworthiest hand
This holy shrine, the gentle fine is this:
My lips, two blushing pilgrims, ready stand
To smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss.

JULIET

Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this;
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmers’ kiss.

ROMEO

Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?

JULIET

Ay, pilgrim, lips that they must use in prayer.

ROMEO

O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do;
They pray, grant thou, lest faith turn to despair.

JULIET

Saints do not move, though grant for prayers’ sake.

ROMEO

Then move not, while my prayer’s effect I take.

Form:

The 14 lines in question form a sonnet, a perfect Shakespearean sonnet in fact, with three ABAB quatrains and a rhyming couplet at the end. Easy to miss when seen/ heard and even quite subtle when read. This is the first meeting between Romeo and Juliet at the Capulet ball. Shakespeare goes to pains to write the encounter as a sonnet. As you know, the sonnet is traditionally associated with love, so it’s no surprise that Shakespeare chose this form to detail the first exchange of words between our young lovers. Ahh.

Romeo takes the lead with the first quatrain, Juliet the second, they share the third (Romeo taking three lines and Juliet one) and the final couplet is split evenly between the two. Why? Well, what we get is a gradual intermingling of speech, a conversational to-and-fro that culminates with two people perfectly in sync, speaking in a shared rhyming couplet. The fact that the sonnet so naturally fits into the dialogue of the scene highlights just how compatible these two are – they speak in shared verse, complementing each other to create a fixed meter and rhyme scheme.

Language:

The conflict in this sonnet is basically between sex and religion – the body and the spirit. You get two semantic fields with the vocabulary of the body (hand, lips, kiss, palm et cetera) meeting the vocabulary of religion (holy, shrine, sin, Pilgrims, saints, devotion et cetera). The combination is electrifying.  Our young lovers are seething with physical desire and lust whilst simultaneously discussing their religious concerns. This religious language also attests to the seriousness of their relationship. Their love is not limited to physical attraction – it transcends into the realms of agape. We are meant to take them and their love seriously.

Romeo, the bold lover, kicks off the sonnet with a sly conflation of physical and religious language. In his metaphorical description of his lips as ‘blushing Pilgrims’ he is attempting to convince Juliet of the purity of his intentions. Yes he wants to get physical, but he is overtly spiritual in his request. Juliet, coy and intelligent, picks up on this and extends the metaphor, using her own metaphor to describe the act of prayer (joined palms) as a ‘kiss’. Romeo clearly has his work cut out for him.

By the end of the poem, they have reached an understanding. A kiss is a prayer and vice versa, so they can kiss without problem. On this note it is telling that Juliet repeatedly calls Romeo (a hard-headed romantic from a rival tribe) a ‘Pilgrim’. This label validates his love and tells her, and the audience, that he is worthy of a kiss. (Romeo immediately calls this kiss a ‘sin’, playfully perhaps, but also in acknowledgement of the inappropriateness of snogging on a first date).

The rhyme in this poem is more than simply out of necessity. Key words are linked by rhyme, one example being the rhyming of ‘prayer’ and ‘despair’ in the third quatrain. Here, Shakespeare is making reference to the tragedy that will befall the couple – the ‘prayer’ of their sacred kiss will ultimately lead to ‘despair’ and grief. The audience knows this already (thanks to the Prologue) and are reminded in this initial exchange.

Imagery:

As discussed above, the sonnet is replete with images of prayer and kissing – two very contrasting actions. The former is carried out in isolation, seeking personal enlightenment. The latter is an act of shared intimacy between two people. That said, prayer does also involve the recipient of that prayer, suggesting that both positions are intimate in different ways.

What is worth noting is the way in which Shakespeare subverts imagery. ‘Palm to palm’ prayer is an innocent, entirely religious image that we are invited to equate with lip to lip kissing, when Romeo says ‘let lips do what hands do’. The prayer becomes the kiss.

Rhythm:

As all sonnets go, this is written in clear iambic pentameter. This natural, flowing rhythm is undisturbed and subsequently, a sense of steadiness is achieved. These two people are on the same beat, so to speak. They speak in rhythm and are constant in pace. Admittedly, all of Shakespeare’s plays are written as such but in the context of a shared sonnet, the effect is highlighted.

Tone:

On the one hand we have a gentle conflict and tension between Romeo and Juliet, the young Montague trying to persuade Juliet to allow him his ‘gentle sin’. There is nothing excessively shocking in this however, and the language of the sonnet is only quietly shocking.

After the first two quatrains, taken by Romeo and Juliet respectively, the sharing of the third quatrain introduces a sense of urgency. The exchange becomes more passionate and fluctuates, as the pair move closer towards their kiss. Also, in keeping with the nature of the sonnet, there is a turn (or volta) after the octet. Romeo asks a question that highlights a fundamental problem in the religion/ physical conflict –‘Have not Saints lips and holy Palmers too?’ Don’t spiritual types have physical, sexual urges? This turn could potentially lead to disaster if Juliet refuses to play along, but, thankfully, she doesn’t. We overcome this hiccough and reach an assured, content resolution.

Subject matter:

So what is this sonnet about? Easy – Love. Love in the broadest sense – love that spans physical attraction and sexuality to religious adoration and a deeper, spiritual connection. Romeo and Juliet have both from the outset, and this sonnet serves as evidence of this fact.

-Unseen Flirtations

(Click here for a detailed breakdown of Act 2, scene 1, where Mercutio taunts Romeo)

Back to the Future

Back to the Future

A poetic reading/ critical analysis of Back to the Future, directed by Robert Zemeckis. See below for the original trailer.

Form:

In any narrative involving the concept of time travel, form and structure are going to be of key significance. Back to the Future is no exception. The narrative is linear, but features a huge interruption when Marty accidentally travels back to 1955. The main action of the film takes place in its own past and we only return to the present in the final chapter. This disjointed structure gives the film an interesting sense of conflict. We accompany Marty on his adventure but the whole thing has happened already. By the time we return to the present, nothing has happened (even though everything has changed).

Language:

One thing I love about 80s films is their recklessness. Back to the Future is often wrongly taken as some sort of family movie. It is not. It’s actually a teen adventure and high concept morality tale. Throughout the film we get little moments of profanity that remind us that this is the experience of a teenager. This language (everything ranging from ‘sucker’ to ‘son-of-a-bitch’ and ‘shit’) works to reflect the darker elements of the story and the severity of Marty’s predicament. It’s not simply fun and games. As Doc says, “get ready to see some shit”.

Another thing I noticed on my recent viewing of this classic is a recurrent motif of heaviness and weight. Marty’s slang of choice for something serious is ‘heavy’, which the 1955 Doc notices and makes comment on. Later, George McFly garbles his confession of love and says that Lorraine is his ‘density’. I’m pretty certain there is also a reference to Isaac Newton. Heaviness –the heaviness of gravity- is central to scientific discovery, echoing the mad genius of the Doc. Coincidence? I’d like to think not.

Imagery:

What I’m not going to talk about here are the numerous iconic and memorable images that this film gives the audience: Doc emerging from a smouldering Delorean, Marty and the Doc standing in the flames of the vanished car, Marty skitching on a plank of wood, et cetera. The important imagery in Back to the Future concerns contrasting images of Hill Valley. The Hill Valley of 1955 is almost a postcard to a bygone era, as alien to Marty McFly as the 1985 Hill Valley is familiar to him. The poetry of this contrast is clear – it is the same location but the past is literally different that it literally becomes a foreign landscape.

Rhythm:

This is one of the film’s strongest elements. From the opening long establishing shot where we are introduced to the characters of Marty and the Doc, we get a near perfect movement through a potentially overwhelming narrative. Events unfold at a healthy pace, with scenes blocked out in clear, defined storyboards. Scenes overlap, but neatly, to kinetic effect. In the 1955 café scene where Marty meets his father and Biff’s gang, we see George cycle away through the window, taking us into the next scene whilst the current scene is playing out. Similarly, when Doc and Marty are discussing their plan on route to Hill Valley High, their conversation becomes inaudible as they approach the school, only to be continued inside. All of this gives the film an upbeat, forward-leaning rhythm that propels the story towards its conclusion.

With regard to pacing, Back to the future basically goes Slow-Fast-Slow. Slow in that opening establishing shot, fast all the way until the lightning bolt set piece when Marty returns, and slow… during the credits I suppose.

Tone:

Like all good poetry, Back to the Future has a central point of tension, and it’s basically the negative space between life and death. Let me explain.

The film is exuberant and bristling with vitality. It works as a teen movie on a fundamental level, our youthful, energetic hero bouncing through his adventure with an intense vigour. This vitality, which we can call ‘life’ runs parallel to a palpable sense of danger. Not just the imminent threat of a marauding bully (Biff) or the potential recriminations of ‘the Libyans’, but the threat of non-existence if Marty fails to get his parents together. We can call this ‘death’. Now, the conflict between life and death is what gives this film such energy and narrative power. We are not only entertained by the fun of it all but also compelled to see if Marty can avoid the ultimate tragedy. I suppose this is what adventure is: fun and peril occupying the same space.

Subject matter:

Time travel? No. Back to the Future covers a lot of different subject areas but the logistics and nature of time travel is not one of them. Really and truly, the film is a discourse on inter-generational family politics. The central premise of the film (as its writers state) is to consider what it would be like to interact with your parents when they were your age. Time travel is a means to this end. Marty’s 50s adventure is based around his getting to know his parents on human level – their flaws and aspirations. The film explores this nicely, with Marty giving advice to the people who have raised him, a reversal of roles that invites us to examine our own attitudes to our parents.

Along the way we get a discussion on the changing face of modern America through the lens of Hill Valley. This is continued in the sequels when we see various incarnations of Hill Valley, from gambling-poisoned hell-hole to Old Western frontier town.

Finally, Back to the Future is about fate, or more specifically the conflict between fate and choice. Marty’s actions compel his parent’s to make specific choices that alter their futures. George becomes a successful novelist and overcomes the bully. Lorraine avoids becoming a drunk. Uncle Joey, we can assume, remains behind bars (but he is only a jokey aside). The usual 1980s preoccupation with wealth seeps into the story (when we see gratuitous shots of the McFly home and shiny new Jeep), but the pursuit of wealth is not a major subject.

-Unseen Flirtations