Thursday, March 10, 2011

A friend and I were chatting the other day about the popularity of time travel as a storytelling device and I thought I'd take this chance to flesh out some of my thoughts about the influence of one particular time travel story. There were only a handful of movies I watched in heavy rotation as a child, and without a doubt the one most often in our VCR from about 1990 on was Back to the Future.

I'm lucky to have a family with an interest in history and to live in a place with a deep historical record, but without the influence of Back to the Future, I'm certain that my interest in family and local history would have never developed as it has. That film had so many themes with far-reaching consequences for my interests, that I feel a list would be a better organizational method.

1. Local/Everyday History: One of the biggest ways Back to the Future differs from other time travel stories is that it doesn't involve any "major" historical event. As a kid, I was fascinated by the kind of everyday history depicted in this movie. Hill Valley is a fictional small town and the only noteworthy historical event depicted is the destruction of the town's clock tower. Finding depictions of the assassination of Lincoln or World War II are a dime a dozen, but it's rarer that you get to see an era encapsulated through a depiction of the everyday. This is also the reason I love another piece of popular historical fiction: Mad Men.

This kind of everyday history is at the intersection of history and nostalgia, which I see as a major access point for truly understanding history. Once you gain an appreciation for "what it was like," you can begin seeing history from a street-level perspective, one that values local history as much as the big national-level history. That's a theme I stress every time I speak to teachers and students: Local history is important because it has a personal and visible impact on the landscape most familiar to people. It can be a means for understanding national history, but it can also be a means to understand our own social and physical landscape, which is what we encounter on a daily basis. You might not ever see the Emancipation Proclamation, but this afternoon I could show you a slave cabin, or where a race riot nearly broke out in downtown Spartanburg in 1917; or I could explain why the south side of town has so much open space. These are big stories that resonate nationally, yet occurred in our midst.

An understanding of the everyday in different periods of history also makes possible a semi-imaginary world constructed from assembled facts, a world I operate in fairly regularly. On a tour, a person might ask me about Magnolia Street in the 1920s, so I assemble my memory of photographs and historical data and I create an imaginary street-view of buildings and people and events, and I interpret that vision to the person who's asking me. In those moments I like to imagine that I'm equal parts shaman and historian. Guided by my memory of historical facts, I imagine some shade of me is transmitting glimpses from a bygone era and that I'm sketching them out for my listeners. It's a fun exercise, and I think it makes for a more interesting experience of reality.

2. Theories of time: By the time I was a teenager, I'd caught on to the fact that there are a few different theories about time and causality. In the Back to the Future universe, it is possible to alter the past, which of course affects the future (or the present, depending on your perspective). This is the major plot element, in fact. Marty accidentally prevents his parents from meeting, so he has to spend the rest of the movie playing matchmaker in order to save his life and the entire course of events as he has known them. If a time traveling DeLorean really existed, a lot of deep philosophical questions might immediately be answered. One could imagine that due to his very existence, Marty might have been denied somehow the ability to disrupt the future. Or, as the movie shows it, he could end up being a relic of a reality that ceases to exist. A less interesting story might have shown Marty immediately disappearing the instant he prevented his parents from meeting. Free will, fate, causality... all of this could be sorted out in far greater clarity if time travel were invented. Of course I have no idea how this would work, and neither does anyone else. But this movie got me thinking about this stuff earlier than I would have otherwise. Thanks, BTF for opening up my mind a little bit more!

3. Psychology: It's only a tiny scene in this movie, but it left a memorable impact on me nonetheless. Early on in the movie, a reference is made to a wayward uncle who they call "Jailbird Joey." He's always in and out of prison and seems to be a source of frustration for the family. When Marty travels back in time, he meets this uncle as a toddler in his playpen and quips, "Better get used to these bars, kid!" He's then told that Joey cries whenever he's taken out, so the family leave him in there constantly. Wow! It's dangerous to treat this as a true case story, but the psychological implications are pretty intense. There are other psychological developments that occur as part of the plot, including Marty's recognition of his character flaws, especially as they compare with those of his father. Anyway, I felt that there were some interesting psychological issues addressed through what is otherwise a sci-fi/comedy.

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