| by Justin Thomas |
Whew. Shake it off. Shake it off. Okay, now back to your regularly scheduled program of nonsense written about movies not being talked about already in progress.
Conversations with Wilder disappointed me just as dramatically as Hitchcock/Truffaut overwhelmed me in picking a master’s brain for all things movie making. Cameron Crowe’s interview with Wilder was the single best opportunity to get at what makes a brilliant movie from the mind of Billy Freaking Wilder, but Crowe drops the ball and alternates between telling Wilder how much Wilder’s movies mean to Crowe, specifically, and talking about Crowe’s own movies. Or at least that’s how I remember it because someone lifted my copy and I haven’t seen it in years.
At one point, however, Crowe gets a sort of Top Ten Lists of Ways to Make Movies and one in particular sticks out enough to paraphrase: if you have a problem with Act III your problem is with Act I. There is no more succinct way to describe structure than that, and if Wilder could say something so profound in so few words it’s a shame so much of the book is filled with tidbits about Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Back to the Future has the single best Act I I have ever seen. It doesn’t mean it’s the best ever, or that I eventually won’t find something to knock it from the mountaintop, but I have yet to find anything to compare. There isn’t a single wasted frame or line in Act I and everything works hard, often doing double duty, to set up Act II and how the story will wrap up in Act III.
At the bare minimum Back to the Future provides information in Act I necessary to understand what will come later. A Libyan terrorist group has claimed responsibility for stolen plutonium and there’s a box of plutonium in the shop. How that plays out at the end of Act I will determine not only how Marty interacts with Doc in Act II but the change Doc will arrive at in Act III. The clock tower hasn’t worked since it was hit by lightning and a helpful flyer is provided in exchange for a quarter’s worth of support. It’s necessary to know when a bolt of lightning will strike. Lorraine and George first kissed at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance where Lorraine knew she’d spend the rest of her life with him. Even Goldie Wilson factors in: he’s not going to work in that slop house and he’s going to become mayor, a position to which he runs for reelection in 1985, and his “stand tall” lines to George in Act II mean something that’s set up in Act I by a van and a campaign poster. There are no surprises in Act II or Act III, which isn’t to say it’s boring but nothing comes out of left field and isn’t earned.
Double duty is providing the information and making it funny when it appears in Act I or using it to set up a joke in Act II. Uncle Jailbird Joey missing parole sets up Marty’s “better get used to these bars, kid,” but it’s also setting up Lorraine’s character arc. The level of her apathy regarding Joey is shown in the cheap cake to celebrate him getting out versus planning an actual party. She throws it on the table and can only say everyone makes mistakes in life. Cut to Act II when she has her future and the entire world in front of her where she might not be able to imagine a life as pathetic as she showed in the opening scenes. It’s a good joke and there’s a lot to see in Lorraine’s first scene if you watch. Watch how much that night meant to her even with how pathetic her life turned out to be.
Basically it boils down to how well Back to the Future with the issue of exposition. It’s an intense movie in the amount of information needed: we need to know about George, George and Lorraine, George and Biff, the mechanics of time travel, Marty and Doc. All that must be addressed in Act I, and quickly, or Act II and Act III just won’t work. There are points in Act I where it’s one character asking another character to explain things: yes, of course, November 5th, 1955, what, what, I don’t get it, that was the day I invented time travel. When Back to the Future can’t hide the exposition with a joke, it benefits from some of the most bizarrely wonderful performances I’ve seen and they are not bizarre for the sake of being bizarre like Kaufman or the Coen Brothers. Doc needs to be that way and George needs to be that way or it doesn’t work, and Lloyd and Glover not only nail their roles but knock them out of the park. Way, way out of the park. You have to stare at Doc because of those eyes, that hair, the way he carries himself, and his “I remember it vividly” speech, which Marty needs when he gets to Doc in 1955, is boring if not for Lloyd. The next time you watch it, watch the dinner scene because there’s a cut when George watches The Honeymooners where he doesn’t laugh and doesn’t interact with the rest of the family. There, in just looking at the screen longingly, Glover gives everything necessary to know what George really wanted out of life.
The performances can’t be accounted for in the screenplay but everything to set up the performances and the movie can. So Back to the Future doesn’t completely work as a how-to-write-Act I guide but the set-up/payoff is worth studying. There are reasons why Back to the Future resonates today even though it’s set in as dated an era as you’ll find and one reason would be just how well it’s constructed.