Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Watching Back to the Future on the big screen for the FIRST TIME was amazing! I was only seven when the movie premiered- and although I watched it hundreds of times in subsequent years and saw the sequels in theaters, I have never seen the movie so clearly, and in such detail.

It really is a great story, and meticulously told.

Kyle bought the blu-ray disc and we watched some of the special features last night. One of the documentaries has Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale talking about the painstaking process of writing the script- they talk about how they laid the story out on index cards and how for every idea they came up with (for example, "Marty invents the skateboard"), they had to then create another scene ("show that Marty can skateboard") which plants the seed for the audience and pays off later in the movie.

It took them five months to finish the script, and it's easy to see why it took them so long. It's because the script is so well written! Every idea is fully fleshed out, every character is true. Every idea comes to fruition, there are no wasted, pointless scenes and random dead ends, like so many movies.

And like every great comedy, there are no "jokes," per se. What I mean by that is that the humor comes from the characters and the situation that they're in, and so it comes from a place of truth. When Marty realizes that he's sitting next to his own teenaged father at the cafe, his bug-eyed reaction is funny because, well, who WOULDN'T react that way on seeing their own father at their age? We can all put ourselves into that situation, we can all relate- and so the humor comes from that connection with every audience member- a moment of truth. And Marty's discomfort when his own mother is trying to make out with him before the dance is so entertaining- it's so fun to watch him squirm and Michael J. Fox plays the moment brilliantly for laughs, but the laughs come from our understanding of the characters and from the situation, not from (as is so common in movies nowadays) a pop culture reference, a mocking nod to another film, or a clever put-down.

The closest thing in Back to the Future to those kinds of cheap laughs would perhaps be the "Ronald Reagan is president" bit, and all the jokes about Marty's "life preserver" - (his orange 80's style vest). But since Ronald Reagan really WAS president in the 80's and WAS formerly an actor- even the more "jokey" jokes (what I mean by that is jokes that aren't character-driven) contain truth.

I just don't see that in a lot of comedies nowadays. It seems to me like most comedies today rely on the audience's understanding of pop culture more than their understanding of human nature.

Back to the Future also sets itself up in a totally natural way- laying out the characters and letting the story unfold without any obvious exposition. Anyone who has heard me talk about movies knows that my pet peeve is obvious exposition.

For those of you that aren't English teachers, exposition is a natural part of any story, when details that are important to the story are shown or explained. These are the details you NEED to know for the rest of the story to make sense. EVERY movie contains exposition- some just do it better than others.

My favorite example of GOOD exposition is in the movie Steel Magnolias. What we need to know to set up the rest of the movie is that two of the characters, neighbors, have a long-standing feud. Now, a BAD MOVIE, using OBVIOUS EXPOSITION would have another character say something like "Oh, Drum and Ouisa. Those two are ALWAYS fighting!" Instead, the scriptwriter gives us the information brilliantly with this conversation:

OUISA: "Get those magnolias out of my tree!"
DRUM: "The judge has not yet decided whose tree that is, exactly."

Perfect exposition. We know everything we need to know. Drum and Ouisa are at odds. Their enmity goes back a long way- they will even argue over something as stupid as whose property a neighborhood tree is growing on.

Back to the Future is a great example of good exposition, because it holds to the old saying "show, don't tell." And that is difficult, because Back to the Future needs to give us a LOT of information before Marty can go back in time. We need to know about the relationships between George and Lorraine McFly (including how they met, their first kiss, etc.), George McFly and Biff, Mr. Strickland and the McFly family, Doc and Marty, Doc and the rest of town (they think he's a lunatic), and it also needs to set up that Marty can skateboard, play guitar, charm women, and that he's following in the footsteps of his own father by being fearful and cowardly about putting himself out there as a musician. Not to mention the whole history of the clock tower, the lightning strike, etc.

When you think about it, what a DAUNTING task for a writer, and yet the screenwriters manage to make it all seem effortless and organic, each piece of information coming onscreen naturally for us to absorb, understand and process. The woman from the Hill Valley preservation society tells us about the clock tower and the famous lightning storm while teenaged Marty, true to character, is just macking on his girlfriend (in other words, no dumb scene where Marty happens to wander into the Preservation Society in a totally out-of-character moment). The wrecked car gives Biff both a reason to be at the McFly home so we can meet him and highlights what a jerk he is. Linda's boy trouble gives Lorraine a reason to tell her daughter the details of her and George's first meeting, their first dance and first kiss, and the fact that she pours herself a Vodka in the meantime shows us how unhappy Lorraine now is with her husband. And the opening scenes of the film, set in Doc's workshop, tell us all about his eccentricities and his genius before he even gets a moment of screen time.

When you think about it, it's no wonder it took them 5 months to write the script! I mean, wow! But BOY does it make a difference. I wish more writers in Hollywood understood that. To me, the only movie studio of late that really understands good storytelling is Pixar.

Anyone seen a really well-written movie lately that wasn't from them? I can't think of any. I think the last one I really really liked as far as an original story with great writing, and truly character-driven humor- was the first Pirates of the Caribbean. To me that was perfect storytelling.

Everything else that good has been a Pixar kids movie! It's sad that filmmakers take more time crafting a great story for children while supposedly more intelligent adults get fare like The Love Guru. Hey, Hollywood, grown-ups like good comedies, too! Just because you're not making Schindler's List doesn't mean you need to fall back on R-rated humor and making fun of other movies (although I guess it's working out for the Wayans brothers, who've made an entire career of it).

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