|By Vito Delsante
Artwork by Julien Croyal
I have a strange relationship with Back to The Future, in that I saw it in a theater, but not on a big screen. And, in it’s own way, it reminds me of Jesus.
See, I saw it in church. On VHS. On portable projector screen.
That doesn’t make the movie odd for me. Why would it? Nor does it make Jesus or my religious beliefs odd. It’s just a setting for the story.
When I was 11 or 12 (or rather, that school year, seventh grade), I moved with my grandmother and grandfather to a small town in Pennsylvania called Ford City. I had visited at least once before, but no more than twice, and the prevailing impression I had of the place was that the movie Footloose was based on someone’s life story from this town. The thing you have to understand about this move was that, at 10 years old, it was the first mature, adult, decision I was ever asked to make. Choose between moving to a small town in Pennsylvania with my grandparents, or stay in New York with my mom.
No slight to my mom, but she was young and was enjoying her youth. I was old enough to see that. It didn’t take me long to make a decision. The decision was probably harder for my older sister to make because, being two years older than me, she was already in junior high. She had graduated from Catholic school and had moved on with the same friends she’d always known. Me? I didn’t really have any friends. The old man that lived to the right of us. The hippie biker that lived to the left of us. Do cousins count? I was picked on from kindergarten on. Did I want to move? You bet. Anything would be better than being around those jerks.
In Pennsylvania, things were immediately different.
They always are when you’re the new kid. As a result, I enjoyed, for the first time in my life, a sort of celebrity status. I was often asked what it was like growing up in New York City because everyone knew, no matter how sheltered or remote you might have been, everyone knew about the Wild Wild West atmosphere that was NYC in the 70’s and early 80’s. I was often asked if I was in a gang. I was barely 12. How could I tell these kids that I would rather be a superhero than a gang member? As you can imagine, that social awkwardness carried over and soon, for a little while anyway, I lost that popularity that I had just barely tasted. I would never truly get it back, in the long run, but playing sports helped.
But I’m skipping ahead.
To assuage that feeling of being yesterday’s news, I instead turned my attention and focus to my church. I felt less judged there. More accepted. I’m sure you could make a lot of arguments as to why or why not or whatever, but in the moment, in that time, I felt loved and a part of a community. The church was what brought my grandmother to PA, and, I’m sure, was a part of the reason why she would rather have us (my sister and I) there with her; to save our lives as well as our souls. If you’ve ever seen the movie, Cropsey, you’ll understand exactly what she was protecting us from.
I say all this because if not for that church, I would have never learned who Marty McFly was.
Which isn’t entirely true. I was aware of Huey Lewis and the News being on the soundtrack, and there was a remake of Chuck Berry’s Johnny Be Good that got heavy airplay on music video shows (no, I didn’t have MTV yet, why do you ask?). But, all that aside, at that age, I had no way of getting to a movie theater. We didn’t have a VCR at home, either. BTTF would have to wait for a youth group lock-in.
I don’t know who invented the “lock-in,” but (and I’m sure I’m wrong about this) it seems like a purely Western PA, mid-80’s invention. There were tons of reports back then about biker gangs and drug dealers and, yes, devil worshippers being prevalent in my area back then, so I’m sure that there might have been someone that wanted to keep kids off the streets for their safety, but give them the illusion of being “out all night.” Not only churches did this; my wife told me that the local YMCA did something like this, too.
The scene now set, there I was, nerd of nerds, sitting in the seats of an old converted movie theater (yeah, I glanced over that, didn’t I? My church used to be a movie theater in the 50’s and 60’s and maybe even into the 70’s) watching a movie…on one of those office demonstration screens and VCR plugged into a projector.
But I didn’t care. I was hooked.
I’ve often talked about time travel stories being a genre (or subgenre of science fiction) that I could never resist. H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine was made into a movie starring Rod Taylor and I watched it, on a tiny black and white TV, when it came on Channel 7. I loved the weird time travel aspects of the Planet of The Apes movies. But perhaps the biggest love affair I had with time travel came in the form of a short-lived TV show, Voyagers! Such was my affinity for that show that when the star of the show, Jon-Erik Hexum, died in a stunt accident involving a prop gun, I was crushed. I wanted him to help me travel back in time to save Marilyn Monroe. In fact, my love for time travel is really just a cover for my affection for an actress I never met, but wanted to save.
Back to The Future really didn’t have to try too hard to get me to like it.
There were some…problematic elements to the movie that made showing it to a group of teenagers and pre-teens locked in a church a weird choice (implied possibility of incest, curse words, implied rape), but as nervous as our adult supervisor might have been, none of us flinched because, in the end, it’s a really solid movie.
I’ve gone on record as saying that Ghostbusters and Back to The Future are probably two of the most perfect films ever made for their respective genres. They are both incredibly well structured, well paced and well filmed. Performances are top notch (although, in the intervening years that I’ve had with the movie, I often wonder what we would have gotten with Eric Stoltz and Melora Hardin). We live in a world, a time, really, where moviegoers are so willing to point out the flaws of a movie, at the risk of their own personal enjoyment, and post it online for the world to see and read and possibly join them in their rancor.
But you never hear a bad word about Back to The Future.
Any of them.
It’s impossible, at the age of 42, to not look back at something I watched at 13 and not think that I was an idiot for watching it. Or that I’m a sentimental fool looking back with “retro-spectacles.” I hesitate to say that Back to The Future is flawless…
…but it is perfect.
There are times now, when I catch it on cable or watch it on DVD, where I wish I could go back to that church that was once a movie theater and screen it for myself and a select group of friends.
I don’t think God would mind.