WHERE: In the living room of my apartment in Portland, ME (Isla Nublar)
FORMAT: Blu-Ray on a Vizio 32″ LED HDTV
COMPANY: Cinemanaut Becca joined me for the last twenty minutes. She mostly talked about the cinematography.
PHYSICAL AND MENTAL STATE: Feeling shitty? Meant to get this done on Thursday, random life crap pushed it all the way to Saturday. Eating some kickass homemade breakfast burritos.
Are you familiar with the screenwriting term “save the cat“?
It’s a term used by Blake Snyder in his book of the same name on how to structure a screenplay. The basic idea is that you need to show your main character performing a selfless act in the early moments of the film so the audience is rooting for him or her. This is especially important if the character has some not-so-nice qualities. One example is Aladdin from the animated Disney film. Even though he’s a thief, he gives the food he’s worked so hard to steal to a couple of starving kids. Or, if you’ve been with our site from the beginning, take Maverick from Top Gun. He may be a cocky womanizing son of a bitch, but he risks his life to help Cougar land his plane in the very first scene. (Yeah, Cougar. Maverick saved a guy whose call sign is a cat. It blew my mind.) So, even the world’s biggest prick can warm up the audience with a simple good deed. At least, according to the guy who wrote Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot.
Also, Blank Check. Really.
Whether you think saving the cat is a brilliant nugget of cinematic wisdom or a crock of shit sold by some guy whose body of work isn’t backed up by his philosophies, we’re here to talk about Back to the Future. Marty McFly doesn’t come across like a total dickhead, but you still want the audience to know he’s a nice guy, right? So, let’s see if any of his actions in the film’s earliest moments qualify as a cat-saving moment.
Oof, that’s one costly electric guitar note.
Okay, so Marty inconsiderately turns up every single knob on Doc’s enormous amplifier, bothering the neighbors and destroying a very expensive piece of equipment, one that must have taken his friend many hours to build. Alright, so that’s a bit self-centered, but I’m sure he can redeem himself…
…by hitching a ride to school on the backs of motor vehicles. That’s rude and dangerous. Alright, he’s clearly a wild card character, but he was just late for school! This one rushed decision doesn’t mean he’s a complete asshole to everyone he meets. He’s nice enough to give Clocktower Lady a quarter and take one of her flyers…
…but he’s clearly just trying to shut the old bag up. He quickly did the social math and knew that a measly quarter would strike the correct balance between financial loss and rapport with the enemy. Shit. Okay, he does something nice later on, I promise. I have it in my notes. After he hitches a ride home–
DAMMIT, MARTY. No. I could accept the piggybacking on cars when you were late for school, but you pull this shit all the time? And on cops? Are you stupid? We’re twelve minutes into the movie at this point and Marty hasn’t given one solitary shit about anybody that isn’t likely to give him a sleeping bag HJ this weekend.
Okay, so Marty goes home, whines to his father about Biff wrecking the car (jerk), shoots him judgmental glances all throughout dinner (jerk), and forgets that he was supposed to meet Doc in the Twin Pines Mall parking lot at 1:15 the next morning (jerk jerk jerk). Doc wakes him up with a phone call and asks him to grab his video camera from the lab. Surprisingly, Marty doesn’t flip off the phone and go back to sleep; he actually drags his ass out of bed and brings the camera to the mall.
“Doc, I charge an hourly videography fee, not flat rate.”
There it is. Our first nice gesture from Marty, a whopping 18 minutes into the movie. But hold on, is this purely selfless? First of all, when I think “selfless act,” it’s usually for a complete stranger, but I can let that part slide. Still, something occurred to me during this viewing that I’d never thought of before: Marty never tells Doc about the amp he blew up. At least, we don’t see it at any point in the trilogy. Is Marty just holding the camera for Doc to smooth over the news of the thoroughly rocked-out amp?
If you thought setting fire to the living room rug was bad…
Well, if we’re not counting filming Doc’s temporal experiment, the well of good deeds has run dry. Once Marty ends up in 1955, he’s completely concerned with self-preservation all the way to the end of the film. I suppose it could be argued that pushing his teenaged father-to-be out of the path of Sam‘s car is a selfless act; Marty hasn’t yet spoken with Doc about preventing his own birth and isn’t fully conscious of the repercussions his actions in 1955 might have. Despite being questionably noble and a bewildering 42 minutes into the film, it might be the closest thing we have to a legitimate saving of the proverbial cat.
“This is what helping people feels like? Never. Again.”
If anyone should get credit for saving cats around here, it’s Doc. Remember, when Marty shows up on his doorstep, he has no idea who this kid is, but decides to help him despite the overwhelming odds. A case could be made that Doc’s real motivation is to see if his time machine works, but there are plenty of other ways to achieve that goal that don’t involve getting electrocuted.
In fairness, Doc rarely achieves any goal without getting electrocuted.
This viewing really changed my perception of Marty. He’s not evil by any stretch of the imagination, but he really does spend a large portion of the movie acting… morally ambiguous. And he redeems himself in the end when he writes the letter that saves Doc’s life, but now we’re talking about using time travel for personal gain, and that’s a big enough ethical topic to fill the rest of this year’s articles.
How great would it be if all the letter said was, “You peeked, you son of a bitch”?
Now, I don’t usually buy into “surefire” screenwriting techniques, but for mostly ignoring the “save the cat” rule, I don’t think anyone can say that Back to the Future was a critical or financial failure. (Though I hear the studio tried to argue that second point.) I kind of wonder what it says about the 1980s that a somewhat selfish character can deliver box office gold, but again, I didn’t see Marty as even remotely selfish until I started looking for that specific trait. I still think he’s a great character, but what do I know? I didn’t write Blank Check.
Rest in peace, Blake Snyder.