ACT ONE: The Journey to School and the Chat with Jennifer
With the opening scene out of the way, we’re now thrown into the equally-dense beginning of the first act. There is a serious amount of exposition to get through here, but as we’ll see, the script spoonfeeds us the important info so gently that we don’t even realise we’re swallowing it. Add to that, it’s also delicious. Almost all this exposition is delivered as a joke or a character moment.
So, first thing to note is that Marty put on his walkman when The Power of Love plays: this is the third Chekov’s gun – Marty will later use the walkman when pretending to be a spaceman to scare George into asking out Elaine – so it’s important to establish that he takes it everywhere. The second thing to note is his skating skills, which he later uses to defeat Biff’s gang. He even hangs onto the back of a pickup truck, which is something he does in that later chase scene.
Marty travelling to school looks like a cheesy montage that’s just jolting the audience awake with some pop music. But look closely when Marty is journeying through town; almost all the shots of the main town square are going to be replicated for the sake of contrast later on, when Marty first arrives in 1955.
The Huey Lewis soundtrack even provides a poppy contrast with the ‘Mr Sandman’ music that plays in the past. It might seem like the music is just there because some dishwater-dull executive wanted something in the charts in the movie, but it’s actually a subtle bit of scene-setting.
Remember: every piece of scene setting that occurs in 1985 is actually just setting up a comical or thematic contrast with 1955. Even the stage directions in the script work towards this, emphasising how run-down and crummy Hill Valley of the eighties looks. It notes that the local garage is “an architectural gem that has seen better days,” and that the local movie theatre is only showing porn films. It seems to want to emphasise how selfish and garish this decade is, with the stage directions pointing out the “14 or 20 motley women” doing aerobics, and old woman who has to struggle to pump gas all by herself. The camera also lingers on a poster for Mayor Goldie Wilson’s electoral campaign, foreshadowing something which will also be paid off later.
All these details contrasted with later when we get to 1955, but we’ll talk about those differences when we get to the Mr Sandman sequence. For now, this little montage establishes three important things:
- Marty knows how to skateboard well.
- Marty takes his walkman and headphones with him wherever he does.
- What Hill Valley looks like (e.g. a bit shite).
Marty then meets his girlfriend Jennifer (a tragically-underused character). Watch her closely: in a few minutes she’s going to accidentally plant one of the most important of Chekov’s guns on Marty for him to take to the fifties. It happens seamlessly, but I’ll point it out when it does.
Jennifer tries to cover Marty’s ass, and re-emphasises his character trait of chronic lateness (he’s gotten four tardies in a row over the last week) and the Principal Strickland appears and sets up another gag format that BTTF loves: mirrored dialogue.
Yup, there are various different lines in this film which will crop up again, more or less word-for-word. Strickland’s spiel here is basically the same dressing down he’ll later give to George (in the exact same hallway no less) in 1955; he calls him a slacker and refers to him by his second name.
This is more than just a comedic bit about how little Strickland (“Didn’t that guy ever have hair?”) has changed in 30 years; it’s also a way of immediately showing that Marty and his dad have a connection. That connection – that they both have a problem with their self-confidence, particularly when that comes to their respective passions (writing and music) – isn’t make explicit till later. But Strickland even explicitly says: “You remind me of your father when he was here, he was a slacker too.”
Then there’s a a very on-the-nose bit of foreshadowing: after dissing his dad, Strickland tells Marty that “No McFly ever amounted to anything in the history of Hill Valley.” To which Marty replies: “Well history is about to change.” Obviously, there’s dramatic irony here, as later Marty does literally change history. But it’s interesting to note who benefits from that change: not Marty, but George – the person Stickland just slated. Thanks to Marty’s serendipitous interference, George gains the confidence to become an author, and does indeed ‘amount to something.’
See what I mean about there being no wasted lines? It’s pretty incredible that half the dialogue so far has been doing two jobs at once.
Then there’s another bit of foreshadowing: Marty and his band The Pinheads perform a Huey Lewis track (in front of the man himself no less!) on stage in the school dance hall: the very same stage Marty will end up playing Johnny B Goode on at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance (oh hell, shall we just call it the EUTSD?) in 1955. For extra irony: Marty even says “I’m never going to get the chance to play in front of anybody” in the next scene.
Then there’s another two examples of duplicated dialogue. Marty and Jennifer are walking home from school, and Marty is feeling pretty sorry for himself about being turned down for battle of the bands. We see more pro Goldie Williams propaganda, and hear the phrase: “Re-elect Mayor Goldie Wilson: progress is his middle name” – which we’ll here again almost word-for-word during the Mr Sandman sequence.
Talking about his music, Marty then says: “What if they don’t like me? What if they said I was no good? I don’t think I could take that kind of rejection.” – which is what Young George says later in the cafeteria when talking about his fiction. Not only that, but Marty adds: “Jesus I’m beginning to sound like my old man.”
Lurking on the periphery of the shot are fundraisers making a lot of noise about a clocktower. Man, is this movie ever going to stop fixating on timekeeping?
Then Jennifer reminds Marty of one of Doc’s favourite sayings (which, funnily enough, he himself never actually says in any of the films) which is: “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything” – a mantra which Marty, and later George both repeat.
Jennifer then says: “Hey at least he’s letting you borrow the car tomorrow night”, which is another call-forward. This is the very same car that we see that Biff has crashed, and which is symbolic of Marty’s disappointment with his father.
Marty then points to a (what else?) 1985 Toyota (thank god for radio advertising) and starts fantasising about owning it and taking bae camping (awww). See! Already we’re getting some little payoffs! But this is yet more foreshadowing, because at the end of the movie, with the timeline changed Marty ends up with this very same car; symbolising how much better his new family is.
Behind them, the hands of the clock atop the courthouse are frozen at 10:04 pm. That’s odd. Is it a blooper?
We then have the most blatant bit of exposition, but the movie cleverly plays it off as a gag. We’ve probably all had the experience of being bothered while out by charity fundraisers, so we can play this off as a relatable moment (Michael J Fox’s face when his smooch is interrupted is a sight to behold) but this is what makes it work. The exposition here is deliberately clumsy and ham fisted, because it’s being delivered by an irritating person, and Marty clearly couldn’t care less.
Neither does the audience. I mean, seriously, local community preservation: it’s hardly what we wanted from our comedy caper about mad scientists. But the Clocktower Lady says: “30 years ago, lightning struck that clock tower, and the clock hasn’t run since.”
What happens next is so deft and quick that it’s almost like a magic trick. Watch the sleight of hand: Marty gives the stranger some spare change, to make this tiresome distraction leave him be, and then the Clocktower Lady insists he takes a flyer. Marty does so, and goes back to kiss Jennifer, but Jennifer’s dad arrives and she has to leave. Marty says he’ll call her, and she says she’s staying at her grandmother’s that night. She takes that all-important flyer from Marty writes her granny’s number (and “I love you”) on the flyer, gives it to Marty and leaves.
(Pause for breath)
It might not seem terribly important, but that flyer is the most important firearm on Anton’s mantlepiece. The resolution of the movie, and all the tension inherent in the climax, is dependent upon it. Marty doesn’t realise the significance of it, and neither do we … yet.
The next scene is also vital, so don’t think I’m letting you zone out just yet. You see, BTTF has (much like your average sitcom) three concurrent plots: the A, B and C:
A: Marty has to return from 1955 to 1985.
B: Marty has to get his parents to hook up to avoid a time paradox.
C: Marty has to save Doc Brown from the Libyans.
So we’ve just had a lot of set up for the A and C plot, so now we need to arrange all the dominoes for the B, and that means that we’ve gotta meet the parents. This is a clever ploy in Act One: although the audience doesn’t know it yet, we’re shifting between the set-ups for several different plots scene-by-scene, all of which will be woven together in Act Four and Act Five.