The fact that this week Marty McFly is scheduled to arrive in his DeLorean time machine to save his future children has got me thinking about time. What impresses me most is not the technological advances our species has enjoyed since then, but rather what we have lost in the last three decades, specifically, male heroism. When was the last time in cinema a resolute young man looked danger in the eye, defeated the monster and unapologetically got the girl?
Had Back to the Future been set in the 2010s, it might have looked something like this:
Marty McFly, having had yet another run-in with the tyrannical principal, having failed his school’s talent show auditions, having an alcoholic for a mother, a spineless wimp for a father, and his uncle in prison, watches a Paxil commercial, and decides to begin taking antidepressants.
Weeks pass, and Marty is noticeably less concerned about his band, his car, his girlfriend, school, or the state of his family. He spends a lot of time eating and watching Netflix. He hasn’t touched his guitar in some time, but to his relief, and to the relief of his family and teachers, he doesn’t seem wound so tightly anymore.
Our last glimpse of Marty is one of him slumped forward in an easy chair. My Little Pony plays on television, and as the credits roll, he stares dazedly at the television screen as a bit of drool trickles out of the corner of the mouth. Huey Lewis’s The Power of Love begins playing, but in this version of the film, it seems incongruous both with the conclusion of our hero’s journey and his emotional state. The camera zooms out slowly to include in frame the McFlys’s squalid living room. Marty’s Mother, Lorraine, is passed out on the couch, her lifeless fingers locked around the neck of a clear plastic Stolichnaya bottle. At last we see the family patriarch bowing apologetically to his high school nemesis, Biff, as the latter complains about the lack of cold beer in the refrigerator. FADE TO BLACK
But in Hill Valley, 1985, this isn’t what happens. Back to the Future is a movie in which the hero at last makes a choice, giving up his own temporary comfort to carve out his own existence. His choice is in fact the heroic choice, the choice of suffering with the aim of acquiring virtue.
THE CHOICE OF HERCULES
The plot of Back to the Future is an update of a very old tale, dating at least to 400 BCE, called The Choice of Hercules. It is the invention of a sophist named Prodicus, detailing a pivotal moment in first days of Hercules’s career.
According to Prodicus, when Hercules was about the age at which one leaves his father’s house to become a man, he came to a crossroads, and sat considering for a time which path to take. At the head of each road stood a woman, and each hurried to Hercules to introduce themselves. The first to speak introduced herself as Pleasure, called Vice by her enemies, who stood upon the left-hand path. She was rounded, with features darkened by the sun. What little clothing she wore accentuated her figure. She encouraged Hercules to take the path upon which she stood, for it was level, shaded, and smooth. Vice urged Hercules to pursue a life of pleasure, arguing that “[t]here are enough who labour; and fatigue both their Bodies and Minds. What they earn, you shall enjoy”.
On the right hand path was Arete, or Virtue, whose fair, unpainted face was just visible beneath her robes. She enjoined Hercules to honor his parents by sharing her path. She warned that to tread upon the right-hand path was arduous and dangerous. There brambles grew, and the cliffs were treacherous. But at the end of his journey he should have glory and immortal fame as his reward; if he chose the left hand path, only shame and regret.
Instead of enticing him with the promise of pleasure, Arete reasoned with Hercules:
Of all the real good Things that Heaven grants to Mortals, there is not any one that is to be attain’d without Application and Labour. If you wou’d render the Gods propitious to you, you must attend their Service. If you wou’d be honour’d by any City, you must be of Service to that City; and if you would be admir’d by any Country, you must do some great and public Good. Who can expect any Fruits from his Lands, when he has never cultivated them? Or looks for a Crop, where he has not sown?
In other words, joy, renown, and satisfaction are the natural consequences of honest and difficult labor. Pleasure can fool people for a time, but it cannot fool nature. The path of leisure leads only to a life without accomplishment, without endurance, and without courage: essentially, a life seeking pleasure is a wasted life.
In the tale, Hercules wisely chooses the path of the hero, upon which he suffers and ultimately wins his fame and immortality. In doing so, he is the prototype for the heroes who follow him: the heroic tradition becomes a moment of hesitation at the crossroads before decisive and virtuous action. In the Homeric tradition, Achilles disguised himself as a woman and lived in a harem to keep himself from the dangers of warfare, only leaving once Odysseus persuaded him to seek immortal glory in the Trojan War. Odysseus himself lived as a consort to Calypso until Hermes found him and chastised him, and reminded him of his duty to return home. And before making Dido the ultimate jilted lover, Aeneas had given up his quest to found a new Troy, opting instead to remain the Queen of Carthage’s First Lady.
BACK TO BACK TO THE FUTURE
Just as with their classical forebears, fate presents the older and younger McFly with the choice between virtue and vice. Like Hercules, both McFlys in their time arrive at the crossroads, the Pythagorean “Y”; however, in Back to the Future the story begins after the moment of heroic choice. The family introduced at the beginning of the film is the consequence of George’s foolhardy desertion of duty as a young man. George kept from publishing his science fiction stories while young, and never pursued Lorraine, his destined wife. His life was one characterized by a flight from danger, duty, and responsibility, and the consequence was a life of shame.
When the film opens, George still lives in fear of his high school nemesis, Biff Tannen. His wife Lorraine, conscious that she has married a loser out of pity, has become a drunk. George’s son Marty resents his father for his cowardice, and because of this errs too far on the side of recklessness, lacking the discretion to be called properly courageous.
The viewer is dropped directly into the last act of a cautionary tale with a difference: Marty’s mentor, a wizard named Doc Brown, develops a magical time travel device called the “flux capacitor” – literally, that which makes change possible – that ultimately allows George McFly another chance to choose correctly in his youth, aided this time by his far more spirited son, Marty.
When in their heroic mode, the McFlys, like their Classical predecessors are aided by the gods on their journey: the time machine only works with the cooperation of Pluto(nium) and Jovian lightning.
After several near-misses, Marty succeeds in galvanizing his father to heroism. The film ends with George McFly assuming the role of family patriarch, having acquired honor because he chose the more arduous path in life: he is no longer the milktoast he was at the film’s opening, nor is his wife the drunk, and the bully before whom he perpetually cowed has now become his servant.
The takeaway of all of this is something that Americans, along with most citizens of the First World, have forgotten: We all stand at the Pythagorean “Y”. The decision between virtue and vice is one that awaits us all every morning. The Choice of Hercules, however it is manifest, reminds us that leisure and the gratification of desires do not end in happiness.
We live in a time and place in which pain is not the norm. It is an aberration, something to be “treated” with SSRIs, or “escaped” through recreational drug use, entertainment, or alcohol.
Pain is not bad. pain is necessary. It is the smoke in a burning building.
Pain is evidence of one of two things: You are in a bad place and should move on, or you are making an effort and you should continue. In either case, the absolute wrong approach is to numb that sensation.
Or Marty McFly.