Day 9: This is heavy

The other day, we were walking back through the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park after a lovely afternoon spent lolling on the grass and playing at the Tumbling Bay playground. We were wending our way back to Hackney Wick overground station when we noticed a few people walking by in 1950s getup. The women wore poodle skirts, their faces made up and their hair upswept or set in waves. The men had greased-back hair and wore check (plaid) shirts and trousers (pants) held up with braces (suspenders). As several couples passed us on the path we decided they must be on their way to a swing-dancing class, or something like that.

But then something funny happened. They kept coming. And coming. And coming, with their poodle skirts and greased-back hair, by the dozen, in scores, by the hundreds, and still they kept coming. “Oh my God,” exclaimed my friend, the very same friend who witnessed the UFOs from her bedroom window all those years ago, “there are literally thousands of them!” “Well,” replied the duck-rabbit, ever on its guard against unwarranted wild pronouncements, “I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration. I think it’s very difficult to get a real sense of the numbers. Surely it’s not thousands. A few hundred, to be sure.” And then the duck-rabbit turned the corner and gasped.

“Great Scott, there are thousands!” exclaimed the duck-rabbit in astonishment. The duck-rabbit’s friend, to her immense credit, somehow managed to arrange her features into an expression of studied neutrality with nary an eye-roll nor a glimmer of a pursed lip.

But, readers, there were, literally, thousands of them. The duck-rabbit’s friend, who is clearly much better at figuring things out than the duck-rabbit, deduced that the crowds were on their way to a Secret Cinema screening. Secret Cinema, if you haven’t heard of it, is a London-based organization that holds “experiential” movie screenings, which usually involve elaborate recreations of scenes from the film being shown, and with attendees required to show up dressed in character.

Once we’d figured this out, the guessing game began. Rebel Without a Cause suggested the duck-rabbit. But none of the attendees looked, er, rebellious enough. West Side Story? Na. The men weren’t quite slick enough to be Sharks or Jets. Then there was a clue: an usher with a sign that read “This way to the Hill Valley Spring Fair.” Hill Valley; the name sounded familiar, but it still didn’t click into place. The duck-rabbit’s friend cut to the chase and simply asked the usher what the film was. “What film?” asked the usher, all wide-eyed innocence. “I don’t know about any film. These people are here for the Hill Valley Spring Fair.” By this time a Google search had yielded the answer: as the duck-rabbit really should have known, Hill Valley is the fictional California town where Back to the Future is set. By this time, we were in the thick of a crowd of bobby-soxers. A California highway patrol officer was doing her best to keep everyone in line.

Now the duck-rabbit found itself wishing, rather wistfully, that it had been invited to the party. The duck-rabbit could have been experiencing not one but two of its very favorite things—a) getting dressed up in a pretty dress and b) Back to the Future—at the same time.

Does everyone of my generation have this inexplicable fondness for Back to the Future? Here’s how deep my affection for this film runs.

Exhibit A. In my second or third year of secondary school, one of our assignments in English was to write a novel. This was a project that we worked on for a couple of months, as I remember, turning in a chapter per week. Now, obviously, the expectation was not that we would write a full-length novel. And, obviously, the duck-rabbit did in fact write a full-length novel about a girl who discovered a rocking-chair that could take her back in time to the 1950s. It was probably a hundred-and-fifty or so handwritten A4 pages, and each chapter had its own illustration. I don’t know where it is now (probably deep at the bottom of a cardboard box in our laundry room). But if it did get thrown away, trust me, it’s no great loss to the world of letters. While my doting English teacher rhapsodized over it (although, frankly, I think he was most impressed by the story’s sheer length and by my unflagging, dogged commitment to the project), from what I can recall of the story, it was pretty dodgy. And totally derivative. One example will suffice to tell you all you need to know.

After my friend Tamsin read the story she gave me her assessment. “I quite liked it,” she said, in the English way that means, “I only somewhat liked it.” There was more. “You know that bit where that guy from the 1950s can’t believe that Ronald Reagan is president in the present day?” She paused. “That is totally ripped off from Back to the Future.” I remember feeling indignant because I was sure that I had come up with that not-particularly-funny joke all by myself. What I now realize is that that film had permeated my consciousness so thoroughly that I had lost all ability to distinguish between its fictional world and the one I had created.

Exhibit B. Not only did I write a novel that was essentially a re-hash of Back to the Future, I also bought the Huey Lewis and the News album that had the “Power of Love” on it, a purchase which I made extremely furtively because, given that my peers had sophisticated musical tastes that reflected the record-collections (and, in some cases, the musical careers) of their bohemian parents, I was fully aware of how poorly this purchase reflected on my musical judgment.

Exhibit C. There is an entirely gratuitous Back to the Future reference in my book. The duck-rabbit will sign a copy (remember: no hands, so this is quite the party trick) for the first eagle-eyed reader to spot it.[1]

Thus concludes my review of the evidence attesting to my enduring affection for this film. To the duck-rabbit’s delight, when it tentatively suggested, as we stood, still dazedly watching the crowds of Secret-Cinema-goers milling around us, that perhaps, possibly, we might hold our own Back to the Future viewing night, enthusiastic squeals emanated from the adults (while perplexed enquiries of “What’s Back to the Future, Mom?” emanated from the flopsy-duckits.) The screening would be at the duck-rabbit’s London residence, which has a big-ass TV. Costume would be optional (though clothing of some sort would be mandatory).[2] We’d make popcorn! And ice-cream sundaes! And something for the vegans that they had in the 50s like, uh, carrot sticks!

You might think that with anticipations of pleasure ratcheted so high, the experience was bound to disappoint. But, on the contrary, it was everything that I had remembered. Michael J. Fox was his darling, baby-mouse 24 year-old self and even more palpably cute now that the duck-rabbit is itself more wizened. In my view, Fox, in this film, inhabits the intersection of the Venn diagram in which the British and American usages of the word “cute” overlap. You see, in Britain, in my day, at least, the adjective “cute” was reserved, fairly exclusively, for baby humans, baby animals, and stuffed toys. I found it very strange to hear Americans, in movies and on television (and, later, in real life), describing other adults as “cute.” To apply “cute” to an adult was puzzling and even creepy, because it meant that you were likening someone you regarded as fanciable to a chick or an Easter bunny.[3]

The exception, however, was Michael J. Fox, who really was cute, like an injured baby bird or helpless baby mouse; this is precisely the appeal that the scene in which Marty is hit, in 1955, by his grandfather’s car depends upon; Marty’s mother falls in love with him because he is cute like a baby animal, and the creepiness of the maternal-erotic feelings she has towards him is precisely the joke.

As you’ll doubtless recall, the movie’s climax occurs when Doc and Marty have to jerry-rig a contraption that will enable them to conduct the lightning that is due to strike the clock tower at precisely 10:04 pm so that it will produce an electrical charge of 1.21 gigawatts (soft g, please) sufficient to power the flux capacitor. Are you still with me?[4]

Crucial to the experience of viewing this particular scene in the particular kitchen in which we were huddled is the fact that the room contained not only the aforementioned big-ass TV upon which we were watching the movie, but also had a big-ass clock.

Now, this is some clock. It’s a very large digital mounted wall clock with red LEDs on a black background like an old-school digital alarm clock. It reminds me of two things simultaneously: the artist Jenny Holzer’s LED signs, where a cryptic “truism” like “money creates taste” loops endlessly, and that timer in Lost down in the hatch that poor old Desmond has to prevent from counting down to zero by punching that code into the Apple II—remember? Also, the kitchen is in the basement, literally under the side-walk, so it has a hatch-like feel to it. And that kitchen clock, showing the seconds flash by, inevitably instills a Lost-like sense of paranoid urgency.

Imagine, for a moment, what it was like indexing hunkered down in that kitchen. I would play games with myself like, “I have to finish the Ds before 12:00 or else those digits will turn to hieroglyphics and doom will be mine.” And then the clock would be flashing 11:59:55, 56, 57, 58, 59, and I would still be on bloody disenchantment and I’d be shouting at no-one in particular, “for God’s sake, indexing is not a task that can be performed to the second!” The effect of the giant alarm clock while indexing was as though someone were jumping up and down yelling, “COME ON, ONLY 5 SECONDS LEFT!” when you were trying to painstakingly build a house of cards. Indexing is just not really a speed sport.

Anyway, I have, I’m afraid, digressed. The point of telling you about the clock is that our happy band of viewers noticed that just when Marty says goodbye to George and Lorraine and the film cuts to a shot of the clock tower with the time showing as five to ten, it was also 9:55 pm on the kitchen digital clock. The duck-rabbit got terribly excited about this parallel as the clock tower and the kitchen clock remained in sync as we approached the fateful minute when lightning was due to strike. As Marty, hitting 88mph, closes his eyes and the film cuts to the clock-tower minute hand shifting to 10:04, the duck-rabbit could be heard yelling, “It’s 10:04pm on our clock too! Is anyone else taking this in??? This is so cool!” as some of the others shot it slightly exasperated looks that said: Yes, we get it. It’s 10:04pm. It’s a coincidence. Your loud and excitable commentary is ruining the moment.

But the duck-rabbit maintains that its excitable commentary in fact produced an enhanced, “heavier,” if you will, film-viewing experience. Yeah, it was heavy all right.

Come on, you can admit it: don’t you wish you were watching Back to the Future with the duck-rabbit right now? Surely, there’s isn’t something else you can think of that you would rather be doing? Never fear; it’ll happen one day. Trust me. I’m a doctor. Also: I can see the future. And I am your density.

[1] Now when the duck-rabbit says “sign a copy,” it means, it wants to be perfectly clear, a copy previously purchased by a reader. No, it doesn’t count if you steal a copy from the library (although; I do sympathize with this urge.)

[2] To my regret I didn’t have time to procure a dress with a cinched waist and a poodle skirt although I would have done, if I’d had the chance, since, the duck-rabbit, blessed as it is with an ample sufficiency of chest and hip (breast of duck and haunch of rabbit), wears that style very well.

[3] Or maybe my discomfort with the word cute isn’t a British thing. Maybe this is just a being-my-mother’s-daughter thing. I vividly recall a moment of misunderstanding between my mother and my American father-in-law that hinged on the usage of the word “cute.” As I remember, either my father- or mother-in-law had pronounced something or someone to be “cute,” and my Mum had flinched.

“Cute!” she repeated, her nose wrinkling. Would you really say that that’s cute?

“Sure,” my mother-in-law replied. “Why not? I mean,” she went on, “lots of things can be cute. People can be cute.”

Can they?” queried my mother, frowning.

“Sure,” replied my mother-in-law. She paused. “R—– [My father-in-law] is cute!”

At this my mother involuntarily pulled a face that that was kind of a grimace, which my father-in-law saw. Coming to the rescue, or so he thought, he ventured,

“Well, your daughter [referring to the duck-rabbit] is certainly cute!”

The poor man. The following was not what he expected to hear:

“Cute!” My mother exclaimed, now looking truly horrified. “I’m sure I’ve never heard anyone describe my daughter as ‘cute’ before!”

As you read this, you have to strain to hear the very particular tone of distaste with which my Mum uttered the word “cute” here; as though she were gingerly picking up a slightly wet furball that the cat had just hacked up.

But my father-in-law was appalled by what he took to be my mother’s casual denigration of her daughter’s appearance.

You’ve never heard your daughter called cute before?” he repeated slowly.

He looked back and forth at mother and daughter, his expression, shifting between genuine shock and pity.

But the duck-rabbit understood perfectly well what its mother meant, and was not in the least offended. The duck-rabbit’s mother tried to clarify by saying, “pretty, of course, but not, not cute.” But this failed to clarify anything for my father-in-law and he went on regarding me with the pitying expression that he might have given poor Cinderella being verbally abused by her wicked stepmother.

[4] For the record, I did not have to look up any of those details on Wikipedia. They are just there, in my brain, taking up valuable space where the argument of The Wealth of Nations could be instead.



2 thoughts on “Day 9: This is heavy

  1. Alex says:

    Ah, my dear Duckrabbit–this one hits close to home! I have a version of Exhibit B that still ranks among my most embarrassing confessions. I distinctly remember fifth grade, walking through the halls after school, Walkman (remember those?) playing the A side of my “Back to the Future” tape. Up comes my erstwhile friend, S— T— (I’ll borrow the eighteenth-century convention too) demanding to know what tape I’m listening to. I don’t miss a beat. I look up at him and say calmly: “It’s M.C. Hammer.” Now I know how lame that makes me if M.C. Hammer is the cooler option here, but please understand, this was 1991, which means that I was listening to the “Back to the Future” soundtrack, in a Walkman, at school, *at least six years after* it could even remotely be considered cool. We’re talking sad stuff here. But only slightly sadder than the fact that we’ve never shared our mutual love for that 1985 Robert Zemeckis magnum opus. (Did you ever see the Kirk Cameron hosted behind-the-scenes special? It’s surreal…) Anyway, can’t wait to hash out the details of the flux capacitor–“which is what makes time travel possible!”–over some drinks.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a manuscript to comb over…

  2. Dear Alex,
    I cannot communicate strongly enough how much this anecdote endears you to me (or is it “endears me to you”? What I mean is that I find it very endearing). Also: wow, you are combing over your manuscript already? Is that “comb over” in the sense of going over with a fine tooth-comb or in the sense of brushing long strands of hair over the bald patches? Either way, you are way ahead of the game. As usual.

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