How a time machine, a football star and a bitter feud helped Tommy James find his calling.
You know the moment that I’m talking about.
It happens in every story; the eleventh-hour twist before the final act where the square jawed protagonist defies overwhelmingly impossible odds to defeat his nemesis, achieve his dreams and most importantly, get the girl.
I call it the Marty McFly moment.
The ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy defined my childhood. Not just because I wanted a hover-board, but because I was the perpetual underdog. The underdog at school, at work and sometimes even at home, I looked to Marty, played to perfection by Michael J. Fox, for guidance on how to thrive (and not just survive) in a world where I wasn’t breaking records in smart, street, strong or suave.
It’s Marty I kept coming back to.
Recently, my friends and I were discussing the over saturated superhero movie genre. We reached one common consensus. Everyone wants to be Superman. Why? He’s invincible. He’s honorable. He doesn’t save the world because it’s his world to save, but because it’s right thing to do. Suddenly, we’re all back in the sandpit, except rather than fighting over the last juice box we’ve morphed into the cast of ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ranking heroes, and whilst I’ll debate the merits of superheroes with anyone (I’m so confident that Spiderman will always remain atop of my “list” that I’ve had it laminated), there is one nagging thought that troubles me.
We can’t all be Superman, can we?
As boys, we are taught from an early age that you should grow up to be —for want of a better adjective — the hero: stalwart and true, brave and commanding, intelligent yet compassionate. There’s nothing wrong with that theory; except that for some of us it’s an unattainable ideal. By falling short of the expectations of society, our place in the world becomes unstable and our futures uncertain. Superheroes are the supernaturally gifted equivalents of Alpha Males, and just like the good citizens of Metropolis can’t all be Superman, not every guy can be an Alpha Male either.
So what happens to the little guy in the real world? What lessons can we take from their struggles on screen to transpose into our lives? I was about to find out.
The truth is that I just don’t identify with a superhero. I admire them, sure. Don’t get me wrong. I want them to prevail, save the world and kiss the girl before the end credits. I just don’t cast myself in their role during the drive home. It’s because something has shifted during the transition from being a starry-eyed young boy to realistic young man. Something is different, and on re-watching ‘Back to the Future’ for the first time in a couple of years, I’ve finally figured out what it is.
That superhero we all admire? He doesn’t really do it all on his own. Not even Batman.
But that’s okay. What is there to overcome if the hero doesn’t have at least one flaw? For Marty McFly, my own kind of superhero, it’s his short temper, the inability to walk away from a fight when his manhood is challenged by the unrelenting catcall of ‘chicken’, which usually results with him getting his ass handed to him (and if we’re lucky a good hover-board chase scene). But stock heroes are surprisingly more layered characters than the movies would have you believe.
Our first hero, if we are lucky enough to have one, is usually our father. He’s our first male role model; not only do we see ourselves through his eyes, but he sees an idealized version of himself staring right back at him from us. And our fathers, they’re not perfect either.
The moment that you realize that the man you hold on a pedestal is just as human as everybody else is a moment you don’t forget. Even though I don’t have children yet, I’d venture to guess it’s just as tough to be that dad, watching your own stock plummet in the eyes of your son as he figures out you’re mortal and fallible too. I was at a supermarket recently and overheard a father trying to divide up snacks between his list of dinner guests before giving in and chucking several bags of chips into his shopping cart. ‘My best friend’s Daddy’, his five year old observed icily from the lofty perch of the trolley-seat, ‘…Would know what to do with the remainder. You should have gone to my school, Dad’.
Of course, none of that stuff really matters. Not in the real world, and hopefully that’s something we learn as we get older. But, when on the ascension from boyhood to manhood, it’s both inevitable and understandable that we find ourselves searching for that elusive, identifiable role model.
Enter the sidekick, and no, I’m not talking about Robin.
Being slightly older now (though no less inclined to pass up the opportunity to go and see the latest Marvel action movie), the spectrum of my taste has expanded somewhat, and I’ve discovered sidekicks aren’t just limited to superhero movies; they are there wherever you go.
Take John Lee Hancock’s ‘The Blind Side’. Based on a true story, Sandra Bullock plays Leigh Ann Tuohy: Republican wife and mother who flies in the face of social convention by defying her conservative community and adopting Michael, a homeless African-American teenager with an untapped talent for football. The only avenue where she meets no resistance?
Tim McGraw has a handful of scenes at best, but if you’re a man watching this film and looking for a role model, then you’ve found him. Quiet, assured and supportive, McGraw displays qualities that exemplify him both as a husband and as a father, gently nudging his wife, children and even community peers in the right direction thanks to his well-timed and thoughtfully considered wry observations, and yet he is not the star. It’s not his story. It’s not even really Michael’s story. It’s Leigh Ann’s, and Bullock has the Academy Award to prove it.
Would her character be able to achieve all that she did without the unwavering stoicism of her husband? It might have added another dimension to the movie, but ‘The Blind Side’ is a true story, and come Oscar night Mr. Sean Tuhoy was in the audience supporting his wife, his children and their incredible story.
“That’s a real man’s job”. A buddy of mine, seemingly forgetting his previous assertion that he’d sooner be caught dead than caught watching a chick-flick, declared loudly while we watched “The Blind Side”. “Look at him. He’s got this. Backing up your partner and raising a family. No fuss. That’s what a real man does”. Pause. ‘Sandra Bullock looks great after popping out three kids, doesn’t she?’ Point made and point missed.
Still, not all influences are as directly positive as Mr. Tuohy. Sometimes movies serve to provide a cautionary tale in the midst of a gripping narrative.
In these times of economic challenge, there has been an increase of pressure to look after number one, and the constant stream of well meaning advice can quickly be exhausting. ‘Work hard. Secure your future. Go to college. Don’t get anyone pregnant. Find a job — one with a good pension, dental and pet insurance. Don’t ask why, there’s no time! Quick, before you reach middle age and hope is lost forever….’
It used to be the case that kids wanted to grow up to be a rockstar; now everyone wants to invent the next big app. Kurt Cobain has been overthrown by Steve Jobs. Diaries are no longer closely guarded; instead they are published on the blogosphere in the hopes of becoming adapted into the next Juno.
That’s certainly how I felt on graduating from college, my trusty English degree tucked safely in my back pocket.
“You’re going to be an English teacher then?” came the familiar assumption.
“Who, me?” Try not to laugh. “God no. I couldn’t”.
“But…” Blinks of confusion, “You have an English degree”.
“Agreed. But I don’t want to teach it”.
“This.” Hands fly up in despair, “This makes no sense”.
And maybe it doesn’t. Maybe that’s why on graduating in the middle of the (whisper it) recession, I took any and every job that I could, so desperate to prove that I could cut it out there in the ‘Real World’ that I became consumed by work and forgot the most important lesson my parents ever taught me.
Fortunately, rescue came in the form of Aaron Sorkin, Mark Zuckerberg, and ‘The Social Network’. Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Facebook founder Zuckerberg caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, for just how good it was. Secondly, the joyful realization that Zuckerberg was a nerd. A geek, like me. He gets dumped in the first scene, for crying out loud. He wasn’t an Alpha Male, that’s for sure. If anything, his lowly position in social hierarchy was the catalyst that spurred his success. Unfortunately, my adulation was short-lived.
So determined to achieve his international, unparalleled success was Zuckerberg, that he stabbed best friend in the back. I’m talking about Eduardo Saverin, the “sidekick” who had invested his bottom dollar to allow Zuckerberg to make his dream a reality. Zuckerberg ended up a social media billionaire, but he was one that was very much alone. I felt for Saverin, but knew there was no chance for a reconciliation. It’s too late.
At this point, my mind began ticking back over my recent schedule. Work. Work. Breakfast meeting. Cancelled haircut. Work. I began to feel a little nervous. A quick scan through my film library didn’t yield much relief. From DiCaprio in The Aviator to Douglas in Wall Street, my movie collection was an A-Z of male characters who let their ambition blind them to what was truly important in life.
Tentatively, I fired off a quick text message to my best friend. A few tense moments ticked by, before his reply confirmed my suspicions.
“Thank God. You’re alive. Thought you had been crushed by paperwork”. Then, a moment later: “You free on Friday night?” I breathed a sigh of relief.
I don’t just have ‘The Social Network’ to thank for reminding me of the importance of balance in my life. A well-written movie will make you want to watch it again; an exceptionally outstandingly written movie will make you want to write, full stop. I know knew the connection. All these lessons came parceled to me by great writers, a million McFly moments waiting to flare into life if I listened to them. In the end it was not so much what I saw on screen that intrigued me—it was the countless hours spent before cameras rolled, crafting those moments out of word.
“I figured out what I’m going to do with that English degree!”
“Use it to make a paper plane to fly back in time and study something useful?”
“No, I’m going to be a writer”.
For the record, people don’t react well when you tell them this. It’s okay, because adversity in the face of your dreams allows you to have your own ‘Marty McFly’ moment someday. I haven’t had mine yet; but when the time comes for this little guy to make a stand, I hope that I’ll have Sean Tuohy’s character, Eduardo Saverin’s faith, and Marty’s courage. Oh, and that hover-board. I mean seriously, it’s 2013.
Photo: “Back to the Future”, Universal Pictures, 1985