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Occasional Writing for T33 – Back to the Future

April 18, 2013



You know the drill.

  1. According to Back to the Future time is like…what? In other words, what is the metaphor for time that the film uses? And does the metaphor make sense? You might try to answer this question by thinking about Lorraine hitting Marty with her father’s car. Though Marty survives, it’s worth asking whether it would even be intelligible for her to have killed him. 
  2. Before Marty goes back in time, his father, George, is – let’s face facts – a schmuck. After Marty returns, George is more of a mensch. Is there a single person who is both schmuck-George and mensch-George? Or are these two different people? Why?
  3. Is the present (1985) really a better place when Marty returns? George has sold his fantasies for money, Lorraine appears to be a cloying ninny, Dave is an office cowboy, Linda has problems forming lasting relationships, and Marty, well, he just has more stuff.

Please choose one – and only one  – of the prompts to write on. As always:

  • Please limit yourself to 300-500 words;
  • Please post your assignment as a comment to this blog entry;
  • Please do all of this no later than 24 hours before class begins on T33.

From → Assignments

  1. Micah Patten permalink

    Question 2 goes back much to the questions that we were asking about identity. What is it exactly that makes someone who they are, and do they change over time or remain the same. The simplest way of answering both of these questions is to look at a person as constantly changing. This may be as simple as the oxygen/carbondioxide ratio in the lungs, the number of hairs on their head or as complex as their knowledge and personality. Anyone can clearly understand that all of these things are constantly changing, from birth, even the size and shape of a person changes until they die. So to define the dad as one person is somewhat misdescriptive of anything but his DNA. The more interesting question is, are the two different dads any more or less different from each other than any other comparison in time. In this case, there was a defining point in his life that started him on a path toward a different future. Some people say that an event changed them and they will never be the same, for good or bad, but they are still essentially the same person. Using the nature vs nurture comparison from behavioral science, the person has the same nature, as do both of the possible future dads, and yet has a different nurturing or experiences to shape them into something different in appearance and attitude and perspectives and the like. Again, the person is the same, but just as experiences shape us, the two have been shaped differently, making them different on the surface, but essentially the same.
    Also, all those hoverboards were lame, I’m sure we can do better, electromagnetics or something.

  2. John Decker permalink

    I don’t know if we can say whether or not schmuch George and mensch George are the same person or different people. The reason for this is that it is not for certain whether or not we are completely shaped by our experiences or perhaps that we are born a certain way and our responses to experiences are dictated by this rather than by the experiences that we have had. However, I do believe that most people believe that we are sort of a hybrid of both. Certainly people have unique personalities given to them at birth. If this were not the case wouldn’t all babies and toddlers act exactly the same? They do not and therefore it seems that we must conclude that people are born with an innate personality that affects the way that they deal with the world. Yet, our experiences must shape these interactions as well. If not then people would never learn and never grow wise, schooling would be completely pointless. However, in regards to George it seems that he has been shaped by his experiences in this film. Since his personality changes from the beginning of the film to the end of the film, one must infer that something in his life has changed because everything has been constant except for the one scene where he does not meet his future wife. This life altering event has clearly taken a toll on George’s personality. When he met his wife earlier in the movie he was a schmuck that didn’t help his family at all and without meeting her that night he became a mensch. Therefore in my assessment these are two different people because as we concluded before it is a combination of your inherent traits and your life events that shape the person you are. Had George had the exact same life events he would have been a schmuck at the end of the film, just the same as he was at the beginning.

  3. I think this is an interesting question; however it did not take me long puzzling over it to determine an answer, because I could relate it back to a real world example. The difference between Old George and new George lies in the “experiences and relationships,” or the part of a human being which I would call the part of having a soul. Genetically he’s the same, so there IS a certain aspect of determinism to what choices he will and won’t make, as well as the way he will or won’t react to certain events, but ultimately he’s a different person. This part of a human being is what distinguishes identical twins from one another- the fact that even though they are genetically identical and predisposed to many of the same traits, they are not the same person because they do not occupy the same body and have therefore not shared a 100% similar experience. It may be a bit of a stretch, but this also raises an interesting concept with the idea of cloning. Many folks like the idea of having a family pet cloned after it dies so that they could keep their favorite dog for the entirety of their lives. While this might work at a lower level, (that of an animal with a much less developed brain, living in the same environment with the same people as its previous self), I feel that we would be treading into dangerous territory if we tried to introduce similar practices with human beings. We are simply too complex and too much of our personality is dependent upon our relationships and experiences with others for this sort of thing to be possible.

    P.S. You should be getting your hoverboard within the next two years. Don’t worry- I’m totally stoked to be getting mine too. I’ve always been too afraid of hurting myself if I were to take up skateboarding, but with an invention as cool as the hoverboard, I don’t think I could pass it up.

  4. Amy Vander Wyst permalink


    I don’t think one can argue over whether 1985 is really a better place when Marty returns. It is the only 1985 that anyone other than Doc and Marty even know about. “Better” is also such an ambiguous term as well as being completely subjective. It is obviously a better place for Marty and his family, and nothing else seems to have changed that much. It is obviously a worse place for Biff who seems to be George’s slave to a certain extent. The question I would much rather ask is, how the heck does Marty stay the same?

    I think the concept of the multiverse is the only one that allows Marty to be the same person in 1985 and 1985′, the old and the new. There is no way that he would not have grown up differently with this completely “new” set of parents. His brother and sister are a perfect example. But 1985′ Marty would also have to be very similar to the original 1985 Marty, or else he would never have begun dating Jennifer in the first place. I am of course assuming that nothing about 1985′ affected Jennifer’s life and she would therefore still be attracted to a certain selection of the male species.

    To take the prompt into question considering Back to the Future II, this 1985′ may very well be a much worse place. The future seems very grim for Marty and his family, and it is all due to the changes that were made in 1985, causing Doc Brown to start messing with the timeline, which prompts the 2015 adventure. The thing about 2015, is that the scenario that occurs is dependent on a self-fulfilling prophecy. But was 1985′ the cause for the self-fulfilling prophecy to be set into motion? If Marty and Doc had never messed with the timeline in the first place, would it even be possible for the 2015 scenario to happen?

    Also, 2 years to go for that hoverboard. I’m more stoked for the flying car though. Fortunately, one thing has been realized however, they just won’t power lace until 2015. Go forth and see the awesomeness of the Nike Mags.

  5. Cory Johnson permalink

    This class has been culturally enriching for me because my family never encouraged watching any movies and as a result I’ve missed out on many of the staples that are considered part of bread and butter Americana. Aside from the Matrix, I hadn’t watched any of these movies. Back to the Future seems to be an example of a film that seems to be chock-full of often used television and film tropes until one realizes that this is where they originated and were in fact quite fresh in 1985. Taking music back in time is one that I’ve seen countless other times, to name one.

    The metaphor used by the film for time travel is a car traveling down a road at a constant speed. There is only one road, with one car. There are no “multiple timelines.” There’s one road and that’s all we’ve got. Using a single timeline is incompatible with our understanding of chaos theory.

    As one of USAFA’s preeminent chaos theory scholars I need to point out that this way of looking at time travel may make great theater, but it’s essentially impossible. Everything becomes irrevocably changed the second Marty arrives in the past. His mere presence is going to shift air currents and bend blades of grass, things that tend to matter a great deal when their effects are allowed to compound over decades. Weather is so sensitively depend on initial conditions that even the slight perturbations caused by this single new human and car change the lightning strike from happening. Finally, Marty would obviously never have been born; even a slight disturbance in the delivery time of the genetic material will likely result in a different swimmer “winning.”

    Hoverboards are completely compatible with chaos theory, thankfully. They’re also compatible with room temperature super-conductors whenever those lazy scientists get around to making them. Super conductors will enable not only hoverboards, but also hovercars! That’s why I max out my Roth every year…someday.

  6. J. Lucky permalink

    I think both schmuck-George and mensch-George are two different versions of the same person. Mensch-George might just be George 2.0, so to speak. We could argue all day about whether I am the same James that existed when I graduated high school and now but that doesn’t really serve much purpose. Instead of taking a route like that to distinguish differences in the same person we should look at experience/knowledge. George is different because he was taught to defend himself but he is still essentially the same person. Liken this to a computer program that gets an update (Adobe likes to do this all the time), this update might fix an almost unnoticed glitch or add a new feature, but the program still fulfills the same function. Though updated and different from the original, it is not a new program. Nor should we argue that this is a different program by the same name. If it were a different program it would not have the same publishers and do the same thing as it has always done. Taking this example back to George, he still relies on his intelligence rather than his brute strength, he is still Marty’s father, and he still serve the same basic functions even in version 2.0. George has been updated courtesy of some new code provided by Marty.

    • J. Lucky permalink

      As for the Hover-board, I wouldn’t count on it. I’m still waiting on the rocket-pack from The Rocketeer and that was suppose to be here 50 years ago.

  7. kim cory permalink

    I think it is hard to say whether the present is a better place or not. Well, it seems as if it is a better place when it is compared to the present in the beginning of the film. When Marty comes back, everything has changed – literally everything. Every family member is shaped differently – all successful. Parents have more money because George changed his job and his personality changed from timid little guy to confident guy. Because the past even changed along with George’s personality, they are mentally and financially in a different stage; the situation of the whole family has changed to a better standing. By comparing the factual aspects, I will say the present is a better place for Marty – only Marty though, because he is the only one who knows about the “real” present time. However, I cannot say that the present is a better place no matter what, because even though things are better, there are still going to be problems. This could be a little bit of an exaggeration, because the family has so much money and both George and Lorraine have different type of relationship (appearance-wise same: husband and wife, but their inner relationship could be different with the different personality), maybe Lorraine would cheat on George in the future. Or maybe Dave would get in an accident on the way to work or get murdered because of his job. I mean, because we do not know the future, it is hard to say the present is a better place. Because of the changes in the past, the McFly family’s future course (maybe destiny?) has changed completely. Because of that, there could be problems that the “real” present was not going to have before. And at this point, I cannot say whether the changes were worth it or not because I do not know how the past events in Marty’s life are connected to the future events (It is like watching “It’s a Wonderful Mind” – no one knows how our actions are connected to the future events).

  8. Seth Rodgers permalink

    This prompt is rather deceptively framed as a dichotomy,—either the two Georges are the same person or they are different people—however I believe the most appropriate answer has to address multiple levels of identity. For example, on a deeper level, George is still the same, singular conscious entity. On a second, more superficial level, George has the ability to take on different forms, whether it be a schmuck or mensch.

    In other words, identity is like a piece of metal which can be shaped and molded into various structures without ceasing to be the same raw material. Nevertheless, the piece of metal can undergo other levels of transformation as well: without changing its chemical composure, the metal can flow from solid to liquid, and finally gas. Furthermore, the molecular structure itself could also be altered by combining the metal with another to produce some form of alloy. Drawing on the Ship of Theseus paradox, another way to gradually convert our piece of metal would be replacing individual molecules, one at a time, until none of the original molecules despite the fact that we have preserved the original structure.

    Since this analogy is far from perfect,—after all, a perfect analogy would be a perfect explanation of reality and hence cease to be an analogy— there are still many points of confusion. One such grey area is the degree to which changes in our body affect changes in our consciousness and whether or not there is actually a distinction between the two. Certainly, some parts of our body bare no influence on our consciousness—you could lose all four limbs and still experience life quite the same, albeit under much different circumstances. However, do brain injuries, which can drastically alter a person’s memory, intelligence, and even personality, effectively result in an altogether different person? Granted, the individual would certainly behave differently, but I doubt a wife would every say that her real husband had vanished after a head injury and been replaced by some other human being.

    This line of reasoning leads us to ask whether our identity can be continuously transformed at successively deeper levels, or if there is some basic unit of identity which always remains the same. Reverting to my metal analogy, can the molecules be infinitely separated into smaller and smaller particles, or is there a final, digital unit which is the essence of all matter? Moreover, if identity is in fact based on some immutable, fundamental quality, is that quality actually singular, or it expansive and indefinable?

    Although I would tentatively argue that George is still plain old George, regardless of his confidence level, many unanswered philosophical questions need to be discussed before I could really put my finger on a conclusive explanation.

  9. Theodore Kruczek permalink

    2) In the beginning of the movie we see George in the “present” day of universe A. Marty goes back in time to an earlier universe A where everything that would lead to present day universe A has already or will happen – with the exception of Marty’s presence.

    If Marty does not interfere with anything that impacts his father’s future than nothing will change and everything will continue as plan. Obviously, the point of the movie is that Marty DOES interfere with his father’s destiny. The moment he begins to change who his father is, we enter into universe B. A universe that, until altered, shares a common past with universe A, but at the moment of change no longer is the same or can ever become the same again. I think this is easy to conceptualize like evolution. These universe are branching evolutionary trees in which one path has been influenced by an outside force (Marty) and the other has not (original past). The share a common history regardless of how Marty influences them.

    I think an excellent point is that everything about Marty’s presence has extreme impact on the world and possibly his father’s future. This, butterfly effect, is beautifully illustrated in this 1990s work of art: The Simpsons Treehouse of Horrors V: Time and Punishment where Homer goes back into the past using a toaster as a time machine. Every time he steps on something he alters the future drastically (No beer, Flanders is emperor, donuts rain from the sky).

  10. Uddit Patel permalink

    George is a totally different person from the beginning of the movie to the end of the movie. In the beginning, he would not stand up for himself, nor would he stand up for his family. But, at the end of the movie, George was able to stand up for himself, and defend his family when needed. However, a question that should be asked is when the car comes back from the past, will George be aschmuck again. Is this a paradox? The paradox is that without Marty going in the past, and changing his father’s confidence, George would not be the way he is now. George is a different person, and a more confident man by the end. All he needed was his son to guide him to do the different things that he did. George is a different person because Marty wouldn’t change his father back to aschmuck again, and he would not change his mother to be different either. Marty will only see that his father’s confidence is down and then help him get it up where George ends up getting Marty’s mother. The argument can be made that these are two different people are because they have encountered two different experiences, and if they stood side by side no one would know the difference between them.

    George can be both schmuck-George and mensch-George depending on the events that Marty does when he arrives in the year 1955. One set of events can lead to a schmuck-George, while another set of events can lead to a mensch-George. This once again seems to be a paradox because Marty has to go back in the past to create a mensch-George. In order to create the mensch-George, Marty has to see the schmuck-George. The paradox will continue, where George and his wife will continuously change and the way they met will change. Will there a point where Marty messes up, and there is no more Marty. Marty can forget about his parents and only worry about coming back where his parents may not meet, or George messes up his parents meeting and never fixes it. They can be the same person with a different confidence level because they have the same personal identity. Everyone has the same personal identity but the experiences one encounters are what makes a person who they are. The argument can be made both ways. George could be totally changed or he can be his old self of schmuck-George when Marty once again comes back from the past.

  11. I think the easiest way of answering the second prompt is to work along the lines of identity previously discussed. The issue is not that George is a different person: throughout the film we recognize him as the same person. But there is a change and I believe it is inherent to the idea of experience. Because he was able to stand up for himself we can decide that his courage is the result of the series of experiences that enabled him to change part of his personality. Much in the same way, Sarah Conner is able to become the mother of the future human leader in the fight against the rise of the machines. Her experiences with evading the Terminator allowed her to be able to become the way she did. Similarly, without such dramatic change as Sarah Conner, people are able to adjust portions of their personality and learn from them, allowing them to change. Some changes happen consciously, and the person desires to become better, as is the case with George. Others are affected by the things that happen to them subconsciously, in the form of reliving and being affected by past experiences, such as people afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder. This forces people to change how they handle certain future experiences because, armed with their past experiences, they can actively and consciously change how they approach problems and situations. This does not change them as a person (identity) but changes their personality which is less inherent than the idea of identity. This doesn’t mean that he’s now a different person, it means a facet of his personality has changed, but is conscious and therefore part of his identity, because it is self-inflicted with the inspiration of outside experiences.

  12. Prompt 2: In Back to the Future, George changes possibly more than anyone else. In the original timeline, he is a push over who does everything he is told, even when he knows he shouldn’t and that it isn’t fair. However, after Marty returns from the past, things are totally different. His father is self-confident, and a famous science fiction writer, something he never had the confidence for before. He is the exact same person, molded differently by his experiences. This is a classic case of nature versus nurture. Had things gone normally, without Marty intervening, the original timeline would be real, where George is a schmuck who never accomplishes anything. This changes, however, when George receives the influence of Marty, who gives him self-confidence and the courage to stand up for what he believes in and what is right. Truly, this is not even Marty’s influence; the plan the two hatched together to get George a date with Lorraine by having Marty try to take advantage of her, and have George intervene. Then plan goes awry, however, when Lorraine responds to Marty’s advances, but is replaced by Biff, the town bully. George is too late to stop by the time he begins his famous line, “Hey you, get your damn hands off her!” Instead of backing down like he normally would, he hits Biff, and forever alters the timeline. He becomes the person he is the new future, brave enough to stand up to Biff and self-confident enough to publish his science fiction novels, which leave his family better off financially. In conclusion, the two Georges are two completely different people who are differentiated by the circumstances they were put in and how they reacted to them. This just goes to show how fickle who we are truly is, and that the slightest change in circumstances can put us on a completely different life trajectory.

  13. Caroline Martin permalink

    Prompt #1:
    The metaphor for time in Back to the Future is a fairly simple one but also difficult to understand and pinpoint because of its ambiguity: space. In Back to the Future, time is space. In other words, time is something that, with the help of Doc’s 1981 Delorean, Marty McFly can simply drive into. I think the best explanation of this metaphor comes when Doc Brown states that Einstein “skips” over time during their first time travel experiment featured in the film. My best understanding of this metaphor comes from Madeleine L’Engle’s novel A Wrinkle in Time. I read this book in 5th grade, and the time metaphor has stuck with me ever since; she made it so easy to understand. Basically, in the depiction, an ant (or in this case Einstein) is walking across string, the string being time. As Mrs. Whatsit says, “…it would be quite a long walk for him if he had to walk straight across.” However, with time travel, the two ends of the string are brought together, allowing Einstein to “skip” across time. In order to begin considering this metaphor in the context of when Lorraine’s father hits Marty with the car, we must first consider a basic of quantum mechanics: two things cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Assuming this, a slight variation should also be true: two things CAN occupy the same space at a different time. Applying this truth, we call 1955 Marty “Thing 1” and 1985 Marty “Thing 2.” Even if Thing 1 were killed in 1955, it can still exist in 1985 because, although it occupies the same “space,” it also occupies a different time. Honestly, this explanation sounded a lot better in my head, but I think that it does a good job of complicating something very easy to comprehend. I will attempt to explain it again using the string metaphor. Marty successfully “time travels” across the string by “skipping” over the wrinkle. Therefore, when the string is stretched back out, there are two Marty’s, one on the left end of the string (1985) and one on the right end of the string (1955). If the Marty on the right gets hit by a car, is killed, and falls off the right end of the string, does the Marty on the left end of the string still exist? Yes. Why? Because, he is occupying a different space (which is also a different time). Thusly, the metaphor of time as space is a success!
    On a side note, I’m sorry about your hover-board, Dr. Kahn, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up:

    I hope this sad news doesn’t lose me the extra credit point.

  14. John Yang permalink

    There is not a single person who is both schmuck-George and mensch-George, as they are two people, at least within the timeline and universe of Back to the Future. The method of time travel explored in Back to the Future works within a dynamic timeline, one in which altering events in the past actively affect events in the present/future. In one unaltered timeline, Marty’s father is a schmuck—an obnoxiously foolish individual. In the other, altered timeline, following Marty’s intervention in the past, Marty’s father is a mensch. These people are two completely different people, as one version represents what Marty’s father could have been in one life, but the key idea here is that this identity never came to fruition, except for when Marty comes and intervenes. The way this timeline is interpreted in Back to the Future is also unique, as Rian Johnson’s film Looper also explores time travel within a dynamic timeline, but the audience can view immediately the effects of time travel on individual characters, whether they are present or not, and all the same even when they reappear or re-encounter their future self. Within the storyline of Looper, characters, even after the intervening changes of time travel, are still essentially the same people, even if they are affected emotionally or physically. One can also make the argument that the timeline within Back to the Future is multiversal, meaning that following Marty’s meddling with the time-space continuum, an alternate reality is thereby created, one in which Marty now finds himself when he returns, and the universe in which schmuck-George exists is a completely different reality and exists on its own timeline, separate from the other that Marty has created in which mensch-George exists. Even with this argument, these two people (schmuck-George and mensch-George) exist separately and are thus completely different and unique people.

  15. K.Rengan permalink

    The idea that schmuck George and Mensch George are the same person depends on the experiences we have had; that is if we assume that the past shapes who we are today in a B.F. Skinner type manner, where we have been conditioned by our environment to act the way we are acting now. The original schmuck George was a product of his perverted mishap in the tree and the bond that he created with Lorraine a part from the confrontation he had with Biff. Another assumption to be made is that Back to the Future represents time as a multiverse -this would explain why Marty saw himself when he came back to the present disappear into the past. If we take this assumption, then we can see that shmuck George and mensch George live in two different places in space/time. When Marty went back in time he created a different universe than the one he was in. The changing event seems to be when George punches Biff and wins the heart of Lorraine while at the same time the event helps George find his “man-hood;” it is assumed that Biff also becomes afraid of George and subsequently and stops bullying him. It is hard to believe that the two Georges even exist in the same physical body due to the multiverse aspect of time assumed earlier. Whether or not George’s physical traits (DNA) determine his characteristics seems to not be a part of the film. For the film focuses on the events as catalysts for shaping the future the way Marty is used to. For instance, it was George getting hit by the car which caused Lorraine to fall in love with him, followed by the dance, and the final kiss on the dance floor. When the events were changed so was the outcome in the future.

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