Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Different routes to the same destination

Back to the Future Part II has one of the more bewildering plots of any movie I count among my favorites, and a wild theory about it occurred to me a few years ago. I've never heard anyone else propose this theory, but it resolves several plot holes and makes sense on its own terms, once you think it through. My theory is that Doc's true motive in taking Marty to 2015 isn't to help Marty's son as he claims, but to teach Marty a lesson that will help prevent the accident that destroys Marty's musical aspirations.

The scene at the end of the first film, replayed at the beginning of the second, raises a number of questions. In this scene, Doc assures Marty that "you and Jennifer turn out fine," and that the problem is that "something has got to be done about your kids." After he takes Marty and Jennifer to visit the future, however, these statements don't match up with what we see. The middle-aged Marty from 2015 hasn't exactly turned out fine, and only one of Marty's kids needs help. Why did Doc mischaracterize the situation?

It should be noted that the filmmakers have stated in interviews that they created this final scene before they had any real plans for sequels. As such, Doc's statements were probably just throwaway lines they found amusing at the time. But that doesn't explain why, when working on the second and third film, they chose to contradict Doc's statements.

The entire scene was re-shot for the second film, ostensibly because the actress who played Jennifer in the first film--Claudia Wells--had been replaced by Elisabeth Shue. Somebody on a message board pointed out to me a subtle difference between the two versions of the scene, which are otherwise quite identical. In the Claudia Wells version, Doc's line "you and Jennifer turn out fine" is spoken smoothly and confidently. In the Elisabeth Shue version, Doc visibly hesitates before saying the line, and he utters it a bit too rapidly to sound convincing. (You can examine the difference with this video. Pay particular attention to 1:25-1:38.)

Still, Doc's behavior in either version doesn't make much sense. Why is he interrupting Marty's life only hours after Marty returned from the first adventure just so they can rectify something decades in the future? Why doesn't he let days, or weeks, or months pass before asking Marty to come with him? Since they have a time machine, what's the rush? If my theory is correct, Doc is trying to keep Marty away from the present. That makes sense given what we learn in the third film: the pivotal car accident is supposed to occur later the same day.

You might ask why Doc doesn't just tell Marty straight out about the accident. He could say, "You know, Marty, later today you'll be involved in a car accident that permanently injures your hand and destroys your musical aspirations, all because you took a guy's dare." The reason for Doc's silence is explained during a brief exchange in the third film, when Doc blurts out the truth:
Doc: Marty, you can't go losing your judgment every time someone calls you a name! That's exactly what causes you to get into that accident in the future.

Marty: [Suddenly stops and turns toward Doc.] What? What about my future?

Doc: [Realizes what he just said.] I can't tell you. It might make things worse.

Marty: Wait a minute, Doc...what is wrong with my future?!

Doc: Marty...we all have to make decisions that affect the course of our lives. You've gotta do what you've gotta do. And I've gotta do what I've gotta do.
Doc realizes that if he interferes directly with Marty's future by warning him about the accident, Marty might manage to avoid that particular catastrophe, but he'd retain his habit of acting foolishly whenever somebody calls him "chicken." Then, with his future thrown into flux, something even worse might one day occur as a result of that habit. The only safe way for Doc to improve Marty's future is by inspiring him to grow out of the habit. And what better way to do that than to show him the consequences of his son's acquiescence to peer pressure?

In other words, taking Marty to 2015 to help Marty's son was basically a ruse. Ordinarily, Doc wouldn't concern himself with a matter so remote from their current lives. He hopes that Marty, by seeing what happens to his son, will begin to reflect on his own weaknesses.

Of course, Doc thinks they'll go straight home after dealing with the son. He doesn't anticipate the chain of events that lead them to 1885. But by the time Marty gets back home at the end of the third film, he has in fact matured enough to avoid the accident on his own, as Doc had hoped, though influenced by different experiences than what Doc originally had in mind--a different route to the same destination.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Crazy professors

Just about everyone who has been through college has stories about crazy professors. I'll tell you a couple of mine.

My first encounter with one came in my second year of community college, in a required course focusing on several thinkers who shaped the modern world including Darwin, Marx, Toynbee, and Einstein. The teacher was an African Sorbonne graduate who wore his watch on the pulse side of his wrist. I had an inkling of his ideological leanings when he criticized our assigned textbook as "too Eurocentric."

There are times when even I question Eurocentrism in traditional histories. As I suspected, however, this professor was merely replacing one "centrism" with another. I could feel his frustration as he looked for openings in the assigned material to tell us about his beliefs, which included the idea that much of Ancient Greek civilization was "stolen" from black Egyptians. It wasn't easy for him, since he was assigned to be teaching us about DWEMs (Dead White European Males). I was immune to his digressions because on the first day, I had gone to the library and borrowed a copy of Mary Lefkowitz's Not Out of Africa, which debunks Afrocentrist claims about history. I learned more from that book than I did from the entire course.

He was only a moderate Afrocentrist. At the extremes is Professor Leonard Jeffries of City College in New York, who holds that mankind is divided into "ice people," comprising those of European descent, and "sun people," comprising everyone else. Ice people are violent, materialistic exploiters, while sun people are kind, compassionate peacemakers. Dr. Jeffries also maintains that Jews financed the slave trade and continue to use Hollywood to promote black subservience. It's like he took the Nazis' master-race theory and flipped it around. Around the Jews, that is.

Later on, I got an American history professor who was almost as weird as the Afrocentrist guy, though in a different way. He looked like a character out of Roald Dahl: slight build, pointy nose, pencil-thin mustache. The oddest thing about his appearance was his hair. "Never trust a professor with strange hair" should be my motto. He looked like he would have been an ordinary bald man except that he had a big clump of hair resting on top, almost like a cockatoo. Bad use of monoxodil, I thought.

On the first day, he mentioned that previous students had complained he hadn't made his teaching relevant to the current times. He promised not to make that mistake with us. He kept his promise. For one thing, he had a relentless obsession with Bill Clinton, whom he considered the most corrupt president since Nixon. (This was a while before the Lewinsky scandal.) Throughout his lectures, he kept throwing in comments about how "Slick Willy" and his wife were letting the country go to waste.

He didn't seem to recognize any boundary between fact and opinion. FDR, he taught us, was a great president, though not because of his liberalism. Truman was overrated, Eisenhower was underrated, and Vietnam was unwinnable. The prof's most fervent belief was that there was a conspiracy behind JFK's assassination. He wasn't sure of the nature of the conspiracy, he just knew beyond any doubt that there was one. And he let us argue our favored conspiracy theory on the final exam for extra credit. Accepting the findings of the Warren Commission wasn't an option.

For several years afterward, I went mad trying to read up as much as I could on the stuff we had covered, which I felt had been tainted by the guy's political and ideological proclivities. I eventually concluded that apart from his hangups about Clinton and JFK, he was reasonably fair and accurate most of the time.

I'm not implying these two professors were in any way representative of my overall college experience. After I transferred to U. of Maryland, I no longer met any ideological fruitcakes. A few of my professors there articulated liberal political views in front of the whole class, a practice I considered unprofessional (at least in non-political courses). But there was relatively little weirdness and flakiness. Yet the fact I encountered this sort of thing at all is significant. These are the kinds of experiences you hear and read about, and can't believe when they're actually happening to you.

P.S. For those who may not be aware, the picture at the start of this post is of the late comedian Sam Kinison playing a crazy professor in this scene from the 1986 movie Back to School.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Urban bubbe meises

Linked to at DovBear's Blog

Blogger Wolfish Musings recently wished for a Jewish version of Snopes, the premier site for investigating urban legends. He made this wish after receiving an email listing ten "proofs" of the Moshiach's imminent arrival. As it stands, such a site already exists, and it is called Jewish Legends. Unfortunately, it lacks the scope or professionalism of Snopes.

Snopes was hardly the first urban legend-debunking site, but it took a new approach to the subject. For one thing, unlike previous sites of its kind, Snopes didn't deal exclusively with tall tales. Some of the claims that Snopes investigates end up being true. According to Snopes, what sets urban legends apart is not their truth value but their mode of transmission. They're the types of stories you "know" happened because you heard it from a friend of a friend (or read in an email forwarded to you by a friend). Occasionally such stories may in fact be accurate or nearly accurate. The problem is verifying them, and that's where Snopes comes in. It categorizes the truth value of stories with a red light for false, a yellow for uncertain, and a green for true.

Jewish Legends adopts the same color-coding, but with Stars of David instead of traffic lights. Unlike Snopes, it includes roughly the same number of "green" stories as "red" stories. Because so much of it is true, the site begins to sound more like a weird news page than an urban legends page.

Some of the green stories are reasonable choices, such as the report that Coca Cola tastes better during Passover season than during the rest of the year, because it uses sugar instead of corn syrup. Religious Jews are aware of this fact, but because it's so word-of-mouth, it's the type of claim for which verification is useful, if for no other reason than to convince skeptics.

But why do we need the site to tell us, for example, that the first pro-baseball player was Jewish? That may be a noteworthy fact in itself, but it's not a story that has been passed around by word of mouth. I had never heard the story before I came to the site, so it's probably not something that was in need of investigation.

Likewise, the site puts Christopher Columbus's Jewishness in the yellow category. That belief is not an urban legend by any definition. It is a legitimate hypothesis still being debated by scholars.

I also wonder why the site bothers itself with answering the Protocols or the business about a kosher tax. Once you start getting into the debunking of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, your task is practically endless. And it gives the site a graver tone than a discussion about urban legends ought to have. Is the site going to start taking on Holocaust deniers? That would be a perfect way to kill the fun.

The site's best entries include whether the name of the Satmar sect comes from "Saint Mary," whether the Israeli archaeologist Vendyl Jones was the inspiration for Indiana Jones, whether Mordechai was Esther's uncle, and whether "hip hip hooray" has anti-Semitic origins. (Click the links to find out the answer to each of those questions.) Those are all beliefs that have swirled around the Jewish community for quite some time, and are worthy of investigation. I just wish the site would also tackle more current stuff, like the chain emails targeted at Jews. And the weird news entries, interesting as they may be, should at least be placed in a separate section and be less focused upon.

The site seems to have an Orthodox standpoint, but it never tells you that it does. It considers the existence of the Golem to be an open question. It asserts that the actor Ben Stiller, contrary to popular belief, is not Jewish (his father is, and his mother had a Reform conversion before he was born). I suspect that Ben Stiller would disagree.