A couple of weeks ago, I watched Back to the Future for what seems like the 1000th time, followed by Hot Tub Time Machine the next day. Time travel movies have been around for decades and are an absolute staple of science fiction. The problem with them is that the plots are all the same. Something horrific happens in the future, so the protagonist has to go back in time to stop said horrific occurrence from ever happening. All the while, he must avoid being seen in a way that will alter history beyond repair, kill John Connor while dropping a catch phrase, or narrowly avoid having sex with Mom. It’s a very basic format when you break it down, but somehow the formula seems new and exciting with each new movie, and you always want to watch them.
Don’t believe me that it’s a basic format? Fine, I’ll come up with an example.
The movie: Play it Again Ham
The plot: A down-on-his-luck arcade owner, Samuel “Ham” Hamowitz, finds himself out of money, getting a divorce, and losing the respect of his kids. If only there was a way to go back in time and get on board with the new games faster… Tragically, his undying love for classic games kept him from staying up to date. ”Ms. Pacman was good enough for me; it should be good enough for kids today, too”. The day his arcade closes for the last time, he decides to play one last game of Dig Dug and has the game of his life, reaching a level that nobody else had ever reached. After setting a crazy high score, he types in his initials, triggering a reaction in the game that takes him back to 1983. Confused at first, Ham slowly realizes that he must reach his younger self and convince him to adjust to whatever new games come out when they are older.
He has a hard time convincing his younger self of the needed change because young Ham lacks focus and only wants to play video games. The only way to convince him is to win a Dig Dug tournament at the local arcade. He loses the tournament, can’t recreate the high score to get himself back to his family, and thinks that he is stuck forever. Just when all seems lost and he is all alone, his younger self comes in to show him that true happiness was there all along, he just didn’t see it. It turns out; the older Ham is the one who lost his focus along the way. The two Hams learn a valuable lesson, with the young Ham tossing the old Ham their lucky quarter and telling him to “play it again, Ham.”
Old Ham once again plays the game of his life, leaves younger Ham with a valuable life lesson, returns to find himself as the owner of a billion dollar chain of Hamcades, and also has the respect of his wife and kids. He hugs them, they share a laugh (“Dad, what is wrong with you today? Did you play too many video games before bed again?”), and he vows to never take life for granted again. Fade to black, roll credits, and play a song that makes you feel emotionally satisfied.
Movie Tagline: Sometimes you have to take two steps back to take one step in the right direction.
Who isn’t watching that movie? I hit every single beat and left you walking away happy and satisfied.
Time travel movies always work because Hollywood follows this formula, in some form or fashion, hitting every beat along the way. The problem is that there is rarely any enjoyment when the main character goes back in time. I want to see a movie about someone who discovers time travel and uses it to go back in time to experience a different environment than their own, strictly out of curiosity. When is someone going to release a movie called Hot Tub Time Machine 8: Recreational Use Only?
That’s not necessarily the movie that I want to see, but it’s what I spend the most time thinking about. What would I do? Where would I go? Who would I see?
I have given this so much thought that I even had to break it down into categories.
Category 1: Where would I go if I only had the DeLorean for one day?
Category 2: Where would I go if I had the DeLorean for 3 months (or essentially a summer?)
Category 1 is pretty simple to answer for me: It has to be something historically significant like the Gettysburg Address or the I Have A Dream speech. If you only get one day, you can’t try to get the most out of all 24 hours; you have to pack as much importance into just one part of the day. If you held a gun to my head then I am still not sure I could pick between those two speeches. On one hand, I’ve heard the MLK speech several times, but to be in that crowd would be life-altering. On the other hand, there is no audio of the Lincoln speech, but by all accounts he was engaging and had the ability to move a crowd. I can’t decide and you can’t make me.
Category 2 is where it really gets interesting with all of the endless possibilities: Obviously, I could go back to November 1863 and watch the Gettysburg Address, but I’m not sure I want to chill for the next three months in Civil War times. That is where I change my criteria for what I want to do for three months.
Where could I go that would give me the biggest bang for my Delorean buck when it comes to pop culture?
I have it narrowed down to a top two, with the top spot being unbeatable. Here is my list, let me know what I missed that you think could top it.
Honorable mention: Early 1980s Los Angeles, specifically the Sunset Strip. Seeing bands such as Van Halen in a smaller venue like Whiskey a Go Go or Starwood would be powerful. The only reason it doesn’t make it higher than an honorable mention is because I’m not packing my twig and berries into fluorescent spandex just to see a young Eddie Van Halen play guitar.
Runner Up: London, England, August – October 1966 This is a powerhouse lineup of pop culture, guitar gods, and completely ridiculous historical icons! Starting with the Muhammad Ali vs. Brian London fight on August 6th and ending with an unknown Jimi Hendrix playing on stage with Eric Clapton, this spot is very, very hard to beat. Think about everything that came out of London during this time. The Animals, The Beatles, Cream, Jimi Hendrix (by way of the US of A), Eric Clapton, getting punched in the face by Ginger Baker, and the list goes on and on.
The city itself would have been ecstatic that August coming off of beating Germany 4-2 in the World Cup final the month before, and it was the heart of everything cool in the world at the moment. I’m a huge Elvis fan myself, but even he couldn’t keep me away from this kind of lineup. As an added bonus, you would get to see The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Batman: The Movie, El Dorado, and The Ghost and Mr. Chicken in the actual theaters. When you add it all up, it’s impossible to beat this list……or is it…..SUSPENSE!
The choice for my top spot in history is obviously subjective and it’s what speaks to you as an individual. For instance, my friend Chris picked San Francisco in 1965, which had The Doors’ origin story, a terrific environment with the hippie/make love not war movement, and the most important music of that era came through there. To him, that is tops on the list, and for me it is definitely a very strong case, but it isn’t something I connect with as strongly. Does that make him wrong and me right? It most certainly does not; it’s simply a matter of taste. So without further ado….the top spot goes to…
United States of America; May 20, 1977 – August 20, 1977: This is right in my sweet spot of nostalgia and curiosity. The point of taking the DeLorean for a spin back in time is to experience new things, and this accomplishes that more than anything else for me. If you notice, I picked exact dates, and that is strictly to hit two specific things. May 25, 1977 is the day that OG Star Wars hit theaters in the U.S. I like Star Wars, but don’t have the affinity to it that so many others do because it wasn’t a huge part of my childhood.
I was born in 1979, and by the time I was old enough to care about it, Star Wars wasn’t as popular. My parents weren’t big science fiction fans (even though my mom loved some Star Trek: TNG in a big way) and as non-fans it wasn’t in our house much. I actually didn’t see Star Wars for the first time until I was out of high school and living on my own. I was aware of it through a couple of books and toys that I had, but never sat down to watch the entire movie. It has grown on me over the years, but I still wish I had the same affection for it as those who grew up with it. Seeing it on its release date in a theater would be something I would have to do.
The second part of this adventure would entail following Led Zeppelin on their 1977 North American tour. When I think about pop culture from this era, I romanticize the way that people followed the things they loved. It’s something that is never going to be the same, and there is no way to get it back. If a kid reading this today wanted to know something about a band they just heard, she could look them up on the Internet and find out every last thing about them. Where they are from, what music influenced them, what are they like on stage, or who they are dating? Anything they want at all at the tip of their fingers.
It was dramatically different in 1977 when following a band meant driving 4 hours to a concert or hanging on every word of a Rolling Stone interview or reading every last word of liner notes in the new record. To love something in a way that involved effort and time just feels different to me. When you speak with someone who lived through that, there is a way they speak about these bands that is different. You can feel their attachment to Aerosmith because they built an emotional connection to them in a way that doesn’t turn off when your computer does. As quickly as you may find out about a new band you like, is as quickly as that interest fades when you have seen a years’ worth of information about them instantly.
I had that to an extent growing up, but not in this way, not like the generation ahead of me did. I’m not even a huge Led Zeppelin fan, but following this tour Almost Famous-style for 3 months would give me a glimpse into a world that I can only imagine or hear secondhand now. You hear stories about Jimmy Page playing guitar, but unless you drove to see it, you would never fully understand. I would like to experience that for myself. The outlets that people used to obtain this information even made celebrities out of the people providing it. Can you imagine a scenario today where a writer became as popular and relevant as the content the way that Hunter S. Thompson was?
The final leg of my 1977 DeLorean tour would include August 16, 1977 in Memphis, Tennessee, the day that Elvis Presley died in his Graceland home. That night, thousands of people lined the streets in candlelight to pay tribute to the King of Rock and Roll. I’ve been to Graceland 7 times in my life, and as a fan this seems like something that I would have to do. Even to a non-fan, this is something that would be culturally relevant for anyone. There wasn’t a bigger star in the world in the 60's and most of the 70's, and his death deeply affected people. I would like to see first-hand the emotion that it caused. I feel like it would be something that I would never forget.
Those three things can’t be topped by any other point in pop culture history for me.
Right or wrong, it’s what I connect to the most and what I spend the most time thinking about. What is on your list? If you don’t have a list, attempt to make one for yourself and you might be surprised with where your interests lie. You’ll find yourself changing your mind several times and researching more about it. Let me know what you come up with.
Stephen Balding is the founder of Cinema Soapbox. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org