One of the most singular facets of the motion picture medium, it seems to me, is its ability to function as a sort of “time capsule” for people. I am not referring to a film’s journalistic attributes (although those are undeniably true; looking back on the shorts of the Lumiere brothers, for example, gives us contemporary folks an intriguing window into late nineteenth century French living) because we are all, I think, familiar with cinema’s ability to document/record that which occurs in front of (and even behind) the camera. Rather I am referring to the way in which movies (particularly narrative movies) can record, in the heart and mind, the ideas, sensations and emotions of those who watch them. Movies can serve as a sort of “road-marker” in the lives of its audiences. Most people remember, for example, when and where they saw “event” films like Star Wars or Titanic. Just as a movie can “freeze in time” a specific period, person, place or event, so can it also “freeze in the mind” the various circumstances that surround someone who views it for the first time. What makes re-visiting these films (or "re-opening the capsule" so to speak) such an interesting experience is that although we change, the film does not. Thus, we can simultaneously remember how we felt seeing it the first time and yet also, because in the interim we have accumulated more knowledge and wisdom, look at it with “new eyes.” Sometimes the films go up in our estimation because of this. Sometimes they go down. Recently I was compelled to re-visit one of my all-time favorite movies and I literally felt like I was seeing it, REALLY seeing it, for the first time.
Not too long ago I decided to acquaint myself with the films of the great Harold Lloyd. I was already a huge fan of Chaplin and Keaton and figured I should be at least somewhat familiar with the work of this other esteemed silent comedian. I watched most of his shorts and many of his features. In particular I enjoyed The Freshman, Girl-Shy and Safety Last, but it was during the viewing of Safety Last that something remarkable happened.
For the sake of those out there who still may not know yet, Safety Last is probably Lloyd’s most well-known film, not necessarily because it is his best (although that is certainly arguable) but because it contains one of his most memorable scenes and most indelible images. The climax involves Lloyd climbing the side of a ten-story building (a feat which he, more or less, really did). It is not only a hilariously funny sequence but an incredibly thrilling one. Apparently when it was originally shown in 1923, folks would scream quite loudly every time it appeared Lloyd was about to fall to his death. All I know is that I was on the edge of my seat watching it on the TV in the “safety” (sorry) of my own little apartment. I could only imagine how intense and powerful it must’ve been on a large screen to audiences of its day.
There is a moment in the sequence where Lloyd hangs off the face of a clock on the side of the building. It is a moment of which I am sure we’re all familiar because it has become one of the most iconic images in cinema history. I know that I myself had seen it dozens of time before I ever knew who Harold Lloyd was and I realized going into Safety Last that this scene would eventually come up. When it did, I couldn't help but smile. It was nice to finally see the entire film from which that famous image originates.
Then it hit me.
If I had been a cartoon or comic strip character a light bulb would’ve gone off over my head at that very moment, because I was suddenly reminded of the climax of another film in which a character perilously hangs off the face of a clock, a film which I had seen (conservatively speaking) a hundred times, a film which I had grown up watching, which had become one of my personal favorites and which I could recite in its entirety (easily) at the drop of a hat.
That’s right. Back to the Future.
When the realization occurred to me that perhaps director Robert Zemeckis (together with his co-screenwriter Bob Gale) might’ve been paying homage to Lloyd’s classic clock-face stunt with their own Lloyd (this time a Christopher, not a Harold) performing his own clock-face stunt, I felt like an idiot for never having made the connection before. I began to wonder if it was really a cinematic homage or just a coincidence?
Does every “character-hangs-from-a-clock” moment need to be a reference to Safety Last anymore than every shower scene is a reference to Psycho? What about The Great Mouse Detective or Shanghai Knights? Those films involve characters hanging from clock faces. Were those deliberate references as well? Perhaps, but it’s a little trickier to determine than the references in, say, Scary Movie 4 because in the case of all three, the scene (more or less) arises logically out of the story and is not just a throwaway gag. I resolved to re-visit Back to the Future again and see if I could resolve that matter in my mind.
I didn’t get but thirty seconds into the film before I had my question answered.
As some of you may remember, Back to the Future opens with an extended tracking shot of the residence of Doc Brown. The credits roll over images of Doc Brown's collection of possessions... including numerous clocks ticking away. Incidentally, this establishes one of the film’s major visual motifs. Clocks appear constantly throughout Back to the Future and are not merely in the background but are almost always involved in the action of the scene in a significant manner: Marty’s digital watch alarm goes off when he’s in the 50’s emphasizing that he doesn’t belong there, Doc Brown falls and hits his head (causing him to discover the secret of time travel) as he stands on a toilet hanging a clock, the climactic scene involves a clock tower, etc.
Anyway, I sat watching this opening shot looking at the various clocks that Doc Brown owns... And that’s when I saw it.
On one of the clocks is a small figure hanging from the minute hand. I couldn’t believe I had never noticed that before. I guess when I was younger I was always just waiting for the camera to pass over the Felix-the-cat clock because that one was always my favorite. If I had been paying attention I would’ve noticed that the film was using its opening shot not only to give the audience important information about the plot (such as the news broadcast mentioning stolen plutonium and the actual plutonium case on the floor) or to reveal pertinent character details abut Doc Brown (such as the eccentric gadgets illustrating that he’s an inventor) but to actually foreshadow a significant event in Doc’s future... or would that be his past? It would have to be his past since by the time these credits are occurring the event has already happened. But then again, no! It can’t have already happened because Marty hasn’t gone back in time yet. Ack! Migraine!
Anyway, what finally resolved the matter for me, though, was the fact that if you look carefully at the little figure hanging from the clock you can clearly see that he is wearing a straw hat and glasses. This was, of course, Harold Lloyd’s signature look. And so, my question was answered. Zemeckis and company were undeniably doing a classic cinematic allusion to Safety Last in Back to the Future. I was very pleased to arrive at this conclusion and I took some small comfort in the fact that as a youngster I would never have made the connection with Harold Lloyd simply because I wasn’t as educated in film history back then. This new insight didn’t necessarily reveal any deeper “hidden truths” within the film that helped me to understand it better or appreciate it more than I already had, but it did re-confirm my knowledge that Zemeckis is himself a lover of classic cinema. Mostly it served to illustrate my point about how one can approach a movie with new information and feel as though they are seeing it for the first time because they are discovering "new" and exciting aspects about it. Or as the character of James Cole (played by Bruce Willis) says in that other great time-travel movie 12 Monkeys:
“The movie never changes. It can't change... but everytime you see it it seems different, because you're different. You see different things."