Back to the Future

The Ties that Bind.
Hollywood bridges the father-son generation gap.

Remember the generation gap? Movies from "Joe" to "Love Story" to TV's "All in the Family" and hit songs like Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen" all found inspiration in the misunderstandings between parents and children, dramatizing each group's stubborn resentment of the other.

Such shows and songs were signs of their time and, apparently, icons of the past. Lately, in such films as "The Flamingo Kid," "Back to the Future," "The Emerald Forest" and "Teen Wolf" (opening tomorrow), parents and children practice reconciliation and compassion instead.

"Back to the Future," this summer's most likable movie, takes Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox)--a typical '80s teenager with sex and rock 'n' roll on his mind—on a trip 30 years back in time to observe and participate in his parents' courtship. The film, which denies the generation gap tenet that parents and children in some sense hold each other inferior, would never have come to the screen during the campus demonstration-Vietnam-Watergate upheaval of the early '70s.

Since those tumultuous years, more films have quietly depicted a cautious understanding between generations. Movie fathers and sons have grown less suspicious of each other (take the kitchen-table fracas and backyard confession scenes between Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher in "Breaking Away"); the sons practice forgiveness and resolve not to make the same mistakes as their parents.

This characterized "The Flamingo Kid." Matt Dillon had to choose between his hardworking father (Hector Elizondo) and his country club benefactor (Richard Crenna). This movie updated the "Death of a Salesman" issue of a son's loyalty to his father, mirroring every young person's dilemma be-tween proper and expedient behavior and the desire to forge one's own code of ethics.

In John Boorman's nature epic "The Emerald Forest," the estrangement between generations is dramatized as a father searches South American rain forests for his son, kidnapped 10 years earlier by a tribe of natives. The differences between father (Powers Boothe) and son (Charley Boorman) are basically ones of cultural orientation and personal perspective, not unlike those of the '60s and '70s. Ultimately, the father comes to appreciate a life style opposite his own and reluctantly gives his son up to it—he sees how naturally the boy has adapted to it.

Bruce Springsteen sentimentalizes similar emotions in such songs as "Your Home Town," "Adam Raised a Cain" and "Independence Day." In them, the generation gap is bridged by fathers and sons who share the same workaday destinies, as well as restlessness and humor.

Springsteen's theme is addressed in "Teen Wolf," in which Michael J. Fox (again) goes through puberty with uncontrollable personality eruptions—specifically, every full moon he turns into a werewolf. Here, the father (James Hampton) explains his son's plight—in one scene, he asks his transformed son to come out of a locked bathroom so they can talk things over wolf to wolf, creating a new parent-child archetype.

"Back to the Future" also explores the notion of father-son continuity—the personality traits Marty is helpless to correct in himself were the same ones his father possessed as a teenager. In that way, it is reminiscent of the two "Godfather" movies: Just as Marty and his father are cut from the same cloth, so are Michael (Al Pacino) and Don Corleone (Marlon Brando). `Back to the Future' and The Godfather' have the same message: Like father, like son. What was poignant in Coppola's film is trans formed to ignite the head-spinning humor of this new comedy classic.

"Future's" strongest emotions come from Marty's interaction with his father (a stylized comic performance by Crispin Glover). The true revelation in this comedy is similar to "The Godfather, Part II": Just as Marty feels he has the intestinal fortitude lacking in his father, so Michael thought his education and patriotism made him different from the Don. In both cases, they are not gaps at all, but the basis for a great kinship

"What did Pop think in his heart?" Michael asks his mother in "The Godfather, Part II." Marty McFly's trip in "Back to the Future" makes that question farcical. The need to understand our parents, and thus discover the foundations of the society we grow up in, has unconsciously determined the themes of most films coming from Hollywood these days.