Two thousand fifteen was destined to be the year of Robert Zemeckis since at least 1989, the same year a frizzy-haired scientist and his baby-faced protégé set the clock forward to October 21, 2015, defying the space-time continuum for the second time. While the date has come and gone without the flying cars and double neckties promised by Zemeckis’s Back to the Future Part II (hoverboards are kind of becoming a thing, though), the director’s prediction of a dystopian screen culture broadcasting the political ascent of a combed-over casino magnate turned out to be correct, not to mention an outcome far stranger than even he could have imagined: a Zemeckis retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art.
The series, which opened on September 29 and is titled “What Lies Beneath” (after Zemeckis’s 2000 domestic thriller starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer), follows the premiere of the director’s latest feature, The Walk, which opened the New York Film Festival earlier that month. That film, according to MoMA’s press release, is a “PG-rated, all-audience 3-D motion picture experience” offering a Hollywood retelling of French high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s famed 1974 walk between the twin towers.
The Walk is not the first treatment of Petit’s stunt, nor is this the first time that a high-profile Sony Pictures vehicle has premiered at MoMA (Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine opened there in 2013). Yet what lies beneath both Zemeckis’s film and MoMA’s crowning of the filmmaker as an auteur alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini, Wim Wenders, and Robert Altman—all recipients of recent MoMA film retrospectives—is an argumentum ad populum: that, on the one hand, a story hasn’t truly been told until it’s been told with Hollywood’s most expensive bells and whistles, and on the other, that the special-effects wizardry on display in Zemeckis’s films constitutes in and of itself the kind of authorial signature that André Bazin championed in Cahiers du Cinéma.
Neither the assumption of curatorial intentionality on the part of MoMA’s film department nor that of the supposed cohesiveness of Zemeckis’s oeuvre holds up under scrutiny. Taken as a whole, Zemeckis’s career is representative of the corporate hackishness of post-1970s Hollywood engineered by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, the type of big-budget cinéma sans goût that turned the phrase “Academy Award–winning” into a genre. That MoMA is now the kind of place where Forrest Gump (1994) is anointed into the realm of higher art, or where one might take one’s son or daughter to see Jim Carrey play an animated Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol (2009), says more about current institutional practices than it does the director’s contributions to film history.
Zemeckis is among the first generation of Hollywood filmmakers to receive formal training in the medium. Along with frequent writing partner Bob Gale, Zemeckis graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts in 1973. As a student he directed two shorts which are included in the retrospective: The Lift (1972) and A Field of Honor (1973). As Gale told critic Tom Shone, he and Zemeckis stood apart from their classmates at USC in that they didn’t have the “veneer of intellectualism” of the graduate filmmakers. As undergraduates, Gale said, “we wanted to make Hollywood movies. We weren’t interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney, because that’s how we grew up.”
Gale and Zemeckis became known as a writing team in Hollywood, working together on the script for Spielberg’s fraught World War II comedy, 1941 (1979), while shopping around the screenplay for what would become their magnum opus, Back to the Future (1985).
In Spielberg, Zemeckis found a mentor and friend: the director of Jaws (1975) executive produced Zemeckis’s first two features, I Wanna Hold Your Hand (1978) and Used Cars (1980). I Wanna Hold Your Hand is a nostalgic caper that follows a group of New Jersey teenagers en route to the Beatles’ debut Ed Sullivan performance, treading the same harmless territory as Lucas’s American Graffiti (1973), while Used Cars stars Kurt Russell and Jack Warden (in dual roles, a technique to which Zemeckis often returns) in a forgettable screwball typical of the period. It was the financial success of Zemeckis’s 1984 rom-com, Romancing the Stone, that allowed Gale and Zemeckis a shot at Back to the Future, which they had been brewing ever since film school.
Back to the Future marks what is either the climax of the first period of Zemeckis’s career, as a comedic craftsman carrying on the classic Hollywood tradition (like Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, or Woody Allen), or the beginning of the second, as the director of high-profile blockbuster hits that consistently deployed the latest developments in special-effects technology. Either way, Back to the Future is far and away Zemeckis’s most inspired film, the only one which unquestionably deserves to be screened at MoMA, and not only because (in part) it already has been.
A minute of Zemeckis’s film is included in Christian Marclay’s 2010 installation The Clock, which played at MoMA in December 2012 and January 2013. As Ben Lerner describes it in his 2014 novel 10:04, The Clock is “a twenty-four-hour montage of thousands of scenes from movies and a few from TV edited together so as to be shown in real time; each scene indicates the time with a shot of a timepiece or its mention in dialogue; time in and outside of the film is synchronized.” Lerner’s novel is, like Marclay’s installation, “a work designed to obliterate the distance between art and life, fantasy and reality,” but also time and experience, the central axis of Back to the Future, a film that begins with a tracking shot of dozens of clocks, and whose most famous clock Marclay includes in his own film: the clock tower in Hill Valley, California, striking 10:04 p.m., sending Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), who earlier time traveled to the year 1955, back to the future in 1985. If Zemeckis’s first film about time travel is his most perfect creation, it is because it is about the stuff of film itself. What basic human desire has kept cameras rolling more than the possibility of going back in time, changing what has happened, altering the course of history?
For Zemeckis, as for the greatest filmmakers, cinema is time travel, and in Back to the Future, the dreams of the director and the audience are one and the same. It is the film in which all of Zemeckis’s major themes are contained: the overcoming of adversity by a radically individualist hero (Fox, but in later films, Tom Hanks, Jodie Foster, Denzel Washington, and now, in The Walk, Joseph Gordon-Levitt), flight (Zemeckis is a licensed pilot), and American history—especially presidential politics. The film managed to endear Ronald Reagan even as it poked fun at him: in reply to the news that then-actor Reagan is the president in 1985, Emmett “Doc” Brown (Christopher Lloyd) snorts, “Then who’s vice president? Jerry Lewis?” Reagan went on to quote the film in his 1986 State of the Union Address, telling Americans, “Where we’re going, we don’t need roads.”
This anecdote—of Doc insulting Reagan so mildly that the Gipper took it as a compliment—is an apt metaphor for Zemeckis’s cinema; even in controversial terrain Zemeckis manages to remain safe. Science is allowed to battle it out with faith in Contact (1997), but no one questions why Christian theologian Palmer Joss (played by Matthew McConaughey) casually enjoys such political influence; the role of race in the prosecution of alcoholic pilot Whip Whitaker (Washington) in Flight (2012) goes unmentioned, though the protagonist ends up behind bars, preaching to a crowd of mostly black faces. Film scholar Vivian Sobchack argues that the political ambivalence of Forrest Gump reveals the film as “both symptom of and gloss upon” the end of history itself, but it’s just as likely that the film’s appeals to progressives and conservatives alike are more cynical and financially driven. Like the character of Gump, Zemeckis’s films are naive, unprejudiced, and nonthreatening. They end up everywhere important, all of the time; they may be stupid, but they make money, and people like them.
Of course, MoMA has long been a meeting place of mass culture and the avant-garde. Among the museum’s first film retrospectives was a series dedicated to one of the medium’s pioneers, Georges Méliès, a year after his death in 1938. In film history, Méliès—who directed the first-ever science-fiction film, 1902’s La Voyage dans la Lune—is often pitted against his countrymen and contemporaries Auguste and Louis Lumière as the paragon of cinema’s fantastical and illusionary potential, whereas the Lumière brothers’ early documentaries showcased film’s ability to record historical reality, to capture truth. Like Méliès, Zemeckis’s films are highly conceptual from the outset, providing what Isabella Rossellini’s Lisle Von Rhuman (in 1992’s Death Becomes Her) calls “a touch of magic in this world obsessed with science.” But the director’s use of special-effects technology has had a more exclusionary effect, dictating with each innovation—motion control in Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), digital compositing in the Back to the Future sequels, performance capture in The Polar Express (2004)—what a Hollywood film must do to be considered “quality entertainment.” It is in this role, as the techno-savvy studio head of Disney partner ImageMovers, that MoMA’s retrospective praises Zemeckis, a filmmaker who “has literally altered the dimensions of American movies.”
As such, it was more or less inevitable that after collaborating with Hanks again in Cast Away (2000), Zemeckis would commit himself to CGI children’s movies, working exclusively in 3-D while disingenuously referring to “man’s desire to tell stories around the campfire,” as he did at the opening of the Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts at USC, in 2001, on a panel with Spielberg and Lucas concerning the future of film.
The Walk is Zemeckis’s second live-action film since the monumentally unnecessary trilogy of animated films he made in the 2000s with his studio’s new animation facility, ImageMovers Digital. The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol maintain a more PG tone than any of his earlier films (Back to the Future was initially rejected by Disney, its Oedipal subplot deemed too risqué for the magic kingdom), while Zemeckis’s Beowulf (2007) addresses itself to more of a fanboy audience, featuring a script adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary, as well as the appearance of Angelina Jolie in digitally enhanced nude. Roger Rabbit is generally credited for inaugurating an animation boom in the late 1980s, but Zemeckis’s efforts made a lesser splash in the age of Pixar. With the box-office failures A Christmas Carol and the Zemeckis-produced Mars Needs Moms (2011), both Zemeckis and ImageMovers hightailed it out of Toon Town.
More than anything, MoMA’s retrospective raises the question of why the museum feels the need to play the role of nickelodeon in an era when syndication, streaming, and on-demand are already keeping audiences at home. As theaters around the country promote anniversary screenings of Back to the Future, what compels MoMA to compete with AMC rather than a smaller, independent theater like Film Forum? To what end is the museum complicit in The Walk’s public-relations machine? MoMA’s efforts to advocate for Zemeckis’s digital innovations reveal a deeper flaw in the auteurist assumptions of its film programming. What good is a retrospective when the artist’s vision is more corporate than it is personal?
As an Inspector Clouseau–accented Gordon-Levitt balances 110 stories above Manhattan in The Walk, Zemeckis’s 3-D camera gives new perspective to man’s smallness in the world. At the same time that the audience is invited to see what Petit sees, the viewer cannot help but equate the tightrope walker with Zemeckis himself: an audacious magician performing a dazzling feat. Yet the filmmaker’s retelling is pure simulacrum, a technological reenactment that may be eye-opening to his audience but something less than novel to Petit, for whom The Walk can mean little more than approximation: a celebration of the artist above the art, the projection of genius onto a plane of technique.
Andrew Marzoni is a Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellow in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 38 under the title “Future Imperfect.”