Travelling in time

Badlands and American Graffiti were made at the end of the ‘long 1960s’: they look back to a time before the social and cultural changes of that decade had set in, but from a vantage point where many of those changes had exhausted themselves, or begun to turn sour. The very different atmosphere of the US in the early 1970s – the fag end of the Vietnam war, the corruption revealed by Watergate, and the broader disillusionment of the counter-culture – is marginally evident in the closing caption of American Graffiti, and perhaps also in the fatalistic, disaffected tone of Badlands.

The next pair of films I’ll consider here also reflect the changing perspectives of the times in which they were made: the mid-1980s and the late 1990s respectively. Both use the trope of time travel to explore the relationship between the past and the present, and between youth and adulthood. They are not just personal narratives, but also generational ones, which reflect on wider perceptions of historical change – and in particular, like my first pair of films, on the transition from the 1950s to the 1960s. However, their own historical vantage points are also very different.

The first film, Peggy Sue Got Married, tells the story from the perspective of the 1980s, and has been seen by some to reflect the conservative values – and particularly the conservative sexual politics – of the Reagan era. By contrast, the second film, Pleasantville, could be seen to offer a more liberal account of historical change, reflecting the political values of Clinton’s America. As I’ll suggest, both films are more complex and ambivalent than this would suggest; but they do undoubtedly respond to the changing values of the times in which they were made, as well as those in which they are set.


Peggy Sue Got Married

Released in 1986, Peggy Sue Got Married was directed by Francis Ford Coppola. It seems that the film was not a particularly personal project for Coppola: he was brought in at a relatively late stage when others dropped out, and seems to have accepted largely because he was short of money after the expensive failure of his previous feature, The Cotton Club (1984). As a light romantic comedy, it was not, he reportedly said, ‘the kind of film that I would normally want to do’. Critical opinion on the film was rather divided, with some accusing it of sentimentality; yet somewhat to Coppola’s embarrassment, it was a considerable commercial success, becoming his highest grossing film of the decade (it brought in $22 million in its first three weeks).

Briefly, the film tells the story of Peggy Sue Bodell, a 43-year-old woman (played by Kathleen Turner) who is catapulted back to her senior year at high school. The story begins as she prepares – in the company of her teenage daughter Beth – to attend her 25-year high school reunion. We learn that Peggy is in the process of divorcing from her unfaithful husband Charlie (Nicolas Cage). Once Peggy’s high school sweetheart, Charlie has failed to fulfill his dream of becoming a pop singer, and become a crass television salesman, ‘Crazy Charlie, the appliance king’. At the reunion, Peggy connects with her old school friends, but after she is proclaimed reunion queen, she faints and wakes to find herself back in 1960. She retains the knowledge and experience (and the body) of her adult self, but she is treated by the other characters as an 18-year-old.

As she tries to figure out how she really feels about Charlie, Peggy also explores the possibilities of romantic liaisons with two alternative men – the geeky Richard Norvik, who has since become a billionaire inventor, and the sexy beatnik poet Michael Fitzsimmons. She also relives her early relationship with Charlie, rediscovering some of his appeal, but also (from her adult vantage point) being painfully aware of his immaturity and inadequacy. Peggy seems unwilling to accept any of the available alternatives, and resolves to return to the present; but before she does so, she takes one last journey to visit her grandparents. At her request, her grandfather attempts to project her back to the present through a bizarre Masonic ritual; but in the course of this, she is kidnapped by Charlie. Charlie tells her that he has given up singing and taken a share in his father’s business: he proposes to her, and as they make love, (re-)conceiving their daughter Beth, Peggy is magically transported back to the present. In the closing scene, in her hospital room, she shows tentative signs of being reconciled with the adult Charlie.

Production on Peggy Sue Got Married began some time before the release of George Lucas’s Back to the Future, although it followed in its wake into cinemas. As with that film, part of its appeal lies in its recovery of the iconography and music of the 1950s; and in this respect it might well be classified, in Fredric Jameson’s terms, as a ‘nostalgia film’. As in American Graffiti, the cinematography emphasizes pastel colours, adding what some critics felt was a ‘nostalgic glow’. In the course of the film, Peggy rediscovers the forgotten pleasures, not only of her own childhood, but also of the era more broadly. As she returns to her suburban childhood home, she embraces her disconcerted mother and sister, marvels lovingly over her childhood possessions, and sits down to family breakfast with unfamiliar enthusiasm.

Yet there is also a considerable degree of irony here. In the classroom at school, she sings ‘God Bless America’ with a fervour that startles her classmates. As in Back to the Future, there is also the ironic benefit of hindsight in some of the period details – not least at the expense of most of the male characters. For example, Peggy bursts into laughter on discovering that her father has bought a Ford Edsel, an infamous failure of the period. She offers advice to Richard Norvik based on her retrospective understanding of how technology has evolved, from the moon landings to the development of panti-hose – advice that, we infer, he eventually uses to make his fortune as an inventor. Meanwhile, Michael Fitzsimmons is a more charismatic and desirable option. Peggy makes love with him under an artificially starry sky, although his beatnik persona (black turtleneck, smouldering looks and ludicrously pretentious poetry) is also a focus for irony – and when he proposes to take her to Iowa, where she and another girlfriend will support his writing career, she quickly demurs. Meanwhile, her dealings with Charlie reflect not just her adult sexual maturity, but also the perspectives of the so-called ‘sexual revolution’: when she takes the initiative, and refuses to be the obedient, asexual teenage girl, he is horrified and escapes as fast as he can, calling her a ‘humiliator’. The past that Peggy discovers is far from idyllic, and after some pleasurable rediscoveries, she quickly decides that she does not want to stay.

Peggy Sue is thus an ironic commentary on the 1950s, albeit a fairly affectionate one, rather than merely a work of nostalgia. However, it is also a romantic comedy. It tells a familiar story about a couple who overcome a sequence of obstacles and misunderstandings in order to become united (or in this case, reunited). The return to the past adds an additional twist here: in the present, Peggy’s dilemma is whether or not to divorce Charlie; but in the past, it is why she would ever want to marry him in the first place. The basic rom-com narrative (will they – won’t they?) is re-run from the perspective of the future: rather than the romantic union being the end of the narrative, our knowledge of what has happened since (what happened after Peggy Sue got married) throws it all into doubt.

As a rom-com, the film has been accused of complicity with patriarchal ideas about romantic love – a charge that was laid by several contemporary reviewers such as Marsha Kinder, Roberta Pearson and Bob Bartosch. Peggy, they argue, seems to learn nothing from her journey to the past. Unlike Marty McFly in Back to the Future, there is nothing she can do to change the future – although there is a certain ambivalence about whether her ‘return’ has actually happened at all (the billionaire Richard Norvik may have learnt from her descriptions of future inventions, and Michael Fitzsimmons later dedicates a book to ’Peggy Sue and a starry night’, suggesting that it was more than just a dream). Yet rather than rejecting patriarchy and its romantic myths, Peggy ultimately gives up her freedom: she is contained and recuperated. At the high-school reunion, she observes to her friends, ‘if I knew then what I know now, I’d do lots of things differently’ – and yet ultimately, she does not.

Even so, it’s hard to see the film as offering any kind of endorsement of the male romantic hero. We view the teenage Charlie almost exclusively through the eyes of the mature adult Peggy – with the notable exception of one scene, in which we learn of the frustration of his musical ambitions as he is turned down by a music industry executive. Cage’s performance – and especially his adoption of a mannered, nasal voice – attracted criticism at the time, not least from Kathleen Turner. However, as she later acknowledged, this reinforced Peggy’s ‘disillusionment with the past’: ‘the way I saw it was, yeah, he was that asshole.’ As Peter Cowie suggests, Charlie is a character for whom youth itself seems to be a kind of act: his narcissistic persona is a way of covering up his gaucheness and vulnerability. To an even greater extent than Milner in American Graffiti or Kit in Badlands, he might be seen as a kind of parody of the James Dean type, with his snarl and his elaborate quiff. At one point, Michael refers to him as ‘trouble without a cause’. Yet part of what Peggy comes to realize is that Charlie is by no means as cool and self-assured as he might have appeared to her at the time: the resentment she felt at the outset ultimately turns to pity.

Peggy Sue may be a romantic comedy of sorts, but it is not a straightforward or traditional one, or indeed merely nostalgic. 1950s conceptions of gender roles sit alongside – and are seen through the lenses of – more modern feminist ideas. This gives the film a double perspective. Peggy is both a 1950s girl and a 1980s woman: she wants the romantic dream, but she also recognizes that it is just a dream. She may have decided not to follow up on her ambition to become a dancer, but she is a successful businesswoman, running her own bakery. Meanwhile, Charlie is the romantic hero, the teenage heart-throb and the object of her desire, but he is also pathetic and absurd. His adolescent romanticism is seen as excessive and ludicrous; and, as an adult, he appears to be little more than a grotesque failure. As the critic Bruce Babington suggests, the film offers a ‘switchback ride through gender roles and different conceptions of gender relations’, which aligns it with the ‘nervous’ or ‘troubled’ romantic comedies that followed in the wake of second-wave feminism.

In this respect, the film’s ending is also decidedly ambivalent. For some critics, this was a pat, conservative resolution that ultimately served the status quo. What particularly brings the couple together when they finally make love (and conceive their daughter in the process) is not so much Peggy’s desire for Charlie, but the fact that he produces a locket containing images of the two of them as children – the same locket that we see in the opening scene, containing images of Beth and their son Scott. In the final scene, back in the present, it appears that Peggy might be reconciled to a future with Charlie. She invites him to dinner, and promises they will eat strudel – a dish that her grandparents had identified as the thing that held their family together. This ending might thus be construed as an endorsement of family (and perhaps of ‘family values’), but it is far from an unequivocal endorsement of romance. In the closing shots, Beth is closer to Peggy, while Charlie remains more distanced – although curiously Scott remains absent, as he does throughout.

These final scenes have an air of fatalistic resignation, or at least of disillusioned acceptance, rather than overpowering romantic affirmation. As Babington points out, a great deal is left hanging here. We don’t now if Peggy and Charlie will ultimately get back together, or if their new relationship will last. We don’t know whether Charlie himself has actually learnt anything, or whether he will give up his philandering ways. The film gives us ample cause to be sceptical about these questions: even if the two are reconciled, it is unlikely that their relationship will be much like that of the idealized grandparents. At the end, Peggy remains knowledgeable and authoritative: she is not subjugated, and she seems unlikely to accept Charlie back on anything other than her own terms.

In the course of the narrative, Peggy does discover more about Charlie – and particularly about the failure of his musical ambitions. She seems to re-evaluate his talents when she encounters him by chance performing at a local bar (significantly, with an all-black band) – suggesting that his potential might go beyond the vanilla doo-wop of his regular (white) neighbourhood group. Unseen by Peggy, Charlie is rejected by the industry manager, but he also gives up his musical career in the interests of settling down with her: he too is arguably contained within the limitations of the family.

To some extent, what Peggy learns from her grandparents could well be aligned with Reaganite ideas about family values. The grandparents live in a kind of small-town pastoral idyll: Peggy arrives just as the sun is setting, and the scene is captured in misty shots of old-fashioned, cosy domestic interiors. The implicit reference here, which was invoked by Coppola in his discussion of the film, is to Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. As in Wilder’s play, and as in It’s a Wonderful Life (another obvious point of reference), the lead character learns to accept and indeed to treasure the mundane elements of domestic family life. She learns to be content with her lot, perhaps, but with a considerable degree of ambivalence: after all, her marriage has collapsed, and she is not being expected to embrace some kind of imaginary romantic ideal.

While there might be some nostalgia here for an imaginary version of the 1930s, therefore, there is little nostalgia for the 1950s. If Peggy’s grandparents are idealized, her parents undoubtedly are not: her mother in particular seems to be subjugated and deluded, at one point expressing surprise when Peggy suggests that she should sit at the kitchen table rather than continuing with the cooking. Ultimately, the Reaganite dream of a return to family values is shown to be precisely that: a dream that can no longer be translated to reality, if indeed it ever could. Like American Graffiti, the film cannot reasonably be accused of simply ignoring or wishing away the social changes of the 1960s. On the contrary, it views the decade before the sixties from the perspective of the years that followed them.


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