Ok, we’re finally back! Sorry I missed posting last week, but I’m aiming to make this a double post week to make up for it. I think you’ll like it. This week, I’ve brought on my good friend, cartoonist and videogame designer Meredith Gran to talk about a defining cultural touchstone of the late 90s, Independence Day!
Independence Day (1996)
SPECIAL GUEST WRITER: MEREDITH GRAN
Every summer I ask my husband if enough time has passed to watch Independence Day again, and every summer the answer is no, and then we watch Independence Day again. Not only is it a perfect snack of a movie, 145 minutes of chips and guac, but it’s deceptive in its deliciousness, to the point where nobody has correctly reproduced the recipe in 22 years since its release. As an adult, the impulse to expand my film repertoire (I SWEAR I used my Filmstruck account) is stronger than wanting to memorize Robert Loggia’s every bark and head movement.
But what movie even sort of compares? With every rewatch I find myself searching for just what makes Independence Day so inimitable. The answer is probably something like great casting, a good-hearted sense of camaraderie, or Roland Emmerich's benevolent understanding of American masculinity. But that's not a neurotic enough type of thing to write about, so instead I’ll seize on a few small points that I really adore.
I know intuitively, researchlessly, that many words have been written praising Independence Day for the charming computerspeak, the pouring of American culture Sherwin Williams-like over planet earth, and forming one's sexuality around Jeff Goldblum's beautiful Jewish clavicle. So let's move on to,
They Let the Dog Live
Who loves Independence Day? Oh, everyone. Who loves Mars Attacks? Wet, chortling weirdos. That's because in Independence Day, they let the dog live! And it's a shining, heroic moment for the Independence Day of dog breeds, the yellow lab. When Boomer is called by his owner from the inferno of the 2nd Street Tunnel (between Hill and Figueroa), the slo-mo turn of his sweet idiot face doesn't inspire much confidence. But moments later, he's jumping into the foreground of a glorious blaze. It doesn’t matter where you watch it; people of all ages WILL leap out of their seats and cheer. We love when they let the dog live.
Jobs Are Still a Thing
Any disaster movie with a big enough budget can give you total anarchy. Independence Day is confident in the assumption that, under alien invasion, we will be orderly as fuck. New Yorkers frantically evacuate the city en masse, but leave the incoming roads politely clear. Jeff Goldblum continues to throw cans into the recycling bin long after infrastructure has collapsed. And Vivica Fox, upon meeting the First Lady, bridges a class gap by identifying as a stripper, a job she does proudly for the now-imaginary concept of money. Secretary of Defense James Rebhorn, the single human Bad Guy in the film, is given the ultimate human punishment by being fired. (He then, in a puff, ceases to exist.) It’s a small comfort that in this era of environmental decline, we can be assured that jobs, along with cockroaches, will survive the effects of radiation.
The Hero Comes In Late
Independence Day and Fargo were released the same year, and it could be suggested (by me) that they're spiritual siblings. Will Smith enters the film at 20:59, beating Frances McDormand by a bold 10m59s. With the blood of innocents already spilled, both films allow for the hero to wake up in the relative safety of their home, sleepily greet their partner and have breakfast. You know what? It's civil.
(Here are a few more similarities between Independence Day and Fargo: Two men sit in a stolen vehicle and smoke. Cars appear on a desert horizon. A child is lied to about the health of their mother. A female sex worker unknowingly crosses paths with a murderer. An authority figure stops a car and is surprised by the contents of the trunk. A father self-sacrifices in a combination of parental love and foolish pride.)
I digress, but it sort of makes sense to put these movies back-to-back. Both are peerless, adrift in a lonely universe. It's impossible to watch A Fargo or A Independence Day of another era -- so I come back to them, somewhat joyfully, somewhat bitterly, for what it says about anyone who’s attempted their magic. ID4 is truly something we could show the aliens to help them better understand us. Welcome to earth indeed.
Interview With The Vampire (1994)
Man, this movie really goes for it, right? “A sprawling epic story of fucked up vampire friendship that spans centuries” sounds pretty insufferable now that I’m typing it out, but I don’t know, I think I found quite a bit to like about this movie before hitting that very stupid ending. (I feel like Tom Cruise could have looked directly into the camera and screamed “HERE WE GO AGAIN” then spit directly at the audience and it would have had the same effect.)
Brad Pitt plays Louis, a suicidal slave owner in Louisiana, and Tom Cruise is the famous vampire Lestat, who turns him into a vampire and forces Louis to hang out with him for decades, under the guise of teaching him the ropes about being a vampire. It’s a really great, campy performance from Tom Cruise, playing off his perception as a confident movie star and pushing it further to being an arrogant, lonely creep, desperate to have a friend or at least someone else to suffer with.
Somewhere along the line the two meet Claudia (KIRSTEN DUNST), an orphaned child that Louis tries to feed on and kill, to spare her from this curse of being a vampire. But Louis fucks up and doesn’t kill her right so then Lestat swoops in and turns her into their own vampire daughter, which is kind of like the vampire equivalent to having a kid to save your relationship. It’s a bad idea! Kirsten Dunst is really amazing in this movie, playing probably the most emotionally demanding character of our three main vampires. She goes from being a gleeful child vampire to a frustrated woman in her thirties trapped in a ten year old’s body.
It’s a nice contrast to Brad Pitt’s mopey sad sack Louis, whose whole deal is that he fucks up a lot and he hates himself, but he has a (relatively) good heart. Louis’ relationship with Claudia takes some interesting turns, going from guilty co-dad to grim protector to maybe boyfriend. It’s weird and vaguely incestuous and an interesting reminder that these Anne Rice vampires are meant to exist on the edges of taboo. The concept of vampirism is sexual at its core, which leads to the main problem of this movie: Brad Pitt and Tom Cruise should have been fucking. We all know that they were, just give us what we want!
Spring Breakers (2012)
I really did not like this movie when I first saw it, but I think it’s grown on me now that we are a few more years removed from the cultural zeitgeist of 2012. So much of my first experience with this movie back when it came out was wrapped in everyone having to have a hot take on this movie and what Harmony Korine had to say about youth and America and sex and violence etc etc, and it was all so tiresome, I couldn’t see past the discourse. But six years later I get to watch this movie and I can’t help but think about how this movie in 2012 felt so in the moment, and how now in 2018, six years ago just feels like a lifetime ago. Spring Breakers feels like watching a completely different world, certainly a different America where indulging in excess felt so carefree, like there would never be any consequences to any of this, or at least consequences that we would have to see. I don’t know, I’m not saying any of it is right, but it definitely is fascinating to watch such a specific moment in time captured in such a stylish way.
Spring Breakers is upfront about its obsession with sex and death. There are horned up college kids and exposed tits everywhere, the sound of gunshots is played as a sort of refrain or chapter break. It gets to the point where the oversaturation makes cheap thrill imagery seem like part of the landscape. The violence that happens is shocking, but the real horror is the threat of violence and never really knowing when the hammer is going to drop. Both the sex and the violence (or threat of violence) come with the feeling that there will be no consequences. Consequences don’t matter, consequences are for the real world, and this is not the real world, it’s Spring Break. The only thing that matters on Spring Break is the moment. Of course, as the audience, we’re meant to be aware that this is happening in the real world, and the real world always has a way of creeping into the picture. Spring Breakers is adept at creating a sense of dread and danger that starts seeping into the lives of of the four girls, but I think what’s interesting about it is that for the most part they never have to suffer any real, lasting consequences during the movie. The second the threat of suffering the consequences of their actions happens, they are able to get out of it easily, or in the case of Faith and Cotty, they just pack up and go back home. If the consequences of their actions had to be addressed onscreen I think that the movie would have become a far less interesting cautionary tale about our innocent daughters being overtaken by our society’s criminal underbelly, the kind of movie with a message about the corruption of youth and how smart phones have ruined our children or whatever. Instead what we get is this idea that these partying college kids aren’t being corrupted, they’re finally unleashing something wild that’s deep in the hearts of every young person who’s never even really considered the idea of death happening to them.
There’s this thing the movie does where we hear the girls’ end of their phone conversations with their parents, talking about all the fun they’re having and how wholesome it is and how they’re truly happy in this moment, and it’s all played over footage of binge drinking and drug use and sex, and it’s meant to be an ironic juxtaposition, but I also think that the girls really do mean what they say. They’re having fun, they’re uncovering a truth about who they are as people, and they’re finding the kind of happiness that comes with being in touch with your true self. It just so happens that their true selves in this moment are hard-partying criminals. Life on Spring Break is a thrill ride that never seems to end, something that seems great in the moment, but you can’t help but wonder how long we can all keep it up. The ride has to end sometime, but Spring Breakers isn’t interested in that. The movie is about a perpetual moment, and since we know that the moment is bound to end as all moments do, what we get is this never ending thrill tinged with a poignant sense of doom that we’ll never see.
THE WIDE WORLD OF MOVIE DIARY 2018
Did you know that former MOVIE DIARY 2018 contributor Sara McHenry makes her own comics and zines? And did you know that the latest issue of her series, HARD TO LOVE #9, features an interview with me about this very blog, MOVIE DIARY 2018? I got a chance to see it this last weekend at SPX, and I think it turned out really great! Support Sara’s work via her Patreon and make sure to pick up your copy of HARD TO LOVE #9 when it’s available to help complete your MOVIE DIARY 2018 experience.