Most movies are bad. Sitting through their bloated, two-to-three-hour runtimes is even worse. So last Friday, I hopped my way through a bunch of new releases—Independence Day: Resurgence, The Shallows, Free State of Jones, and The Neon Demon—that were screening at the same Manhattan multiplex at around the same time, jumping from one theater to the next whenever I got bored. Basically, every 20 to 45 minutes or so.
As a method of review, it's terrible. I'm still not entirely sure if Free State of Jones is anti-authoritarian in a blanket, Marxist kinda way, or if the Matthew McConaughey vehicle is some sorta revisionist history period piece that draws a racist parallel between the Confederate government and the Obama administration. Plus, I don't even know if Blake Lively and the shark from The Shallows get together in the end! But I found the experience of determining how much, or how little, of my time I'd devote to each picture sort of empowering. I mean, if Hollywood is intent on serving us garbage, why not turn that garbage into a frozen garbarita with one of them little airplane-sized bottles of Corona diving head first over the salted rim?
Besides, moving beyond the text of each individual movie allowed me to focus on the subtext of the patchwork film I ended up creating for myself—a hideous chimera more sloppily stitched together than the leg wound Blake's Shallows character sutures using her ridiculously surfing-inappropriate jewelry (Chekhov's climber earring, essentially). That patchwork film ended up being super clarifying, giving me about two and a half hours in which to do nothing but ponder everything from Brexit and Gugu Mbatha-Raw's career to the violence of desire and interpersonal harm. Stupid, but clarifying. Thanks, movie.
I popped on my pair of 3D glasses and settled into the back row of Independence Day: Resurgence. I was about 35 minutes late to Roland "Stonewall was a white event" Emmerich's latest summer blockbuster, so I had to hit the ground running as I scrambled to figure out what the fuck was going on in the sequel to one of the biggest movies from my childhood. The in medias res I stumbled into found a machete-wielding Congolese warlord played by DeObia Oparei warning Jeff Goldblum and Charlotte Gainsbourg's scientist characters of his alien-filled visions.
"Raciiiiiiiist," I jotted down in the Notes app on my phone.
I wasn't exactly surprised that the first scene I walked into was kinda fucked up. After all, the Independence Day franchise is pretty deeply rooted in fascist ideology. In both films, the United States, through its exceptional American might, leads the world on a militaristic campaign to take back their planet from alien invaders, and it all just so happens to take place on holiest of nationalist holy days: the Fourth of July. Nor was I surprised that such a jingoistic narrative would thrive in a world where older, whiter Brits would vote to "Brexit" the European Union in favor of isolation and a presidential candidate like Donald Trump—the presumptive Republican nominee who has advocated for building a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and banning Muslim immigrants—could stand a chance of holding the highest office in the United States government.
Speaking of fucked-up things, Vivica A. Fox dies about an hour into Independence Day: Resurgence. Also, my phone kept autocorrecting her name to "Civics Fox." With the death of Civics Fox, who went out in a multi-story blaze of glory, I popped out of ID:R in search of calmer waters.
I entered the theater screening The Shallows not too long after director Jaume Collet-Serra's
sponsored advertorial for Aquafina and Casio watches film had begun. I knew that the movie centered on a shark attack, but I did not see a shark attack onscreen. All I saw was Blake Lively's character, Nancy, cresting against the tide as another surfer made his way down the same wave. The two made eye contact. Blake threw up shaka hands in slow motion. Later, on the beach, she video-chatted her sister to tell her all about the unbelievable "tube" she just rode.
I'd never wanted to see a shark attack more in my life.
With Brexit on the brain, I was struck by Nancy's overwhelming desire to be left alone there on that Mexican beach. In fact, I sensed a similar tension between intervention and isolation permeating every scaly crevice of the chimera of a movie I watched the morning after Britain's regrettable referendum. Independence Day: Resurgence and Free State of Jones provided the most obvious examples of this foreign policy push and pull, with the latter, directed by Gary Ross, depicting a farming community's fight to remain independent from the Confederate government. But The Neon Demon's director, Nicolas Winding Refn, also explored this theme on a more interpersonal level, examining the harm we enact on those closest to us and the violence that ripples outwards from our most selfish desires. And what is The Shallows, anyway, if not one woman's quest to remain safe and secure from a perceived enemy invader?
While I wondered what Blake Lively's career would have been like had she followed what I believe to be her true calling—JRPG English dub voice acting—Blake's character, Nancy, was focused on survival. She knows that if she survives this deeply unrealistic shark attack—only six people died from shark-related incidents in 2015, according to the International Shark Attack File—she can return to her comfortable life of wearing inappropriately dangly jewelry to the beach. But in order to survive the encounter and return to that comfortable way of life, Nancy must first kill a shark, who finally showed up towards the tail end of my Shallows viewing experience. Death is the price of her comfort. Death is the price of her desire. Death is also the price that the humans of Independence Day: Resurgence must pay in order to beat back their alien invaders, and it's also the price that McConaughey's titular farmer character and his armed militia must pay if they hope to liberate themselves from the Confederacy in Free State of Jones, the next movie I popped into.
I have no idea who would like Free State of Jones more: red-state libertarians or off-the-grid queer anarchists. The work of historical fiction depicts the actual rebellion of Jones County, Mississippi against the county's Confederate overlords, but there have to be specific contextual reasons as to why this film was made now and not before. But what? Are the graycoats a stand-in for authoritarian governments in general, or were they meant to represent the United States' current administration, no matter how anachronistic such a comparison would be? I'm still not sure. When McConaughey's character asked his army, "Whose corn is it?" echoes of both "Our streets!" and "Don't tread on me!" rang in my ears at equal volume.
I never did find out whose corn it was was, but I did manage to see the last 10 minutes of Independence Day: Resurgence. The four twentysomethings—a quartet I'd dubbed the PYTs before exiting the theater an hour earlier—had managed to survive the alien invasion, while frequent Emmerich collaborator Joey King watched on from a school bus parked nearby. Everything just got dumber from there. The protagonists decide that it's time to "take the fight to them," and, big ole alien gun in hand, Brent Spiner's doctor character cheerily declares: "We are gonna kick some serious alien ass." Kelis' "4th of July (Fireworks)" remains the only relevant piece of Independence Day pop culture.
As stupid as the final line of Independence Day: Resurgence is, it's also pretty layered—like a sentient mille-feuille running a Jesse Metcalfe fanstagram in 2016 or another simile about food doing something dumb (an onion…falls…down????). Not only does the line foreshadow yet another forthcoming Independence Day sequel, thus underlining Hollywood's proclivity to milk intellectual property until the cash cows come home. The piece of dialogue circles back to the violence often inherent to desire. Let's go "kick some serious alien ass," Dr. Brackish Okun says. It's as if he has forgotten that kicking serious alien ass has nearly destroyed humanity not once, but twice over the past 20 years.
As I hopped to another theater to catch the last 45 minutes of The Neon Demon, I continued to consider the connection between desire, safety, comfort, and violence—a connection that actor Jesse Williams recently noted at the 2016 BET Awards. "The burden of the brutalized is not to comfort the bystander," the Grey's Anatomy star said during his Humanitarian Award acceptance speech last Sunday. One person's "comfort" can be another person's "burden," Williams said, echoing a similar critique found in the work of poets Tommy Pico ("Oppression is the wages of comfort," Junk) and Morgan Parker (Other People's Comfort Keeps Me Up at Night). And the desire for comfort often goes hand in hand with the desire for power, too. These thoughts whirred around my brain just before the climax of The Neon Demon, in which Elle Fanning's Jesse tells Jena Malone's Ruby:
You know what my mother used to call me? 'Dangerous. You are a dangerous girl.' I am dangerous. I know what I look like. What's wrong with that, anyway? Women would kill to look like this. They carve and stuff and inject themselves. They starve to death, hoping, praying that one day they'll look like a second-rate version of me.
Jesse sits atop a hierarchy of beauty that tantalizes women to participate as much as it demonizes them for not being able to usurp Jesse's throne. Her "identity by itself causes violence," or, more accurately, the value that our society has placed upon Jesse's crosshatch of privileged identities causes violence that radiates outwards in waves. How does Fanning's character respond? By isolating herself further and further from the outside world until she can rationalize that everything is just the way it should be.
Maybe I should have just gone straight to The Neon Demon, I thought, as I exited the multiplex. It seemed to have done the most heavy lifting anyway.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.