Wisdom is gained through experience. The unfathomable is only so because it has not yet been encountered. Any calamity that could befall a person has been endured by at least one unlucky soul. So we are each other’s cautionary tale.
On this July 4th, all Americans would do well to familiarize themselves with Wes Greene, Ronnie’s friend and neighbor and, by silent extension, mine as well. Wes was once a man like any other, with ten fingers, ten toes, eyebrows, ears, a fully formed nose, and kneecaps. But Wes Greene loves America, and he shows that love through excessive payloads of explosives. Appendages, as implied by their name, are expendable in the pursuit of the ultimate patriotic boom-boom.
In his preparation for his annual thermonuclear extravaganza, Wes stopped by to borrow as many aerosol cans and bottles of high-proof alcohol as Ronnie might have lying around the house. Disturbingly, he hit pay dirt on both fronts. Wes clutched a bottle of everclear in his index-finger and thumb-only right claw, the only portion of his hand which survived the great Napalming of ‘06, and bellied up next to Ronnie on the couch to watch a few moments of Jaws, playing with limited commercial interruptions.
As the film progressed, and I enjoyed it for the fortieth or so time, Ronnie and Wes began to take deep tugs on the bottle of grain alcohol which was intended as an accelerant for whatever flesh-searing hyper-flammable monstrosity Wes had planned for the upcoming holiday. Half-way into the bottle, Wes convinced Ronnie to light the fuse this year, as Wes’ ability to form the necessary grip to operate lighters or matches had been diminished. The two toasted to their love of America.
With all of Ronnie and the remaining two-thirds of Wes passed out on the couch, I took the opportunity to queue up my top five favorite 4th of July films on Ronnie’s media PC and started playing them back to back.
Number 5 was a no-brainer. Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July. Here is a film that simultaneously breaks your heart and gives you hope for America. It’s the story of Ron Kovic, a paralyzed Vietnam veteran who became a peace activist. While the film is critical of America’s attitudes and actions, it is ultimately Kovic’s declaration that “I love America” that shapes its complex message. That one can criticize their country while still loving it is hard for some to grasp to this day, making this story all the more important and relevant.
Ronnie had never seen the film, and I wanted to somehow jar him from his drunken snoring to watch, if only to expose him to a level of Tom Cruise’s take on the military industrial complex beyond Top Gun. A quick pound on the wall only caused him to shift and take enough notice to mumble “Maverick in the danger zone, motherfucker” before drooling off again.
Number 4 shifted gears a bit, focusing not on the growing pains of America, but on the birth itself. The Patriot, Mel Gibson’s sweeping historic epic that gave us a true and thorough depiction of America’s fight for independence. Well … maybe not so much. It’s actually a Mel Gibson action ass-kicker set against the Revolutionary War about a guy who could give a shit about freedom or independence until a smarmy British prick makes it personal by killing one of his kids.
Really, this one’s a bit of a palate cleanser following the heaviness of the previous film. It doesn’t contain any memorably rousing speeches a la Braveheart. And it isn’t interested in historical accuracy, as the real life inspiration for Gibson’s character, known as “The Swamp Fox,” is said to be somewhere between a contemptible son of a bitch and just some guy who had a visible role in the Revolution. Regardless, the movie’s got Mel Gibson running and screaming in slow-motion while carrying a big ass American flag on his way to fuck up prissy British wig-wearing douchebags. America. Fuck yeah.
Number 3 on the list isn't thematically a 4th of July movie, but it takes place during the holiday and contains a mighty big explosion. That explosion is Louisville, Kentucky, vaporized to stop the spread of the zombie hoards in Return of the Living Dead.
Besides being a clever send-up of the George Romero Living Dead series and a damn good zombie flick in its own right, the first act of Return of the Living Dead is also an effective workplace comedy. It starts with two slacker medical-supply warehouse workers getting ready to leave for the holiday. Frank’s the old pro showing young punk Freddy the ropes of the job during the lull. To kill time, Frank and Freddy check out some old canisters in the basement holding bodies marinating in a chemical capable of re-animating the dead. They accidentally crack it open and everything dead in the warehouse starts going gorilla-shit, leading to a great scene when Frank has to make the much dreaded call to the boss on his day off.
The movie is jam packed with gore, but it was waking up to scream queen Linnea Quigley dancing naked on a gravestone that kept both Wes and Ronnie’s attention. She remains mostly naked through the rest of the film, and their attention was held accordingly. When Ronnie asked Wes if he’s the one who put the film on he was promptly hushed, and the bottle was once again put into a tight rotation.
They passed out again before Number 2 on the list began. The ultra-obvious Independence Day. It’s the second film on the list directed by Roland Emmerich, who also directed The Patriot. Emmerich may appear to be the most patriotic filmmaker alive, but we must keep in mind that most of his movies really just celebrate how blow-up-able American landmarks are.
The story is actually kind of a “fuck you” to American exceptionalism, which is lost when viewed through red, white, and blue lenses. America is stuck writhing around like a baby that sailed one into its diaper for most of the movie until President Bill Pullman wields his greatest weapon: a rousing speech full of empty platitudes that convinces the rest of the world, friend and foe alike, to stand up to their mutual enemy. The speech is delivered with an earnestness and ferocity that caused Wes and Ronnie to high five in their sleep.
This leads us back to where we began, with the Number 1 movie for the 4th of July: Jaws. There's just something about the way the mayor says "you've got a panic on your hands on the 4th of July" that forever shackles it to that day for me. While the holiday is a mere plot-point in the middle of the movie, it wonderfully represents American traditions associated with it. The commerce of the day wins out over safety. Our shared communal celebration creates a vulnerability that is familiar to those who’ve been dismembered by shark-bite or an M-80 with a quick fuse.
Much like America, the crew that assembles to defeat the threat is torn between the old ways and the new, with Quint wanting to do some good old fashioned sharking, and Hooper insisting on newfangled technology. The keeper of the old ways is eaten alive while the herald of the new scampers off to wait out the battle until big daddy boomstick blows the head off of the giant beast by firing a shot into the oxygen tank stuck in its teeth like a hunk of old barbecue.
And that’s when it hit Wes.
“You got any oxygen tanks?” He asked as Ronnie came out of his drunken stupor. Sadly, Ronnie did not.
And so Wes was off to continue planning his celebration. I expect it to be a maelstrom of shrapnel and liquid fire that paints the sky in unnatural hues before puffing up into a mushroom cloud of chemical smoke and charred earth. It’s simply Wes telling America he loves it in an ugly but honest anthem sung in the key of “kaboom!”
As long as Ronnie runs fast enough after lighting the fuse, it promises to be an uplifting and inspiring display of patriotism. Windows may shatter. Eardrums may burst. But for one brief, shining moment the neighborhood will look on united in rapt amazement and in their hearts, just before the fire-wave singes away every strand of hair on their heads, they will say “America! Fuck Yeah!”
Image courtesy of the author