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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

In 1996 we celebrated our INDEPENDENCE DAY

Today marks a pretty funny anniversary for me. You see, it was ten years ago yesterday – July 3rd, 1996 – that Independence Day premiered. Some theaters jumped the gun and had showings on the night of the 2nd, which is the date in the movie that all the action starts happening, but most people started seeing it on the 3rd and 4th. It was on July 4th that I saw it for the first time...

...and I liked it so much that I saw it six more times before the summer was out! Yeah, 1996 will forever be "the year that I saw Independence Day seven times in the theater" to me. The only other movies I saw that season were Twister (caught it three times) and A Time To Kill (just once). I've no idea why such madness overtook me in those lazy, hazy, crazy days ten years ago. It was a personal record that stood until I saw Star Wars Episode I nine times three years later. But it was still enough to merit making a post about it here in commemoration.

Ten years ago in 1996 my ebullient comrade "Weird" Ed was taking summer classes at Elon, and I was working a summer job at a bindery near Greensboro. We'd been given the 4th and 5th off – a Thursday and Friday – so I was gonna get a four-day weekend. Well, after work let out about 4 p.m. on the 3rd I drove to the Elon campus, picked up Ed and we made a quick stop at my Burlington apartment (I was living with my parents during the week that summer but staying at the apartment on weekends) where I got cleaned up and changed shirts. We then drove to my parents' house, dropped off Ed's gear there (and he became one of the very few people that our cocker spaniel Bridget never barked at... which shows how neat a guy Ed is 'cuz Bridget barked at just about EVERY stranger who came into the house) and then headed to King's Inn Pizza in Eden 'cuz I'd been telling Ed they have some of the best pizza anywhere. We stopped off at Wal-Mart (the original Eden one) on the way home and ogled some Star Wars figures and fireworks before heading back to the house and playing around on the Internet for the next three hours. See, Ed was spending the night at our place so we could be sure to get an early start on catching Independence Day before the theaters all got sold out the next day. Well, the next morning we woke up and got ready and headed out the door a little after 11 and went to the Janus Theater (which is no longer there) in Greensboro. We got tickets for a showing a little after 1 p.m. And we wound up getting pretty good seats too. And then the show started...

I think it's safe to say that we were "blown away" by Independence Day (often contracted to just ID4). We'd been stoked for this movie ever since the commercial that ran during Super Bowl XXX and all the trailers and television spots that had aired since. Well, Independence Day did not disappoint. It was everything a summer movie was supposed to be: a lot of cornball hokey fun blowing up stuff real good with a multi-million dollar special effects budget.

Don't fire your guns at flying saucers: you could trigger an interstellar war.

Well, we liked it so much that we decided to see it again a few days later on Sunday. Then I saw it again a week later with a friend from out-of-country. And I kept seeing it again and again and again. Here's how the final tally broke down:

Thursday, July 4th 1996 – 1st time, saw it with Ed at Janus Theater in Greensboro

Sunday, July 7th 1996 – 2nd time, saw it with Ed at Brassfield Theater in Greensboro

Sunday, July 14th 1996 – 3rd time, saw it with Benny – my good friend from Belgium – at the movie theater in Sylva, North Carolina

Saturday, July 20th 1996 – 4th time, saw it with Johnny Yow (who's been on me awhile now for not mentioning him on this blog so now I get to make that right with him) at Brassfield Theater in Greensboro, right after he told me that night that he'd proposed to his girlfriend/now-wife Della

Saturday, July 27th 1996 – 5th time, the only time that I went alone to see Independence Day in the theater, at the theater that used to be in Burlington, North Carolina before it was demolished to make way for a Lowe's hardware store

Saturday, August 10th 1996 – 6th time, saw it with Ed at the Brassfield (again)

Wednesday, August 21st 2006 – 7th and last time I saw Independence Day in the theater, with Ed and Gary, once again at the Janus

Well, my now-apparent obsession about Independence Day soon manifested itself for all the world to see. A few nights after seeing it for the second time I started work on an Independence Day webpage. HTML was something I'd started picking up about nine months earlier and I was eager to stretch my newfound skills to the limit. It began with a single crude black page with a graphic I made in Paint Shop Pro (this was all being done on a 486/25mhz machine running Windows 3.1 and using a 14.4 modem to upload to my web account on my college's server, mind ya). And it fast spiralled completely out of my control. I spent the next few nights after coming home from work scouring the Internet for new Independence Day graphics, sounds, anything I could cram onto my 170 MB hard drive. The page became two, then three and ultimately eight different pages on what was by that point a full-bore website. And thus, Chris Knight's Unofficial ID4 Homepage came into being. And my Independence Day homepage almost brought down Elon's web server because (a) in short order it became the biggest website hosted on Elon's server - larger than the school's official site even - growing to an unconscionable over sixty megabytes in size: most of those were all the sound files (in bulky WAV format, remember this was before the advent of MP3). And (b) it started racking up hits out the wazoo. It had received something well over 120,000 visits by the time I was forced to take it down about a year later.

They blew up Congress!

But even today, I'm still proud of my humble lil' ID4 homepage. It was the first thing I ever did online that garnered a lot of popularity, apparently. My site was linked to by just about all the other big fan-made sites (and I was more than glad to link to them in kind) and a lot of really sweet e-mails came in from all over the world. A few weeks after the site first went online I got the ultimate nod courtesy of an e-mail from none other than Independence Day producer Dean Devlin himself, congratulating me on having a great website about his movie (I've still got that e-mail somewhere too). And that was my first real contact with someone from the entertainment world that came about because of something I did in cyberspace. There've been many since then, but that e-mail from Devlin about the ID4 site I'd put up... well, there's not been anything quite like that since.

"And what the hell is that smell?!? AAAAAAAAAAGHHHHHHH... I could have been at a BARBECUE!!"

Today, looking back, I've no idea how come I went so mad for Independence Day that summer. Maybe it had something to do with how starved I was for good sci-fi escapism. Maybe it was because this was the first movie in a long time for me that honestly felt like a summer blockbuster: the last summer film of this kind of scale that I'd seen, Jurassic Park, really left me feeling wanting. Independence Day satiated my desire for a fun summer flick like nothing had in too long a while. Or maybe it was that for the first time in my life, I really let myself go to be overwhelmed by the hype of a blockbuster movie. That was the first time, and there haven't been many times since (I'm pretty pragmatic when it comes to accepting entertainment... or anything else for that matter) that I've found myself caught up in the hooplah (for the record, I still don't "get" all the fuss about Snakes On A Plane). Independence Day was mindless good fun and just for once it felt great to join in the revelry without caring about whether or not this movie made any sense at all.

"You don't actually think they spend twenty thousand dollars on a hammer, thirty thousand dollars on a toilet seat, do you?"

Yes, let's talk about making sense, 'cuz Independence Day just plum doesn't. The mistakes abound in this film (the very first time I saw it, I caught the error in the first scene of how the Apollo 11 plaque is planted amid some rocks when it was actually attached to the base of the lunar module). There are geographical gaffes all over (like putting the Empire State Building in the wrong part of New York City). The producers played fast and loose with real military protocol (a U.S. ballistic submarine doesn't usually operate in the Persian Gulf). There are fallacies upon fallacies in Independence Day... and at the top of the heap is how it is that an Apple Powerbook is somehow able to interface with alien technology and upload a computer virus into the mothership. Look, we're only now able to get Windows machines to talk to Macs with any sense of coherence... and they expect us to believe that a laptop computer is going to feed bogus data into the mainframe of an alien spaceship the size of a small moon?

"Die. Diiiiiieeeeeee..."

"Is that glass bullet-proof?!"

And, let's face it: the past ten years have made Independence Day a somewhat dated movie. The World Trade Center was destroyed, but it wasn't by the aliens. There is no more Republican Guard to be so desperately driven as to hook up with Israeli fighter pilots somewhere in the Iraqi desert. When production began on Independence Day the Internet was just then coming into its own: it would certainly figure into the scheme of things if a real-life alien invasion took place today. There're probably a dozen or more things in this movie that firmly establish it as a product of the mid-Nineties, instead of enhancing its quality as a timeless classic...

President Whitmore delivers The Speech.

...but even then, that is part of the appeal of Independence Day, I think. This is a movie that, at its heart, is about an America - and a world - that never was, but could have been... and might still be someday. At the time it came out I wrote somewhere that Independence Day was the most politically-incorrect big-budget movie to come out in quite some time. When I wrote that I did so with what was then a very limited perspective of ideologies. In my mind back then, Independence Day was a movie that reflected a damned good light on the United States military (something taboo to "liberals", I understood then) but even back then I realized something about this film: that Independence Day is a movie where average people come together to do the impossible. And they're not divided up along racial or class lines either. Fercryingoutloud, that's Steve and David who fly up together into that mothership to save the world... and not once does anyone bring up that they happen to be a black man and a Jew. In too many other movies that would be something that would be harped upon somehow... but it never comes up in Independence Day.

Why can't real life be like that? Why can't we just STOP MEASURING EACH OTHER BY WHATEVER THE HELL IS CONVENIENT and just accept EACH OTHER as being someone special... without trying to exploit the hell out of them? You see, that is what's so wrong with the world - and especially America - these days. We've stopped seeing individuals and started seeing "potential assets". In Independence Day, everyone in the story had humongous value: as a character in the story and as a person worth considering. In this story of survival, we all really were in it together. And there was no "class structure" or elitism in place that kept some from pulling their fair share of the load.

Think about it: if the story of Independence Day was to really happen, today, does anyone seriously think that President George W. Bush would jump into a flightsuit, walk toward an F-16 and tell someone that "I'm a combat pilot... I belong in the air"? Hell, Bush would never have let himself mingle that close with common folks who were living in a flotilla of mobile homes. If a real alien invasion was to happen, he would send some other poor saps up to do the fighting while swaggering his arms and telling the aliens to "Bring it on."

Good lord, if only we could have a real President like Thomas J. Whitmore in the White House: someone who actually did care enough about his fellow Americans to fight alongside with them, without hiding from them. Whitmore in Independence Day is the ultimate ideal President of the United States, in my book anyway. And that's also part of why I love this movie so much: like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, it shows us, maybe not what we have realistically, but it does show us what we can and should be looking for in those who ask to be entrusted with so much power. Whitmore, I could trust with being President if he were a real person... not so much with just about any stripe of politician in Washington today (with the exceptions of maybe Tom Tancredo and Ron Paul).

The Jolly Roger

Could we still have an America like that today? I like to think so... and I like to also think that it won't take anything like an alien invasion to make it happen either. And I think that Independence Day touched a lot on what it will mean to make that come about. F'rinstance, consider Jasmine, played by Vivaca A. Fox...

Jasmine at the wheel

Jasmine is like that guy in New Orleans who stole the schoolbus after Katrina hit and brought dozens of refugees to Houston, out of harm's way. Nobody told Jabbar Gibson to do that and no one told Jasmine to commandeer that city truck and look for survivors of the aliens' attack on Los Angeles either... she just did it! You see, that is why America has failed so much and it was apparent even in the wake of 9/11: we let our government decide the course of action we take, instead of just damn doing it ourselves with the minds God gave us. If Independence Day happened in real-life America, in this era of neo-conservative dominated politics, absolutely nothing of substance would be done to alleviate the suffering of those hit by the attacks... at least not without "compassionate government" trying to "help". The ironic thing is, Independence Day came out at the height of the Clinton presidency... which was accused of trying to do to America what the current administration has attempted to do from day one!

The short of it is: get the hell out of our way, United States Government. Real men and women know exactly what to do when the need arises, thank you very much.


Well, what else can I say about Independence Day that hasn't already been said? Yeah, it's a movie with all the depth of the typical Irwin Allen disaster flick... with a vastly magnified budget. It's hokey good fun. And maybe I've over-analyzed it over the years but I think despite its flaws and even some frustrations with the plot and dialogue, and for however past-ripe the story is in contrast to our current times, I believe that Independence Day is a movie with a lot of solid merit to it.

I've probably said enough, but there's one thing about Independence Day that I just have to let loose one final rant about. There's something that's been bugging me ever since I first saw this movie, ten years ago to the day. It's this scene:

Here's Judd Hirsch's character Julius talking to David's ex-wife about love and all that. Look at that woman sitting to his right. She shows up quite a bit in this movie. I don't know what her name is or who plays her, but look at what she's doing...

SHE'S READING A FRICKIN' MAGAZINE!!! I just can't believe this: here's this presidential aide sitting on Air Force One, having just escaped the biggest calamity in recorded history... and she's sitting there reading, it could be Southern Living or Redbook for all we know. WHY THE %@&* IS SHE READING at a time like this?!? Why is she so calm?! I've never understood this and it's bugged me to no end.

Okay, just couldn't write a piece about Independence Day and not mention that one pet peeve I have with this movie :-)

So, to Dean Devlin, Roland Emmerich and everyone who worked on Independence Day all those years ago: Happy Tenth Anniversary! You gave us a really good time back in the summer of '96, and it's meant quite a bit to a lot of us in the years since. Thanks for giving us a movie that was not only a lot of fun, but pointed us to what is best about the real America... and real human nature for that matter.


qemuel said...

Wowzers, I've never seen any movie that many times in the theater! I think I saw STAR WARS: EPISODE I three times (which is chicken feed compared to the master).

I humbly bow.

Probably my most watched movie is SNATCH, but not necessarily on purpose; it used to play on an old roommate's pay-per-view CONSTANTLY, and I just had to finish it whenever I saw it...