1776 – the purfuit of happineff

Despite George Washington’s fervent wish that he not be deified, we have put our Founding Fathers on such pedestals that their humanity comes into question. Even calling them Fathers or Framers seems to impart a distant and mythic quality to them, when surely they were just ball-scratching, beer-swilling men like the rest of us; no doubt they were infused with a fiery gumption deserving our respect, and a witty intelligence that makes them endlessly quotable. To our great misfortune, this essence has rarely been distilled into an easily consumable art form.

Oh, people have tried. Most recently HBO made a mini-series about John Adams, which was actually pretty good- a bit on the long side, and it sidesteps most of the American Revolution because Adams was often in France trying to curry diplomatic favor. Hopefully we’ll get a mini-series covering most of the war someday. 1776 covers the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and manages to run nearly 3 hours to show us how the bickering delegates of 13 very different colonies managed to agree upon the need to rebel from the empire from which they sprang.

Originally a Broadway musical, it was a huge hit and was turned into a 1972 film by Warner Brothers, who hired practically the entire Broadway cast, including the director, to reprise their act on the silver screen. Part of me wishes they simply sat a camera in front of the stage, because many musicals suffer when converted into films; the energy is gone. And I’m afraid that’s what happened here.

Martha misses Tommy’s “violin.”

It’s rather like 12 Angry Men: The Musical, with a cast cooped up in the stifling meeting room of the Continental Congress; it begins with a bland political joke about the ineffectiveness of Congress that was tepid when Will Rogers said it, and is just as milquetoast here. And but for a few humanizing moments here and there, that’s as good as it gets. The problem is the music; it’s resolutely dull. I’m not a huge fan of musicals, but by this point stuff like The Sound of Music, The King and I, and My Fair Lady had come along and shown how to masterfully blend witty dialogue with equally witty and enjoyable songs. Unfortunately this has none, and feels like a Marx Brothers movie that gets rudely interrupted so the two lovebirds can sing their hearts out.

As dated as this poster design.

The Egg” was the most memorable of the songs I can recall, and is about Franklin, Jefferson, and Adams arguing about which bird should symbolize this new country: the dove, the eagle, or the turkey. Franklin famously did favor the turkey, for it was a native bird, notoriously wary and difficult to hunt. Most of the humor is of the old hindsight is 20/20 variety– ha, ha, they don’t want the eagle to be our bird? Pshaw. Or worse yet, the custodian who spouts “Sweet Jesus!” any time he’s asked to open a window, to shock us into imagining our illustrious forebears saying such uncouth things. The film was even banned from being shown in a Virginia because Jefferson says that he “burns” for his wife. I guess in Virginia, Paul Giamatti porking away at Mrs. Abigail in the HBO miniseries of John Adams precludes it from being a valid historical document.

Go fly a kite.

William Daniels plays Adams here; he’s since become more famous for playing a Doc on “St. Elsewhere,” and the voice of K.I.T.T. from “Knight Rider,” so hearing him as John Adams was hard to swallow. He’s also kind of a meek voice for a character who’s chided for being so boisterous. Every half hour or so, he sings to his wife Abigail, who appears in a ghostly window to sing back to him. Harder to take was Howard Da Silva’s Ben Franklin, who seemed played for laughs throughout. I certainly don’t mind a story humanizing the man who wrote “Fart Proudly,” and coined the motto “beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy,” but he’s almost buffoonish here.

f.u. k1ng ge0rg3!

On the other hand it’s rather beautifully filmed and has a few chuckles, and if I didn’t know that “Cool, Considerate Men” was cut as a favor to Nixon, I’d think it was cut to reduce the 3 hour running time to a tolerable level. The song’s not even that good, and seeing men in wigs practically goose-step while singing “always to the right!” isn’t too subtle. If you like flowery reconstructions of our past where the arguments over the Declaration involved passionate pleas to end slavery, when in actuality the biggest obstacle was getting Quakers to agree to war, you might like it. I expected a lot more from this. The director does a good job transitioning to screen, but the attempts at injecting romance are clumsy, and any real drama is lost; these men were agonizing over whether to commit their constituents to a long and bloody war with the greatest military power of the time, and the frequent and frivolous songs seem like window dressing, artifice meant to rouse us when the spirit of Adams, Franklin and Jefferson should be doing it on their own.

There’s a lot of love for this film, but I did not feel compelled by it. I think it will be forever colored by the time it was released- it was very difficult to feel roused to patriotism during the “peace with honor” campaign of the Vietnam War, when crime and urban decay rose to such a degree that Nixon won in a landslide on the “law and order” ticket. It just didn’t feel very passionate, and it seems like they left out the Quaker’s pacifist dilemma because we were currently fighting a rightfully unpopular war. It’s not terrible, just largely unmemorable; if you watch it enough it might become so, but I don’t think I’ll be putting forth the effort. I might give it a shot if a local theater company performs it.

Coney Island Hot Dog Contest – A Great Day for America

Two champs in combat

Joey “Jaws” Chestnut defeated Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi after they tied, eating 59 hot dogs each in 10 minutes, in the Nathan’s Annual Hot Dog Eating Contest. There was an eat-off, 5 dogs each, and Chestnut finished quicker, cinching the win.

Some other contestants in all their glory

Kobayashi is a colorful and charismatic athlete, but on July 4th I do feel a twinge of pride knowing that an American has the title for eating the quintessential American food, the Coney Island hot dog.

The thrill of victory and the agony of a distended bowel

Even though I love eating, and love hot dogs, I can’t really follow this type of thing as a sport. For one, it’s pretty disgusting to watch. Nathan’s is one of the holiest hot dog cathedrals, and they make a great dog, but I don’t want to see someone eat 60 of them dunked in water. I don’t think I could eat one if I saw it in person. Even now I’m sort of iffy on my usual 2 dogs 1 burger July 4th repast. I think 1 dog might be enough.

Who am I kidding? Gimme 3 hot dogs and a bucket of tater salad! Go America!!

The finale

Independence Day rocks despite Roland Emmerich sucking

For one, I’d like to complain to the TV people that not one channel is playing Independence Day. However, Turner Classic Movies is playing 1776 and Yankee Doodle Dandy tonight. Also a short subject from 1938 called Declaration of Independence about the deciding vote cast to give King George the finger, which won an Oscar for best short subject. So that will have to do.

I hated “ID4” as it was called, when it first came out, but it has grown on me. Roland Emmerich is probably the most god-awful blockbuster director working today, but this is his best and most enjoyable movie; it’s also one of Will Smith’s best action movies. My co-worker The Mouth from the South says Jeff Goldblum ruins any movie he’s in and used this as an example; he was a little annoying, playing his Ian Malcolm science douche from Jurassic Park again, but he doesn’t ruin the movie any more than anyone else does. Roland Emmerich is just incapable of subtlety, and it pained me to look at his IMDb page and see that he’s directing 2012, in which the Mayan calendar ending must signify the coming of androgynous alien Egyptian leaders to tell us global warming is bad. And also a remake of Fantastic Voyage, in which androgynous aliens and ignorance of global warming is causing someone heart disease, so we have to shrink ourselves down and preach about it from inside their left ventricle.

But Independence Day is pretty good. It’s essentially a remake of The War of the Worlds– the great George Pal one from 1953, which is still great cheesy fun today, with delightfully garish colors. Even Spielberg’s boring remake is inferior except for the special effects. ID4 just updates the plot and uses huge saucers instead of tripods, and instead of bacteria killing them, it’s a virus of another kind, a computer virus. Sure, you could be a nitpicking nerd and complain about how a Mac could connect to some alien computer network and disable it, but who cares? It was a cute update.

Professor Frink come to life, mm-hey.

Sure it was full of feel-good stuff like Randy Quaid giving the aliens a rectal probe missile up the mothership’s ying-yang, Vivica Fox and her dog that can outrun explosions, and how blowing up the First Lady makes the President stop being such a pussy. Jeff Goldblum is hardly annoying compared to Judd Hirsch and Harvey Fierstein, and thankfully at least one of them dies at the hands of alien death rays. At least Judd Hirsch gets a few moments where he’s funny, reminding me of his days on “Taxi.” It was better than every Star Trek nerd in the theater cooing when Brent Spiner showed up.

It’s frightening to realize that it’s already 12 years since it came out, and the effects are beginning to look dated. They hold up just enough, but they were smart to use latex critters for the aliens, instead of CG. For example in Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the CG wolves were the worst part. No, wait a minute, everything about that steaming turd was the worst part. I can’t wait to see 10,000 B.C. on cable so I can see how much better Caveman and Quest for Fire are.

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Kickin’ Yo’ Ass.

Independence Day is good popcorn fun- it’s not really preachy, it’s a little on the long side, and it requires a hell of a lot of suspension of disbelief, but compared to Emmerich’s other insulting films it’s the cream of the crop. Sure, unlike stuff like the John Adams mini-series, it has nothing to do with what July 4th is about celebrating- the balls it took to break away from the world’s greatest power at the time. The war took seven years, our longest war until Vietnam, or Iraq if you’re John McCain.

And now we celebrate it by seeing who can stuff the most hotdogs in their face. The current reigning champion is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who can eat 66 in 12 minutes.

The greatest American hero.