Why I Will Not Be Celebrating the Fourth of July

In previous years, Independence Day was second only to Halloween as my favorite holiday. You’d show up to a park or a porch in your T-shirt and shorts, catch up with old pals casually overseeing a barbeque thronged with succulent chicken breasts slathered with promising sauce and glistening corn cobs that matched the searing hues of sunshine, and toss back a few beers while giddily tossing ground bloom flowers into the streets with a free-wheeling anarchy that was almost an instinctive homage to our founding firebrands. You’d set aside any stark political differences with casual unifying banter, knowing instinctively that the true quality bonding this nation was the invitational and subdued empathy of the American people. Very often you’d end up making out with a stranger, finding yourself in an unexpected summer romance and experiencing fireworks on the ground level that matched the bright showers exploding in the sky. The Fourth of July was the perfect midpoint to both summer and the year, allowing all to take stock in what had been accomplished and what was still possible. It was never an overtly jingoistic holiday — at least not for me or the people who I gathered with.

But I can’t find it within my moral core to party this year. Not while Trump blows $92 million on a fascist spectacle that is more befitting of a dictatorship rather than a democratic republic. This shameful and hopelessly corrupt administration would rather waste precious resources on empty jingoism, money that has been diverted from our cash-strapped national parks, that should be allocated to swiftly rectifying the traumatic conditions in concentration camps, perhaps addressing the lack of water and the indignity and the cramped space currently endured by the people who are needlessly criminalized there, much less punishing the cruelty of CBP animals who mock the deaths of undocumented immigrants when they’re not busy engaging in unacceptable racist rhetoric.

This is the kind of evil and unfathomable domestic policy that should cause anyone possessing even the tiniest sliver of a human heart to set aside their tongs and their big bags of fireworks to march loudly in the goddamned streets, vociferously denouncing the barbarism that our nation now practices without true representative resistance. But much like the epidemics of racism and gun massacres, we’ve grown accustomed to the comfort of looking the other way. We’re so seduced by the easy and enchanting susurrus of normalization, of pushing clear human abuses out of sight and out of mind to munch on our hamburgers, that the present administration only needs to keep ratcheting up the ghastly bar, counting on the fact that most Americans simply don’t or won’t give a shit.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” she depicted a thriving city called Omelas united by a Festival of Summer. The citizens were blissfully happy, but there was one small cost for this revelry:

In a basement under the one of the beautiful public buildings of Omelas, or perhaps in the cellar of one of its spacious private homes, there is a room. It has one locked door, and no window. A little light seeps in dustily between cracks in the boards, secondhand from a cobwebbed window somewhere across the cellar. In one corner of the little room a couple of mops, with stiff, clotted, foul-smelling heads, stand near a rusty bucket. The floor is dirt, a little damp to the touch, as cellar dirt usually is. The room is about three paces long and two wide: a mere broom closet or disused tool room. In the room a child is sitting. It could be a boy or a girl. It looks about six, but actually is near ten. It is feeble-minded. Perhaps it was born defective, or perhaps it has become imbecile through fear, malnutrition, and neglect. It picks its nose and occasionally fumbles vaguely with its toes or genitals, as it sits hunched in the corner farthest from the bucket and the two mops. It is afraid of the mops. It finds them horrible. It shuts its eyes, but it knows the mops are still standing there; and the door is locked; and nobody will come. The door is always locked; and nobody ever comes, except that sometimes — the child has no understanding of time or interval — sometimes the door rattles terribly and opens, and a person, or several people, are there. One of them may come in and kick the child to make it stand up. The others never come close, but peer in at it with frightened, disgusted eyes. The food bowl and the water jug are hastily filled, the door is locked, the eyes disappear. The people at the door never say anything, but the child, who has not always lived in the tool room, and can remember sunlight and its mother’s voice, sometimes speaks. “I will be good,” it says. “Please let me out. I will be good!” They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining, “eh-haa, eh-haa,” and it speaks less and less often. It is so thin there are no calves for legs; its belly protrudes; it lives on a half-bowl of corn meal and grease a day. It is naked. Its buttocks and thighs are a mass of festered sores, as it sits in its own excrement continually.

America has become Omelas. The eerie parallels between the horrific conditions that Le Guin imagined and the realities that the children now suffering in the concentration camps are too nightmarishly exact. I remember this story being taught in high school and college. And there wasn’t a single student I recall who would attend the Festival of Summer knowing that this child existed. Today, I doubt very highly that any of these grown adults would say no to a festive holiday. How little we learn from the fiction that is meant to imbue us with empathy and compassion. But at least I can do my part by resisting a contradiction that should never have become fact in the first place.

It is clear that what now passes for the United States of America is a travesty of meanness and gleeful shame inflicted on the wanting and the impoverished, a sick cartoonish sideshow writ large into a heartless spectacle tacitly endorsed by both bloodthirsty Republicans who refuse to remonstrate against these inhumane conditions and the spineless Democratic arm led by the tepid and ineffectual Nancy Pelosi. While true progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Elizabeth Warren have been out in the field trying to get more information, genuinely caring about the plight of those who suffer, our disgraceful Speaker snoozes and roosts like a smug barnacle patiently awaiting her soy milk latte as people in need desperately approach her for drastic change. In a lengthy report from William T. Vollmann recently published in Harper’s (bless the man for his indefatigable diligence), the prolific writer simply talked to the immigrants, photographing the “black insignia[s] of humiliation” around their ankles and observing the salient and very human reasons why these innocents would wish to flee to America — namely, to escape violence and mayhem. (A detailed study by The Marshall Project earlier this year showed no impact on local crime from immigrants. Numerous other studies reveal inflated numbers from ICE and observe that undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crime than the average American citizen.)

Like it or not, the immigrants who are mistreated and debased in the concentration camps are Americans. They have lives here and they are deserving, like any human being on this planet, of nobelesse oblige. So long as Americans are starved and denied sleep and bedecked with life-scarring trauma by callous ICE stooges who would sacrifice empathy for the glee of seeing them dead, I refuse to participate in a holiday that now represents a country united by blissful and complicit ignorance. Instead, I will spend the day reciting the Declaration of Independence to remind myself of just what this nation used to be, burning an American flag (a legal act of expressive resistance we thankfully still have) to protest our collective culpability, and thinking about how I can spend my time fighting the bastards with everything I have. These seem to me the only true duties of a principled patriot. I hope that you can find it within your heart to do something similar.

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (2009)


It’s safe to say that any imaginative soul will welcome the prospect of tasty food descending from the heavens. It’s a great idea. Not only does this cut down or entirely eliminate precious minutes in the kitchen, but it also benefits the lazy and profligate types who eat out all the time. Instead of driving to some restaurant, you could merely stick your hands out a window and await immediate results. You wouldn’t even need a microwave. Then again, if the food isn’t prepared to your liking, you’re not exactly in the position of returning it to the kitchen. Getting the ideal meal is more akin to scratching off a lottery ticket with a nickel. Maybe you’ll win. Maybe you won’t. But with so many free-falling viands, you have a pretty good law of averages on your hand. But what of quality? The food may come from the atmosphere, but if a chicken bursts through your roof during a candlelight dinner, chances are that the mood will be killed. These are gustatory dilemmas that Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, based on Judi Barrett’s book, is remiss to investigate. But then I was probably the only guy in the audience looking for philosophical arguments within a mainstream family film. I am sorry. But if you give me food fused with weather, you’re going to get my brain going.

These perfect food storms come from a whiny scientific punk named Flint Lockwood, who has somehow built a giant hidden laboratory without his father knowing and has a somewhat annoying tendency to speak in gerunds when building something. (The lab is accessible through an elevator hidden in a portable toilet.) Flint, voiced by Saturday Night Live regular Bill Hader, has come up with several rum inventions, including spray-on shoes, remote control televisions, monkey translators, and electric cars. But he now has an invention that can turn water into food. (Why he hasn’t considered turning his talents to the far more lucrative sideline of alchemy is a question this film never answers.) His scientific endeavors are misunderstood by his father (voiced by James Caan and largely hidden behind a unibrow and a moustache), a sardine shop proprietor too taken with communicating through fishing metaphors. Our man Flint is also menaced by Baby Brent, who appeared on numerous sardine cans in his callow infancy and who has been riding on this diaper-wearing fame ever since. It’s also worth noting that Bruce Campbell plays the town’s mayor, and this casting is every bit as pleasant as you might expect. Flint’s invention is let loose at the unveiling of a preposterous sardine theme park — with The Alan Parsons Project’s “Sirius” suitably matching this crass commercialism. Inclement weather soon takes on a new meaning. There is also Sam Sparks, a one-dimensional meterologist voiced by Anna Faris, who offers a contrived romance subplot and a tired geek vs. beauty dichotomy that’s out of step with the film’s scientific sympathies.

This nifty-looking universe — centered on a town located on “a tiny island hidden under the A in Atlantic” called Swallow Falls (no relation to the Maryland park) — hasn’t entirely accounted for the supreme messes arising from these food-related meteorological mishaps. Sure, there is a vehicle that drives around town, hurling leftovers into a giant pile. But surely great torrents of ice cream and spaghetti sauce would slick up the hamlet. There are rat-birds flying around the place, and they’re seen several times chomping away at the stray bits of food. But do they carry disease? (Indeed, why do we never see animated rodents for the bacteria-carrying vermin that they are?) And why doesn’t Swallow Falls have an exterminator? Furthermore, if the Swallow Falls population has been eating nothing but sardines during its history, why does Steve the Monkey — Flint’s happy servant, appositely voiced by Neil Patrick Harris –have a Gummi Bears fixation? Surely, his master wouldn’t know about Gummi Bears if there’s been nothing but sardines on the menu.

And when all this food falls from the heavens, why are the townsfolk familiar with it? I must presume that, despite the town’s limited resources (no exterminator, no doctor, no lawyer), all citizens somehow manage to take several months of vacation. But surely there are dishes here that they have never tried before. Come to think of it, the pelting cuisine is mostly American. We get burgers, steaks, pizza, nachos, jelly beans, and hot dogs. Lots of breakfast food but no frittata or smoked salmon? Foodies will be upset. For that matter, no Indian food? Chinese food? Mexican food? When some vaguely Italian spaghetti drops from the sky, one character shouts, “Mamma mia!” I will leave the PC types to argue over whether this possibly Anglo-Saxon, anti-multiculturalist conspiracy. In the film’s defense, I must point to Chief Earl Devereaux, a cop voiced by Mr. T, who scrunches his butt before dealing with his a stressful scenario and somersaults before writing a ticket. Poor Mr. T is assigned this mouthful by the screenwriters: “You know how fathers are supposed to express their appreciation for their sons.” That doesn’t quite have the ring of “I pity the fool,” but Mr. T does what he can.

How can one find plausibility in this giant peach of a premise? To cite another incident, giant pancakes fall from the sky, followed by two square dabs of butter, and then followed by a melange of syrup. Since all this is animated — in 3-D and in IMAX, ideal for a 420-friendly crowd were this not a family film — this is all very pleasant to watch. But the pancake dilemma also assumes that all three breakfast components will fall at precisely the right times and spatial coordinates. Likewise, a roofless restaurant has diners holding out their plates waiting for steaks to pelt down hard from the sky. The success of this operation hinges upon (a) the sky remaining sunny, (b) the steaks somehow magically landing in the desired plate positions, (c) the steaks not hitting these diners in the head and rendering them unconscious (there are apparently no lawyers or courts in this town; so I presume nobody in Swallow Falls is litigious), (d) the steaks maintaining an ideal warmth over the course of a fall of several thousand feet, and (e) the steaks landing on the plates without breaking apart or otherwise being split into inedible pieces upon impact.

You see the problems.

In an open letter to Alexei Mutovkin, the writer Ursula K. Le Guin suggested that plausibility within fantasy is uprooted by wishful thinking. And Cloudy, as enjoyable as the film frequently is, relies very much on wishful thinking. It is wishful thinking to expect a really cool idea like falling food to hold up. Then again, Roald Dahl managed to hold our attention with James Trotter back in 1961. So maybe we should blame the filmmakers. Expanding her thoughts further, Le Guin also wrote that a fantasy story’s plausibility rests upon “the coherence of the story, its constant self-reference.”

By Le Guin’s standards, Cloudy is a failure. And I suspect that because the film often lacks narrative coherence, it will not last very long in the heads of children hoping to ride this gleeful storm out. This film possesses too much energy for its own good. It feels the need to constantly insert characters doing funny things in the background. It is terrified of inserting a natural break, perhaps because we’re not meant to think too much about the world that the film presents. The film therefore lacks confidence, in large part because the coherence and the constant self-reference, as I’ve just demonstrated, fails to make sense.

(For parents, I should probably also note that I observed two kids having a difficult time near the end because of the film’s relentless tsunami of visual information. One boy retreated to his mother’s lap, crying and exhausted. Another was frantically waving his arms at the screen and began to jump up and down in confusion. The 3-D is certainly impressive at times, but little ones may get overwhelmed.)

I don’t mean to suggest that this film isn’t fun. But it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It is more interested in perpetuating a concept than building a world. The filmmakers have avoided Ron Barrett’s illustrations from the book, opting for a peppy and textured look that does away with Barrett’s lines and shadings. But Barnett understood that a fantastic premise, particularly an unlikely one, needs a little reality to make it work, to make it coherent, and to avoid wishful thinking. Had this film opted for conceptual quality instead of quantity, it might have stood toe-to-toe with Pixar.