Saturday, October 01, 2005

"Wake me up when September ends"

I didn't plan to take nearly the entire month of September off, believe me. But with a fairly steady diet of plays, films, travel and conversation (mostly about politics, alas), I didn't have time to write for My Stupid Dog. I've come to call this phenomenon "Tristram Shandy Syndrome": Like the hero of Laurence Sterne's 18th-century novel, I find that life happens to me much faster than I can write about it. Since the latest music video from pop-punk band Green Day's American Idiot album seems like as good a way to re-inaugurate this blog as any, I'll get to the task at hand without further ado.

First of all, I don't usually talk about MTV videos, unless they represent some particularly reprehensible cultural development. For instance, the angry video to Incubus's "Megalomaniac" earned a mention here because it brought the "Bushitler" meme from the radical leftist fringe into mainstream American culture. Rock music -- or whatever happens to pass for it these days -- has long been concerned with radicalizing American youth, but recent efforts along these lines seem to have had a particularly desperate and sanctimonious tinge to them.

A strange anxiety permeates today's youth culture: The Dionysian excesses of "The Sixties" (a decade which, in keeping with the definition of "excess," managed to start several years late and stretch well into the 1970s) gave youth culture a tough act to follow, what with its singlehanded achievment of Civil Rights, Women's Lib, and the end of the Vietnam War. We may rest assured that the self-absorbed youngsters of that heady age -- who are now approaching their own, private sixties -- will never allow their children to forget it.

The Iraq War must have felt like a godsend for the spiritual progeny of draft dodgers and dope fiends: At last, after decades of national prosperity that sent "ye olde left wing" into seemingly permanent torpor, they had a "Vietnam" to protest all over again. It took several years for the conflict in Vietnam to become "Vietnam"; Ward Just's 1968 book To What End shows American operations in Southeast Asia before they became a national sideshow. But America's mainstream media tagged Operation Iraqi Freedom as a "Vietnam" before the invasion of Iraq had even begun. The real surprise isn't that an anti-war movement sprang up in emulation of Vietnam-era protests; the real surprise was that, even with all the help from our media, it took the anti-war movement so long to resonate with the American public. Kelly Clarkson caught on much faster.

I mention the Freudian dynamic between Vietnam-era protest and the contemporary anti-war movement because the video for "Wake Me Up When September Ends" -- a seven-minute epic in which a teenaged boy enlists to fight in the Iraq War -- would be incomprehensible without it. The song itself has nothing to do with warfare (and therefore, nothing to do with the video). Instead, it commemorates the death of the singer's father, another moment rife with Oedipal significance. In context of the full album, which traces the postadolescent years of a failed revolutionary, it signals the moment in which the protagonist -- based partly on Green Day's lead singer and principal songwriter Billie Joe Armstrong, it would seem -- realizes that perpetual rebellion is impossible, that he has to grow up. If this summary makes the song sound like Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" -- or perhaps more to the point, Dylan's cryptic "Queen Jane Approximately" -- it's because these works embody what may be considered a law of the (social) universe: Each generation must reject radicalism in its own way.

In Green Day's case, the path from energy to elegy happens to be a bit more ponderous and pretentious than usual. While Bob Dylan turned from socially conscious, acoustic folk music with the intensity of a modern Jeremiah, Green Day moves in the opposite direction, switching between acoustic instruments (rare on a Green Day album) and electronic distortion for a one-two punch of introspection and self-aggrandizement.

Unfortunately, the lugubrious video to "Wake Me Up" seems to emphasize this latter quality: Director Sam Bayer aspires to create an updated Vietnam movie for the Teen Beat set, and fails pretty miserably at it. His story concerns a boy and a girl in Rural America. played by indie-cinema stars Jamie Bell (Undertow) and Evan Rachel Wood (Thirteen). As the video opens, the boy and girl make protestations of their undying love, which sound as though they were improvised in a high school acting class. They walk barefoot through cornfields and small towns (where, it would seem, no Black people live), always in slow motion and soft focus. They eat ice cream and celebrate a Hollywood director's notion of The American Way of Life. To emphasize the bucolic quality of these vignettes, Bayer employs a saturated color palette, heavy on greens and yellows, as the Green Day song plays in the background. (Interior shots, however, have more sickly, liverish colors -- a product, I suspect, of less-than-competent lighting.)

Since "Wake Me Up" is a protest video and not a GOP campaign commercial, we know that the pretty pictures won't last. Bayer interrupts the song for a minute-long dialogue scene that plays like a Method equivalent of the famous "No! No! No!" "Yes! Yes! Yes!" exchange from Singin' In the Rain. The lines appear improvised more or less on the spot, as Wood violently protests Bell's decision to enter the Army, and Bell rather impotently proclaims his desire for a better life. By any dramatic standard this scene is awful: It has no discernible shape, and worse, it seems to go on for much longer than it actually does, probably because it takes a full minute to establish a conflict that could have been delineated with as much nuance in two lines.

For the most part, Bayer's images of Army life -- boot camp, then an Iraqi street fight -- are cribbed wholesale from Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. This adds yet another anxiety of influence: The Freudian father-son dynamic, reflected politically in the relation of Vietnam-era protest to the current "anti-war" movement, and culturally in the connection of contemporary youth culture to 1960s "classic rock," takes on an additional cinematic dimension with Bayer's obvious indebtedness to Kubrick. Despite the film's narrative shortcomings, Full Metal Jacket was the most accomplished work to emerge from the Vietnam-movie boom of the late 1980s. Any director of war movies today must acknowledge it in some manner (Spielberg's combat scenes in the second half of Saving Private Ryan are a prime example), but Bayer goes far beyond mere acknowledgement. He quotes several scenes from the film verbatim, including the opening "haircut" montage and the film's climactic street battle where members of a platoon are picked off one by one. Digital grading allows Bayer to create the drab grays and browns that Kubrick achieved quite naturally by filming on cloudy days in England; alas, one side effect of all the tweaking is that his boot camp vignettes look as though they were shot through aquarium glass.

Throughout the video, Bayer cuts away from this story to show footage of Green Day, inadvertently reinforcing the narrative's near-complete disconnect from the song that underscores it. The pop-punk trio performs -- or rather, mimes a performance -- on a vaguely industrial set, the dominant colors of which are red and black. Predominant images involve closeups of frontman Armstrong's face, the most disturbing of which involves a view of his mouth that could set dental hygiene back ten years. ("Grotty" is the only word to describe it.) For the most part, these scenes feel like an afterthought, even though they're the only ones to acknowledge the true purpose of a music video: Bayer may have artistic pretensions to a Vietnam-war epic, but in the end his short film is designed to sell Green Day records. In this case, the sales pitch involves a hot-button political issue, with generally slick imagery and an anti-military slant.

The video ends with rapid intercutting between three separate scenes. The boy is caught in heavy urban fighting with several members of his platoon killed; the girl sits atop a set of baseball bleachers and stares vacantly into the distance, and the band finishes performing its song. A voiceover from Wood announces -- over an image of her boyfriend, pinned against a wall -- that he will always have a place with her. Partisans of the "Wake Me Up" video have declared this ending "ambiguous," which suggests to me that American liberals have forgotten the meaning of ambiguity. If anything, the ending provides the video with its most didactic moments: The girl's anti-war message to her boyfriend earlier in the video is vindicated, the boy is now in great peril, and the girl announces her resolve to support our troops, or at least one of them, even though she opposes the war. (See, gentle reader? It can be done, at least in the movies.) The street fight goes unresolved in the video because it represents a microcosm of the also-unresolved Iraq War (much as the third-act street fight in Full Metal Jacket is meant to represent The Whole Vietnam Experience). And the only way to save pale, waifish Jamie Bell -- to save all the Jamie Bells, perhaps -- is to bring him home to the cornfields, baseball bleachers, ice cream socials, and super-saturated colors that constitute his natural habitat.

Bayer claims that "Wake Me Up" will stimulate discussion. He is correct, I think, but only to the extent that any piece of propaganda can do this. One can certainly talk about how and why it works, and even where it fails to persuade. What makes the video potentially dangerous is that it represents (along with "peace mom" Cindy Sheehan) a major new tactic in the marketing of today's anti-war movement. Instead of showing its true faces -- hard-line Communists, anti-Semitic radicals, and paleo-isolationists -- Bayer drains the anti-war movement of its political content, then sentimentalizes it.

In doing so, however, he seems to misunderstand mainstream American values. Bayer depicts a submissive female, defined solely in terms of her relationship with a man, who provides the voice of reason in a world of men at war. He stages the Iraq War as a melodrama of imperiled masculinity, in which unseen and incomprehensible forces conspire against male adulthood. More importantly, he presents this war as the impediment to a love affair (in much the same way that Gone With the Wind and The English Patient used the Civil War and WWII, respectively, to impede the course of true love), and contends that the freedom of millions of Iraqis is less important than the undying passion of two teenagers in the heartland.

I suspect that the video's glib evocation of red-state America will prove a major liability in its attempt to appeal to a broader ideological spectrum than the more hardcore left-wing propaganda has yet reached. Even religious conservatives are unlikely to buy into Bayer's neo-Victorian gender politics, or his idyllic lensing of an obviously impoverished small town, and I doubt that left-liberals would condone the video's approach to gender or class if they didn't believe it served a higher (or at least more immediate) political purpose. So perhaps the point here is not that this video will persuade budding conservatives and Iraq-War supporters to abandon their stance ("Wake Me Up" simply isn't good enough for that), but that leftists and liberals within America's entertainment industry believe, hope and pray that it might.

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