Born on the Fourth of July: A Dangerous Mother

Born on the Fourth of July is an adaptation of Ron Kovic’s autobiography. Kovic begins as a patriotic high school wrestling superstar who enthusiastically enlists in the Marines. During his second tour in Vietnam, he accidentally kills a solider and later becomes permanently paralyzed from the waist down. The poor conditions of the Veterans Administration hospital and his recognition of the war’s futility lead him to become a prolific anti-war movement leader. The film’s roots in Ron Kovic’s memoirs leave little room for the subjectivity of other characters. Ron serves as the film’s orbit, and the women revolve around him as clichés.

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In line with Ron’s harsh Catholic upbringing, Born on the Fourth of July egregiously mobilizes moral oppositions. In other words, it starkly draws the lines between good and evil. This moral schema extends to the key female character in the film—Ron’s mother, Mrs. Kovic. We have little sense of her motivations outside of her patriarchal and jingoistic values. Mrs. Kovic’s obsession with fighting Communism (“It’s God’s will you go!”) and strict enforcement of oppressive puritanical Catholicism lead to her son’s psychological trauma, thus positioning her as a villain.

The narrative does not construct her as an ideological victim, or in other words, a character confined by the constrictions of 1950s gender roles. Rather, she embraces the values of and her position within the 1950s American nuclear family  Ron’s mother is the one to victimize her son with certain toxic ideologies that motivate his suffering, such as individualism, male dominance, and xenophobia. Overall, the narrative excludes women by limiting their voice to clichés.

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Ron’s disabled body and disillusioned spirit destroy Mrs. Kovic’s pre-Vietnam innocent and romanticized vision of him. It is in her rejection and discounting of Ron, I argue, that causes him to seek maternal comfort, approval, and a sense of love from other female figures in the narrative. Director Oliver Stone presents a highly saccharine portrait of Mrs. Kovic’s refuge (pre-Vietnam society) as the ultimate space of innocence He envisions 1950s America as an idyllic land of parades, home runs at baseball games, parental adoration, Kennedy’s rhetoric, and young, innocent love.

To match this sentimental vision, Ron’s mother first appears as an angel, shrouded in the heavenly glow of the film’s white tint. This moment contrasts with her final scene with Ron. When Ron returns home inebriated, soothing his rejection from his former prom date, we view Mrs. Kovic from his POV: a slight, high-angle shot in low-key lighting that renders her as an oppressive and frightening figure.

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Ron’s tirade against the values Mrs. Kovic had instilled in him—pride in his country and belief in God—defines the scene. It becomes clear that he has developed a psychological complex about sexuality that will last throughout the remainder of the film. Ron feels Catholic guilt for wanting sexual satisfaction coupled with a frustration that he no longer has the ability to soothe these desires due to his disabled state. He fears remaining infantilized, as he had not lost his virginity before becoming paralyzed. Ron pulls out his catheter as he mourns his “dead penis” lost in the jungles of Vietnam. He cries, “The church, they say it’s a sin if you play with your penis but I sure wish I could.”

Ron’s mother screams and covers her ears because she cannot bear to hear these impure thoughts. In the culmination of their heated fight, Ron accuses his mother of forcing him to go to Vietnam, a corrupted war that made him kill women and children. After he denounces God and country, Mrs. Kovic declares Ron blasphemous and bans him from the house. Although Mrs. Kovic appears only in a few scenes, it is clear the psychological damage she inflicts her son is great.

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War of the Worlds: Spielberg’s Post 9/11 Cinema

(TW: some pictures from 9/11 are shown below) 

Steven Spielberg’s 2005 War of the Worlds, based on the H.G. Wells classic, has largely been overlooked in the director’s oeuvre. The film was greeted with mixed reviews, praised for the first hour but generally agreed to fall apart after Tim Robbin’s sequence in the middle. (In one scene, Spielberg rips off his own raptor kitchen sequence from Jurassic Park) It never gets back to the beginning’s strength,  but there is no denying that there are some incredibly strong sequences that show incredible feats of filmmaking. War of the Worlds also happens to provide a fascinating insight into post 9/11 American cinema.  The Chronicle observed that “scenes of urban destruction – chaos in the streets, collapse in communications – intentionally call to mind everyone’s worst terrorism nightmares.”

The 9/11 allegories throughout the film are no accident. In the DVD special features, actor Justin Chatwin (who plays Tom Cruise’s son) notes that he researched books of 9/11 photography. Director Steven Spielberg concedes that he researched those photographs as well. Spielberg does not necessarily make the aliens stand-ins for terrorists, but he does draws on the atmosphere of a post 9/11 world, when America no longer felt safe. The film captures the overwhelming sense of panic and distrust when the world was suddenly blinded with uncertainty and fear. Spielberg draws on this atmosphere in many ways throughout the film.

The reveal of the tripods- odd, jellyfish-like machines that weave their way through the city- is one of the best action sequences ever put to film. A sequence that deserves more praise than it is given. It opens slowly, a sense of dread building and building. The tripods are buried underground, the crowd standing around waiting in tensely measured moment. What follows after the tripods break free is absolutely terrifying. The humans look up as the giant tripods stand tall. In the special features, Spielberg revealed that he shot from the people’s perspective looking up at the tripods to evoke the home videos that NYC street goers made as they looked up at the destruction of the twin towers.

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The tripods zap humans as they run, instantly leaving nothing but their clothes and dust.  Cruise breaks away, running from them as fast as he can. When he returns home, he is covered in white ash and dust. This clearly speaks to those at ground zero, and evokes the photographs Spielberg and Chatwick studied.

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There are shots of missing persons posters, another image we know so well from the 9/11 coverage. After Cruise returns home from the tripod scene and attempts to leave the chaotic city, Dakota Fanning’s character specifically asks “Is it the terrorists?” Cruise’s character is a blue-collar worker from New Jersey, his job site overlooking where the Twin Towers once stood.

The aliens in those tripods always remain elusive—there’s no tangible explanation as to why they are here, what they want. Cruise, his children, and the thousands of other people shown effected by the invasion do not understand what is happening or why. Who did it? Why did they do it? Is it going to happen again? Where? Are we next? Spielberg captures the feeling of the dreaded and weighty unknown that follows after a terrorist attack.

Spielberg does not always capture the bond of humanity after tragedy- instead, he portrays a much darker aspect of human nature and humanity at its very lowest. The alien invasion somehow makes cars unable to work but Cruise’s character is able to get his hands on a working car. When he finds himself in the middle of a giant crowd, the people savagely climb on top of the car for a spot inside. They beat on the windows, try to overturn the car, one man even tearing the glass apart with his bare hands. Cruise eventually resorts to bringing out a gun, but is usurped when another man has a gun of his own. Spielberg’s portrait shows that in the end, faced with turmoil, everyone will only look out for themselves. The car scene is one of the most harrowing scenes in not only War of the Worlds, but in film itself.

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War of the Worlds is filled with a sense of horror and dread that is unlike most mainstream action films before 9/11. Look at the 90s alien invasion hit Independence Day, where the alien antics were viewed as fun and silly. We watch the White House blow up with a sense of glee. Bombs descending on great American landmarks is met with a playful voyeurism. In War of the Worlds, an American invasion is terrifying. Ordinary people run screaming as giant, ominous machines zap them to death. People are killed gruesomely and unmercifully. The difference between these films? 9/11 made those Independence Day disasters reality for us. Grittier, crueler films then greeted the multiplex. Superhero films became darker, such as Nolan’s Batman trilogy or Man of Steel. This is a darker world and our superheroes need to reflect that. There is a higher stakes to our saving now.

War of the Worlds is not a perfect film, there are reasons why it has not reached classic pop culture status like Spielberg’s other works. The film stops dead in its tracks during Tim Robbin’s scenes and never regains the same momentum. The aliens are horribly CGI’d. Spielberg, the master of fearing the unseen, should have known better and kept the aliens in shadow or not seen at all.  However, the first two acts are stunning and works of exemplary filmmaking. Cruel and dark, Spielberg provides insight into how cinema altered its values and iconography post 9/11.  The film depicts the blind chaos and confusion experienced by Americans on that tragic day. Confusion that left a world unable to trust, facing a dark uncertain future. War of the Worlds has stunning sequences that make the film, on the whole, deserves much more praise and attention than it is given.

Top 10: Movies About Movies

Why do we love movies so much? Where would we be without them? Even if you’re not a cinephile, movie-watching is something that pretty much everyone does and enjoys. We sit in darkened room and stare up at a screen as we see someone’s story unfold, we get a glimpse into a different world . Movies have the power to terrify us, make us weep, or even sometimes alter our view of reality. (Don’t we all wish some of those famous rom-com moments could happen to us in real life? Just once?) It’s all the more intriguing when a movie decides to turn the camera on itself, to examine the medium that it is a part of. Here are some movies about the nature of movies and their meaning, the trials and tribulations of filmmaking itself, or the effect of Hollywood’s changes and morals on actors.

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1. Cinema Paradiso 

The Italian film Cinema Paradiso is like a love letter to the movies. Film director Salvatore looks back on his childhood, where he befriended projectionist Alfredo, who taught him everything about the movies. Under his wing, Salvatore’s love for films grew. Cinema Paradiso also shows the audience the changes in cinema, the dying trade of traditional filmmaking and editing, as well as beautiful old movie houses. The village cinema Salvatore loved so much is to be demolished and turned into a parking lot. One of the most poignant scenes is when Salvatore discovers a reel Alfredo filled with the on-screen movie kisses that the local priest would ban and cut from the films. Cinema Paradiso shows that as filmmaking grows and changes, we should never forget or demolish it’s roots, for those very roots have changed and made better the lives of many.

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2. Singin’ in the Rain

Who doesn’t love Singin’ in the Rain? Considered the best movie musical of all time, the amazing Gene Kelly plays a silent movie leading man preparing for his role in his first talkie, a movie that will have sound! (Which today may be a bit incomprehensible, but think of how awe-inspiring this must have been for a 1930s audience) This newfound and perplexing technology creates a foil for his co-star, who has, to put it lightly, not the best voice. With some of the best song-and-dance sequences and movie moments of all time, Singin’ in the Rain is a sunny and hilarious look at the conversion from silence to sound.

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3. The Purple Rose of Cairo 

In this slightly meta-film, Woody Allen geinusly deconstructs our fascination with film, as well as our deep-seated desires for a happy ending. Mia Farrow plays a meek housewife who uses cinema as an escape from her dreary and unhappy life. When seeing her favorite film for the fifth time, the character she swoons over walks off screen to sweep her off her feet. Woody Allen has been quoted as saying, “People are faced in life with choosing between reality and fantasy, and it’s very pleasant to choose fantasy, but that way lies madness. You’re forced finally to choose reality, and reality always disappoints, always hurts you.” and that is the crux of the film. Mia Farrow’s character stresses that love isn’t like the movies, but soon the film gets you swept up into thinking that maybe it is. But ultimately, (and the ending will really hit you) The Purple Rose of Cairo is about how our lives is not going to be as we expect, even in our imagination or in reality. Life isn’t like the movies, and we have to decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

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4. The Artist

For the happy look at silent actors turning into talkie actors that Singin in the Rain gives, The Artist gives the complete opposite. Famous silent movie actor George Valentin finds himself against the newfound movement refusing to move into talkie pictures. When no one wants to see him up on the screen anymore, this leaves him depressed, and in poverty with no career. Filmed as a silent movie itself, The Artist is a daring homage to the magic of silent cinema with gorgeous visual style.

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5. Shadow of the Vampire

Shadow of the Vampire is filled with humor that not only movie-lovers or filmmakers can appreciate, but especially actors. The film takes the kooky idea of what if the actor who filmed the famous vampire movie Nosferatu was an actual vampire?? The director accounts for the actor’s creepy behavior as to him being a dedicated method actor, which leads to absolutely hilarious moments. Not only is it funny, but the film is equally terrifying. The actress realizes she is playing opposite an actual vampire, and the director does not care for safety when it means he can capture something astonishing and wholly real. He’ll be sure to get the reaction he wants now. Shadow of the Vampire is a homage to the art of filmmaking, but also a play on the blend of fact and fiction.

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6. Gods and Monsters

With two incredible performances from Ian McKellen and Brendan Fraser (yes…THAT Brendan Fraser!) Gods and Monsters tells the story of real-life Bride of Frankenstein director James Whale. Gods and Monsters gives more of a look into the man behind the famous film, and how life for an artist can so often imitate the art they create.

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7. Ed Wood

Tim Burton and Johnny Depp have teamed up so often it’s become a running joke now, but looking back on their work it is easy to see why they make such a good team. Tim Burton and Johnny Depp both have a love of portraying and telling the stories of outsiders. What more of an outsider than that of Ed Wood, a 1950s director who made some of the worst (but hilariously so) sci-fi films. Ed Wood portrays the filmmaking and cut-throat Hollywood world of that era, where Ed Wood pairs with the dying drug-addicted actor Bela Lugosi (played brilliantly by Martin Landau) dares to try and make his fumbling dreams come true.

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8. Tropic Thunder

Tropic Thunder is a hilarious satire at the making of a huge Vietnam-era war film. Tropic Thunder pokes fun at actor’s inflated egos and method acting (especially Robert Downey Jr. as actor Kirk Lazurus), the hypocrisy of Hollywood moguls (Tom Cruise is hilarious as the overweight producer, as well as Matthew McConaughey as Ben Stiller’s agent) , and the labor of filming huge blockbusters. Tropic Thunder offers more spoofs than meta-filled insights, but it’s a hilarious spoof at that.

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9. For Your Consideration

Christopher Guest returns for another hilarious mockumentary of an upcoming Jewish drama film Home for Purim. Fame and success starts to get to the actors heads when they all start having lofty visions of Oscar buzz for their performances. Christopher Guest dares to mock the sacred idea of getting an Oscar that most actors have.

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10. Perfect Blue

Perfect Blue is a thriller that comments more about the obsessive celebrity culture and fixation with actors rather than the craft of making film. But the film also – quite dangerously and vividly- gets inside the mind of an actor- when does what you’re acting stop being fiction and start being real? Although more about a television series than a single film, Perfect Blue dares to examine the fragility of the craft of acting.