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Independence Day, Paper Hand Towels - Uncle Orson Reviews Everything

Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
July 7, 2016

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Independence Day, Paper Hand Towels

To those critics who have panned Independence Day: Resurgence, I can only say, What did you expect?

Did any critic imagine that between 1996 and 2016, everyone involved in the film would have gone to Artsy Film School and come back ready to make a magnificent, deep, complicated story about angst-ridden characters tearing each other apart with their conflicting goals?

Did any reviewer suppose that the writers involved in writing the sequel to a gung-ho action picture would stop the action periodically to develop deep, fascinating characters out of people who are mostly there because they were in the first movie?

The original Independence Day was, by many standards, an awful movie. Everything was so compressed that entire relationships were summed up in a couple of lines of dialogue. Every character was Just One Thing -- Judd Hirsch was the kvetching father, Jeff Goldblum the genius who couldn't get over his lost love, Will Smith the warrior who aspired to marry his girlfriend and be father to her child, Bill Pullman the president, and so on.

There were attempts in that movie to make the science more or less plausible, but really -- our computers and theirs could interface so perfectly, and we could create a virus that would penetrate operating systems we hadn't even seen?

The technological idiocies, however, were completely forgiven because (a) most of the audience doesn't know enough about technology or science to notice anything was wrong and (b) even those who noticed didn't care all that much because this movie was about Fighting Off the Invaders.

Remember, America hasn't actually been invaded since the War of 1812, unless you count the Civil War, in which the two sides invaded each other.

When Independence Day was a hit in 1996, we hadn't even gone through 9/11 yet -- and 9/11, like Pearl Harbor, was not an invasion, it was a raid.

But in 1996 we did have a President who was systematically dismantling and misusing our military forces, and we needed a reminder of how America saved the world in the 1940s and, arguably, in the struggle against Communist expansion in Korea, Vietnam, and many other places around the globe.

With Independence Day, America once again stood as the only surviving defender against an unprovoked onslaught from an implacable enemy. And, through blind stupid luck, raw courage, and the inevitable "secret" self-destruct mechanism that has been built into every alien warship since the Death Star, we prevailed. America saves the world.

That's our self-story. That's what Independence Day is about, period. And it's not as if the critics' darlings are any better at characterization and deep storytelling. The only thing that really marks an award-bait art film is meanness toward ordinary middle-class Americans. (American Beauty. About Schmidt. Little Miss Sunshine.) Those aren't characters in those movies. Those are ideological straw men on a stick.

No, what critics really dislike about Independence Day -- and Independence Day: Resurgence -- is that they are about people in positions of authority acting with courage, resolve, and wisdom, and about ordinary people stepping up and doing what it takes to get through really, really hard times.

Sebastian Junger's excellent book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging examines in some detail the oft-documented fact that we humans are at our best when we are facing the worst. It isn't some farflung fantasy that the Independence Day franchise is selling: It's the reality of the human species.

And that's why most of us respond viscerally to the movie -- that is, most of us who can let go of the I-only-like-films-that-make-me-cool-for-liking-them syndrome that eventually afflicts most critics. (Including me: Remember that I liked The Lobster.)

The first film was criticized, especially abroad, for the fact that despite a few nods toward internationalism, it was America that did the heavy lifting. Not that this isn't exactly what is expected of us in the real world.

It pleases intellectuals in Europe to forget why they aren't all speaking German. Or Russian. While it pleases intellectuals and politicians everywhere else to simply hate America: it's never a loser on the evening news in Islamabad, Cairo, Harare, Mumbai, Shanghai, Caracas, or Djakarta.

This time around, Independence Day: Resurgence actually involves leaders of other nations from the start. Most interesting is Deobia Oparei playing an African warlord, Dikembe Umbutu. Umbutu has a psychic connection with the invaders, which led him to be able to decipher much of the alien writing system.

(Note to the writers: When you are deciphering an unknown language in an unknown alphabet, decoding 70 percent of the characters doesn't mean you can read 70 percent of the language. Generally, it means you can read none of the language. Umbutu should have had all the characters, and then figured out a few of the statements.

(Take my reading of French. I've never studied the language, just picked up pronunciation and noticed a lot of cognates with other Romance languages. When I pick up a French newspaper, I can read 95 percent of the words. The only words I'm missing are the ones that give the entire meaning of what is being said. So I don't look at a French newspaper story and say, "It's something about Topic A," I look at it and say, "If I understood what the topic was, I might have some idea of what they're saying."

(But it's too much to hope for writers who are fully aware of their own language, let alone how extremely difficult it is to decode an unknown language in an unknown script. Hello, Linear A.)

Umbutu is part of the movie to the end; Oparei does a great job of reminding us that success depends on cooperation among nations.

Of course, what makes this plausible is that in the twenty years since the first film, the human race has bonded together to create an international organization that has both the funding and the authority to create defense forces based on the captured alien technology.

Thus the "patriotism" of this second film is not just American patriotism (though it definitely is that, too), it is human patriotism -- the idea that it's good to fight for the survival of the human race, and good for us to stop fighting each other along the way. (Of course, the existence of a warlord in Africa suggests that there still isn't universal peace and intergovernmental cooperation everywhere.)

And the fact that humans are using alien technology in all our own war machines makes it a tiny bit more plausible when American and Chinese pilots plunk themselves down in captured alien fighters and say, "Cool interface," then maneuver their unfamiliar craft through a difficult escape from the alien mothership.

Let's face it: The writers of this film are trying hard to make it way, way less dumb than the first movie. And they largely succeed. As a sci-fi writer who tries to keep up, I didn't wince even a tenth as often as I did when watching the first movie. So let's give full credit to Nicolas Wright and James A. Woods for making this script markedly better than it had to be.

On top of that, Wright and Woods also wrote parts for themselves. Woods's part is modestly forgettable, though he does a good job with it. Wright, however, provides comic relief through the whole movie, as an obsessive, context-oblivious accountant who finds himself thrust into a combat role entirely against his will.

Naturally, Wright and Woods will not get anything like the lionization that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck got for writing Good Will Hunting, even though Good Will Hunting essentially stole its climax from Ordinary People ("It's not your fault!"). No Oscars for you, Wright and Woods -- but your film is making millions and you're already writing director Roland Emmerich's next movie, purportedly an "Arctic" story. I think we can trust Wright and Woods not to put penguins in it, though like all the other idiot-science sheep, they'll probably bear testimony to global warming.

In the meantime, though, Resurgence did some really smart things. For instance, it gave us a second alien species, which is determined to help us even though our first response was to blast them out of the sky -- using the same technology as the first, bad-guy group of aliens. Best of all, this second alien group gives us a chance to see Brent Spiner (Data from Next Generation) overacting his heart out as Dr. Brakish Okun, the guy whom the alien in the first movie turned into a meat puppet, and who has been in a coma for twenty years. Great fun.

Judd Hirsch's character is even more annoying this time than the first time, but that's his job, and Hirsch is very good at being irritating. Sela Ward plays the first woman president -- the decisive, courageous, plain-spoken one we wish we could have, rather than the one we're likely to get, since in this story Hillary would dither and make no decisions, while lying and pretending that all the devastating mistakes were caused by a vast conspiracy or, better yet, didn't actually happen.

We've been working with anti-gravity vehicles for twenty years, but all the planes are aerodynamic and fly, even on the Moon, as if they had to deal with wind resistance.

Probably the worst flaw in this movie is one that afflicts every movie and television show that involves gunplay, and which we ignore the way we used to ignore how good guys in westerns always shot the gun out of the bad guy's hand instead of killing anybody -- an impossible feat.

The flaw I speak of is bad-guys-conquer-the-world-without-ever-learning-to-aim. The good guys duck their heads a little while running through a storm of alien fire, and that is apparently enough to protect them. This syndrome reaches its apogee of hilarity when Judd Hirsch is driving a school bus full of children across a flat white expanse of desert, and the aliens are shooting at it and they never, never hit it.

Yes, that's right. They're such bad shots they can't even hit a school bus.

I enjoyed Independence Day: Resurgence. I didn't expect it to be better than the first film, because let's face it, the first film was able to surprise us, and the second film really couldn't do that. The writing was better this time around, the science was noticeably smarter and better founded, and even though some of the actors deserved Purple Hearts -- the award that should be given to actors who must say unspeakable lines as if a real person might have said them -- by and large the dialogue was better written than in the first movie.

It didn't cross my mind to ask for more. Resurgence is worthy to be watched back-to-back with Independence Day, which is more than can be said for the appalling thought of watching a Star Wars marathon, not in the order they were released, but in the order the story supposedly took place.

In a world of sickeningly bad, cynical, and/or pointless sequels, with only rare exceptions (Godfather II, Toy Story III; are there any other sequels better than the original?), director Emmerich, writers Wright and Woods -- and Dean Devlin, whom I have shamefully neglected in this review, but who has a co-writing credit on both films -- have done as good a job as possible of staying true to, and up to or above the quality of, the first film.

Let others rant about why it's worse or dumb or bad. Just go to the movie and enjoy yourself.

*

Paper towels were originally invented to replace cloth towels. That's why we call them "paper towels." But I know few people who regularly use them that way. Certainly that's not how they're sold.

We never used cloth towels for the jobs that quicker-picker-uppers are touted for today: We used rags.

That's right. When we needed to mop up a spill on the floor or the counter or the table, we'd grab rags from the rag cupboard or rag bucket and scrub away. Or we'd use an actual mop (on the floor) or a sponge (on the table or counter).

But once paper towels existed and we had them on the kitchen counter, we found that it was a lot easier to use them than to go for the rags we kept under the sink. Best of all, we just threw them away when we were done, instead of washing them and folding them and replacing them in the cupboard. The paper towel makers soon realized that they needed to sell them as replacements for rags rather than as replacements for towels.

Now, I don't know many people who still keep rags for cleaning, dusting, or mopping up spills. Nor do many people keep them for patching holes and rips in clothing.

The Iron-On Patch first replaced using rags to patch holes in the knees of jeans -- I remember how fun it used to be to sit there in school, peeling away the iron-on patch, bit by bit, pretending that I wasn't going to peel it completely off, or that my mother wasn't going to be annoyed to have to iron on yet another patch to cover the same hole. "These things aren't free, you know!"

Rags and patches are how we used to make good use of old, worn-out clothing. The best pieces would be saved for patchwork quilts, at least by the more ambitious housewives. The next group would be kept for patching clothing -- some delightfully flag-like patches made old jeans look like they were an array of signals from a sailing ship. And whatever was too small, odd-shaped, or thin and frayed to use in any other way became dust-rags and mopping-up rags and even, in families with both frugality and skills, rag mops.

Those days are gone. Children's clothes are passed down, either within families or within circles of friends. Adult clothes we're tired of or which no longer fit or are out of style go to Goodwill or, shamefully, into the garbage -- usually after spending years in the back of the closet or a box in the attic or basement. (Though some frugal re-users still exist: Iron-On Patches are still available for purchase.)

So paper towels do all the clean-up jobs that rags used to do. Nobody uses them to patch clothing, because they'd instantly fall apart and because clothes are so cheap that few people bother to patch them. Patches are embarrassing -- they suggest that our credit cards might be maxed out. And since very, very few people learn how to sew and do it often enough to have any skill at it, they don't have any idea how to sew on a patch so it doesn't fray and stays in place. (And just try finding somebody who actually knows -- not in theory, but with actual skill -- how to darn socks.)

Meanwhile, the announced purpose of paper towels -- to be towels -- is relatively rare. We all still keep a hand towel and dish towels in the kitchen, and I don't know many people who keep a roll of Bounty or Viva in the bathroom instead of a hand towel or two.

In fact, paper towels make lousy dish towels, unless you like using dishes with paper towel dander clinging to them. Though, oddly enough, a damp paper towel is very good at wiping out bowls that have gathered some dust, because when the towel is damp and the bowl is dry, you don't get that paper fluff in the bowl.

Kleenex has now devised, and is marketing -- or test marketing -- Kleenex Hand Towels. They are designed to replace the bathroom hand towel.

They come in two types of box. The first is a rectangular top-of-the-counter box, like ordinary tissues, only what pops up for you to grab is a hand towel.

The other box has one beveled edge; this is where the opening is. The idea is to place it on the towel rod where you used to keep cloth hand towels. You put the bevel down into the gap between the rod and the wall, with the opening facing forward. Now, each time you pull downward on a towel to pull it out, it lodges the box more firmly into that gap, so it doesn't fall from its perch.

And, because it's not sitting on a counter that's likely to get wet, the box doesn't soak through at the bottom.

Of course, in a bathroom like ours, which uses hooks and hoops to hold our cloth towels, this design doesn't work -- but most people use towel rods, and so this box would serve them well.

Since the towels aren't on a roll, you don't have to worry about tearing them at the perforation; there is no perforation. Very simple and convenient -- just as easy as reaching for a cloth towel ever was.

And, unlike a cloth towel, each new Kleenex Hand Towel is dry and clean when you take it. No sitting out wet, mildewing, with all the dirt from previous uses festering until you spread it on your own hands. (There, have I made you shudder at the thought of using a cloth hand towel?)

I've been using the Kleenex Hand Towels for a couple of weeks at the beach, and I have to say, I really like them. I was surprised at how well they work -- much better than any paper towels I've used in public restrooms, even the tony ones that set out folded white towels in a little bin.

The Kleenex Hand Towels are not strong enough to use for scrubbing, but they hold together perfectly well when I use them to dry one hand and then the other. They're absorbent, and when I'm done with them I don't feel any desire to wipe my hands on my pants, as I do after using most air-blower hand dryers in restrooms.

Speaking of air-blower hand dryers, the only good ones I've actually used are the Dyson Airblade Hand Dryer. They're so loud that you can't hear yourself think while using them, and they practically whip the skin off your hands, the wind they make is so intense. But they get your hands dry in a very short time.

So why doesn't every establishment install them in their public or employee restrooms?

Because they cost more than $1300, that's why -- more than three times as much as the almost-good downward-blowing hand dryers. As usual, the best costs more, and most builders or outfitters opt for mediocre in order to cut their hand-dryer budget by two thirds. This is a smart decision, because people generally go into public restrooms wearing clothes, and with a little encouragement they'll recognize that clothes are perfectly adequate hand towels to finish the job so weakly begun by the ordinary air-blower.

The Kleenex Hand Towels, though, achieve a much more acceptable level of dryness, using only one towel per hand-washing. So when calculating the value to you of switching to the hand towels, keep in mind that you'll be using less than half as many paper hand towels as you usually do in public restrooms.

If we had a towel rod, I'd start using these as soon as we return home from vacation. In fact, I may retire my towel ring and make the switch.

Of course, with my luck, as soon as I do that Kleenex will stop offering this convenient, sensible packaging.

*

At the risk of saying the obvious, let's remember that breaking away from Great Britain was not the main achievement of our Revolution. What set us apart, what made us an exemplar to all nations, was that we established a democratic republic, by means of a written Constitution ... and then we kept it.

We fought many political battles to achieve our enduring democracy, and one bloody Civil War. But the institutions of our government remained and remain largely responsive to the will of the people, with checks and balances enough that it's hard for idiots in power to make lasting changes during their term or terms in office.

Not only that, but we have maintained American government as one of the least corrupt in the world. We don't expect to have to pay a bribe in order to get a wedding license, or set a trial date, or file to run for office. While some city governments are famously corrupt, like the Chicago machine that produced or current president and which supervised the near theft of the 2000 presidential election in Florida, that corruption is kept in check by a federal government which, with the huge exception of the IRS and the Clintons, remains largely unbribable.

But our constitutional system is changing, and the seeds were sown long ago. The paper Constitution has been at risk ever since, in Marbury vs. Madison, the Supreme Court asserted the right -- never granted in the Constitution -- to nullify acts of any other government body if, in the Supreme Court's opinion, they violate the Constitution.

The problem always was and is today: Who nullifies unconstitutional actions by the Supreme Court? Ever since Roe vs. Wade, when the Supreme Court openly invented a right that is not and never was written in the Constitution -- on the specious grounds that it was "implied" -- the court has obtruded itself more and more into the legislative domain.

No longer do radicals attempt to amend the Constitution in order to mandate desired changes in society. Instead, they win the hearts and minds -- or at least the timid conformity -- of the law school elite, giving federal judges and Supreme Court justices, chosen from their number, a thin cover for wholesale Constitutional changes that instantly become binding, without any recourse, upon the entire nation.

Then those radicals eagerly pursue and punish anyone who disagreed or disagrees with these changes, and even long-established Constitutional rights, like freedom of religion, are trampled underfoot by puritans who cannot stand the thought that anyone, anywhere, might be free to disobey their newly invented laws.

This Fourth of July, for me at least, is tinged with bitterness, not because I "lost" some political battle -- in fact, I was on the winning side every time. It's because political battles are increasingly irrelevant. Freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, and freedom of speech are openly assailed, without any help from -- and usually with the complicity of -- the federal courts.

And most of us simply roll over and play dead, for fear that if we speak up we'll be punished. And believe me, folks, you will. The champions of these social changes hate freedom and democracy, and the only constitutional rights they respect are the ones they invented and have imposed on us without any democratic process.

Not since 1860 has America faced such a challenge to our founding principles. And in those days, it was the unbearable crime of slavery that posed the challenge. Today, it's nothing more than fashionable groupthink -- but the hate and rage and relentlessness with which the radicals pursue and punish their opponents is almost as savage, if not as physically direct, as the way any anti-slavery spokesman in the antebellum South was utterly silenced, either by intimidation, ejection, or death.

In this time of crisis, instead of choosing between Lincoln and Douglas, with two splinter parties offering viable alternatives, we are probably doomed to choose between Corruption and Buffoonery.

It's conceivable that either or both of the major parties may wake up and realize how irresponsible they both are, offering us such monstrously inappropriate candidates for the presidency. The Democrats have superdelegates who could change their mind about this obvious liar and crook, Hillary Clinton. And the Republican establishment can show some guts and ignore the howls of the die-hard Trumpites, holding an open convention in respect for the solid majorities of Republicans in almost every state who voted resoundingly against the Trump nomination.

But they probably won't. Even a cynical assessment of their election chances won't help, because both parties are set to nominate the candidate that the other party can most easily defeat -- except that the other party is nominating a worse one, if that were possible.

I will probably vote for Trump, for no other reason than to keep Hillary and the groupthink Left from choosing any Supreme Court justices until we can sort out the court's anti-constitutional behavior pattern and establish a legal recourse to overturn Supreme Court invention of non-existent "rights."

But Donald Trump could, if he cared to, make some attempt at acting like Lincoln.

Remember that Lincoln was an ugly man from the frontier, tall, awkward-looking, homespun. He entered the national stage because of the 1858 equivalent of a hit TV series -- his series of seven debates with Stephen Douglas as they contended for Illinois's U.S. Senate seat. The texts of the debates were reprinted everywhere. Everyone who cared about politics read them. The debates led directly to both men becoming the nominees of the major parties.

Now, Lincoln had at least served in Congress, so he wasn't as ignorant as Trump. And he was not the narcissistic terrified mean-spirited clown that Trump is -- but his enemies claimed that he was a clown, an ape, and his physical appearance was weird enough to get people to believe them.

Trump's snarling, sneering mouth is his own creation, as is his ridiculous hair; Lincoln was tall and gaunt because he suffered from a genetic disorder called Marfan syndrome. Still, during the campaign for president, Lincoln took one eleven-year-old girl's suggestion to heart, and changed his appearance by growing a beard -- just at the time when beards were becoming fashionable for serious adult men in American society.

The beard hid some of his gauntness and made him look more acceptable and normal -- dignified and presidential.

There is one thing Donald Trump could do, right now, in direct imitation of Lincoln: He could cut his hair. I mean cut it, revealing whatever bald spot or failed plugs he's been "hiding" all this time. He could also stop dyeing it orange.

He could turn it into a campaign coup. "This election is about the most powerful office in the world, at a time of crisis. I have set aside my vanity in order to show you who I really am, covering nothing."

He has, as exemplars, famous bald men like Bruce Willis, who -- in the midst of his reign as one of the world's top box-office draws -- allowed himself to be photographed without a toupee, and even played roles where his baldness was simply part of the character.

Donald Trump aspires to play the role of President of the United States. He could show us that he at least takes that role seriously enough to come out of disguise. Instead of wearing that repulsive hair to meet with foreign leaders, or to address the American people about issues of real importance, he could do it as a real human being, with a short haircut of a completely natural color.

In other words, he could symbolically become an honest man, in a campaign where he's running against a lying snake.

This would take such a sacrifice of his vanity and ego that it would suggest that he really does have an underlying maturity that might allow him to grow into the office he aspires to.

Will he do it? Of course not. This isn't that kind of election year.

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