Green Day’s Wake-Up Call

I’ve never thought much of Green Day since I saw them open for Liz Phair at Roseland back in 1993 (or was it 1994?). Billie Joe Armstrong was jumping around the stage like his postpunk-monkey self when, almost as an afterthought, he unzipped his Dickies and whipped out a surprisingly thick, fake-looking schlong — really unwelcome in a room full of mid-’90s identity-politics queens. But their controversial ”Wake Me Up When September Ends” video has redeemed them hundredfold. At least.

Starring Jamie Bell and Evan Rachel Woods, the actual song doesn’t even kick in until the second minute of the 11:29 minute movie. Instead, the video begins as two young lovers murmur “I’m never going to leave you” into each other’s sandy, wind-swept hair, brows knit with sweet sincerity; limbs wrapped about each other as they romp in rolling, verdant fields: Americana at its earnest, cheesy finest. Then September ends, the song kicks in, and reality rears Armstrong’s ugly head. Woods first crashes out of their modest house, hysterically sobbing, “Tell me you didn’t do it,” and despite myself my heart sinks. Ah, when first love betrays. Bell jumps up to pacify her. But he turns out he didn’t cheat (nor is a September 11 homage on the horizon). Worse: He’s joined the armed forces. “I did this for us! I thought you’d be proud of me. I thought of all people you’d understand why I did this.”

The song starts up again then and a sepia-toned Iraqi battle scene replaces the small-town Technicolor. At first, a group of armed, anonymous soldiers, any one of whom can be Bell, storm the streets, veiled women looking on anxiously. Then we see Bell himself, peering bleakly from beneath his helmut. Shot in the leg, he goes down and the video ends with the image of a tear-streaked Woods back on high school bleachers in those rolling, green hills.

The response has been very telling. Some think it’s both heavyhanded and too apolitical. Granted, no one lights a picture of George Bush on fire. But what could be dismissed as simplistic is instead simple. Accessible rather than sentimental. Pedestrian, corny, overt, whatever. I had a lump in my throat at the end of this video.

So few stories are being told about the war that the US is actually waging right now and who ends up waging it. The video is about the armed forces’ treacherous seduction of working-class America’s youth. More and more of our boys and girls are dying over there every week along with the Iraqis whose lives we continue to ruin, and most of us blogger and mainstream- and alternamedia kids alike just don’t really talk about it. Why not? Why aren’t we more upset?

Because the media is mostly still peopled by the kind of folks who can afford to go to swell schools, function in expensive urban areas on shitty salaries — and this war isn’t real to them. These are the kind of people who don’t really know too many people who have enrolled in the reserves or flat-out enlisted because they aren’t the type of people who would need to. As the middle-class becomes a thing of the past in the US, places like LA and NYC are increasingly mere press playgrounds for people who enjoy the luxury to forget about the war this country is waging. So this video is generating this kind of whiny-ass mishegos from these folks because, more than most videos, this one isn’t directed at them. It’s directed at the kind of folks with so few options that they considered the armed forces. Or, as in the case of a lot of the preteens and teens who worship Green Day, still do.

At my uncle’s funeral back in June, I found out two of my cousins’ kids are over in Iraq right now. Back in December I basically got disinvited from Christmas for going off on my cousin Sue and her husband Frank for when they let their oldest daughter enlist in the reserves. Frank actually called me “Jane Fonda” when I told them Lindsay enlisting was dangerous morally and mortally. Now Lindsay is actually over there. She’s 18 and until now, she’d never really even been out of New England. As for dead-eyed Kyle, my cousin Kim’s oldest, I already knew he was in Iraq.

The funeral was bad for Kim. Not only had Uncle Al died, but so had Kyle’s grandmother. “So he’s back, then?” I asked her. “Just for the funeral,” she replied. “He’s on his second tour of duty. They got him doing chemical cleanup. I’m sick about it.”

In the funeral procession, I drove behind her shitty Gremlin, festooned with two bumperstickers. One was a yellow ribbon. The other said “Mothers for peace.” I know that, no matter what, everyone in my family now wishes none of us were over there. Our lives aren’t worth it.

Understand I’m not flashing my working-class credentials. I don’t have them. I went to one of the nice colleges of which I speak and no matter how broke I’ve been lately, I have resources I can fall back on. It’s just that the rest of my family didn’t get those chances and the US military dangles quite a carrot, especially if there’s nothing to eat. Those of us writing stories and talking the talk have overlooked this fact. Green Day has not.

Madison Movie Talk

Once in a while, my friend Jan and I host a call-in radio program about film on a Madison, Wisc., public radio station. I dig it, and not just because I love the opportunity to sound off like a would-be expert. These lefty listeners for the most part still fight the good fight, effortlessly achieving heights of indignance that I haven’t been able to scale since I was an undergraduate. It’s good to be reminded of what I’ve become inured to — namely that plastic surgery and at least a mild eating disorder are practically casting requirements for both men and women; that women get the short end of the cinematic stick; that most people still view films as a little desert at the end of a legitimate workday rather than ye olde bread and butter. But one film that I found myself vehemently disagreeeing with the old-school progressives about was the overdetermined, overwritten, overwhelmingly underwhelming Crash, which I still contend is a pat ensemble film about LA racial dynamics that could have been written for Lifetime TV in 1991.

When Jan and I trashed it on the show, the lines lit up with a score of indignant callers chomping at the bit to set us straight. One guy said: “You just don’t understand race relations in America.” A comment that raised not only my hackles but a set of genuinely unfacetious questions: Does he? Do you? Just who does understand race relations in America right now? (Besides Cornel West, anyway?) And does the film really understand race, or even purport to?

Although I find Haggis’ movie so clichéd as to be possibly harmful, does the fact that these folks found it useful mean, as Jan tactfully suggested while I jumped all over the poor caller, that it can’t be quite so easily dismissed? It’s my final question here, I guess. None of these callers could specify what they found so helpful or useful about Crash. Rather, they just averred it was a “worthy topic.” And just because a film takes on an admittedly worthy topic, does it thus become a worthy film?

You know my answer is no. Otherwise, I’d be singing poor John Sayles’ recent movies’ praises.

On another note, callers liked that damned penguins movie, too. And more than one listener confessed s/he wouldn’t be seeing Murderball because of its title. Too bad, because that really is a worthy film — albeit one with an admittedly futile title. I’ll say this for the Maddy listeners: They do value their foreign film. Let’s hear it for the Midwestern independent theaters, no matter how poorly air-conditioned they apparently are.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy