' Cinema Romantico: Occasional Anthemic Transcendence

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Occasional Anthemic Transcendence



When I think of my country’s national anthem, The Star Spangled Banner, in terms of the cinema, my mind drifts, I must admit, toward less than sterling renditions. I think of Leslie Nielsen as Lt. Frank Drebin masquerading as Italian opera star Enrico Palazzo making a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham of it in “The Naked Gun.” (Best Lyrical Revision: “Bunch of bombs in the air.”) I think of “Tora Tora Tora”, the almost documentarian re-telling of the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the version of Francis Scott Key’s bit of tuneage the military band is performing on the deck of the USS Nevada as the Stars & Stripes are being raised until they note the Japanese bombers very much headed their way prompting the band to wrap up the anthem as quick as they can so they can run like hell. And that last bit is precisely why I always think of these two renditions – even though the JAPANESE ARE COMING TO BOMB THEM, they still play the whole damn song. For what is America’s National Anthem but an insistent obedience to regimental patriotic pageantry?

I have a complicated relationship with our anthem. I tend to figure that Major League Baseball players must despise that song. How could they not? One hundred and sixty-two games a year means one hundred and sixty-two recitations of The Star Spangled Banner. Plus, they play, what, thirty spring training games? That’s another thirty recitations! That’s almost two hundred recitations of The Star Spangled Banner in a calendar year! And what about the National Hockey League?! My God, the National Hockey League! The players on American teams have to put up with nearly four-hundred recitations of The Star Spangled Banner in a single season! (This, of course, is because the NHL season lasts 13 months out of the year.) I mean, all due respect to the choral quartet from Don Bosco High that earns the honors to sing the Anthem before the Rockies/Royals game on a humid Tuesday night in July but, for God’s sake, if I was a baseball player in the ninth year of my career and had heard that song, like, 1,700 times, it would take all my willpower not to tell Molly and Carly and Peter and Joel to just stuff a sock in it.


Now that I have likely turned half of America against me, let me double back and explain the origins of this post. I was watching the United States/Ghana game at the World Cup a couple weeks ago and, as obedient regimental pageantry required, the two teams marched on the field and lined up and Ghana’s National Anthem was played and then America’s National Anthem was played. I really wasn’t paying attention at first, because why would I? God help us all, another recitation of this song? Can I see one sporting event – just one – without it? Why are we eternally subjected to………and then in a way I could not and would have not have predicted, it got me. It really got me. I got emotional, man. And my emotion absolutely confounded me. And in trying to think about why it did what it did to me, I drifted off to another movie National Anthem. My favorite movie National Anthem.

No one would confuse “Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks!” with being either seminal or sentimental, and yet its ostensibly tongue-in-cheek conclusion provides both. The Martians who, as the title tells you, attack, have, as you might have guessed, lost in their war with earth, but not without leaving a wee bit of damage behind. Like the Capital Building, for instance, which is totally burnt out and which is where the President’s daughter (Natalie Portman) gathers with the hero of the hour (Lukas Haas) – and his grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) – to present him a Medal of Honor. To commemorate, The Star Spangled Banner is played…….by a Mexican mariachi band. Because presumably that was all they could find.


A couple days later I was taking a taxi and my cab driver and I wound up discussing the U.S. / Ghana game and how we both thought Ghana not only played better than the U.S. despite losing but was actually more fun to watch. That led into a discussion about Cameroon’s glorious run to the World Cup quarterfinals in 1990 (which made me a fan of the event) which prompted my cabbie to recall that Cameroon began its run by beating Diego Maradona and Argentina who had won the previous World Cup on account of the infamous Hand of God goal in Mexico which prompted a discussion about how Mexicans love soccer so much they had jam-packed Chicago’s Soldier Field when Mexico played a game there earlier this year. And I remember thinking in the moment and afterwards that the world felt both more intimate and more global.

That’s the secret the National Anthem in “Mars Attacks!” knew, and one the National Anthem before U.S./Ghana at the World Cup kinda knew too. That the Anthem, I think, is not meant as a narcissistic tribute to ourselves, which is how it always feels to me before baseball and basketball and football and hockey games, as both puffed up and mindless braggadocio, because we're all just a bunch of idiot Americans standing around about to gorge on soda and nachos and check our iPhones and bitch about how everyone at the office isn't as smart as us and forget all about the song the dude wrote on some ship in front of some fort during some war, but a celebration of our own way of life amidst so many others. The United States may be 3.79 million square miles but culturally that's just a drop in the bucket, and there is something beautiful in staking claim to what we are - awful and glorious and really, really awful and all-encompassing.

The National Anthem in "Mars Attacks!" is absurd, I suppose, but then America is absurd, and our devotion to (obsession with) regimental pageantry is absurd. And if you will, for a moment, allow the movie to segue with real life, look who’s at the foot of the capital paying homage to that regimental pageantry. An Israel-born actress. A Hollywood-born actor with a German-emigrated father. An old-world actress born in The Bronx to Russian and Romanian Jews. And oh yeah, a Mexican mariachi band. What could possibly be more American?

1 comment:

mercatiwriter@aol.com said...

True. Wonderful.
I just read the Pledge of Allegiance was written by a socialist!
Eisenhower added "Under God."
Thank you, West Point