More Than Meets the Eye: Juneau, Alaska on the Fourth of July

Storybook Farm, Oregon, June 2009.

Here’s a new installment of a long-neglected feature: dispatches from my friends. In this essay, Daniel Couch—better known in the comments section as “Ernesto,” and contributor to the baseball roundtable—writes about a certain governor and a certain popular blockbuster. Enjoy.

Late last month my wife and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary.  We were married on her parent’s farm in Ashland, OR, and we found ourselves back there for the occasion.  It had seemed as if the year had flown by. Once I arrived though, vivid reminders of the passage of time were everywhere. The arbor we put up for the ceremony is still standing, but the once-manicured hay field has been returned to farm use and is ready to be baled. My wife’s sister, single and thin at the wedding, is now married and very, very pregnant.

We came to Ashland, not just for the anniversary, but also so my wife could take part in a blessing ceremony for her sister’s baby.  Men weren’t invited to attend, so my father-in-law, brother-in-law and I decided to kill some time by going to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

I didn’t see the first Transformers film, but it didn’t matter.  The Revenge of the Fallen isn’t about the continuance of character or story development so much as it is a two-and-a-half hour commercial for the U.S. Army, a theme presaged by the official U.S. Army advertisement that ran before the previews.

This is a movie developed from a child’s toy that’s intended, in no small part, to sell more children’s toys. Yet the aggrandizement of the Army may be the least subtle and most insidious of all the crass marketing techniques employed by the film.  With characters this flat and one-dimensional, it is easy to depict them as more representative of ideas than as complex human beings. In the film, lazy notions of good and evil, hero and villain, arrange themselves around concepts such as loyalty, honor and self-sacrifice.  See Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox’s relationship versus Megatron and Starscream’s as a point of comparison on loyalty.  See LaBeouf’s tenaciousness, even in death, to complete his mission versus the Decepticons’ eventual retreat as a point of comparison on honor.  John Turturro’s manic fixation on self-sacrifice for his country is so amplified, so cartoonish, that it becomes comic relief.

While these are qualities that the U.S. Army attempts to align itself with, it has, by no means, cornered the market on them. In fact, this flavor of good and evil is pretty standard fare for the summer blockbuster. But unlike most films of this genre, the Army is oddly effective in their efforts to engage the Decepticons, the film’s hostile, alien Other.  What’s more, the Army is a true partner with the Autobots on the battlefield, and capable of shutting them down completely from behind a desk. In one early scene that underscores the subservient role of the Autobots, Optimus Prime comes to LaBeouf to ask for his help. LaBeouf refuses, citing his desire to lead a “normal” life. This failure to mobilize at Optimus’ request sets in motion his eventual defeat.

Optimus is, for all intents and purposes, America.  He transforms from the leader of the Autobots into the cab of an 18-wheeler spangled in red, white and blue.  In Optimus we are presented with an America fashioned from its own lore: one nation, under God, indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all. Optimus Prime is similarly indivisible. And although one, two, three, five and seven are all prime numbers, the Autobots are no longer ruled by a G-7 of Primes.  Optimus, we are told, is the last remaining Prime, the final superpower whose mere existence keeps the Fallen, the powerful enemy alluded to in the title, at bay.

The movie seems to end multiple times. In one especially awkward near-ending, Optimus approaches LaBeouf and thanks him for saving his “life.” However, the film doesn’t conclude with America’s re-appreciation for her (or his or its?) armed forces.  Instead it staggers to its final resolution with a victorious LaBeouf returning to the very classroom he left so urgently earlier in the film.  With this, the film seems to suggest that reintegration into civilian life after a major conflict is no big deal.  Without the slightest hint of trauma (the character was clinically dead at one point) a physically and mentally fit LaBeouf settles back into the exact same seat he vacated, the one that had seemingly been held for him while he was out ensuring Liberty and Justice for the rest of us.

Blinking in the still bright mid-afternoon sun, I went back with my in-laws to join the rest of the family and submit to the anniversary traditions of eating a bite of the original wedding cake, and, in our case, drinking a glass of the wedding homebrew.  My mother in-law insulated the cake ingeniously, and it tasted surprisingly good.  Time did not treat the once-light, crisp summer ale as kindly.

After the rituals were complete and the toasts to the years still to come had drained our glasses, the conversation returned to the present.  My pregnant sister in-law is slightly underweight but healthy.  The chickens keep breaking their eggs. Megan Fox is hot. However, I was still awash in the nostalgia of the anniversary, and while my brother in-law, who just completed his first year at Southern Oregon University, critiqued the image of college life presented in the film, my mind kept comparing Optimus’ America with the America my wife and I encountered a year prior on our honeymoon in Juneau, Alaska.

We chose Alaska over the typical beach fare for several reasons: it was close enough to our home in Portland, Oregon to be reasonably affordable, neither of us had ever been there before, we were more interested in adventure than relaxation, and we felt there was a certain urgency to see a glacier now while we still could.  On our first full day, we took a bus to the Mendenhall Glacier, just outside of Juneau in the Tongass National Forest. “The Glacier’s cold and restless mass / Moves onward day by day,” but unlike Byron’s version, the Mendenhall Glacier moves inward day by day. According to the U.S. Forest Service, Mendenhall is retreating at a rate of 100 to 150 feet a year.  That’s three to five inches a day, a rate so brisk that it manages to justify a web feature that should make no sense at all, the Glacier Cam.

Locals claim there are three seasons in Juneau: government season, tourist season and local season.  On each day of our visit, multiple cruise ships rotated in and out of Gastineau Channel.  It was undeniably tourist season, but the highlight of our trip wasn’t the zip-line tour through a tree canopy or the view from Mt. Roberts but the one event that was clearly for the locals: Juneau’s Fourth of July celebration.

We started to get wind of the importance of the day when the hard-partying college students in the room below ours told us that though they had all moved away from Juneau, they always returned for the Fourth of July.  When I left my parents’ home in Dallas to attend college, I only went as far as Austin. I was close enough to come back pretty much any time I wanted.  Still, most of my visits were for traditional holidays such as Christmas or Thanksgiving.  I never went home for the Fourth.

The Fourth, however, has a much richer tradition as a holiday in Juneau.  The city developed around the gold industry, and during the boomiest of boom times, the Alaska Gold Mining Company was open around the clock, 363 days a year. The only days the mine was closed were Christmas Day and the Fourth of July. Considering that Juneau in late December has just six-and-a-half hours of sunlight and sub-freezing temperatures, it’s not surprising that the Fourth became the centerpiece of the civic calendar.
Last year the town spent as much on the Fourth of July, about $30,000, as they did on Mayor Bruce Botelho’s annual salary. The event is an all-day affair. In early July, the sun doesn’t set in Juneau until after 10 pm, so the fireworks display starts on the third. As soon as the cruise ships reclaim their passengers, the bars begin filling up with locals. At one minute before the stroke of midnight, the first firework signals the beginning of the holiday.

The fireworks are launched from a barge in the channel and the report reverberates against the surrounding mountains, creating a massive sound.  After the final echo dies away, the bars fill back up.  The parade won’t start until 11am, and, for the late sleepers, the exact same procession will repeat at 2pm.

The first parade of the day started just past Harris Harbor on Egan Drive, the one four-lane road in the entire city. By the way, the next time you go to a parade, try to get as close to the front as you can.  The participants have to line up the floats early in the day. By the time they finally get moving and in front of a crowd they are so keyed up from the wait that you are guaranteed the sharpest dance moves, the tightest snare rolls, and the most prolific underhand lobs of candy, beads or, if you’re in Juneau, pro-mining t-shirts urging a “No” vote on an upcoming proposition.  Of course, parades also tend to attract irrepressible souls like this one who never fail to delight, no matter where you are along the route.

The theme of the 2008 parade was “A Golden Celebration.” In this case, gold refers to the 50th anniversary of Alaska’s admission to the Union. Alaska was the 49th state to join, trailing only Hawaii, whose 50th anniversary is this year.  Like Hawaiians, who refer to the “mainland,” Alaskans feel their physical detachment from the “lower 48,” and despite the presence of the capitol, Juneau’s connection to the rest of the state is similarly shaky.  There is no direct road between it and Anchorage, the main population center.  To get between the two cities you either have to fly or travel through Canada.

John McPhee writes in Coming into the Country, “The central paradox of Alaska is that it is as small as it is large—an immense landscape with so few people in it that language is stretched to call it a frontier, let alone a state.” Perhaps it’s Alaska’s late maturation into statehood, perhaps it’s Juneau’s relative isolation, but the town’s Fourth of July celebration seems rooted in an era from earlier in the country’s history. On Douglas Island, the site of parade number two, my wife and I watched a soapbox derby race and dogs competing for Frisbees but missed the watermelon-eating contests and the sack races.  We took a pass on the pony ride. The image of small-town America that is frequently invoked and sometimes eulogized exists in earnest at least one day a year in Juneau, Alaska.

While this was a surprise to me, I’m not a local. Yet at a fundraiser in Greensboro, NC, just a few months after Juneau’s Golden Celebration, the town’s most (in)famous resident proclaimed, “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard-working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.” In this statement, then-Governor Sarah Palin is parading a patriotism that separates rather than unites. Her glossy Norman Rockwell portrait of small-town America reductively and disingenuously stereotypes otherwise complex cities such as Juneau and Greensboro into cruise-ship snapshots so that she can conflate “real” America with “patriotic” America, and then conflate that with “pro” America and therefore set up a binary to an unreal, unpatriotic and anti-America straw man. If this sounds like the troubling divisions afoot in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, it’s because that’s exactly what it is.

The irony of it all is that Governor Palin lives in a town, at least during government season, that provides a counterexample to her divisive claims. The central paradox at work in Juneau is that the symbols of small-town America that have gone threadbare elsewhere in the country survive there without the freight that Palin attempts to attach to their sack races or that Transformers attempts to manufacture with a robot incarnation of Uncle Sam. This is only possible because they are so commonplace. Bald eagles are familiar sights in the trees and skies of Juneau. Flags from all fifty states line Egan Drive year round. And in 2008 the Glacier Swim Club won the “Most Patriotic” and the coveted, “Best of Parade” prizes for their float—the cab of an 18-wheeler, festooned in red, white and blue bunting, pulling a trailer carrying nothing more than members of the club.

The passage of time has brought the resignation of Governor Palin. The permanence of her disappearance from the political limelight remains to be seen. Hollywood, however, will continue to churn out replicas of Transformers as if it had been touched by the All Spark from the film. This August, the latest film based on a Hasbro toy, G.I. Joe, is set to arrive in a theater near you. Based on the preview that ran after the U.S. Army ad, it looks likely that it will end up more like the homebrew than the wedding cake.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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4 Responses to More Than Meets the Eye: Juneau, Alaska on the Fourth of July

  1. LL says:

    Have you read the Todd Purdum Vanity Fair piece on Palin? In some ways, it’s the typical post election process piece on went wrong in the campaign that lost. It’s a long time in between the piece and the election, which is a little unusual. The ones on Clinton came out pretty quickly and some of them while the campaign was still in progress. Still, it has the unnamed back sources and sour scapegoating typical of such pieces. What I found most damaging about the piece, however, was Purdum’s look at the culture of Alaska and how distanced it in reality is from the caricature sketch the McCain/Palin campaign tried to present. He’s blunt about how Alaska cannot and should not be consider a microcosm for the rest of the nation.

  2. LL and Jerry: Thanks for the Purdum piece, which I’d partly read but not in full. It’s interesting and makes pretty clear that Palin was hardly qualified to run her own state, much less the country. And yet, and yet… the piece kept annoying me–which is why I stopped reading it the first time around–and I found myself in the odd position of wanting to defend a position and a person (hard-right Republicanism, Palin) that I find repellent.
    Here’s the deal: If we use the accepted microcosm argument, that a candidate should be a good “representative” of the country at-large, it leads to things like Palin insisting that she loves the “real” America without any understanding of the complexities involved in such a notion. The notion of politician as representation, too, leads to months of media attention to “Joe the Fucking Plumber” at the expense of more nuanced, less either/or concerns. Most problematically, though, it leads to a slippery slope that troubles me. To wit: “You know, Chicago politics is really not a useful microcosm for understanding how American suburbs and small towns work, and the candidate from there is a biracial guy from Harvard Law School, whereas most of this country isn’t biracial nor moneyed enough (or educated enough) for the Ivy League, therefore said candidate isn’t appropriate for presidential consideration, because he’s not ‘representative’ enough.” “Are we ready for a black President?” looks depressingly close to the late-1950s question, “Are we ready for a Catholic President?”
    As long as we accept the microcosm argument as valid, we’ll not only add up with under-qualified candidates like Palin trying desperately to feed into an us-vs.-them American dynamic that doesn’t (and never did) exist, but we’ll also end up phasing out “outsider” candidates who don’t fit the “Joe the Plumber” model. In an increasingly multi-ethnic and suburban American culture, the “Joe the Plumbers” of the country are the “outsiders,” the ones who no longer represent the “average American”… but they’ll be the only ones elected to major office. And around and around we go.
    I don’t mind that Joe or Palin don’t represent the “true” America. I don’t think such a simplified thing exists, and I don’t care that a candidate does or does not come from a place or a scene that’s a microcosm for the country at-large. I do care that said candidate has the negative capability to understand these distinctions, and that said candidate resists either/or dynamics (or reliance on “me as microcosm”) whenever possible.
    (Case in point: LL states rightly that “Alaska cannot and should not be consider[ed] a microcosm for the rest of the nation.” But couldn’t Purdum have written the same sort of article about Hawaii–the formative state for our current President–and the state’s outsider relationship to the rest of the U.S.?)
    I liked that Palin came from outside the system, that she wasn’t trying to be a cookie-cutter model of the country at-large. But she wanted it both ways: to be the maverick outsider and true symbol of the local-yokel American. You can’t have it both ways. The fact that she felt she had to try, however, hampered her ability to get a more nuanced, complex, less firebreathing understanding of how America works.
    Being an outsider or insider to mainstream American culture should be irrelevant. Understanding the complexities of American culture (mainstream and otherwise) is, however, important. So is competence. But our models for political discussion left Palin’s suitability for the job (or lack thereof) on the cutting-room floor until well after the election. And as detailed as Purdum’s article was, why wasn’t Vanity Fair running a variant of this piece during the electoral cycle, when this shit might have actually made a difference?

  3. A-bomb says:

    Transformers: Good film, or the greatest film? Were they all gas/electric hybrid transformers?
    I could learn a lesson here, too, about inclusiveness. Impatience can lead to reactive-ness, to fractiousness, to polarity – from either side. Sometimes watching a Hollywood blockbuster leaves me stunned – if you stay out of mainstream media too long it becomes garish. I love our insular city, but how quickly I come to take things for granted. I’m worried about carbon trading versus carbon taxes, and in Georgia they still debate whether evolution is real, much less anthropogenic global warming.

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