Josh Fox’s Memorial Day advertises itself as an “astonishingly honest portrayal of a once-solemn holiday gone wild,” which “takes a stunning twist half way through, pushing the themes of the weekend to life-threatening extremes.” The twist, however, fools you into thinking it’s come thrice over. The film opens with a montage of block-lettered motel and fast food road signs urging passers-by to thank the troops for their freedom on the titular holiday, shot by a handheld camcorder. A clumsy, blurry narrative arc slowly emerges to frame a small group of club-goers taking some East Coast beach town (possibly Ocean City, Maryland) by storm for the weekend; their stereotypical shore-trash drunk and disorderly conduct is captured for posterity from the perspective of the anonymous, invisible cameraman amongst them (Fox himself), Cloverfield-style. The coed gang dry-humps on the sand, splashes in the sea, extols the merits of drugs and prostitutes, and argues about who will have to drive home.
The first apparent twist occurs during the car ride back to the partiers’ motel, when one woman’s flirtation, egged on by the other passengers, goes from a lap dance to actual sex to implicit rape amidst general laughter that masks the woman’s cries. No one seems to notice how visibly shaken she is after the fact, and when she can’t remember the motel room number in the parking lot, she is subject to further verbal abuse from the men. Okay, we think, this is a film about the voyeuristic exploitation swirling through the foulest dregs of mainstream American rituals of pleasure and entertainment in this darkest day and age. The subsequent scenes reinforce this impression: the bikini-clad women in the group are painted blue and pasted with signs reading “I Am Worthless”; the rape victim is left alone to cry in the bathroom; a partier who confesses to homosexual desire is badly beaten and left to bleed between two outdoor vending machines; the gay-basher is filmed ranting about how much he “loves” Jews as he devours a doughnut.
But then the second phantom twist registers, as we watch several members of the group watch an unseen porn flick playing above and behind the camera. They’re all wearing fatigues, and some are playing with dog tags. Yes, these are supposed to be the troops we support, the soldiers we want to bring home, the heroes fighting for the American way. The point hits as subtly as a sledgehammer; it’s a wonder the audience doesn’t suffer blunt object trauma.
And finally the real twist comes crashing in. Not only are these abusive caricatures American troops (male and female alike), they’re the prison guards of Abu Ghraib. Their degeneracy is ultimate! The second half of the film is given over to gruesome reenactments of the news reports and photos already seared into our national consciousness, interspersed with some dimestore psychology as the bored and stunningly amoral soldiers reveal themselves to the camera.
Three notable monologues anchor this half of the film and spell out its intentions, if you haven’t been paying attention. In the first, a mustachioed soldier (clearly modeled on the grinning, similar-looking guard with plastic gloves familiar from war photos) rants about survival of the fittest, drawing a parallel between trees whose falling leaves poison the ground for competing species, and America’s actions following 9/11, attempting to justify his behavior. In his view, nature will one day smile upon an earth covered exclusively by the American elm. Is this really what motivates the worst of our military? The conviction of Cormac McCarthy’s Judge Holden in Blood Meridian that war was always here preparing to receive mankind as its executor, “the ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner”? Not quite.
The next monologue comes from the gay-bashing doughnut aficionado during some late-night target practice. He draws a parallel between soldiers and actors, stating that just as one actor can tell for whom another is acting (family, friends, inner demons), so too will a soldier show you exactly for whom they’re fighting. And like actors, they might be in it to escape abuse (as is suggested in the case of the female soldiers; the rape victim seems clearly modeled on Lynndie England), to belong somewhere or to find out who they are. Flashbacks throughout his speech equate the click of a camera with the report of a gently squeezed trigger. In the act of shooting or being shot, literally or metaphorically, we become who we are. We perform ourselves. Right? And in the capstone speech, one soldier who runs out of space on his camera’s memory card asks his mother to send him a new camera with a bigger lens, to better preserve his actions forever so that he might live them over and over.
So there we have Memorial Day’s intellectually in-vogue stew, enriched with the fatty drippings of trickle-down Freud, Marx, and DeBord, served up to ask a genuinely interesting question about the intersection of late-capitalist fantasy and reality, simulacra and simulacrum, self and spectacle. The film gets its 1.5 points for posing that question. But its execution is too hackneyed and reductive to carry the heavy load Fox drops on the audience, and we’re denied any chance to understand the soldiers portrayed here as real human beings. Memorial Day attempts to offer a potential explanation of their behavior, but runs into the ancient edifice of unfathomable evil and its handmaiden, the absence of empathy. Were these soldiers all clinical psychopaths? Were they prisoners of their social context? Did they think, like the Nazis at Nuremberg, that they were really just following orders?
We still don’t know after these 91 minutes of audiovisual abuse, and the worst part is that the film is complicit in the very sensationalistic exploitation it seems designed to critique. The power of these images to shock relies on an inverse flattening of empathy and, thus, the human reality of what really happened. Only the raped soldier is worthy of even limited sympathy in this portrayal. The recreations of the conditions at Abu Ghraib are cut from the same pornographic celluloid as the 24-hour “what bleeds, leads” news cycle of the global media establishment. Memorial Day is neither art nor entertainment as much as it is a piece of theoretical propaganda, and an unsuccessful one at that.