The little aliens from Independence Day have always fascinated me.
They’re the Russian stacking dolls of aliens.
At first blush, they seem like tall, brawny beasts that’d clobber you with their talons and tails before sucking your spine out of your skull cap.
Upon closer examination, though, you realize that that isn’t the case at all: why, they’re actually shrimpy little dudes whose limbs have more in common with spaghetti than anything possessing muscular definition.
I mean, these guys would lose in any kind of match: an arm wrestling match, a thumb-wrestling match…
You name it, and they’re going to lose.
A common, household ruler could probably push them around.
Unless, of course, they are suited up inside of their giant, butt-kicking alien exoskeletons. You see, they fit easily inside of the headspace of those large spine-sucking dudes we were talking about earlier: they literally climb inside of a new body, and operate it from within its skull.
They are, of course, the brain. They’re the human-sized Power Rangers sitting inside of a building-sized mech.
Flip a switch somewhere where the occipital lobe would normally be, and you’re causing the White House itself to dissolve into fire and smoke (all aided by some cutting-edge late-nineties CGI!).
If you think about them for too long, the aliens from Independence Day will have the same effect on you as standing in front of a mirror while holding another mirror. You’re approaching ideas about the uncanny, where the picture you see inside of the mirror collapses upon itself an infinite number of times.
Eventually you ask yourself: if the giant aliens are actually being controlled by little aliens in their head this entire time, then is it possible that the little aliens are actually being controlled by even smaller aliens?
The whole thing is a nauseating rabbit hole, but it comes packaged with a lovely philosophy about bodies.
Independence Day aliens are saying that you aren’t really your body at all.
You are your brain, the little alien that sits strapped inside of your skull. You just operate a body: a piece of machinery, like an automobile, that you can paint and modify and tattoo and do whatever you want with.
You can tell it to run or to walk.
You can do push-ups with it, if you so please.
You can throw things with it, catch things with it, jump with it, and tell it to go to sleep.
Unlike the driver of an automobile, however, you can’t switch vehicles (at least not yet: I tell ya, man, these 3D printers are fascinating: I’ve heard you can grow an ear from human tissue inside of one if you have the right scan, which begs the question: can I eventually grow a new body? More to the point: if I take an MRI brain scan, and tell my 3D printer to recreate what it sees…can I re-create my brain, too? Cloning is out, baby, and 3D printing is in! Next year, the Terminator will become a reality when the machines realize they can create and operate a fake body…hasta la vista!)
But, barring that ridiculous little science fiction aside, you don’t get a new car: your body is your body. It’s got a certain mileage in it, and that’s it.
Eventually, sadly, you are going to run out of gas.
But before you get there, your human vehicle has an unparalleled virtue: it’s the only piece of property you’re ever going to truly own.
Homes come and go, and cars end up collecting rust in a lot. All of these things exist outside of you, and were never really yours to begin with.
But your body? That’s one hundred percent yours.
Do with it what you will.
Or, per proper Gaga: Do what you want, what you want with your body.
What really drives me out-of-my-mind-crazy is when people disrespect this idea of property.
If a body is property, then it belongs to one person: the brain sitting inside of the head on that body. That one little ID4 alien brain has a lease on that body, and no one else.
There is no homeowners society here. No neighborhood group telling you that you can’t have a pink paint job if you want one.
If you’re born female, and you’d rather be male, go for it. It’s your property.
If you want to cover every inch of your skin with tattoos of lawn gnomes and pink flamingos, be my guest. Ownership of your body is not a communist enterprise. It doesn’t take a village. It’s a fascist regime, and you’re the dictator.
Of course some people don’t feel that way. They’re the nosy neighbors we’ve all lived next to, the ones we’ve all learned to approach with dread. The busy bodies, the ones who apparently aren’t satisfied enough with their own property because they seem to constantly be making yours their priority.
There’s a whole army of them who got really upset recently when Kim Novak took the stage at the Academy Awards.
“She’s had surgery!” they snarled beneath a whole beehive of hair curlers, their throats thick with cigarette smoke. “Why, I don’t even recognize her!”
Who cares? She doesn’t know who you are, anonymous overreaching neighbor. She’s not doing this for you (hopefully).
Hopefully she’s doing this for herself.
God, the woman’s 81, and she’s now finding herself in the uncomfortable position of publicly playing a part she last played 56 years ago.
Only last time, it was within the confines of a movie.
In the film Vertigo, she plays a character that is constantly, obsessively, psychotically manipulated by the protagonist (played by the Tom Hanks of the fifties, Jimmy Stewart, departing radically from his comfortable nice-guy onscreen persona).
He’s obsessed with her. He loves her. But not because of who she is. Not because of the little alien that lives inside of her skull, the one capable of humor and art and anxiety. Not because of what’s inside of her house of personality, but because of how she looks to him.
She makes him feel a certain way. She reminds him of the past (specifically, a woman from his past), the past being something that is normally prey to nostalgia and romance but quite out of reach. Only not this time. No, she’s a physical reality. She’s a memory covered in skin. She’s the incarnation of yesterday for him. She’s the mirror we talked about earlier, constantly flashing back to yesterday, teasing at the uncanny (there’s that vertigo the title refers to).
He does not care about who she is on the inside, or that he does not know her.
He has filled her insides with his insides, replaced her personality with a projection of his own.
He’s decided that her lease on her own body is trivial.
He’s decided that her body is for rent.
It is at that moment that you realize Vertigo is actually a horror movie, maybe the most profoundly disturbing movie of all time, tucked neatly behind a Norman Rockwellian, 1950’s veneer.
Well, Vertigo recently became real life when the Internet community took Miss Novak apart after she delivered the Oscar for best animation.
The people tweeting and tumbling and status-updating couldn’t seem to get past her plastic surgery.
They were shocked that she looks older than she did in 1958. (“People age?!”)
Even more shocked that she would enlist surgical aid to try and make her look younger. (“People don’t like aging?!”)
They, apparently, have never heard about Hollywood and can’t fathom for a second how anxious it might make a person to emerge from retirement and return to public life to deliver an award.
They’re enraged that someone would try to customize the human machine they live inside of. They’re the homeowners society all over again, but this time on the Internet, policing other people. Admonishing them to age with nature, as though that is somehow a moral imperative. It isn’t, by the way: you should try and make yourself look the way that makes you comfortable, I think. Never mind the clan of blue haired gossip mongers, turning the World Wide Web into one large, sewing circle.
That’s us, isn’t it? Our generation. We can’t hammer out the words fast enough. Pray that someday the mirror doesn’t get turned on us, and when it does, hopefully we’ll have something as profound and lovely as Vertigo under our belt.
It’s frightening when we forget (or willfully ignore) that others are actually human beings, with an entire world operating inside of their heads.
What I wouldn’t give, for a split second, to see the world through Kim Novak’s eyes. Staring backwards out of someone else’s windows at a place in 1958 where Alfred Hitchcock was creating his greatest film. She has memories that should make any film fan purple with envy. Coveting those kinds of memories invites a vertigo all its own.
Like Jimmy Stewart, we’re all hung up on the surface, but trust me: that film doesn’t have a happy ending. Best to appreciate the machines of others, while staying comfortably within our own. No need to throw stones: it just kicks up a lot of dirt, and you might break the mirror.
As long as we’re peering through the looking glass, let’s jump, for a hot second, over to Duke University, where one of the female students was just ousted as an adult film star.
It’s gut wrenching the way her peers have reacted to the news.
Stories of male colleagues stalking her, of threatening her online, of trying to spill every scrap of personal information they can onto the Internet.
They’ve decided that, because of what she’s chosen to do with her body, she no longer counts as a human being. She is no longer deserving of privacy.
Her body, they’ve concluded, is for rent. For all they know, there’s no alien rattling around in her brain cage at all.
I don’t think this is all about her decision to do porn.
I think half of this has to do with her being a desirable young woman of an autonomous nature. Had Kim Novak been more autonomous in Vertigo, it would have frustrated Jimmy Stewart’s ability to see himself inside of her. The few times she does so in the movie drive him absolutely mad.
This group at Duke (and not the entirety of the student body, but a hefty handful of the male students who go there) just figure that, because of her chosen night job, she’s willingly decided to become a thing; that she’s rejected her autonomy inside and outside the porn set she performs on. That she no longer seeks to be a human; that she’d rather be a body for rent. When she rebuffs their advances, they behave like madmen because they feel that they’ve been rejected by public property.
That public property should somehow believe it can make choices for itself (including performing in porn to help pay for the ludicrously high student loans the kids accrue over there) just drives them absolutely batty.
These guys seem to have a very hard time dealing with the fact that the property is, in fact, already leased out. It’s not, and never was, their property at all, even if they thought they downloaded it on their laptops.
Maybe some people simply can’t stand living inside of their own home.
The Internet is interesting because it allows us the capacity to instantaneously connect with other people: to merge, electronically, in a place without property and the strange hang ups it engenders.
We can literally leave our bodies when we’re online! The term cisgender sprung up around the same time the Internet was becoming commercial to helpfully communicate the difference between those who felt transsexual and those who didn’t, and I think it’s a lovely parallel: the watering of a place where genders are incidental, and where we can leave our bodies parked in some garage. Online, we’re coming together in new and exciting ways, through blogs and games and chat rooms.
But still, it’s the bodies that do all the talking: the machines behind the words, smacking away at the keyboards.
What a frustrating thing it is, to never be able to see the world through someone else’s eyes, as the aliens do in Independence Day.
That frustration is the instrument that makes good art. It’s the isolation that makes death a terror.
It’s the boldness that allows some people to change, while others snivel and snap, wilting away naturally and miserably behind their keyboards.
It’s, ultimately, where satisfaction comes from: the feeling when you know you’ve done well, in the one machine you’ve got. When you know you can now live there, in a comfortable house that is now a home.
It’s also the thing that produces shame, when you cannot leave yourself, even for a second, to forget whatever acts you’ve committed while leasing the body you’re stuck in forever.
It makes you absolutely dizzy, doesn’t it?
It reminds me of a film that I’d love to quote.
In the wise words of the indomitable Will Smith: “Welcome to Earth.”