The age of paradox

I noticed a trend in the books I’ve read lately (Everything Bad Is Good for You, Blink, and Freakonomics) is to point out things in our culture that should seem one way, but turn out to be another way entirely.

This is just a datapoint, but I couldn’t help but wonder all last summer about the never ending run of Napoleon Dynamite at the local art house theater. We have this single screen, old art deco place that usually plays a very small independent movie or two each week, and then it is gone. But for a solid month they ran Dynamite, then after swapping a few others, brought it back for another few weeks of steady business. What I also found baffling was this dusty old theater was usually filled with 40 to 60 year olds watching low budget character pieces, and it was constantly packed with teens and college-aged film viewers.

Napoleon Dynamite seems like one giant paradox of entertainment to me, one that I figured had no chance of success for several reasons:

- The film has a thin plot and moves incredibly slowly. There’s a joke, then twenty minutes of dead slow story, then another payoff.

The movie felt like it was four hours long to me, and I’m used to watching thin plots with lots of dead time. But the paradox is that it’s a slow cooker of a film, and it’s a hit with young people. That doesn’t make sense, if you’ve read about how “kids today all have ADD” and “the jump cuts of MTV and fast pace of video games are killing their attention span.” The conventional wisdom is that if you want to reach an audience of 17 year olds, make a movie like Charlie’s Angels with explosions, hot women, and an easy to grasp story.

- To call the main character Napoleon Dynamite a nerd is a disservice to nerds. He goes way beyond your average geek and almost comes off as a depressed aspergers sufferer. Why on earth would every kid from the local college and high school identify with him? If you’ve seen the Merchants of Cool, conventional wisdom is that popular, photogenic people will always be cool and what kids will hope to attain. Are we in some sort of dystopia where most kids identify with Napoleon Dynamite because they share his experiences and not that of the “cool” folks? Is it just the Rudy-esque triumph over the jocks that his dancing reveals at the end?

That’s all I have for now, but something struck me as a parallel between recent books challenging the notions we’ve always held as true, and the strange, wild popularity of a small, geeky, outside-of-hollywood film that met with great success, but by all measures, probably should have been a flop.

8 Comments

  • Matt,
    I know that I have pretty unconventional opinions about Napoleon Dynamite. Maybe my personal experience in grade school was unique, but I recall being a distinctly uncomfortable person, trying as hard as I could to figure out what it meant to be cool and fit in.
    I strongly disagree with most of your analysis of Napoleon Dynamite. While some might say that analysis of Napoleon Dynamite is a pointless endeavor, here is my opinion:
    Napoleon Dynamite is the first ever ‘realistic’ teen movie.
    You say that Napoleon eventually achieves some Revenge of the Nerds-esque victory over the jocks near the end. But it’s not really a victory. In fact, there are no significant triumphs of nerddom that I see, with the possible exception of Pedro’s victory, which I believe functions more as a plot tie than any significant goal or achievement. We don’t really see Pedro caring about the post, nor is it really anything more than a whimsical quest that Napoleon can help his friend with. The lack of true goals or aspirations of the characters is poignant, because that closely mirrors actual school experience.
    In addition, the slow pace of the movie realistically reflects the boring routine that kids have to live through in school. It feels a lot more familiar than fight sequences from Charlie’s Angels, or the attractive, popular characters from most “teen dramas.”
    It’s not so incredible to me that it appeals so strongly to me and to other young kids. There has been no other movie that doesn’t star twentysomethings acting out Melrose-Place-esque dramatic sequences, dressed up as cool, attractive kids. Other than Napoleon Dynamite, I can’t name any other movie that treats the awkwardness of adolescence with a sense of fond closeness, instead of as a caricature of geeks or overblown comic relief, like in American Pie.
    That, in fact, is what I love about the movie. At its heart, it’s a silly movie that shows kids in school who are just as awkward and uncomfortable as real kids who are trying to be cool. Basically, every character in the movie is a loser who is trying to act cool, because that’s what you’re supposed to do. There is *not a single* traditionally cool character in Napoleon Dynamite even the jocks and cheerleaders are simply acting out roles that end up looking obviously ridiculous. That’s why it’s easy for young people, regardless of station, to relate to the characters in the movie. Napoleon’s no uber-nerd; rather, he’s just a reflection of growing up in real life – uncomfortable, awkward, using the words and exclamations that you think are cool. The same experience that I went through, and I would venture to say, the same experience most of us went through in school. And, hopefully, the same experience that will be just as funny as Napoleon Dynamite when we think back about in in the future.
    -Gordon
    (encouraged to post by Andy)

  • A joke every 20 minutes? Nearly every line said in the movie is funny and quotable. And the delivery is flawless. That’s what we like. There is no need for a story line. Do people watch The Simpsons or Family Guy for its plot? No, we watch it for the jokes and the delivery. And thats what Dynamite is all about. Not only can a large majority of the people watching it not identify with the characters, they can’t even understand that part of the country. Its like identifying with Gummo.

  • I personally thought that the movie was overrated, but I do see its redeeming value. Napolean is a guy living under ridiculous, almost surreal constraints, yet no matter how many times he gets slammed into lockers and spit on by the cool kids, it doesn’t phase him. Napolean Dynamite doesn’t even really feel like the formulaic Revenge of the Nerds triumph flick. To Napolean, the popular kids aren’t something to be conquered, they are a nonfactor. He says and does whatever he wants under his circumstances, and in his own weird way, gets away with it.
    I think people my age (22) identify with Napolean because really, everyone wishes they could be like him. All the freedom and determination without the hassle of maintaining perfectly gelled hair and flawless skin.
    Plus, the dancing.

  • “A joke every 20 minutes? Nearly every line said in the movie is funny and quotable. And the delivery is flawless. That’s what we like.”
    I think the quotability really helped this picture – a week after it was released everyone walked around saying, “Frickin’ idiot!” The people who hadn’t seen it were intrigued.
    I’m currently reading Gladwell’s blink, and personally I’m still trying to find out what exactly he is trying to say – so far I’m unimpressed with this overly hyped book.

  • I’d add Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind to the list of books that champions something that has been under-valued in our culture (right-brain thinking) and gives it due attention, offering suggestions for personal growth. But unlike Gladwell’s books, his points are never unclear, even for a moment. Best book I’ve read in years, and Pink’s presentation at SXSW was outstanding.
    To me, the success of Napoleon Dynamite is a reminder that much of what we think we understand about culture (and especially youth culture) is just a set of narratives that have developed over the years, aggregating sitcom plots, Teen Beat articles, adolescent psychology studies, Frontline episodes and John Hughes movies. And these narratives evolve over time, but they’re not necessarily grounded in real youth culture – especially since 19-year-olds are rarely the ones who tell or sell the stories. So when ND comes along and tells the anti-narrative, it’s not suprising that people have latched onto it.
    What’s amazing about ND is that it takes an incredibly complex sense of humor to appreciate all its subtle jokes and humor. It’s a silly yet intensely dry film. It’s filled with characters that satirize character sterotypes (but not in an overt way), a story that intentionally avoids traditional plot pitfalls – and I believe that kids grok all that without needing to break it down. Because kids are getting smarter.
    I think about the same thing with Eminem lyrics; there are all sorts of levels – many of them intentionally contradictory; irony, anger and parody in the same breath – and most people under thirty don’t lose Em’s point of view for a second, even if they’re not big fans of his work. Meanwhile, all my parents hear is noise and violence.
    And so maybe what seems like a paradox or risky film is just storytelling catching up with reality; we’re overthrowing outdated narratives and replacing them with more intelligent, subtle stories that better capture our modern experience.

  • I agree with the above poster who described ND as “realistic.” I grew up in Northern Utah in the 80s and that movie felt like a documentary at times. Also, look at this family photo, particularly my Napoleon-esque brother in the background:
    http://complicity.uvsc.edu/napoleon
    (picture will be up in a moment…)

  • Matt, your diagnosis of Napoleon as a ‘depressed Asperger’s sufferer’ is part of the reason that every kid in america these days is diagnosed with either Asperger’s or ADHD. Why was Napoleon Dynamite such a popular movie? Simple answer: it felt more like a documentary than a work of fiction for many, many people.

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