Wednesday, April 25, 2007
If you have not seen the movie Napoleon Dynamite, please do not read this post. It will only bore you, and it will certainly cloud your apprehension of the film, should you see it in the future.
Which I recommend.
Some columnist from the Chicago Tribune was on NPR today talking about movies that make men cry. The bit was thin gruel: mostly about how real guys are permitted to cry about dogs, sports, and patriotism (in that order, I garnered), but I was driving, and I'm prone to pondering while driving, so I pondered.
I'm the only guy in a family of five, so our house is a suitable laboratory for studying the subject. I can think of only one film that made me tear up, while leaving all the women unaffected - Napoleon Dynamite
If you've seen that film, you are probably thinking that I simply over-identified with a doofy nerd who wins in the end (and it's probably true, a little), but I clearly remember being moved by what I saw as a brilliant, poignant paean of gentle affection for that will to create, and to share the joy of creation, that so characterizes the human species. No, really, I thought that, and I told the women, too. They just said I was being a doofy nerd, but I still think it.
Most movies, and stories, and legends, and myths contain tension or struggles between opposing forces - what Lit 101 calls "conflict". Napoleon Dynamite (ND, henceforth) has loads of it, pointing in a confusing variety of directions.
In a proper story, this conflict is the audience's Guide to the plot. In good stories, the conflicts often dodge and feint, leading and misleading the audience on a merry chase, but in the end, they lend meaning and significance to the story in a didactic way, even in a car chase flick. Even in an episode of Seinfeld*.
The conflicts in ND aren't apparently like that. They're mostly utterly pedestrian and unremarkable. There is more drama (and vastly higher stakes) in any high school in the USA each day than you can find in the entire film. To make things worse on your Lit 101 scorecard, the Conflicts (such as they are) in ND are mostly discursive and unrelated to any detectable theme.
Now let's pause right there, because I think that's where ND lost my women. As the movie developed, I was enjoying it as an idiosyncratic slice-of-life vignette with odd characters, and a wit that somehow managed to be simultaneously broad and dry. I believe (and this is conjecture, because they still won't discuss this movie with me) that somewhere along the line, they had stopped processing the movie because it a) violated their expectations for Conflict in a story (the Conflict failed to guide them), and b) was about some nerdy, doofy high school kids with drab, strangely normal lives.
But I was still hangin' in, so we go on.
Most movies, and stories, and legends, and myths contain at least one significant event. The characters are often ordinary people, but BOOM! the hero's family is kidnapped by bandidos, or BOOM! the hero is forced to choose between Impoverished Right and Affluent Wrong, or BOOM! the hero is falsely accused of a heinous crime and must live as an Outlaw to prove his innocence, or BOOM! whatever. ND honors this convention with the big Campaign Assembly at the end, where Napoleon is forced to dance. It was (as ND's makers intended) at this moment of crisis** that the desultory threads of conflict collapsed into a single shining point, and the Meaning of Napoleon's triumphant dance came clear, and wobbly puddles welled up on my lower eyelids.
Napoleon hadn't been tossed a big, juicy, literary softball of Conflict, like a murder, or a fatal disease, or a treasure or something. What he had faced in the film was Life itself. In the face of all of the usual pettiness, timidity, routine, scripted behavior, monkey-troop posturing, unexamined assumptions, and cafeteria food of his life, when the big showdown came, and his friend was counting on him, he was ready. He came through for his friend, but he came through for himself, too. He was able to stand before the world (his world) and shine, for just that moment, like a burning hubcap, or maybe more like a pie plate in a microwave (No, that's not right either).
Anyway, all of the dreary little mundane Conflicts that had gone before were vaporized in that moment. And why was he prepared for that moment? Why did he have the chops in his repertoire to kill the house at the surprise Moment of Truth?
FOR NO REASON WHATSOEVER!
He didn't suffer indignities from a Master, or hermit himself in self-discipline to prepare for some inevitable High Noon moment (though he did work on his dance moves in his room). He was just a guy, and he chanced into an opportunity to let his insides beam out in a big showy way. As Napoleon said of someone else who had just received a great gift (from him), "Lucky."
I actually have quite a bit more about that movie, and its various characters, but I've already said way too much.
I would only add that nothing in this thought experiment seems really to bear much on gender - only on the personalities in my family. So...
* Seinfeld is the evil, evil doppelgänger of Napoleon Dynamite
** That BOOM! of crisis/resolution at the end was an artistic shock, and it was the source of this film's power to make me leak. There's no reason to believe that Jared and Jerusha Hess have any more movies left in them, but this one was clearly bursting to get out. It is as complete a work of art as a sweet little movie can be. Maybe they should quit now. I doubt they're the Coens.
*** ADDENDUM: I have now gotten some discussion out of one of the women (the Head Woman, in fact, and the chief of our clan). She alerted me to the simple truth that gender roles are among the "unexamined assumptions" that form the matrix of Our Hero's life, and that it would be unlikely for a female to form a strong identification with his little plights in the movie. That's so obvious, and I SO missed it without her help. She implies that I have other virtues that partially compensate for these sorts of cognitive failures, but she refuses to tell me what they are. You'll be the second to know.