Napoleon Dynamite

Napoleon Dynamite

A Comedy of Nihilism

Continuing a tradition of ‘entertainment’ that began with Gummo.

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“What I like about Gummo are the details that one might not notice at first. There’s the scene where the kid in the bathtub drops his chocolate bar into the dirty water and just behind him there’s a piece of fried bacon stuck to the wall with Scotch tape. This is the entertainment of the future.” —Werner Herzog

Two small towns, both alike in indignity. Two equally tangential storylines, anecdotal in scale. Two sets of characters, drawn as broadly as possible and stretched to their material limits. A critical comparison of Napoleon Dynamite (2004) and Gummo (1997) has much to commend itself. Each film seeks to capture its unique species in their natural habitat. Both could be (and have been) unreasonably charged with exploitation, but it is nearly impossible to identify the point at which either film crosses the line. The comedy Napoleon Dynamite, like the drama Gummo before it, missed critical appreciation but has found a rabid following in a generation that identifies with its aimless aggression.

GummoPerhaps as distorted imitations of the archetypal John Hughes movies, these films succeed by identifying with the outsider in a system where most people are unwilling to relate to the “in crowd” anyway. Like Ducky in Pretty in Pink, we have the suspicion that Napoleon is cool; we are just waiting for the director to prove it. And the grab bag of fringe characters in Gummo are eventually validated just like The Breakfast Club. At the very least, we can show that Napoleon Dynamite is another attempt to push audiences towards what the German writer-director Werner Herzog calls “the entertainment of the future.”

Napoleon Complex

Napoleon Dynamite and his brother Kip, chat-room denizen extraordinaire, live with their grandmother in a nondescript Idaho town. Their grandmother bites it in a dune-buggy accident and leaves them in the hands of their uncle during her convalescence. Uncle Rico is terminally fixated on his ex-football hero status; if only he had made that play, he wouldn’t be stuck in this town selling Tupperware and breast enhancement supplements door to door. Needless to say, Napoleon exhibits the emotional characteristics of someone who feels stuck, abandoned, and generously underprivileged. His frequent one-liners are catchy combinations of the imperious and the ignorant.

Napoleon finally makes a friend in the person of Pedro, the school’s only Mexican. When Pedro decides to run for class president, extremely dry and unrelated antics ensue. The film eventually winds itself up by tossing in all the things we would expect to find in a story about a nerd in high school: Napoleon finds a way to overcome the endless ridicule and scorn of the rest of his classmates and in the process ends up with an awesome girlfriend—quite the accomplishment for a guy whose best pick-up line is “I caught you a delicious bass.”

At a more theoretical level, Napoleon Dynamite is the story about a geek who takes nerdiness to such an extreme that it comes full circle. The highlight of the film is Napoleon’s last act of desperation, a gawky disco dance number performed in front of the entire high school as a follow-up to Pedro’s election speech. It turns out that this dance is at once so shamelessly ridiculous and self-assured that it redefines what cool is and thereby sets a new standard. Pedro wins because of it.

The setting makes it possible to see the act as altruistic—Napoleon leaping sacrificially onto the stage in a last-ditch effort to revive Pedro’s hopeless campaign. But it could also be interpreted as the impulsive public display of Napoleon’s extreme self-absorption. He may simply be unaware of how uncool he really is. To be fair, this self-absorption has been imposed on him by a high school fully unwilling to socialize with him in any form. But its shallow hubris far outstrips the conforming egoism of the jocks that bully him. As something unknowingly weak bringing to shame the things that are mighty, Napoleon’s subversion of the system from the inside is irrefutable, and thus the film ends with full assurance to the audience that Napoleon has officially validated his idiosyncrasies.

Narrative whirlwind

It is hard to make a one-to-one comparison with Napoleon as a character and Gummo because Gummo isn’t a character. Gummo isn’t even a place, other than being the title under which resides a collection of vignettes that take place in a surreal representation of Xenia, Ohio. Not nearly as linear as Napoleon Dynamite, the movie is intentionally episodic and tangential in scale.

Xenia, Ohio made national headlines in 1974 after being ravaged by tornadoes. Here, years later, it serves as a canvas upon which Harmony Korine (director of 1995 indie-shocker Kids) paints his unsettling vision of suburban America. Rooted in these events by recurrent flashes of old news-footage, Gummo forces a tone of regrettable realism to eventually surface.

To summarize Gummo would be to describe its endless rotation of unrelated scenes, each host to its own grimy turn of phrase or fabricated repulsion. In the main, there are two groupings that Korine focuses on repeatedly. We follow the first, a dangerous petrol-sniffing version of Tom and Huck, in their daily routine of rounding up cats to sell to a middleman for a local Chinese restaurant. Among other things—and this is surprisingly the least disturbing—Solomon and Tummler invade a cat-hunting competitor’s dejected house and discover his comatose grandmother on life-support. They remove the plug from the wall with an odd respect as if this were an act of mercy in the forgotten purgatory of Xenia. They seem to feel here a fleeting sense of efficacy, pausing to stare blankly at this metaphor of their own situation.

We also follow around a trio of sisters, bleached blonde and trashy as if trying to blend in with the piles of garbage ubiquitous to their town. The camera simply records their strange activities for the audience as if they were an adolescent litter of some exotic species in a zoo. They are adapting to their environment and learning the social patterns that will best enhance their chances of survival.

Before we can get a trace on what Korine wants us to assume about any of these characters he moves on to the next scene. Mimicking the historical memory of the tornado itself, Gummo swirls smoothly, but darts recklessly from localized point to point leaving random bits of narrative in its wake.

Despite seeming much different at the outset, Napoleon Dynamite and Gummo have some key similarities. The following four are the most significant from a formal standpoint.

1. Disjunction junction

In both films, adjoining scenes have only arbitrary relationships. In Napoleon Dynamite we blindly accept the scene in which Napoleon and his brother visit the local dojo to learn some fancy karate even though it has no other relation to the film than a manufactured meeting between their uncle and the dojo guru later in the storyline. We take in stride the fact that there is a llama in Napoleon’s backyard, and that Kip and his uncle are trying to purchase a time machine. We continue to accept these random additions to the script, however seemingly ad-libbed or ad hoc, until we learn that this is where the comedy derives from.

It is unnecessary to demonstrate this randomness in Gummo, as it seems actually to be the film’s formal purpose. Korine’s vignettes offer no association other than geography and tone. Even if many of the individual scenes were planned, the film functions no differently than something created on the fly.

In each case, scenes are packed together in the hope that the whole will be greater than the sum of its parts. While in Gummo this arbitrariness may serve to impress on the audience the aimlessness of its characters, in Napoleon Dynamite it only serves to draw attention to its own amateurish artifice. At least in Gummo we are given a social reasoning behind what amounts to formal nihilism. 

2. Typical

Both films create distance through stereotypes. Napoleon Dynamite is a world in which everyone is a stereotype. The nerd really does run weird, the jock really is dim, Mexicans really are gangsters, black women really are from Detroit, and chat-room addicts really are frail oddballs with lisps.

Gummo likewise sets up its own expectations about the sort of people we would expect to find rummaging about Xenia and then proceeds to meet them adequately. In one sequence, Korine films a girl with Down’s Syndrome playing oddly to the camera. Though at first unsettling, we never venture farther than skin deep into her as a character. Korine distances us far enough from her that she remains a caricature even if she is playing herself. Same with all the others in the film.

If either film were to treat its characters as anything more substantial, they would become something completely different. Napoleon’s comedy would become far too dark for us to comfortably appreciate it, and Gummo would be an unbearably exploitative documentary.

3. Nurture, or the lack thereof

In both films, we accept the idiosyncrasies of these characters as products of their environment. Napoleon Dynamite depends on the flawless execution of Napoleon’s touchy persona. He has no family to speak of, his peers consistently reject him, and his only father-figure is an unspeakable horror. Though this is all moderated in the film by dry comedy, this pitiable environment is the only explanation for Napoleon’s renowned bitterness and fixation on violence.

Still from GummoGummo takes this point a step further as its characters seem to be actual projections of their environment. Though their behavior is extremely odd, it is consistent with the surreal nature of Xenia, and this environment becomes our only point of contact with their behavior.

Korine was so aware of this environment that an apocryphal tale about the filming is often circulated. It is said that during one sequence shot in an absolutely filthy shack, the crew wore hazmat suits while Korine and his cinematographer bandied about in speedos. In anticipation of the viewing process, Korine demonstrates that getting to the roots of his grubby film will involve ungloved contact with its environment.

4. Savages, certainly

Perhaps most importantly, in both films we are encouraged to think of key characters as “noble savages.” Napoleon is the ultimate nerd outsider. He refuses to submit to, or even acknowledge, the normative system that regulates the behavior and interaction of his peers. The concept of the “noble savage” depends on the idea that the mind untouched by civilization is untutored and thereby represents a purer state of human action or existence. Like Napoleon, the “noble savage” is a person by definition divested of the corrosive effects of conformity and consequently motivated by a self-interest completely different than the one that competes for higher rungs on civilization’s social ladder. Napoleon, utterly abandoned by his peers, exists in a parallel adolescence and eventually returns to confront them with an alternative to their own system.

Likewise, the wasteland of Xenia is portrayed as the wilderness beyond the Brave New World. Any sense of moral causality is abandoned in the film because these characters are simply responding illiterately to their natural environment. The difference between your average suburban teenager and the teenagers in Gummo is that Xenia is post-catastrophe. Whatever sense of civilization used to exist there has been eradicated by the tornado and these kids are now cut off from the socializing systems that normally control us.

In both films, we are encouraged to align ourselves with these outsiders against prevailing socializing institutions. These characters become a way to critique, either comically or pointedly, the excessiveness of the normal.

Assessing success

In both films, these four formal points of contact serve as the basic elements of their construction with varying degrees of success and intention. (1) The arbitrariness of Gummo is an inherent plot device, but in Napoleon Dynamite it is an attempt to expand the comedy of the otherwise flat storyline. (2) Without the cardboard-cutout approach to characterizations in each film, neither of them would work. The characters in Gummo are stereotyped through an intentioned distance set up between viewer and actor (or more probably director and actor). In Napoleon Dynamite, the characters are simply overdrawn so as to justify the absurdity of Napoleon’s presence. In the resulting distance between Napoleon and the viewer, comedy happens. (3) As products of their environments, we only have contact with the characters in each film through an acceptance of their narrative world. As it is easy to demonstrate how sad each narrative world is, it is unsettling to truly approach each film on these terms. (4) These elements all work together in order to present these characters as noble savages. They represent ways of identifying with outsiders that embody critiques of what is sane or normal behavior. In effect, both films accomplish the same goal via strategies that differ only at a surface level. 

Obviously the biggest difference between these two films is their marked difference in tone, but it is fair to say that without its superimposed comedy, Napoleon Dynamite would be every bit as depressing as Gummo. Napoleon and his brother are virtually abandoned, cripplingly unaware of their own shortcomings, and doomed to share in the meager social and economic cycles of their small town. The success of Napoleon Dynamite as a legitimate comedy depends on its ability to interpret these narrative realities within a coherently amusing environment. If it cannot, then it is simply mercenary and falls short of the genteel mark set for this sort of storytelling set by Hal Ashby (Harold and Maude) and Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums).

In the end, I don’t think Napoleon Dynamite does meet this mark. But since it does succeed in treating its characters with enough levity for us not to notice at first, it isn’t fair to think of its producers as intentionally mercenary. The film is only accidentally so.

Herzog sees Gummo as the “entertainment of the future” due to its ability to collect and position random elements in a confrontationally distasteful universe that grows with each viewing. It represents the future because it lies beyond our current programmatic need for narrative and resolution. I would add to this suggestion only by positing that the above four elements are the key formal elements of this sort of filmmaking. The foregoing has been a structural appreciation of this emerging sort of entertainment, if you will.

It is intriguing to think of Napoleon Dynamite in this context. Its universe is not nearly as distasteful or complex as that of Gummo, but over repeated viewings its randomly positioned elements begin to adjust and enhance our perception of its central noble savage. At the very least, we can say that either Napoleon Dynamite is the experimental Gummo for a new generation, or the entertainment of the future is already here. :::

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address), co-editor of The Matthew’s House Project Monthly, is a freelance film-writer and editor currently working on a PhD at the University of Edinburgh.
posted by editor ::: July 19, 2005 ::: philms ::: (1) Comments