Location: Vienna, Virginia, United States

A graduate of Dartmouth College (2005) and Washington and Lee University School of Law (2010). These are my personal blogs, and the musings expressed on them do not reflect the positions of my employer. They do reflect my readings, thoughts, and aspirations, which I figure is good enough.

Monday, June 19, 2006


In a few comments to my post on X-Men III below, someone by the name of Puke7 essentially accuses me of overanalyzing a meaningless movie by attacking my masculinity.

I still don't get the point of that one, but nevertheless, I stand by my right to analyze whatever tripe I want, because after all, the loudest statement of all might be made by a meaningless movie that grosses hundreds of millions of dollars. It's what's missing that's important.

I'd like to continue the trend of overanalyzing, because I've come to realize that there's not enough of it. Not nearly. To generalize, we're so morbidly afraid of analysis that we spout the same repetitive garbage over and over again, telling ourselves that nothing is original anymore, so why bother trying? To a large extent, I'm starting to feel that way about sports and sportswriting, for example.

But regarding cinema, I've been thinking for a while about the movie "Napoleon Dynamite." Why did people quote it so much? Why do they still quote it so much? How did it get to be such a cultural phenomenon that "Vote Pedro" and "Gosh!" among other phrases, have entered our daily lexicon?

For me, the answer is not so simple that the movie was eminently quotable, or that it spoke to the Napoleon in us, or the repressed children of the 80's that so many of us have contained within ourselves, wrapped in fetters of snap bracelets, aviator glasses, legwarmers and shoulder pads.

We are not Napoleon, for all our quoting of him.

We're merely the ones who laugh at him. And I would advance the idea that the sublimation of "Napoleon Dynamite" into our daily conversations, and consciousness, is nothing more than a guilty attempt to redeem ourselves and convince ourselves that far from laughing at him, we are just like him, and that we are laughing with him.

We'd like to believe that we were the underdog in school, the ones being bullied and laughed at. But that wouldn't be the truth. Honestly, I may have been bullied in school, but for every time that someone spoke down to me, there's probably another time that I was speaking down to someone else. There's almost always someone left to bully.

We tell ourselves, perhaps, that we admire his refusal to live by rules thrust upon him. But in the world we live in, there's one word for people who live like him. Outcasts.

And not many of us are willing to embrace that moniker. Therefore, we pretend that we're like Napoleon, that we're outcasts just like him, oh poor us, while we're in fact the ones who are casting others out.

Think about the humor of the movie - why are we laughing?

We laugh at Napoleon for shoving food at Tina the Llama (and getting angry at her, which is in and of itself intriguing, because Napoleon, like us, and like his peers, needs someone or some thing to push around). We laugh at Napoleon for his broken attempts at social interaction with the other characters in the film.

The other characters are all caricatures or stereotypes (of blondes, of girls from the 1980's, of Mexicans, or rednecks, etc.etc.), but nevertheless, what we laugh at is not the stereotype, but Napoleon's inability to deal with them.

But our laughter is never really directed at the caricatures of 80's midwestern life. No, the reactions to characters like Uncle Rico are more painful than anything else. We're meant to be repulsed by characters like Summer.

Nor is our outward laughter directed at the set-up of the jokes, the social commentary - the idea of his family eating nothing but steak, the idea of Keith meeting a woman on the Internets.

Our laughter is directly solely AT Napoleon himself, as he draws horrible pictures of the girl he has a crush on, as he gets pushed around at school, as he reacts impotently to the bullying, etc. etc. In fact, the film (and Jon Heder) does such a good job of making Napoleon the locus of all the ridicule, that I'm convinced that our ritualisitic repetitions are nothing more than attempts to compensate for laughing at him. Every time we say "Gosh!" it makes us feel a little better for laughing at Napoleon being a member of the Happy Hands Club.

We're sorry to be laughing at Napoleon. But we do it anyway, don't we? We'd like to think that we ARE him, or that we constantly deal with people who are like the ones Napoleon encounters, and that in the end, maybe we have an entertaining solo dance routine that will garner us applause from even the most popular (and banal) elements of our society.

My own words don't really sum up my thoughts on the movie as well as the anecdote imparted by a friend. She told me that the first time she saw the movie, she saw it alone, and consequently, did not get it at all. She didn't know whether to laugh, because it would have made her feel guilty, or to just sit and feel sorry for him. But it was easier to laugh the second time, when she saw it with a group of friends.

I think it makes a lot of sense. It take a special kind of person to laugh at the misfortune of others alone. It's a lot easier when we're in a group. "Napoleon Dynamite" is a movie that appeals to groupthink - it appeals to the power of the group to ridicule as a single entity, with a single focus of ridicule. As a fortunate consequence to the moviemakers, most of us then feel so guilty that we must necessarily justify our laughter by deifing the object of the ridicule.


Blogger Captain Caveman said...

Hmmm... hard to believe you get criticized for being overly analytical.

You're making it too complicated. People like Napoleon because he's a striking individual in high school, the environment most likely to quash individuality. And his triumph over the "cool" kids is what makes the film so satisfying. It's an indie John Hughes film for the 21st century.

Also, Idaho isn't the Midwest.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Satchmo said...

Damn, I knew it took place in Idaho too.

You're right though - that we like Napoleon because he's unique. But I guess my point is that we'd like to think that we're unique in similar ways (unique meaning antiestablishment, being the low man on the totem pole, etc.), when in fact it couldn't be further from the truth for most of us.

We like to think we're fringy and edgy, but most of us didn't spend high school that way. At least not to the extent we'd like to believe.

It's a matter of perspective. We obviously are supposed to love it when Napoleon triumphs, but the funny thing is that we're not exactly standing by him for the majority of the movie; we're laughing at him more than at his peers (although they're pretty ridiculous as well).

I feel like we wouldn't have made the movie so iconic if there wasn't something more at play than just a typical loser-makes-good high school story.

11:36 AM  
Blogger panda said...

Does this mean that I should be doing something significantly more risque around now? ... sure feels like it.

12:03 AM  
Blogger panda said...

remember that post you wrote about xzibit and Pimp My Ride? it seems like someone's beaten you to it. or not. this is similar to my pictures-on-the-side-of-subway-walls idea.

11:46 PM  

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