Napoleon Dynamite


Gen-X-Review-Napoleon-Dynamite-movie-posterWe were all geeks. Granted, you were probably more of a loser than me, but let’s just admit that no one makes it out of high school without a few acne scars.

The new independent film Napoleon Dynamite is a quirky, funny, heartbreaking collection of scenes. Less a cohesive film than a scrapbook of horrible, painful memories, the film achieves a sort of high pathetic glory by inviting us to relive those sordid high school days with its main character, Napoleon Dynamite.

Napoleon (Jon Heder) lives in a flat world as colorless and dull as a high school daydream. Although set in modern-day Preston, Idaho, the film is stuck in the 1980s, when Moonboots, G-Force watches, and mullets seemed to make sense.

Napoleon epitomizes the age. Tall and gangly, he shuffles through the hallways of high school, averting his eyes and banging into people. He and his friend Pedro (Efren Ramirez) are inert participants in a world outside their control, where they can’t understand the most basic social protocol of school life. Stuck on the outside looking in, they bond over shared experiences of alienation and dorkiness.

These characters are hotwired to the tedium and low-burn angst of adolescence, washed out and exhausted by the effort of life within the public school institution. Panning the crowd at a school function, we see the teens as hollow-eyed participants in a new One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: Scooped out from the inside out and left to sit slack-jawed in front of teachers who don’t understand them.

This bland and desperate world of high school isn’t real, of course, and it doesn’t last. You want to grab Napoleon by the shoulders and shake him awake. You won’t be young forever, kid! Soon you will graduate from the world of petty geeks into the real world of terminal losers.

For example: Napoleon’s thirty-something brother Kip (Aaron Ruell) is a computer nerd who still lives at home and has had no long-term relationships. Addicted to Internet chat rooms and chronically unemployed, Kip doesn’t even own a car and must be carted to town by a cord connected to Napoleon’s 10-speed.

Even more pitiable, Uncle Rico (Jon Gries) recaptures his lost glory days on tape, replaying the last quarter of his last high school football game in 1982 when he just barely missed making the grade from a third-tier loser to a second-tier loser. Rico believes his life would be different if he had played that last quarter, rather than warming the bench, and he now lives in a van and dresses like a Joe Namath look-alike.

Girls are obviously off limits for these nerds. But when the female of the species – the much cherished girl dork – appears in the form of Deb (Tina Majorino), a Glamour Shots photographer in training, Napoleon and Pedro compete over her, reenacting the time-honored high school experience of survival of the fittest that results in the quintessential high school moment…The dance.

Nowhere does America sacrifice good taste to serve its own need for self-flagellation more than at the high school dance. The dance… The wing-tipped shoes, bad soft rock favorites of the seventies, eighties, and today, the ubiquitous disco ball, so cheesy that it could only survive in a prom, the smoke coming from the girls’ room, someone has thrown up again - and why does my date have to have a hair dangling from her underarm?

Yes, the high school dance: You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy, and as though the horror of the event is not enough, why, no, let’s engage in a lively social experiment that puts strangers together to dance under a spotlight.

Ah, the memories come back to me now: The bitter disappointments, the feelings of inadequacy that can only come from years and years of taunts, teasing and abuse, distilled like a fine vinegar. The cliques of losers, freaks and weirdoes; the before-school gang of nerds I’d sit with while dreaming of owning a muscle car and having a girlfriend; the years of failure and regret.

And this is where we meet Napoleon Dynamite once again. The reason stories about high school exclusion are so important to us culturally is that many of us secretly believe we were geeks. We all lived through a high school like Napoleon’s, where we were never entirely comfortable with our new bodies or the way words seemed to get lost between our brains and our tongues, and the uneasy laughter directed at Napoleon is liberating.

The film speaks to the sad, inner loser in each of us. Pathetic art works this way, by engaging our sympathies just as it forces us to confront the absurdities in our own lives. We are permitted to laugh at Napoleon, even as we secretly confess our own failures. I was Napoleon Dynamite, and my guess is so were you, and if you weren’t you’re even more pathetic since high school was, like, ages ago, loser.

Get over yourself already!


In Napoleon’s world the Dylan song, “Forever Young” is actually a thinly veiled threat, and rose-tinted glasses aside, this is probably the best advice for youngsters: Survive your youth.


Manchurian Candidate: Denzel Washington Movie brings us to a World of Fear, Chaos and Madness.

Gen X moview review The Manchurian CandidateSomeday our bureaucrats will wear team uniforms like professional racecar drivers indicating who sponsors them. Looking into the eyes of a George Bush we will see the intricate workings of giant energy corporations and our John Kerrys will distribute Time Warner and Citigroup leaflets at campaign rallies.

The new film starring Denzel Washington, the Manchurian Candidate pulls away the curtain from the Wizard of Oz, revealing the weird and frightening mechanisms used to compel our compliance with a world order.

Total discloser is a frightening concept. We know our government is controlled by shadowy figures in the private sector – corporate illuminati – but specific knowledge of this conspiracy would drive many of us mad.

U.S. Army Major Bennett Marco (Washington) is obviously nuts. Why else would he stalk his old army buddy Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber) claiming that his Desert Storm heroics are a fabrication? What sane person believes the government is controlled by brainwashing ghouls intent on world domination?

Yep, this guy isn’t right in the head. Lock him up before anyone listens to his conspiracies. We don’t want to alert, er, I mean unnecessarily panic the masses.

If the conspiracy can control our minds, it can shape how we act in the future. If it can manufacture memories and fabricate events, it can change the very way we see and feel. For Marco these are not merely philosophical or intellectual issues, but problems that affect him at a personal level.

A career soldier, Marco is accustomed to being used as a weapon, an instrument the establishment uses to punish and coerce other people. When dreams about his time in Desert Storm interrupt his daily life, however, shaking his belief in his own memories, he doesn’t know who has pulled his strings or for what reason.

The ‘official story’ that Shaw repelled an enemy onslaught, then led his fellow soldiers through the desert Moses-like seems incongruent with Marco’s recollections. Although Marco knows the story by heart, it seems unreal somehow, as though it is a counterfeit memory beneath a lie.

The truth, whatever it is, haunts him at night, returning to him as a nightmarish counter-narrative. Following murky threads of fragmentary memories, Marco confronts a secret that not only calls his own agency into question, but also suggests that the political machine has been usurped.

Marco’s suspicions rise when Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) engineers her son on the democratic presidential ticket as a vice-presidential candidate. Shaw senior has been heavily bankrolled by Manchurian Global, a huge multi-national corporation – who has also invested in mind-controlling implants – and Marco thinks that the entire platoon has been brainwashed, injected with false memories.

Why? To manufacturer an ideal candidate: a fabrication that can be elected to the highest positions of government, a puppet and mouthpiece for Manchurian Global.

Eleanor Prentiss Shaw sees in her boy the perfect political vehicle. Raymond Shaw is a henpecked son, a man only in the most superficial ways, and his mother uses him as a sort of “sock puppet,” not only politically, but also personally. The film’s weird sexual tension between mother and son thankfully never completely materializes, adding another secret to the nest of enigmas that is the film.

Eleanor Prentiss Shaw is a political force to be reckoned with, but she is barred from certain opportunities simply because she is biologically a female. By using her son’s “maleness,” manipulating him from the inside out, she is able to breach the masculine sphere. She controls men as machines, and even her own son is merely raw material burned to fuel her personal desire.

The film takes place in a world of fear, chaos and madness. The press and the powers that be manufacture terror as a means of controlling the people. The media spin on events crackles in the background of nearly every scene as characters off screen listen to television or radio. Conspiracy not only seems a rational explanation for this fear, but also its only solution, as though anarchy, too, has been created by the establishment to encourage their complete control.

The Manchurian Candidate is an uncanny sort of thriller. Just remind yourself that it’s only a movie as our corporate-sponsored candidates pay lip service to freedom and democracy. You wouldn’t want to go a little mad, would you?

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