Pop Playground - or: The Genre-fication of the Cult Classic
How Napoleon Dynamite Crashed Our Party



napoleon Dynamite, the debut film from Jared Hess, is 2004’s biggest cult smash, and it hasn’t yet made a dime on ticket sales at the time of this writing. For the past couple months, Fox Searchlight Pictures—which spent $3 million acquiring the film at Sundance—has employed a commonplace marketing tool to an unprecedented extent, screening the comedy for audiences all over the country, free of charge, while handing out complimentary t-shirts and a frequent-viewer card—no different than the ones given out at Subway—that encourages audiences to see the film three times before its release in order to receive a “special prize package.” At the film’s official website, hundreds of viewers have already joined the Napoleon Dynamite Fan Club, free of charge, and a heated race for Club President has ensued.

“How is this movie going to make money?” an audience member asked a publicist at a recent screening. Her response: a hearty laugh. After every Dynamite screening, you’re likely to hear a legion of converts imitating Napoleon’s quirky mannerisms, ready to watch the film again. Fortunately, Fox Searchlight reps stand outside the cinemas handing out passes to the next showing.

Cut from the same irony-soaked cloth as Rushmore and Election, Napoleon Dynamite is one of the year’s funniest films, a low-key paean to the convergence of geek chic and gangsta culture in a tiny Idaho town. Like Rushmore”, the film is centered around a likeable outsider on an esoteric mission, set in a time period obfuscated by the use of retro pop songs, with a screenplay dependent on an arsenal of memorable barbs too classic to spoil. Some, like Ed Gonzalez at Slant Magazine, have called the film “rotten to the core,” emphasizing the film’s exploitation of Midwestern idiosyncrasies for petty laughs, while other viewers side with The Village Voice’s Michael Atkinson, who praised Napoleon as an “epic, magisterially observed pastiche on all-American geekhood,” and its protagonist (played by newcomer Jon Heder) as a petulant antihero capturing an apathetic zeitgeist. Scott Foundas of LA Weekly sums it up best— “Either you find [the film] the epitome of all that’s right about American independent cinema today or exactly the kind of movie by which independent movies may sow the seeds of their own demise.” Despite its lack of plot, social commentary, emotional resonance or unanimous critical acclaim—or perhaps because of it—Napoleon Dynamite is the kind of film that would find its cult in the blink of an eye.

I’ve seen the film twice, and it passes the watchability test of a true cult classic. I have lines memorized, characters mimicked, and most importantly, theories about possible opportunities for a sequel. So why, on the eve of the film’s official release, am I already sick of the Napoleon Dynamite phenomenon?

Part of—nay, all of—the pleasure of a cult classic is the thrill of discovery, a feeling of group ownership over a film’s esoteric pleasures. Critics won’t get it, general audiences won’t get it, but the cult does. Recent cult classics and midnight staples like Donnie Darko, Wet Hot American Summer and Waiting For Guffman were initially dumped into a handful of theatres with little fanfare, so that initially small audiences had to fortuitously stumble upon greatness. A cult film’s popularity is spread through selective word-of-mouth, with the audience acting as the film’s true distributor.

Does Fox Searchlight’s assemblage of the Napoleon Dynamite cult undermine everything movie geeks have worked for? Is the cult classic now a full-fledged cinematic genre, one that can be recognized by its content, like a horror film or romantic comedy? The cult embrace of certain films is supposed to express a reaction against the movie studios who attempt to dictate our cinematic tastes. Now, Fox Searchlight is beating discerning audiences at their own game.

Scattered upon the aforementioned frequent-viewer cards handed out at Dynamite screenings are phrases that transform Napoleon’s lingo into discomfiting propaganda: “Dang! It’s Like The Best Movie Ever!”; “Gosh, I Loved It!”; “Napoleon’s My Hero.” True, I did love it, and true, Napoleon is my hero, but I don’t need a movie studio to tell me these things.

Napoleon Dynamite, however, is just a microcosm of this global pandemic. Fox Searchlight, understandably enough, has acquired a quality independent film with potential for a mass-market crossover, and its risky (and generous) advertising plan has generated plenty of positive word of mouth. However, if Napoleon Dynamite does indeed become a hit, the cult film will have proven itself as a marketable genre. As a result, audiences will eventually find it harder to stumble upon hidden talent, and we will lose one of the chief pleasures of moviegoing.



By: Akiva Gottlieb
Published on: 2004-06-15
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