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Sunday evening was watch-movies-day: Garden State, Napoleon Dynamite, and Dog Soldiers, three movies that have little if anything in common, except their names each consist of two words. I also took another look at a couple season 9 Stargate-SG1 episodes.
The interesting thing I noticed about the SG1 episodes was a certain recurring pride that appeared in episode after episode in the season—the pride issue was made explicit in the last few episodes as the Ori fleet started upon its crusade, but we see earlier that the cavalier cockiness that had inspired the first seasons had indeed turned more dangerous—the team was too secure in its ability to solve problems, and they jumped at solutions and intervention perhaps because of that pride—of course (one hopes), pride will lead to a downfall and humility in season 10, followed by a new status quo and new foes ... so works serial entertainment.
I chose to take a quick look at The Idaho Statesman online, not one of the world's best newspapers, but the one with which I grew up, the one that provided me with the Penny Whistle Press on the weekend, the one that posts rabid right-wing letters to the editor, and the one that has little original content of its own except when dealing with Idaho-centric cultural or recreational stories.
What amused me was that in viewing a rather Idaho-centric website from Germany I was getting Germany-centric ads, the type that I get on every site, from Yahoo! mail to p2p sites—this particular private insurance ad is everywhere.
Amusing cognitive dissonance.
Garden State begs to be addressed on at least three levels: instrumentally as entertainment, at a meta level looking at context, and in its own right as a movie, complete with script, performances, Mise en scène, etc.
I'll come back to the entertainment value later, beginning instead with some context: Zach Braff's feature film debut as a director, the treatment of a contemporary and at times controversial issue in the form of mental illness or at least depression, the film's reception as an independent film as well as its reception—augmented perhaps by its soundtrack and cast—as an indie, gen-Y sort of movie. The new director syndrome explains or excuses, depending on perspective, the film's quirks, its preciousness and pretensions—it is an extended film-school-movie. By even touching depression the film risks the accusation (which I've seen by casual viewers, not by professional reviewers) that it is treating the subject too lightly, advocating going off medication, etc.—the individuality of the film is mistaken for a general statement, which is not specific to this movie or topic, but does seem common in any work featuring such a salient topic. Likewise the supposed gen-Y nature of the characters argues for or against its popularity, often as a double-edged sword, for a number of anti-Garden State comments I've read have invoked the specter of popularity: it's supposedly indie or it's popular with XZY. Viewers of a certain age, often one similar to that of the main characters, see the film as either an accurate or inaccurate portrayal of their generation, which then speaks for or against the movie.
As for technical matters, I'll reference Keith Phipps and Roger Ebert, especially with regard to the movie's weaknesses. That having been said, there is a good deal of potential in those structural details. A fair amount of binary structure surfaces throughout the movie, some of it extremely obvious, other elements hardly hidden but not quite as blatant. The most glaring would of course be the dream airplane sequence at the beginning, matched with the aborted flight at the end, but we have two alligators on television (one on a nature documentary, the second Sam on ice), a couple trips to the cemetery, two orgiastic parties (with many of the same male characters), a couple bathtub trips, matching funerals, parallel pyramid schemes, and a couple instances of acquiring jewelry, and often these paired moments comment upon each other—Mark's grave theft helps to explain the quest for the second piece of jewelry, and the second funeral (the hamster) comments upon the first. This helps to make up for a cast of characters so shallow that they are mere ciphers, quick references to unsatisfying 20-something life. Coke-snorter turned cop, grave digger, Medieval Times knight, bored retired inventor, hardware store clerk ... only Mark has enough scenes to be given any depth by virtue of the range of his absurdities.
Yet there is still something refreshing in all this. It is not the twists and revelations of American Beauty or The Ice Storm: Andrew's own role in his mother's disability is revealed early, Sam was not a housekeeper or thief or anything else who was present with Andrew's mother drowned, there are no hidden or scandalous affairs or seductions—no Mrs. Robinson here, despite certain comparisons having been made. In terms of plot it has an opening action that gets things rolling, and a parallel moment (the plane) at the end to tie things up. In between we have something quixotic in more ways than one, for at first we have a picaresque sequence of not-too-related scenes, followed toward the end by a Rube Goldberg-esque quest. The characters barely develop—Sam doesn't even get over her lying. The lethargic and laconic pacing and mood is what shifts, and instead of being merely the pacing issues of a first time director, it is the un-veiling of Andrew's emotional psyche as years of drugs drain from his system.
Seen as a period piece of or for a generation, as a romantic comedy or drama, the movie fails, and fails to last. Screaming into the abyss is too literal and blatant, and there is something a bit too saccharine about the ending. The action is muted to the point that only frozen scenes remain, yet what the movie lacks in life-changing events it makes up for with a character learning to experience and live.
I first read The Onion review for Napoleon Dynamite quite a while ago and was turned off to the film: “Sure, it quickly turns into a one-note exercise in laughing at the yokels, but at least it has a vision.” The laugh-at-the-yokels nature of the movie helped to place it on my list of movies not to put much effort into watching. Since then it has become a favorite of some friends and family members, so I chose to give it a view.
For me I think it will retain a certain ambivalent cultishness: it is not so bad that it is good, far from it, but it hits enough right notes that although I think it is almost unwatchable as a movie, it still exudes some charm.
The amateurish production values do not bother me—it is, essentially, an amateur production, and there is no reason to complain about that. Several veteran actors make appearances, though few are well-known (Efren Ramirez, Tina Majorino, and Jon Gries have been seen in bigger productions), and they are the only ones whose performances transcend wooden line-reading-from cards.
A christian review claims the movie has “simplistic beauty” and is “character-driven”—more accurately, it is type-driven, mostly stereotype driven, but cardboard, one-dimensional characters of all sorts are to be seen, and only Deb and Pedro are likable. Likable characters are not a must, and the unlikable sort often make compelling leads, but Ebert is right in hinting that Napoleon and company are primarily here to be laughed at, not with.
What the movie has going for it is threefold: scenes, nostalgia, and setting.
The plot is rudimentary and not made up for by character development, but there are scenes that stick with you, and most play off the laughing-at-the-yokel vibe, but in the context of comic scenes they work, much like Saturday Night Live sketches, and those that come to mind most are Deb on the steps, Deb's first photography session with Rico & Co., Pedro's wig, grandma at the sand dunes, the cow-shooting (though the reaction on the bus was poorly filmed), the marvelous FFA scenes, and the tacked on wedding at the end of the credits.
The opening credits display the best production values of the movie, and as is (too) often the case, they are the most cohesive part of the film. They also introduce the nostalgia factor, the types of food and the way they are presented, which continues in the movie with the interior and exterior designs of the houses used, moon-boots, something Trapper Keeper-esque, the bus and use of an 80s-era toy/doll, and tetherball. The nostalgia factor is not cohesive—at times it references the 80s, other times the 90s, and the putative timeframe for the movie is the 2004-2005 school year, as expressed by Napoleon's student ID card. This completely ignores Rico's nostalgia, his longing for 1982.
Few movies about the West take place in Idaho, fewer still are filmed there; My Own Private Idaho was filmed in Oregon, Twin Falls, Idaho only employs a punny name. A Home of Our Own (1993 with Kathy Bates) is a nostalgic period piece of its own, which resettles a family in a generic rural Idaho town, though it could have been filmed anywhere in the West. The setting (fictional as well as filming location) for Napoleon Dynamite is recognizably Idaho, from the shape of the hills, climate, mountains in the background, and architecture, though parts of Utah, Nevada, and even eastern Oregon could fit the bill.
As with Garden State there is a danger of generalization that I've seen in the reception of this movie, and it has to do, to an extent, with the various audiences for Napoleon Dynamite. Certain people from Idaho and Utah identify with it—they see in it something authentic, and the Idaho legislature went so far as to pass a resolution commending the film. Others fall into the escape-from-Idaho crowd, much like the former-Mormon crowd, etc., a group often irrationally critical and seething with disdain for where they came from or lived—I am reminded of similar responses by religious-folks-turned-atheists who are often dogmatically anti-religion. This group is the most vicious in their enjoyment of the movie: “See, that's how it is!” Members of a third group have no connection to the region, but also generalize and find in Napoleon Dynamite the affirmation of their stereotypes.
In the end I had to put Napoleon Dynamite away. I longed for tetherball, but somehow it is a movie that works best as a collection of images, quotes, and outtakes.
It would be nice to say that the past half decade has shown a renaissance in monster movies, but that would require ignoring those of the 70s and 80s (and before, of course) and at the same time claiming that there was no continuity to those now. It is a bit safer to claim that in the post-Scream era in addition to bad teen horror movies there are also a number of lower-budget horror and monster films being made that show surprising wit and awareness of genre conventions, as well as a willingness to engage them without too much postmodern irony. These are movies that are willing to be genre mashes, horror-comedies and the like, without screaming, “look at me! I'm a horror-comedy wink wink!” These are all B movies, sometimes lower, but they are often earnest as well as silly, and that counts for a lot.
Dog Soldiers is such a werewolf movie. The wit starts in the title, bringing together our soldiers, our werewolves, and perhaps werewolf soldiers. From there we launch into a horror movie cliche—the campers, and when, in a werewolf movie, a solid-silver letter opener named Excalibur is presented in the first scene, you know that it will come back at the end. The weakest part of the movie follows; the setting up of the soldiers as characters—the moments are fine, the dialogue, the shots, etc., but until the next day when they find Ryan, it doesn't seem cohesive to me. But then, ah, then ... pedal to the metal until the final minutes.
The Ginger Snaps trilogy, which I highly recommend, takes a different approach to the monster/werewolf movie: each movie, a new metaphor. In the first it is puberty and teen sexuality, in the second addiction and mental illness, and in the third racism and a fear of the other—the werewolf condition maps cleanly in each case; here we remain relatively free of overarching metaphors, though that is not to say that we're lacking development or reflection. One might compare the group dynamic of the soldiers and the pack hierarchy of wolves, but while that provides a nice parallel, it does not offer the interpretation schema of the Ginger Snaps movies, partially because in those flicks, our heroines are or become werewolves and it is a condition to be explored, whereas here it an us-vs-them battle interspersed with one-liners. “Spoon? There is no Spoon”—one of the better Matrix references I've seen in a movie, and hilarious in context.
The combat unit provides for male bonding around an alpha-male, and during such a bonding session one character lets it be known that his greatest fear is never seeing his wife again; another mentions spiders. And women. And spider-women. It should then be noted that these werewolves stand up straight and slender, lanky with ever-reaching arms and claws, and in several scenes they seem to hover near the ceiling. Spiders, indeed.
From only 59 Euros a month ... now that's cheap health insurance. For only about 720 Euros a year (minimum) I can have that insurance.
I cannot imagine ever wanting to purchase something because I saw it advertised online—online ads have no credibility and are connected in my mind with scams. I would almost go far as to say that seeing something advertised by way of a banner ad on a website would disqualify it from every being purchased by me—if you do banner ads, you're sleaze, and not to be trusted. Of course you know and I know that such ads are hardly about content or about rhetoric and convincing ... they are about so-called mind-share, about recognition, about triggering a reflex, response, or reaction—no thinking involved.
—July 17 2006