Sunday, October 31, 2004

'Napoleon' gathers cult army

Instant-success teen satire joins list of quirky movies to gain loyal, unexpected following

By Margaret A. McGurk
Enquirer staff writer

Jon Gries, Jon Heder and Aaron Ruell in Napoleon Dynamite.
(Aaron Ruell)

A favorite game among cult movie fans is hunting down the early genre works of filmmakers who went on to become some of the most respected and influential people in the movie business. For instance:

• Francis Ford Coppola - Before he wrote his personal chapter in film history with The Godfaher trilogy, he cut his teeth as an uncredited director on The Terror (1963), a cheesy witchcraft thriller from schlock-master Roger Corman. Coppola's name did appear as director of Dementia 13 (1963), a soapy horror story set in an Irish castle.

• Martin Scorsese - His 1972 movie Boxcar Bertha, starring Barbara Hershey and David Carradine as Depression-era outlaws, gained a following more for its frank love scenes than its political sensibilities.

• Jonathan Demme - Back in 1974, long before his success with Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, Demme wrote and directed the hilariously lurid women-in-prison flick, Caged Heat, also known as Caged Females and Renegade Girls.

• John Sayles - To finance his heartfelt independent films (Return of the Secaucus Seven, Lianna), Sayles wrote screenplays for laughable scary-critter flicks Piranha (1978) and Alligator (1980) and the sci-fi action movie Battle Beyond the Stars (1980).

• Ron Howard - After outgrowing his child-star image, Howard graduated from film school and started honing his directing skills on the entertaining but amateurish Grand Theft Auto (1977), which he co-wrote with his father, Rance.

• Robert De Niro - The most admired actor in America started out, like fellow actors Jack Nicholson and Bruce Dern, working for Corman, the master of low-budget exploitation flicks. De Niro did his Corman service in the Ma Barker gangster yarn Bloody Mama (1970).

The making of a movie cult is a slow-burn business; often its existence is invisible until it reaches critical mass.

It took four years after The Rocky Horror Picture Show crashed and burned at the box office, for instance, before local fans started showing up every week to yell insults and fling toast at the screen.

Last night Rocky fans whooped it up at the Esquire Theatre in Clifton at a celebration marking 25 years of practicing bad movie manners as participatory art. Leading the charge was The Denton Affair, a costumed troupe that acts out every line, song and dance as the film unwinds.

This year, however, a most unusual phenomenon is unfolding around a low-budget comedy about a desperately unhip high school kid with a knack for survival.

Napoleon Dynamite opened in local theaters on July 16, a month after it debuted in a small number of cities. It is still running nationwide today, taking in about a million dollars a week in some 600 theaters.

It cost a reported $400,000 to make, and has taken in more than $40 million at the box office.

Those numbers are due in large part to masses of fans, mostly teens, who have seen it over and over. In an era when most studio movies are lucky to hang on for six weeks, Napoleon has defied all expectations by attracting its very own instant cult.

Seventeen-year-old Rebecca Owens of Pleasant Ridge is one of those cultists; she's seen the movie five times so far.

"It feels kind of random. It's not making fun of anything specific," she said of the film's appeal. "You see (Napoleon Dynamite) at the beginning when he comes out of the house in those clothes. He's such a ridiculous character you start laughing right away."

People her age relate, she said, because the filmmakers "exaggerate the extent to which people can be seen as dorks. The high school image of a loser taken to this extreme extent is just so funny."

"It's, like, pointless, but it's funny," said Jake Thomas, 14, of Hebron. "How he talks, how his hair is, it just makes you laugh."

Napoleon's famous sayings

If you hear your friends or relatives repeating these lines, you can be pretty sure you have a cult member in your midst:

On life's daily burdens:

"But my lips hurt real bad!"

"She doesn't want you here when she gets back because you've been ruining everybody's life and eating all our steak."

"Tina, you fat lard, come get some dinner!"

"Do the chickens have large talons?"

On survival:

"This one gang kept wanting me to join 'cause I'm pretty good with a bowstaff."

"I spent (summer) with my uncle in Alaska hunting wolverines, I already told you!"

"Nunchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer-hacking skills. Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills."

On romance

"It took me like three hours to get the shading on your upper lip right. I think it's my best drawing ever."

"My old girlfriend from Oklahoma was going to fly out here for the dance, but she couldn't because she's doing some modeling."

"I like your sleeves. They're really big."

"She pretty much hates me now.

... Because my uncle's an idiot!"

"I caught you a delicious bass."

On politics

"Heck, yes, I'd vote for you."

"Tell them their wildest dreams will come true if they vote for you."

"Pedro offers you his protection."

'Napoleon' gathers cult army
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