August 30, 2004 [Napoleon Dynamite]
Somewhere between the expressionists and the surrealists, right there in the mid-1920s, critic Franz Roh noticed something going on in the art world that he called "Magic Realism"--just in time for Buster Keaton to make The General in 1927. Somehow, the magic trick that Roh saw in certain painters' work--in which everyday objects become mysterious, filled with strange properties while remaining their solid selves--but hiding something, something always waiting--somehow the movies found this funny.
And maybe there is laughter waiting as we gaze at the magic objects:
--the calm man flanked by women in sheer dresses, a study of both nudes and of the man who has not yet seen them;
--the still life of bent fronds and simple containers, as assertively real as memories;
--the gangrenous churchyard crisp and clear, the last thing standing after some slow apocalypse;
--and among them, Buster Keaton stares like an American Gothic while behind him the Civil War plummets a real train into ruin, a matter-of-fact excitation as plain and uncanny as the Roman nose on Keaton's unblinking face. The deadpan comic mirrors the magician in a staring contest that we lose, because we laugh.
Napoleon lays it out for us in the first five minutes: He stands in front of his dinky house, waiting for the school bus. There's a cut to a low-angle shot as he opens a three-ring binder--we do not see what he's looking at--and the bus arrives, dorky-campy lounge organ music accompanying him as he makes his way to the back of the bus and sits next to a small boy who asks, "What're you gonna do today, Napoleon?" to which he answers, "Whatever I feel like I wanna do--gosh!" and he jerks his head in spastic disdain and ties a string to a plastic action figure and tosses it out the window, where it skitters and bounces on the road behind them.
That is no mean feat: Napoleon is barely alive, his noisy sighs like a death-rattle. But he lives on--unlike his Uncle Rico, Napoleon's doppelganger, the hint of a future burdened with the endless repetition of imaginary greatness and endless regret. Uncle Rico dreams of--no: lives in--a moment that never occurred, and as he videotapes himself throwing the winning pass that never was, over and over, he looks like an idiot--but the poor slob broke my heart, his home a van in a field with too much sky above, more than he or his football will ever need.