In the early days of AMV, I wrote briefly about the limitations of urban(e) critics who were trying to review Napoleon Dynamite and failing to get their minds around what Jared and Jerusha Hess were doing. I never reported back on that, but after watching the film several years later, I discovered that, yes, I was right to point out those limitations. And yet I didn’t seem to learn from that vindication and develop faith in my co-religionists because when Gentlemen Broncos ( Amazon ) was absolutely savaged by the critics I believed them.
Then earlier this year I ran across (and mentioned in a links roundup post) this brief Richard Brody review of the film for The New Yorker. Here was an urban(e) critic who made me rethink my earlier impressions — enough so that last week my wife and I watched Gentlemen Broncos. Brody writes, “…. it’s a work of visionary inspiration that, like many outrageous Hollywood comedies of the classic era (such as those of Frank Tashlin), tackles remarkably serious matters.”
It turns out that he’s right. What I’m less sure about is where he tries to give a Mormon gloss on the film: “In his jejune yet highly moral inspiration, Benjamin is the prophet of a pop-infused Gospel, an updated Book of Mormon, that speaks to a new generation of young people whose coarsened sensibility is paradoxically attuned to Biblical explicitness and ferocity.”
I don’t think that that’s exactly what this film is about, but it’s a nice try, and perhaps there’s something to the coarsened sensibility thing. I hope to give a full accounting over at LDS Cinema Online, but for this revisit let me throw this out there: with Gentlemen Broncos, the Hesses package issues of authenticity, fandom, selling out, provincialism and dreams of stardom in a way that both celebrates and makes fun of and keenly dissects the myths of Hollywood and Big Publishing. In order to appreciate this movie you have to a) really feel the sweetness — not just see that it is there — and b) focus in on the relationship between the protagonist Benjamin and his mom. If Napoleon Dynamite was an awesome takedown of hipsterism and faux-quirkiness in indie/mainstream indie film (and I think it was); Gentlemen Broncos is a masterful takedown of both the haughtiness of artists who have no ideas left and make worshipers of their fans and the pretensions and faux-celebrations of fan fiction. And it actually succeeds. There’s more there than the critics are seeing because they refuse to buy in to the possibility of the sweetness and authenticity and affection in the Hesses writing/filmmaking. They don’t understand that we are meant to love Saltair even though we also laugh at it, and that it’s precisely that double feeling (instead of complete disdain) that gives lie to the way Hollywood usually treats religion, small town America, family relationships and the American dream.
Anyone else actually seen this film?