Napoleon Conquers The Zeotrope

"I told you so. I knew it would happen and I told you so."

Those are the words that I would utter to the owner of the
Zeotrope if only I had the chance. Of course, now that I think about it, I actually didn't tell him/her so. But I told lots of other people. About now you may be wondering "What is the Zeotrope? And what didn't you tell its owner?" Allow me to explain, and in doing so I will weave in my take on Napoleon Dynamite.

The Zeotrope is a small theater in Franklin, Massachusetts. Its located in the downtown area, right between a Chinese restaurant and The Concrete Wave, a little skateboard shop. This is the type of the movie theater that harkens back to the old days. It actually has a little marquee out front with signs that they change by hand. Up the old ladder they go, switching around little black letters. On Friday, August 20th, 2004 they made the wise decision of arranging 16 letters in the form of Napoleon Dynamite.

The Zeotrope is not a true dollar theater like they used to have in better days, but it is about as close as you will get in today's nine-dollar-movie craze. $4 for a night flick; $3 for a matinee or a kiddie. Their best gimmick is "2-For-2sdays," where you scrounge up a date and they'll let you both get in for the $4 price. My apologies to the lonely-hearts.

Many would call this theater ghetto. And to a degree they would be right. For instance, someone at the Zeotrope felt that it was noteworthy enough to post on their Web site that they have cup holders. Cup holders! This isn't a 1969 Chevy. They all have cup holders now. Then why are
people so passionate about it? Because it places itself in direct opposition to the multiplex experience. Its unashamedly different. And for that we love it.

Ever since I've moved to Franklin there have been rumors that the 'Trope, as its affectionately called, would be torn down to build condos or apartments. This would be like tearing out a Newbury Comics to put in a parking garage. Its blasphemous.
Save the Zeo'.
Allow me to guide you through your movie-going experience. Worry not about your ticket price or snacks. This one's on me ...

You walk down the sidewalk in Franklin towards downtown. You pass by The Rome Restaurant and Mel Diva. Maybe you stop at Mel Diva. Its a flourishing coffee house that has everything you could want. We are not talking about a bland Starbucks rip-off. This place has character. Its alive with moving bodies, fresh ideas, and hot beverage action. Collected artwork, a collections of various pieces of furniture (from regular table and chairs to comfortable sofa and loveseat), and free wireless internet (free!) draw you in and the drinks keep you there. You order an iced Milky Way, featuring milk, chocolate, and caramel, topped off with fluffy whipped cream. You might stick around and play one of the many board games that lie around the place. Mancala, chess, backgammon, whatever fits your fancy.

Finally, you've had your fill and you make your way out to the Zeotrope to enjoy your show. Undoubtedly, you have plans on sneaking in some food or beverage for later consumption. It won't be hard to get in with it. Put it in your pocket or your pants or your purse or your sweater-pant-shorts. The one person that guards the door will never notice. Of course, you could save yourself the trouble and just buy your food there. Like the tickets, the price is not exorbitant. Not to say that its cheap, but you can afford $2 for a Barq's root beer, $2.50 for a popcorn, and $2 for a box of Sour Patch Kids; it won't break the bank.

You will notice the ticket that you hold in your hand, ripped from the time it was given to you. Not that employees have ever checked tickets before. You could literally walk right in off the street and go sit down. Not one person would question you. The ticket that you hold, however, is distinctive in that it says nothing about the theater number, time, or movie that you will be watching presently. It is from one of those generic ticket rolls that you would see at a carnival. In fact, you can (and the Zeotrope probably does) purchase these very same tickets at Staples for around $10 for a roll of thousands.

You easily find your way to one of the three theaters that the Zeotrope holds within its bowels. There was a day, long ago, when all three of these made up one theater, with a large screen. But one theater will draw in fans of one movie and three theaters will draw in fans of three movies, or so the principle of construction goes. Of course, judging from the typical attendance on a week or weekend night show the utter frailty of "if you build it they will come." Yes, "they" will come, but sometimes "they" is just a handful of singles with nothing more consequential to do than watch a second-run movie in an empty auditorium.

As you enter your theater the first thing you might notice is the screen. It seems a million miles away. Its not, its just really small. You're not used to this having only been to Regal Bellingham 14, but this is probably the thing that you'll get over the fastest. All it means is that you sit closer. The closer ones sits to something the larger it appears. When you go to the RB14 you sit in the back; when you go to the Zeotrope you sit in the front. That's all there is to it.

If you happened to glance towards either wall on your way down the center aisle (there is only one aisle) you would notice the pedestrian speakers hanging and dipping downward towards the seats. These are of the non-commercial 1970s style, the type that Gina would have (and possibly still does have) or that you would find on ebay for $1.50. Large, boxy, covered in real wood and putting out audio of a very poor quality. This would bother you, except for the fact that you only paid $2 for your ticket so you get over it rather quickly.

As you go to sit down you'll probably grieve the lack of stadium seating. It would be impossible in this small space. It is never to be. At least there is a slight downward slant to the floor to allow you to peer over the head of the patron in the row in front of you. But wait! We're talking about the Zeotrope: there is no patron in front of you.

The downward slant of the floor leads us to another charming aspect of the Zeotrope and it is, believe it or not, this: the sideward slant of the floor. Yes, as you sit upright in your seat, the floor beneath you (and with it your chair) tilt to the right about 15 degrees. While this does not initially seem to be much of a nuisance it will gradually grate on you as the film moves through the reel and the pain moves through your neck. Consider it a battle wound.

The lights go down the projector starts. Thank goodness you arrived when you did because there's no previews at the Zeotrope. How could they possibly preview films? They don't even know if or when they would receive them. No point in advertising for their bigger brothers.

As you strain your neck you'll notice that the picture is typically not centered perfectly on the screen. You can see the light from the projector illuminating a thin strip beneath and to the side of the screen. This is a minor infraction and is easily dismissed.

Now I hope that you don't take any of the previous statements the wrong way. The Zeotrope has its distinctive qualities; it doesn't provide all of the comforts or amenities of the colossal stadiums that they now call movie theaters. The Zeotrope is loved for its idiosyncrasies and flaws. And on a hot summer day, at least it has AC.

Which brings us to our film: Napoleon Dynamite. I have already seen this movie three times (twice as the 'Trope) and will be seeing it again on Tuesday night for a cool two bones. My four visits with the Nappy Dynamo should give away my feelings about this movie. Its that rare kind of motion picture that you desperately want others to see. Its the kind of movie that you want to invite all your friends to and then watch their reaction, love or hate, while they take it all in. Its almost like a science experiment or a mathematical equation. (((ND + Zeotrope) - comfort)) - $4 + candy = love) = friendship.

You can tell who your true friends are by how they react to this movie. After all, some have said that its the story of my life. That's a line that I liked so much that I then subsequently said to another red headed compatriots: "Its the story of your life."

No matter who's story it is one thing is clear: the people want to hear it. They've been packing out the Zeotrope like so much sardines. Great crowds, laughing out loud all the while. The humor here is part laughing with and part laughing at. OK, its mostly laughing at ... not that there's anything wrong with that. You will never think of steaks the same way again.

There had to have been 200 people at the first show that I went to on a Sunday night. That's more than I've seen visit the Zeotrope in an entire week. What would have been small business for Regal is big business for the Zeotrope. Last Tuesday there crowds lining up down the street waiting to get in. Back again on Saturday night and there was a great second weekend crowd of about 100 people. And I expect more of the same on Tuesday night.

Overhearing the young crowd's (mostly Dean College students) conversation it was clear that this had already become the cult classic that it was destined to become. "This is only my third time seeing it. I'm not as hard-core as Johnny." Apparently, you have to see a movie more than three times in order to be "hard-core" into it. Everyone was experiencing the same thing as myself: the innate desire to discuss the Dynamite. You have to tell your friends. So many friends have been told, in fact, that the Zeotrope had to add a showing for its second week run. That's unheard of.

Napoleon Dynamite is the construction of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Why does this matter? Because it means that we finally have some clean family fare. This is one that you could take young Dr. G to if you wanted. Not that he would enjoy it, but at least you could take him. Jared and Jerusha Hess have given us a filth-free secular comedy without pushing any of their faith on us. Well done!

Jon Heder gives us a performance so convincing that my wife graced us with these words: "I think the guy that played Napoleon Dynamite must be a big geek in real life." Its a revelation.

Napoleon Dynamite is not the nerd-hero that you find over and over again in teen-geek-comedies. He's no hero at all. But he's got that nerd part down pretty good. While it may seem like there is a great nerd-conquers-all ending, on closer inspection there really isn't. By the time the closing credits have rolled (and you should stay long past the closing credits, even when you really think nothing else is coming) very little has changed in Napoleon's or his family's lives. He's still a nerd.

The music is groovy, the imagery is beautiful and boring (in a good, authentic way) at the same time, the editing is sharp, the dialogue is stilted in a good way, the laughs run almost non-stop with little drag (again, some, but little), the steaks are rare and seen throughout. What more could you ask for in a movie?

This is the type of movie that the Zeotrope needs to focus on. Not the big budget flop-fests like I, Robot (which I will spare you by not linking to it), that everyone has already seen down the road a few miles. Why would they go see it again in a crappy theater? There is a huge market for indie films in this area and the Zeotrope has only just begun to tap this market. Hopefully, they will continue down this road to financial success. And hopefully they won't take a steak in the face for it.


Joshua Provost said...

I do envy you living in Franklin. I'm sure if I lived there for a while I would appreciate it as much as Natick, perhaps. It has the Zeotrope, and a little college in the middle of town. Some nice restaurants (I'm actually craving the disk I had last time at Acapulco's).

The Zeotrope can probably get away with the indie films while college is in session, but I bet it's dead over breaks. It's all about timing.

Hey, I wonder if they would screen some of our stuff. I can see a I'm Not Crazy/Larry Bird/Cleary's Time Is My Crisis triple-bill. Or course the would, for a price, but I wonder if they could. I'm guessing they don't have a digital projector of any kind. We'll have to blow up Brock's new 16mm short to 35mm and bring it on down.

Joshua Provost said...

I must say, ND did not change my life. But you can't help but love the characters. The dancing scene makes it unforgetable. I read that they filmed that last, and only had enough film to get the take you see in the film. Beautiful.

Jeremy said...

You would have loved Franklin. It has everything that you need. They are even working to build a performing arts center right across from the Zeotrope. Sound familiar?

And I also agree on ND not changing any lives. That's not what its all about. Its not a Chungking Express and it knows it. Its sole purpose is to make you laugh; it succeeds admirably.