Subversion and Parody of American Iconography in the Opening of The Farrelly Brothers Kingpin

In these continuing segments, my goal is to tie in my research on film theory, to sports films. In the last segment I talked about a sports documentary from Werner Herzog, title The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner on the subject of ski jumping. It is a type of film that is not very much viewed because of its distribution directly to television, as well as its varying styles and point of view that many might find alienating. This is common in some of Herzog’s most daring and formally bold work such as Heart of Glass, Gesualdo: Death for Five Voices, Fata Morgana, and Lessons of Darkness. What often gets overlooked in its brilliance can be in plain sight. A film whose crudeness and brilliance is accessible to mass audiences but not so much to scholars and critics. The films brilliance comes from its accessibility because it directly parodies and subverts sights and images from popular culture, such as films, and from images associated as American. The film is the 1996 sports comedy Kingpin (Figure 1) from the duo behind famous gross-out comedies the Farrelly brothers (Figure 2).

(Figure 1) Randy Quaid as Ishmael Boorg (Left) and Woody Harrelson as Roy Munson (Right)

in the Farrelly brothers Kingpin.

(Figure 2) Peter Farrelly (Left) and                             (Figure 3) Film critic and painter Manny Farber,

Bobby Farrelly (Right).                                                 1917-2008.

The idea of finding great value in the films of genre auteurs is not original to myself but to the great film critic and painter Manny Farber (Figure 3). In his famous piece titled “White Elephant vs. Termite Art” originally published in Film Culture back in the early 1960s. “Most of the feckless, listless quality of today’s art can be blamed on its drive to break out of a tradition while, irrationally, hewing to the square, boxed-in-shape and gemlike inertia of an old, densely wrought European masterpiece” (Farber 242). Termite art in relation to white elephant art according to Farber, not aiming to be treated as a masterful work of art, but exists just for arts sake (Farber 242). He favored the work of directors like Hawks, Kurosawa, Walsh, or Mann over arthouse fare such as Zinneman, Truffaut, or Antonioni. “Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a giveaway landmark, suggesting a new self-centering approach. It sums up much of what a termite art aims at: buglike immersion in a small area without point or am, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed” (Farber 246). Much of that can be felt in the work of the Farrelly Brothers done in the attention and love of mainstream audiences but revelation by many critics, their films are free from the pretensions engrained in art that receives critical and scholarly attention. Kingpin exists as something that’s free from an obsession with breaking from tradition, but cunningly focuses on its cinematic comedy to the point of perfection.

Much of my recent work has been drawn from the film scholar Annette Insdorf (Figure 4) on the openings of films. In her 2017 publication, Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes in Films, Insdorf states, “superior movies provide within the first few minutes the thematic and stylistic components that will be developed throughout the film” (Insdorf 1). She further states, that the opening also establishes “the tone—whether tense, ironic, romantic, frightening, comic, nostalgic, or self-conscious” (Insdorf 1). In this piece I will be looking at the cinematic language in the opening prologue, and its following scene through those parameters. Particularly the second quote has great importance, as Kingpin wallows in the comic, nostalgic, self-conscious, and ironic.

(Figure 4) Film Scholar Annette Insdorf, Born 1950.

The opening shot sets the time and place of the main character Roy Munson’s childhood development. A craning shot of his father’s wholesome family gas station in Ocelot, Iowa in 1969 (Figure 5). What’s also essential is not only the music that is put forward visually, but auditory meaning as well. Music is essential here, with the song, “Oh Very Young” by pop singer Cat Stevens being used as the only piece for this little prologue. We are first introduced to Roy Munson through the eyes of his father when he calls out to him (Figure 6), a loving and enthusiastic facial response from the father. Once again nostalgia or romanticism, is laced in the tone here, the image itself, particularly his facial expression imbues a sense of kindness and excitement at the call of his son.

(Figure 5) 00:00:15, The opening image of Kingpin.     (Figure 6) 00:00:29, “Hey Pa!”

What’s interesting about Roy’s first visual appearance is its sort of iconographic significance. After we see his father looking towards him, we see him dash into the frame and step over and break part of a white picket fence, falling to the ground, not in pain, but as a result of uncontained excitement (Figure 7). The white picket fence has an association of the dreamlike, American suburban or rural existence. David Lynch in his 1986 film Blue Velvet uses the image in the opening to set up an idyllic and dreamlike Americana in the small North Carolina town where it is set (Figure 8). Only the film is about violent, and horrid acts such as rape, and murder that take place in this so called idyllic existence. This breaking of the fence is most likely not meant to have anything beyond a sort of playful wink, or simply as a prop to illustrate the peaceful and pretty suburbs.

(Figure 7) 00:00:32, Roy crashes over and breaks part of the  (Figure 8) Opening image from Blue Velvet.                                           white picket fence.

Following the fall, young Roy runs up to his dad asking him if he has time for a game of ball. He tells him to get his ball and to meet him out back, he then exits the frame, cutting on movement the next image his him moving into the frame of him in the backyard (Figure 9), as he claps and exclaims, “Come on Roy! I wanna see some smoke on this one!”. It then cuts back to a close-up of Roy, spitting in anticipation, with whatever ball he has in hand (Figure 10), then cutting out to a medium shot, that reveals his sport, bowling (Figure 11). Roy hits a strike, and his father exclaims, “Son, you put that in a bottle, you got something sweeter than you.” Roy hit’s one more strike in the final shot of their backyard bowling, in their makeshift homemade alley (Figure 12).

(Figure 9) 00:00:46, “I wanna see some smoke on this one!”      (Figure 10) 00:00:49, Roy spits in anticipation.

(Figure 11) 00:00:52, Roy’s and his father’s pastime.              (Figure 12) 00:01:06, Roy hit’s another strike.

(Figure 13) 00:01:30, Mr. Munson’s words of nobility.

Before further explanation and analysis of the finishing bit of the prologue and the true opening of Kingpin a whirl of playful iconographic subversion has taken place, particularly that of the association of the father and son baseball of American culture, backyard baseball I call it. For example in the film Field of Dreams baseball is a symbol of innocence, and of simplicity in its use as a tool of redemption between a father and son (Butterworth 57). Field of Dreams like the opening of Kingpin is set in Iowa, part of what is considered America’s heartland. The purposeful cutting to slyly reveal bowling as their backyard sport is a playful image replacement, as baseball requires a ball and a glove. Simply because a parody or reference to a familiar image is an effective way to gain a laugh. To see an indoor sport transposed in a green and pastoral midwestern backyard is humorous. But the humorous aspect of it, does not take away genuineness in terms of the actual bond between Roy and his father as evidenced by the final images of the prologue, set in 1969.

The final image of the idyllic prologue has Roy and his father walking along their backyard, it’s filmed in a long craning wide shot from behind them, framing them in a sort of pure way, as the father leans down to tell his son (Figure 13), “you got a great gift, son. It’s as if angels came down from heaven and put a blessing on your three bowling digits. You can apply everything that I’ve taught you about bowling to your daily life. And if you do that, you’re gonna be decent, you’re gonna be moral, and you’re going to be a good man.” As soon as the scene finishes the song Disco Inferno by the Tramps comes whirling into the soundtrack taking it into the year 1979 for a different type of subversion. However, looking at this closing shot and monologue to the prologue is essential, as it can be keyed to Insdorf’s statement about great openings showcasing and introducing thematic elements that will take place throughout the film (Insdorf 1).

From a point of story and cinematic analysis the failing of Roy throughout the movie to uphold his father’s view of bowling as a tool for decency and morality is a major component of Roy’s eventual development into decency at the very end of the film. Later on in the film Roy, and his travelling companion Claudia (Vanessa Angel) pass through the dilapidated ruins of the once idyllic Ocelot. He has not been to his home in almost twenty years, he even avoided returning in the past for his father’s funeral. His father’s old business is abandoned and empty, like the town it’s in (Figure 14). He abandons the watch his father gave him years earlier at his home. Only later after his victory through defeat by his rival Ernie McCracken, does Vanessa reveal she kept it. The objects return to him at the very end of the film, and his redemption through Vanessa and the loan to support his friend Ishmael’s Amish community is a signifier of his return to the moral life his father promised him he could live by one day.

(Figure 14) 00:59:51, Claudia and Will by the abandoned site     (Figure 15) 00:01:38, The transition to the flashy

of Roy and his father’s former backyard bowling alley.                Roy of 1979.

After “Disco Inferno by The Tramps” comes in the first image we see is the close-up of Roy’s bowling shoes as the title alerts the audience towards the year (Figure 15). The song from the Tramps is faster, sexier, and full of energy, the opposite of the soft, innocent and yearning Cat Stevens song used in the prologue. The year 1979 is significant certainly in terms of the disco period it is parodying but, also its specific parody of John Badham’s 1979 Drama Saturday Night Fever famously starring John Travolta (Figure 16).

(Figure 16) Poster for Saturday Night Fever.

The shot than moves up to Roy who is greeting the regulars of the club, he is a celebrity there, shaking hands, being kissed (Figure 17), and comically and without repercussion takes a pizza slice from one of the regulars (Figure 18). It is simply a hilarious gesture, and further cements the comedic point of the scene, the ridiculousness of a great bowler being viewed in this celebrity status. His entrance highly resembles the entrance of Travolta early on in the 1979 film when he enters the club 2001 Odyssey (Figure 19). In the film a stark contrast is drawn between his life as a celebrity god at the disco club, and his aimless life as a hardware store employee. Harrelson is even wearing a silk shirt and dress pants highly reminiscent of Travolta’s attire in the film. “Disco Inferno” is also featured prominently in Saturday Night Fever.

(Figure 17) 00:01:47, Roy as               (Figure 18) 00:01:55, Roy cockily (Figure 15) Tony Manero (John Travolta)

a celebrity bowling god.                      struts forward in the club enjoying greets one of his acquaintances at 2001

                                                            his pizza slice. Odyssey with a kiss.

Once again to refer back to Insdorf’s quote that, “superior movies provide within the first few minutes the thematic and stylistic components that will be developed throughout the film” (Insdorf 1). Specific pop culture jokes and parody recur throughout the Farrelly brothers film. Most notably in a sequence that parodies the famous “Crying Indian” advertisement featuring the actor Iron Eyes Cody (Figure 20). For those who are unfamiliar with the famous advertisement a brief context is necessary. The advertisement featuring Cody had its on air debut on Earth Day of 1971 (Ladino 119). Cody in the advertisement is dressed in what can be called “traditional” attire, wearing garbs and braids (Ladino 119), after a canoe ride through a polluted canal pulls ashore, on the side of a road where a driver tosses trash by his feet, this is then punctuated a shot of Cody’s face where a single tear runs trickles down (Ladino 119).

The parody in Kingpin has an alone Ishmael, a caucasian man walking along the street as men dressed in stereotypical native attire holler and throw trash towards his feet. Like in the advertisement a single tear rolls down his cheek. It is somewhat unusual as the laughter depends on someones situational awareness to the 1971 advertisement, however, my reaction of laughter and my knowledge of the advertisement is the most likely intended reaction to the idea of humor found in simple reversal, just because it is simply unusual. Part of it comes from the mocking of the blatant emotional manipulation from stereotypes the advertisement uses by reversing the roles of these characters, and further emphasizing the stereotypes, but to call attention to the use of these stereotypes in the original advertisement.                                                                               

(Figure 20) Iron Eyes Cody as the famous “Crying Indian”          (Figure 21) 00:57:50, the littering takes place.

(Figure 22) 00:57:52, the litter hits the ground.              (Figure 23) 00:57:58, Ishmael’s tearful reaction to the

littering.

As Roy approaches the lanes, the simple yet colorful titles (animations of bowling) roll over indicating the cast and crew of the film along with the general title (Figure 24). In tht image he emphasizes his right hand, his bowling hand, which famously is sawed off by angry men he attempts to swindle in a bowling match. He then has to learn how to get back into bowling with his prosthetic rubber hand. As he goes to the lane he takes of his jacket as the crowd roars and dances along with the music, their attention is of course entirely focused on Roy (Figure 25). Roy dances along with the crowd until he finally pulls his gold, glitter bowling ball from his bag, inciting awes from the crowd (Figure 26). Among the crowd clearly seen and highlighted is Roy’s father.

(Figure 24) 00:02:07, the title, and Roy’s perfect             (Figure 25) 00:02:12, the crowd cheers as Roy get’s

bowling hand.   ready to do his magic.

(Figure 26) 00:02:24, Roy’s glitter bowling ball                 (Figure 27) 00:02:39, Roy’s father watches along with

garners awe from the crowd.      the audience.

What is most funny is the actual strike, which involves the bowling ball stop mid way down the lane (Figure 28) inspiring confusion from the audience, only for Roy to do a dancing split (Figure 29) magically moving the ball forward towards a strike. Perhaps once again parody and subversion plays a great part of the pleasure in this sequence. Bowling, a primarily recreational sport, which attracts very little national attention, it is not to me at least a visually astounding or stimulating sport to see played in the flesh. So its merging with this disco inspired showboating, this magical variation of hyper skill where someone can freeze a ball midway down the lane then make it strike elicits quite a bit of playful humor. After the strike Roy is high fived, hugged, and kiss by members of the crowd only to give an enthusiastic yet passive point to his father  whose instilled these skills onto him. Clearly he is ignoring the lessons taught by him, as he loses his sight to dance along with the euphoria of the crowd.

(Figure 28) 00:02:44, Roy’s ball freezes mid bowl.          (Figure 29) 00:02:48, Roy’s dancing split.

What does Kingpin do that other sports films will not do? While like The Great Ecstasy of the Woodcarver Steiner it details an inherent euphoria and self satisfaction gained from (in the case of Herzog’s film) glory, and (in the case of the Farrelly brothers film) indulgence in spectator love. Of course a great deal of what I have talked about is its cleverness as a cinematic comedy with its use of music, imagery, carefully clever editing, and general funninnes. But part of the greatness of the general funniness comes from the subversion of imagery commonly associated with American perceptions of baseball and bowling. It makes it uniquely American in its parody, this is further emphasized with its reference of Saturday Night Fever, an American work of art. It visually creates the iconography of the film almost identically (the pizza bit is a small but clever deviation which is a helpful indication to the audience of what’s to come later in the scene), but context is used as a comedic weapon, to see this enthusiasm applied to a bowling alley is comedically creative. This makes Roy’s magic bowling a wonderfully funny sequence of images, depending on sports, but also the American consciousness around sports, all in plain sight of mass audiences. If that is not “termite art” I do not know what is then.

Works Cited:

Butterworth, Michael L.. Baseball and Rhetorics of Purity : The National Pastime and American Identity During the War on Terror, University of Alabama Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/emerson/detail.action?docID=835611.

Farber, Manny. Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies. Da Capo Press, 1998.

Gordon, Lawrence, et al. Field of Dreams. Performance by Kevin Costner, Universal Pictures, 1989.

Insdorf, Annette. Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes. Columbia University Press, 2017.

Krevoy, Brad, et al. Kingpin. Performance by Woody Harrelson, et al., Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1996.

Ladino, Jennifer K.. Reclaiming Nostalgia : Longing for Nature in American Literature, University of Virginia Press, 2012. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/emerson/detail.action?docID=3444094.

Stigwood, Robert, and Norman Wexler. Saturday Night Fever. Performance by John Travolta, and Karen Gorney, Paramount Pictures, 1979.

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