Napoleon Dynamite

Last winter I discovered a great secret: The best time to go skiing at Park City, Utah is the week of the Sundance Film Festival, when all the hotels are filled with moviegoers and no one is on the slopes. The mountains are a private little slice of heaven then. But when your son has films competing in two different film festivals that weekend, and one of them is “all the buzz” at Sundance, you join the lines of filmgoers. The slopes can wait for another visit.

This was our experience in January when “Napoleon Dynamite” premiered at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival. Made by a group of filmmakers who have been working together for about five years, “Napoleon” is the quirky story of a high school geek living in rural Idaho who manages (okay, predictably) to come out on top. But how he gets there is so unpredictable that it is laugh-out-loud funny from start to finish. As one reviewer commented, “Humor is in the details, and the details make this film.” Napoleon’s uncle, an Al Bundy-like former football jock, constantly steals glances at his own biceps, for example. And the different modes of transportation are a scream. The deadpan delivery and catch phrasese of the film’s two main characters are already beingcopied by insiders who have seen the film (including an agent from the William Morris Agency, according to Newsweek.) Judging by the growing lines of fans who have attended mulitple sneak previews this month, it’s a film that has lasting power.

But don’t just take my word for it; here are some comments from legitimate reviewers who saw the movie at Sundance:

“Far and away the best film of the festival!”

“The most hilarious movie this week–and one of the funniest to play here in years.”

“Gloriously quirky, hysterically funny ode to rural dullness…probably the fairest, most accurate representation that Preston, Idaho, will ever get.”

More recently, Newsweek called Napoleon Dynamite “our pick to be the season’s sleeper,” and rottentomatoes, an online filmrating service, gives it an 83% “freshness” rating. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance, and won first place at the U.S Comedy Arts Festival.

Our son Tim was First Assistant Director on the film, which means that he was in charge of coordinating the background details: lighting, sound, cinematography, set arrangement, extras and featured extras so that everything could be performed as efficiently as possible. Think of the Director as Architect and First A.D. as General Contractor, and you get the idea. So I was understandably proud when “Tim’s movie” received roars of laughter throughout the screening I attended at Sundance, and spontaneous applause before the film even ended. Halfway through the first screening, scouting agents’ cellphones began dialing out, summoning studio bigwigs, and by the movie’s end (greeted by a standing ovation) agents filled the back row, anxious to hear the buzz for themselves and meet the director and producer. Within days the film was sold to Fox Searchlight for $3 million, more than 8 times its production cost, with a 1200-screen guarantee. Yes, this was even better than schussing down an empty, powder-clad mountain.

That 1200-screen guarantee marks an important vote of confidence in the film, because each print will cost about $2,000, or two and a half million altogether. Add to that a few million in promotion, and Fox will have made a significant investment in this little film. By contrast, most independent films have “rolling distribution,” which means that the distributors will only print a few copies and then send them from city to city, usually showing in the small art-house theaters that I like to attend. This means that these films often come and go before word-of-mouth has a chance to spread, and they often head straight to the video stores. Napoleon’s 1200-screen guarantee gave it a better chance of opening to a big weekend with good reviews.

But director Jared Hess had a different plan in mind. Occasionally one of these independent films will make it big, as did “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” last year, sticking around for several months as interest spread. Hess knows his audience, and “Napoleon” is the kind of film that plays better to “in-the-know” audiences who like to discover their own underground hits via friends and websites. Indeed, when I attended a sneak preview of the film in New York this week, hundreds of people were lined up, circling the block, many of them sporting curly red ‘dos, nerdy glasses, and “Vote for Pedro” t-shirts. Many of them were attending their third, fourth, and even fifth sneak preview, even though the film does not officially open until June 11. (Over 600 people were turned away that night–including myself!) A canny promotion ploy, I would say.

What does all of this mean to the moviemakers themselves? First, and most importantly, it means more money to make more movies. Success breeds success in this industry, and this success will attract investors. The independent film industry is a great example of capitalism at work. The team will plow most of their profits right back into their business. They are already at work deciding which of their scripts will be made next. They’ll probably stay with a comedy, since that’s the “supply” that their current customers will “demand.” The core crew were happy to receive digital cameras and an iPod as bonuses from the movie’s appreciative producers, and they enjoyed the celebrity perks at Sundance, which included free clothes and other gear from sponsoring stores in Park City. But most of them will continue to live in their small apartments and condos, wearing last year’s clothes (okay, last decade’s clothes) and eating at Taco Bell, at least for now. Most of all, they are happy with the sweet assurance of being together for yet another project in this very tenuous business.

Bob Kephart

Publisher and philanthropist Robert D. Kephart died on June 8, 2004, at his home in Belleair Shore, Florida, surrounded by his wife and business-partner Janet, his son Patrick, his daughter Lara, and his best friend Jack Pugsley. Born September 9, 1934, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and raised in Colorado, Bob was a self-educated man who started out as a bookkeeper for a railroad and ended up as a publisher and direct-market innovator who had a passion for liberty and moral rectitude. He treated the cancer that invaded his body as he treated government encroachment on our liberty: with an intensely researched, heroic, all-out battle.

Bob was a great American who spent his life and his money promoting individual liberty through publications, contributions to freedom-oriented organizations, and support for individual writers. He was a publisher of Human Events and an early supporter of Laissez Faire Books, the world’s largest publisher of books on libertarian topics. He founded Libertarian Review magazine and Books for Libertarians in the 1970s, influencing thousands of young people who became advocates of a free society. He was dedicated to the cause of liberty.

In the early 1970s, Bob concluded that he no longer accepted the political process as a road to social progress and became a hard-core libertarian. At that point he parted ways with the conservative publication Human Events and founded Kephart Communications, Inc. (KCI), a financial publishing firm focused on promoting free-market economics and hard-money investing. KCI published Inflation Survival Letter (later Personal Finance), which highlighted unorthodox investments that have become mainstream today.

As a personal note, many of the big names in libertarian circles got their start writing for Inflation Survival Letter, including Doug Casey, Adrian Day, Richard Band, Gary Alexander, Jim McKeever, and Don Hauptman. Mark Skousen was one of them. Bob gave Mark his start in the investment world, as managing editor of ISL from 1975-1980. Even after Mark left ISL to start his own newsletter, Forecasts & Strategies, Bob continued to be a friend and mentor until his death this month. Numerous other writers and philosophers were supported by Bob as well, but always quietly, from deep behind the scenes. A private, modest person, Bob shunned the limelight, and would probably be unhappy to read this article about himself! His focus was on helping others to shine. Even as he was battling cancer, he was enthusiastically involved in helping Jack Pugsley to establish his new project, the Bio-Rational Institute.

Intensely supportive of those who were anxiously engaged in a good cause, Bob offered both support and guidance to countless diverse causes, including Families Against Mandatory Minimums, Forfeiture Endangers American Rights, Human Rights Watch, Institute for Justice, National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, Post-Conviction Relief, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Foundation for Economic Education, Cato Institute, Future of Freedom Foundation, R.A. Childs Fund for Independent Scholars, and Separation of School and State Alliance. In 1998 he won the eighth annual Thomas S. Szasz Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Cause of Civil Liberties.

Bob’s interests went far beyond public policy and promoting individual liberty. He was a writer, an artist, a one-time truck driver (!), a baseball player who tried out for the Chicago Cubs, a consummate host, a dedicated family man, a loyal friend. His paintings of children and beach scenes grace the walls of his home and the Christmas cards that he designed himself. His eclectic interests led him to support Doug Casey’s creation, The Eris Society, an organization of mostly libertarians who meet in Aspen every summer to discuss topics related to philosophy, history, science, arts, health, and education. As usual, his efforts remained behind the scenes, often in the form of providing financial support for speakers.

Many of us who have known Bob for decades knew his feisty side as well as his philanthropic side. Fiercely loyal to his friends, he could be fiercely critical as well when one of his friends disappointed him. You knew you were “on his list” again when you found a handwritten page from a yellow legal pad folded up, stapled, and left on your desk. These letters usually began, “I thought you were my friend,” and would continue in great detail as he outlined the offense. With the advent of the internet the yellow legal pad gave way to email, but the intent was the same: Bob never pulled his punches when he thought someone was slipping philosophically or morally. But his anger never lasted long, and the friendship always returned, stronger than ever. How I would love to receive one of those letters again! “I thought you were my friend,” it would begin, and before he could finish I would respond heartily, “I am, Bob, I am.”

For many personal reflections from Bob’s many friends, or to add your own memories about this remarkable man, visit Chris Witten’s “Robert Kephart Memorial Website,” at http://www.interesting.com/Robert-Kephart/.

Thirty Wonderful Years

While paging through a high school yearbook recently, I noticed a name that seemed vaguely reminiscent.

Jo Ann Foster.

Even now, as I see it typed, it seems more foreign than familiar. Who was that girl? Oh, yes, I remember. She was me.

Today, April 19, 2003, marks 30 years that I have been Jo Ann Skousen. Sixty percent of my life. There were a few occasions early on when hearing the words “Mrs. Skousen” would cause me to turn around and look for my mother-in-law. But now I barely remember that Foster girl. Even my mother and my sister have since changed their last names, so I almost never see it written. I’m a Skousen, through and through, and it makes me glad.

Here are some of the things that Jo Ann Foster never dreamed she would do: I’ve climbed to the top of Machu Picchu, explored Mayan ruins, earned a gold medal in an ice skating competition, danced onstage in a London theater, lived in five major cities in three different countries, given interviews on television and radio, written several books (some even have my name on them…), earned a graduate degree, taught college classes, ridden a camel in Israel, given a sermon on Mars Hill at the Acropolis, and descended into a pyramid in Egypt. And I’ve done all of these things as a result of my marriage to Mark. We’ve enjoyed quite an adventure together, and it’s only half over!

So how to celebrate 30 years? Mark will probably send me two dozen roses with a card that says, “Happy 30th Anniversary. A rose for each wonderful year.” Yes, 24 for 30. He loves that joke, and not because he’s a cheapskate. It’s because there’s some truth to it: Even the most successful marriages have to endure some bumpy roads, some years that are more miserable than wonderful.
But we made a commitment for this life and always, so when the road gets bumpy, we do what it takes to get out of the ruts. Happiness eighty percent of the time is about right, I think, and it keeps us from getting stale or taking each other for granted.

I think we’ve done a few things right, because all of our married children have selected such wonderful spouses. Their relationships grow stronger each year, and I marvel at how well suited they are for each other. I know we can’t claim the credit entirely, but I like to think that we had some good influence on their wisdom and commitment. If nothing else, they learned that “Happily ever after” isn’t a natural consequence of “I do.” It requires careful selection before the marriage, and careful nurturing afterwards. I think they’ve done both.

Here is my bouquet for Mark, the top thirty attributes I admire most about the man I married:

1. Intelligence. Mark was the smartest man I ever dated. (Of course, until I met Mark, I had only dated teenagers… But he continues to surprise me with all he knows.)

2. Optimism. Mark looks forward to life with enthusiasm. He simply doesn’t allow himself to get bogged down by discouragement, and I can always count on him to give me the right perspective. During the economic crisis of 1974, when oil, beef, interest rates, inflation, and even the price of lettuce were out of control, I worried that our new little baby Valerie wouldn’t have the chance to grow up. “We’re just starting out,” I worried, “and it’s all going to be over.” Mark laughed and told me not to worry. “These things happen from time to time,” he said. “This economy is going to turn around in a year or two, and we’ll be fine. Besides,” he added, “I have a lot of books I need to write!” His confidence reassured me, and he has been reassuring me ever since.

3. Flamboyance. Mark used to be something of a wimp. He wrote his speeches word for word, and read them the same way. Informative, but dry and dull. Once a man handed me a note card as he left Mark’s investment workshop. The note said, “Please tell your husband he has said ‘And-ah’ 197 times!” Not long after that, I was auditioning for a play and asked Mark to come for moral support. He was only planning to watch. But when the director asked him to read for a part, he ended up with a better role than I did. The acting bug bit him hard, and he learned to love the limelight. He was a brilliant Charlie Cowell (the anvil salesman in The Music Man) and his ad libs as a knight in Camelot are legendary. (When Guinevere asks, “You’ll open wide him?” Mark was supposed to respond “I’ll circumscribe him.” Instead, he examined the edge of the battle axe he carried and then replied with aplomb, “I’ll circumcise him.” Poor Guinivere could hardly continue!)

4. Curiosity. Mark’s interests are eclectic, even at times eccentric. He reads several books at once, from biography to science to theology to economics to history. His favorite place is a used bookstore. As a result, he seems to know a little bit about everything, and can carry on a meaningful conversation with almost anyone. He’s always learning something new.

5. Enthusiasm. When Mark starts a project, he gets everyone involved. His positive outlook makes anything seem possible. Last year, when he decided to put on the FEE National convention, his critics sat back and waited for it to fail. But in just four months he had organized a huge conference, with 70 speakers and nearly 900 attendees. That kind of enthusiasm is second nature to him, and it makes life exciting.

6. Persistence. Mark finds a way to make things happen. He just never gives up. When we first met, I was a bookworm with a scholarship to maintain, and had no interest in starting a new relationship. He called me persistently every night for three weeks, cajoling me with “You don’t have to study!” when I tried to say no. After three weeks, I was hooked.

7. Flexibility. Despite this persistence, Mark adjusts his plans when
necessary. Over the years he has become kinder, more considerate, more willing to listen to the advice of others.

8. Risk taking. I see this as a positive attribute, even though it sometimes gets him into trouble. Yes, friends will remember that he flopped as The Lone Ranger, but some of his other shenanigans have been quite a hit. If it weren’t for his willingness to take risks, he would still be working for the government as an economic analyst for the CIA. I worried about our future when he decided to give up the government pension and regular pay raises, but what a fabulous life we’ve had as a result!

9. Expects the best from others. Mark assumes that others will be successful at what they do. When he undertakes a project, he begins delegating jobs, knowing that those around him will rise to the occasion. As a result, those around him (myself included) expand their skills and find strengths they never knew.

10. Generosity. Mark has been known as a cheapskate, and it is true that he doesn’t like to pick up the check at dinner. But that’s his public persona. Privately, he is extremely generous, giving to charitable organizations, needy individuals, family and friends whenever a need arises. And he does it in a way that maintains the person’s self-respect. He may be cheap at dinner, but I have never known him to be cheap in matters that really count.

11. Conversation. One of the things that impressed me most when we started dating was that Mark always had a stimulating question prepared when we started driving. I looked forward to our conversations every time we went out. That trait has only increased over time. Mark always keeps the conversation going. There is never a dull moment when he is at dinner!

12. Competitiveness. Some might see competition as a negative trait, but Mark makes a game of everything. Our children know that if conversation starts to lag, Mark will ask, “Let’s see how many…” or “How long will it take…” and soon a game is underway. One of our favorite family games is “Tenny Tennis,” whereby the goal is to successfully lob the ball across the net at least ten times before smacking it into the other person’s court. Mark enjoys the challenge of placing the ball where the children (or I) can hit it, and they enjoy the sense of success in being able to return the ball. It works for everyone.

13. Playfulness. We have five children, two boys and three girls. When I hired a housekeeper named Alice, Lesley said, “Just think Mom, one more boy and we’d be the Brady Bunch!” Noting Mark’s penchant for playing, I corrected her, “No, if we had a father we’d be the Brady Bunch!” Mark’s playful nature keeps all of us laughing. Once when I was working on a project, I asked Mark to settle the kids down. (I had already put them to bed twice.) “I’ll take care of this!” he asserted confidently, and headed upstairs. A few minutes later their bedroom door exploded in a riot of laughter as all six of them chased each other with pillows in a massive, house-wide pillow fight. Mark makes life fun.

14. Teaching. Mark is a natural teacher. When we met, I was a socialist Democrat, believing that the government ought to take care of everyone and everything. On one of our earliest dates he explained the free market to me so clearly that it made perfect sense. I wondered why I hadn’t figured it out on my own. He continues to teach principles clearly and patiently, whether his audience is a group of university graduate students or a women’s lunch group. He’s humorous enough to keep their attention, strict enough to keep them on task, and smart enough to command their respect.

15. Patience. Mark almost never loses his temper, which is especially good because I’m always looking around for mine! He wrote his Ph.D. dissertation with baby Valerie sitting on his shoulders, and he has been enduring interruptions ever since. Somehow he can place a bookmark in his brain, go play baseball in the backyard with the kids, and sit back down at the computer without losing his train of thought. Meanwhile, my train often leaves the station without me.

16. Friendliness. Mark makes friends with everyone. At an investment conference, while most speakers are meeting with clients and colleagues, Mark is just as likely to have lunch with an attendee from Texas he notices sitting alone in the coffee shop. He is genuinely interested in what others have to say.

17. Love of Family. When Mark was just sixteen years old his father died, leaving his mother with ten children aged 2-18 to raise alone. With his two oldest brothers away at college, Mark became the father to his younger sisters and brothers. He changed their diapers, read them bedtime stories, coached their Little League teams, took them camping, helped pay for their missions, and encouraged them in their careers. Because of this experience he was a relaxed, competent, hands-on father, from the very beginning. His family means everything to him, and he is very proud of the accomplishments of his children, his siblings, his parents, and his uncles. He is happiest when he is surrounded by family.

18. Romanticism. Mark was more pragmatic than romantic early in our marriage. In fact, he took me to Bob’s Big Boy on our wedding night, instead of to an elegant restaurant. But in recent years he has started doing things that are very sweet and unexpected. Sometimes he’ll sneak into my car so that when I start the engine, the tape deck will start playing Frank Sinatra’s “I Get a Kick out of You,” or Gene Autry’s “You are my Sunshine.” Such little actions put a smile on my face all day.

19. Encouragement. Mark encourages us (some would say pushes us) to try more, be more, do more. I could have stayed comfortably home raising five children and editing his books, but he encouraged me to go back to school for my undergraduate degree, and then for my graduate degree. I now teach English literature to college students, and I love it so much it hurts (when I have to say goodbye to them at the end of the semester).

20. Faith. Our commitment to God and to His Church is central to our marriage. It gives us comfort and strength to know that we share our deepest beliefs.

21. Partnership. Mark is not just my husband, he is my partner. We write books together, raise our children together, teach classes together, ran a business together, and continue to work together in everything we do. We married young, before either of us had acquired anything but our educations. As a result, we don’t have a sense of “yours” or “mine”; everything we have and everything we are we have accomplished together. We rely on each other as counselors, and it has worked for 30 years. Our commitment was not “as long as we both shall love” or even “as long as we both shall live.” The inscription inside his wedding band says “For this life and always.” With that kind of commitment, we have a strong incentive to work out our differences.

22. Dreamer.

23. Doer.

24. Lover.

25-30. Well, it hasn’t all been a bed of roses! These last six are my complaints. But we’ll just keep them to ourselves, where all complaints in a happy marriage should stay.

HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, SWEETHEART!

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