Thursday, March 24, 2005

Fancydancing Leaves No Reservations About Native American Cinema

(Clockwise L to R: Gene Tagaban, Sherman Alexie, Michelle St. John, Evan Adams)

"The only thing more pathetic than Indians on TV is Indians watching Indians on TV." Wry wisdom from Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a pivotal character in the 1998 Miramax movie Smoke Signals.

So, what happens when a Native American poet becomes a film director and creates a story about Indians that will inevitably be viewed on TV by Indians? In the capable hands of writer Sherman Alexie, a Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian, the product is profound, not pathetic.

In the Indie film feature The Business Of Fancydancing, Alexie's 2002 directorial debut, he thoughtfully probes the complex social structure of interpersonal relationships within the community of the Spokane (Washington) Reservation.

Fancydancing focuses upon the spiritual awakening of Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams), a young, bisexual, Native American poet. Seymour has successfully assimilated into urban white culture as a token Native American pandering to the cliché guilt of his white-liberal readership.

When Seymour returns to the "rez" for the funeral of his friend, Mouse (Swil Kanim), a suicide victim, he is forced to confront his own lost heritage. Reconnecting with his childhood companion Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), and former girlfriend Agnes (Michelle St. John), a half-Indian/half-Jewish teacher, Seymour questions his cynicism and lack of allegiance to his roots.

Accenting Seymour's struggle with acculturation and tugging on his conscience is his white lover Steven (Kevin Phillip), who proclaims "I'm your tribe now." The relationship proves the victor as Seymour's struggle between two worlds ends, albeit insightfully, with his departure from the reservation.

The Business of Fancydancing is fashioned after director Alexie's first book of poems and short stories and remains true to its context of non-linear narrative. Lead character Seymour's writings are used as voice-overs and even appear as text on the screen, artfully blending the drama and romantic comedy of the storyline.

Fancydancing dares to look beyond the usual cavalcade of cultural stereotypes. The film neither exalts nor trashes Native American history, such as the Indian-U.S. government clash at Wounded Knee and the subsequent plight of imprisoned Indian martyr, Leonard Peltier.

Alexie chooses to step into a more intimate and dimensional portrayal of the Native American as an individual struggling with questions of personal identity. The end result is a richness and depth that has previously eluded the silver screen depiction of Indians.

In keeping with the honesty of tensions that do still exist between Native Americans and whites, there is a flashback of brutality wherein Aristotle Joseph coerces Mouse into joining him in an assault upon a stranded white motorist. However, the scene is used as much for imagery and character establishment as it is for sensationalist reaction.

Removed from the Caucasian romanticizing of films such as Dances With Wolves, or the hideous abomination of old John Wayne western epics in which Indians were portrayed as mentally deficient savages, The Business of Fancydancing stands as a testament to Native American selfhood.

So, when the Indians of Fancydancing eventually appear on HBO or the Independent Film Channel, the only thing that will be pathetic is the clueless attitude of any viewer who is still hankering for the lawn-jockey days of John Wayne's cowboys versus the Italian "Indians".

(Ari's review of Seymour's poetry is decidedly unfavorable)


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