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Smoke SIgnals Review

Page history last edited by Jayson Yeagley 10 years, 5 months ago

Below are two different reviews:





Critique of Smoke Signals



The film Smoke Signals is a journey of two young men from the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation. One of the young men, Thomas, describes the journey as a "ceremony," as each of them along the way endeavors to discover what it means to be 'Indian' in twentieth century America. Thomas and Victor have conflicting opinions of how Indians should be: Victor is the stoic warrior lacking a battle to fight and Thomas is the visionary storyteller whom no one listens to.

The overriding theme of this film is the sense of loss felt by the Indians, in the past and present. The manner in which the film cuts back and forth between past and present signifies how all events are intertwined, and stresses how Indians strongly hold on to their past and their ancestors' past. One example of this remembrance is seen when Thomas and Victor are walking in the desert to Victor's father's trailer. Thomas says:


Columbus shows up and we start walking away from that beach, trying to get away, and then Custer moves into the neighborhood, drivin' down all the property values, and we gotta keep on walking, and ole Harry Truman drops the bomb and we gotta keep on walking 'cept it's all bright now and we can see exactly where we're going, and then we get a beachhouse on the moon, but Neil Armstrong shows up and boots us off into space (Smoke Signals).


This speech is an excellent example of the history of the Indians; how they were forced to move from one area to another and then again, as whites moved in and displaced them. It also shows how the Indians feel adrift, like there is no place they can call their own, not even on the moon.

The feeling of loss is also seen in scenes such as when Victor and his father lose the basketball game to the Jesuit priests, and when their seat on the bus is taken by the two white men who say, "No, these were your seats" (Smoke Signals). But however much the Indians live with the remembrance of what they lost, they continue to hold out hope that someday they will regain their former life. This widespread Indian belief is described when Victor's father says that with a sweep of his hand, he could make the "whites disappear" (Smoke Signals).

This is an excellent film as it gives us perspectives into the present life of Native Americans, which is something that is frequently overlooked by our society.





Brave Journey

Authentic cinematic voices have finally begun to narrate the reality of minority life in America after years of crude typecasting. Laudable explorations of African-American, Latino-American, and Chinese-American experience have included, respectively, Charles Burnett's To Sleep With Anger, Edward James Olmos' Zoot Suit, and Wayne Wang's Dim Sum. Yet not a single mainstream film about Native Americans has ever been directed and written by a Native American, with a Native American cast, produced under Native American auspices. Whether demonized or glorified, Indian culture continues to be refracted through a White lens onscreen.

For many decades, Hollywood chiefly viewed the Indian from a triumphalist perspective as an ingorant brute to be expunged or domesticated towards the fulfillment of White manifest destiny. John Ford's Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon are classic cases in point. (At the end of his career Ford repented of his earlier jingoism, to portray Indian exploitation sympathetically -- if still from an outsider perspective -- in the magisterial Cheyenne Autumn).

Hollywood's leftish drift during the Viet Nam era lead to the depiction of the Indian as a noble rather than ignoble savage, Rousseau's happy innocent in the wild. Liberally inclined Sixties/Seventies movies like Soldier Blue and A Man Called Horse implicity identified Native Americans with their supposed Vietnamese counterparts, as prototypical oppressed colonial subjects. Native Americans are still being (mis)represented in this exasperating two-dimensional vein as ecologically friendly neo-hippies -- and passive victims to boot, until the right White male comes along to plead their cause. The hamfisted political correctness of Dances With Wolves grates upon one's sensibilities more than Ford at his imperialist worst. "Kevin Costner has feathers in his hair," Pauline Kael famously opened her review, "and feathers in his head..."

Smoke Signals, the engaging first feature of Cheyenne-Arapaho director Chris Eyre (Eyre has previously made shorts and documentaries), cannot redress decades of distortion. But it does take a bold step towards furnishing Native Americans with a native cinematic voice -- and one completely accessible to outsiders. The film has been strongly adapted by Spokane tribe member Sherman Alexie from his astringent short story collection, "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven" (Alexie also co-produced). Almost all the performers are Native Americans (Tom Skerrit, as a tough, unexpectedly empathic Sheriff, is a notable exception).

Smoke Signals opens on a bravura note of Indian magic realism, with a tale of fabulous origination reminiscent of Marquez or Borges, set a generation back on an Idaho reservation of the Coeur D'Alene Sioux nation. The narrator, Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) describes his rescue as an infant from the inferno that consumed his parents' house and lives during a night of drunken Fourth of July revelry -- "celebrating the white man's holiday".

In hieratic slow motion the swaddled Thomas soars over the flames, pitched from an upstairs window by his unseen mother. A desperate plunging catch by burly Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer) snatches him from certain death. We are told later that Arnold subsequently rushed into the house to save another baby, his son, Victor. Thomas' voiceover relates that Arnold cut off his long hair immediately after the tragedy, and that he was an amateur magician whose concluding trick was to make himself vanish a decade later. Eyre's graceful camera glides away from the fire, to a stunning aerial shot of Victor's yellow pickup forging down his road to nowhere, thence to the present-day "rez", where Victor (Adam Beach) and Thomas are rejoined as young adults.

Their childhood was inextricably bonded by Arnold's deliverance, but the pair have grown into polar opposites. Victor inherits his father's brawny good looks, as well as the bitterness concealed by Arnold Joseph's jovial facade. Like most of the young men on the reservation, he's chronically unemployed; still lives on the dole with his mother in their battered trailer. His smouldering resentment over Arnold's desertion is exceeded only by an abiding rancor towards the White world.

Thomas looks like the Indian reincarnation of young Jerry Lewis. A head shorter than Victor, he's obsessively neat, wears thick glasses and braids, a nerdy suit, and a perennial dumb grin. He's been raised by the eadoring grandmother whom he now cares for. She twins his sweet, loopy smile; deems him something of a shaman. Thomas is given to interminable tales of his personal and tribal past, many taller than true. Victor has been long worn out of patience by Thomas' doofus verbosity, dreamy optimism, and -- above all -- by his persistent idealizing of Arnold Joseph. Thomas keeps on spinning yarns and pestering him nonetheless.

When news arrives that Arnold has died of a heart attack in Phoenix, Victor refuses to fetch back his ashes and few possessions, pleading lack of cash. Thomas offers to finance the expedition with all the cash he has saved -- in a literal cookie jar -- if he's allowed to accompany Victor. Victor can't turn him down, and the two set out on a quirky reinvention of the American road-trip movie. As they leave the reservation, a friend recommends they get vaccinated since they're headed for a foreign country -- the White man's territory.

During the long bus ride to Arizona, Victor acerbly instructs Thomas to alter his doofus dress, let down his hair, and put on a stern "warrior face" with which to rebut the petty, but no less hurtful racism they encounter along the way. The would-be braves' journey culminates in a shabby trailer camp set down in a dramatic Southwestern mountainscape, where they meet Suzy Song (Irene Bedard), Arnold's exquisite young neighbor and companion in his last years.

After its arresting establishing sequence, Smoke Signals continues to shuttle between current events and radically contradictory memories of Arnold Joseph. This deft suturing of temporalities honorably recalls the narrative devices of Lone Star, in which John Sayles also explored an embittered son's struggle with the enigmas of his troubled paternity in a racially charged setting.

Arnold emerges from Victor and Thomas' disparate recollections as a sensitive man whose kindness could be as ample as his bulk, but who insidiously descended into drunken violence towards his loved ones, until his wife's refusal to lend their home -- and her body -- to further degrading binges precipitated his abandonment. One senses Arnold's inchoate frustrations stemmed not merely from his failure as a provider, but from a central inability to find validity in his being or culture, abetted by demeaning reminders of his outsider status. His habitual despair may also have been accentuated by the native American's genetic vulnerability towards alcohol -- another toxic gift of White culture.

According to Susy Song's unambivalent reminiscence, Arnold attained a hard-won sobriety and serenity in his last years. He never stopped dreaming of returning home; spoke often of his enduring love for his wife and Victor; but chose to remain in exile because of a guilty secret that will not be divulged here.

Suzy's revelations soften Victor's corrosive resentment, so that he can begin to mourn Arnold and work through his own paralyzing estrangement. The young men return to the reservation in Arnold's beloved truck. Victor gives part of his father's ashes to Thomas, who he has come to cherish for his loyalty, tolerant good cheer, and a wisdom greater than his dorky facade would suggest (Thomas has resumed his former oddball garb and behavior upon their return).

In clumsier hands, Smoke Signals would been just another buddy/coming-of-age movie, gone native, awash in dreary liberal pieties. Susy Song, for instance, might have been transformed into Arnold's lover then and Victor's now -- shades of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. The film consistently refuses such facile Spielbergian resolutions, in this case rendering the impact of Suzy's compassion upon Victor's burdened spirit infinitely more convincing than a convenient romance.

Eyre and Alexie also avoid heavy-handed polemics on the devastation of yesteryear's genocidal savagery as well as the more insidious harm to the Indian community wrought by today's misguided welfare strategies. Observations on these issues are unobtrusive, often occur at the narrative periphery to more telling cumulative effect (e.g., when Whites, young or old, call the friends "boys", it's with a very different inflection then that used by tribal elders). The filmmakers are just as quietly clear-eyed about the debilitating tendency of many Native Indian men -- especially from Arnold's generation -- to become immured in infantalized dependency upon the White world; to drown their resultant anger in drink, or project it upon their hapless families.

Smoke Signal's delineation of Arnold's tragedy and the dilemmas of contemporary Indian life his son incarnates is consistently informed by a self-effacing, deadpan humor. One comes to understand this ironic wit, replete with droll confabulation, is a valuable survival mechanism which helps Native Americans cope with a multitude of quotidian petty abrasions and insults.

"It's a great morning to be indiginous!" proclaims the announcer of the reservation's broken-down radio station. The station's "traffic and weather reporter", Lester Fallsapart, sits in his rusty pickup at an empty crossroads, daily reporting there's no traffic, then describing the shapes in the clouds. Victor and Thomas' chant about the constitution of John Wayne's teeth, after being bullied from their bus seats by a pair of good-old-boy yahoos, is worth the price of admission alone.

Smoke Signal's poignant conclusion recapitulates the visual strategies of its opening: in slow motion, Victor, crying out in silent anguish, casts Arnold's ashes from a bridge high over the Spokane river. The camera soars over the same majestic northwest territory which Arnold traversed in his desparate flight from home, as Thomas' voice is heard reading Indian poet Dick Lourie's Forgiving Our Fathers:

"...Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs?

Or in their deaths? ... Saying it to them or not saying it?

If we forgive our fathers, what is left?"

The last inquiry is central to Eyre and Alexie's intentions, and tacitly to the struggle of a new Indian generation to define a viable identity. How can Native Americans break the chain of victimization -- always most difficult when injuries are so substantive -- that began with the scarifying wounds inflicted by White usurpation, then continued with the complex traumata visited both by better-intentioned Whites, and the victims themselves upon their own people? The question is the answer, goes the old Zen proverb. Posing it so eloquently, Smoke Signals has provided grounds for debate, engendered potent possibilities for healing.



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