Giving Hollywood the ‘Business’

In the Sherman Alexie-scripted film, "Smoke Signals," an Indian woman drives her car backward across the reservation. It’s a beautiful scene that reminds me of my father, who wasn’t American or Indian, but drove a crappy car whose passenger door periodically fell off, embarrassing the shit out of me when I was a kid.

In Alexie’s new film, "The Business of Fancydancing," an Indian parent uses soda to placate his kid, who is waiting in a car outside a bar. It’s a beautiful scene that reminds me of drinking sodas in my father’s crappy car while waiting for my parents to get drunk in the pub.

Who says Alexie’s movies are about Indians? Well OK, they are -- in fact, he gets more than a little pissed off when people ask him when he’s going to stop making films about Indians.

“Do you realize how racist that sounds? And asking that question is insulting,” says Alexie, referring to a recent instance when he was yet again thus insulted by another interviewer. “Only certain white males and females have written outside their own culture, a step which is a form of colonialism, practiced by very few, and which hasn’t happened so much since brown men and women have been able to publish their work.”

In Alexie’s work, Indians are depicted as complex and flawed. It’s a universe light years away from the myth of Indians as a bunch of war-paint-wearing, shape-shifting noble savages.

But in the real world, the stereotypes live on. Take my children, who were educated in the most liberal and well-meaning of schools, yet were taught to call Indians “Native Americans” -- a term Alexie dismisses as “a product of liberal white guilt.”

“‘Indians’ and ‘Native Americans’ are equally inaccurate and meaningless terms, but I never use the term ‘Native American’ except in mixed company,” Alexie says.

"Fancydancing" is Alexie’s debut as a director, his second film as a screenwriter. His film career certainly looks promising -- "Smoke Signals" opened to universal acclaim in 1998 -- but, then again, with the life expectancy of an Indian male hovering at 52 years, that makes the 36-year-old Alexie well past middle age.

“I’m in my twilight years,” laughs the man whose meteoric career got kick-started a decade ago when The New York Times Book Review hailed him as “one of the major lyric voices of our time” in a review of a book of Alexie's poems titled The Business of Fancydancing.

Though the book shares a title with the movie, Fancydancing the film is not so much an extended poetry reading as a study of the fancy footwork that one Seymour Polatkin, an internationally famous and gay Indian writer, has to undertake to survive in the postmodern world.

As part of that survival, Seymour (played by Evan Adams, who also starred as the geeky Thomas-Builds-a-Fire in "Smoke Signals") must return after a decade-long absence to the Spokanee reservation for the funeral of a boyhood friend. Upon his return, Seymour is greeted with distrust, anger and derision by his tribe, who accuse him of having become successful by selling out his Indian heritage.

It’s an accusation that Alexie himself hears all the time.

“It used to hurt,” says Alexie. “Now it’s just interesting, because regardless of where I grew up, now I’m split culturally. Which makes for fascinating personal collisions. Yes, I’m bought and paid for, but writing about Indians makes it pretty hard to sell out. My hard-core audience is based on 50,000-75,000 people, so my identity limits my ability to sell out. But it’s naive to think artists have to be poor.”

Alexie once said that he comes from a culture “where stories and songs belong to someone, where you have to ask permission to use them.” So, did he ask permission for the stories he’s used?

“Nope,” he laughs. “There are certain stories I have told and written down which I shouldn’t have. It’s a learning process. You have to make a moral decision. Should you not tell a story because it’s against the tradition? Or are you thinking you shouldn’t, because the truth will come out?”

Noting that he finds screenplays easier to write than novels, Alexie says writing and directing is an even better deal.

“I don’t know why any director wouldn’t want to write the film, too,” he says. “Usually the ego struggle on any set is between the screenwriter and the director-this way I’m fighting with myself. Which is interesting.”

Alexie confesses he himself is no fancydancer, saying he has “a terminal lack of rhythm.” He’ll also freely admit that the dancing, singing and music in the film doesn’t necessarily correspond to the way they are usually used.

“It’s gonna take the Indians to find the moments where I’m being ironic,” Alexie says. “I didn’t want to be translating all the time. I didn’t want to make a film that was subtitled. I wanted to keep some of the audience at a distance, on their toes.”

With Fancydancing now traversing the national film festival circuit, Alexie’s main concern is whether audiences will find the movie funny. Alexie’s film also has its share of heavy stuff, mixing comedy and tragedy like a modern-day Shakespearean play.

“There’s a lot of Shakespeare on the rez. King Lear is happening every day. Hamlet, too,” he says. “But there’s also a lot of comedy. Like Much Ado about Nothing! So tell people that Fancydancing is a comedy. Sort of. Because real comedy comes out of pain.”

Alexie’s new film has some romance, too, with the main character’s gay sexual identity allowing him to explore a topic he says is still taboo.

“I’ve a friend who’s a social worker who took a class that explored a whole range of sexual expressions from gay porn and straight porn to hard-core anal sex and people holding hands,” he says. “The image people had the most problem with was two gay men being affectionate. They freaked out over that more than the anal sex.”

Toward the end of our interview, I admit that I have a dream catcher in my car and that I have been attracted to the Mother Earth, Father Sky, the corn pollen theory of Indians (which Alexie so often and so vehemently disses on) -- my attraction, maybe, being that it helped fill my spiritual vacuum. To my surprise, Alexie doesn’t scoff or rant.

“There has always been a spiritual vacuum throughout the history of the world. Every holy book is about that. That’s what faith and religion are about, but religion never fills up the hole. We’re all Prometheus and Sisyphus.” He laughs grimly, then adds, “I’ll trade you a few prayers for some of your privileges.”

Sarah Phelan is news editor of Metro Santa Cruz.

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