By all appearances, the writer Sherman Alexie is the kind of artist one might call driven. At 36 years old, he has published books of poetry, novels and short stories. He has done standup comedy, prevailed at live poetry tournaments and participated in a televised dialogue on race with President Clinton. He conquered alcoholism and started a family. In 1997, Alexie wrote his first screenplay, for first-time director Chris Eyre: "Smoke Signals" was a Sundance success story and a modest summer sleeper. Now, Alexie makes his own directorial debut with a movie titled after his first book of poetry, "The Business of Fancydancing." Like all of Alexie's work -- and like the work of many who are artists seemingly by compulsion rather than choice -- the movie is proof that Alexie is obsessed, to Hitchcockian proportions, with a specific mission, namely with communicating the experience of the modern-day Native American.
A Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian (his term), Alexie was raised on the Spokane reservation in Washington state, where much of "The Business of Fancydancing" is set. It would be easy, in fact, to read the movie as purely autobiographical; both its scale and its story are strikingly intimate, and undoubtedly personal -- at least in part. If there's one thing Alexie wants to drive home in "Fancydancing," it's the idea that an individual's own story is always, and necessarily, made up of the stories of others. Which doesn't necessarily sit well with his characters.
Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) has escaped "the rez," gone to college, become a celebrated poet and, in the process, a token representative of his fellow Native Americans. He has built a life upon his heritage and upbringing, while at the same time doing his best to transcend it, by getting sober and becoming famous, by accepting his homosexuality and living with his white physician lover. When Seymour is called back home for the funeral of a friend who has deliberately put an end to a life of gas huffing and rubbing-alcohol cocktails, the resentment of his former childhood intimates -- who feel Seymour has appropriated their lives for his poetry, then abandoned them -- and his own conflicted feelings over his past and present come to a high boil.
Alexie's relatively novel take on the quintessentially American story of being stranded between cultures is compelling, but while "The Business of Fancydancing" is a thoughtful and complex work of sound and vision, it doesn't seem quite right to call it a film, for a couple of reasons. First of all, it is plainly, if crisply, shot on video, with a bright, shiny surface that fairly screams low-rent. Second, the whole business is strangely non-cinematic. The picture is tightly constructed, with an unflaggingly lyrical pace and moving performances, particularly from Adams, and from Gene Tagaban as Seymour's estranged best friend. But as Alexie pieces together "Fancydancing" from a bulging grab bag of elements -- stagy encounters set against a black background, more-realistic narrative episodes, white-on-black intertitles, first-person address -- visual business takes a back seat to the writer's words, and the proceedings view less like a movie and more like an epic poem with moving, talking illustrations.
Like Seymour, "Fancydancing" is sui generis, not wholly one thing or the other. Which is fitting for a tale of fluid identities, and for an artist exploring where his compulsion will take him next.