dir. Sherman Alexie
May 31-June 6
I read somewhere that the reason the 20th-century African American novelist Richard Wright wrote the brutal novel Native Son was to shake up and shock the white readers who too easily enjoyed his collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children. Though it had violent scenes, nothing in Uncle Tom's Children comes close to the scene in Native Son where Bigger Thomas cuts up a dead white woman and stuffs her bloody parts into a basement furnace. Evidently, the raw violence in Native Son didn't scare white people enough, because it became a bestseller and made Richard Wright one of the most famous writers of his time.
Sherman Alexie is one of the most famous writers of our time, and he also likes to shock his white audience, except he's not so innocent about it. He knows that he is shocking to white people, he also knows that they are the ones who buy his books, and the awareness of this contradiction is not outside, but unmistakably inside his books, poetry, and now films.
There is one scene in Alexie's new film, The Business of Fancydancing, which shows two Native Americans--Aristotle (Gene Tagaban) and Mouse (Swil Kanim)--randomly beating up a white man and leaving him for dead. The act of violence is sudden, because the initial intent of Aristotle and Mouse was to help the white guy, whose car had broken down on the side of a country road. "Indians are always helping lost white people," says Aristotle jokingly, as he pulls over. But when they are standing in front of the white man's face, the joke dissolves, and an electric connection between their dismal state and the color of the stranger's skin is momentarily established. This is the dangerous flash of history, and because there is no one around, because they are drunk, they deal with the image directly, physically.
Like Wright's furnace scene in Native Son, the scene is there to shock white people; but it's not that simple. Alexie has never been simple. In The Business of Fancydancing, the relationship between white America and Native America (which is represented by the "rez"--reservation) has its Wrightian moments of lucid violence and emotion, but for the most part, situations, ideas, and emotions are unclear or confused or exhausted to a standstill by paradoxes.
The Business of Fancydancing, as with Alexie's poetry and fiction, is great because its paradoxes are not avoided; they collide against each other like so many angry atoms. Each paradox in the film is a complete world: There is the world of Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) who, like Alexie, is a successful writer. Seymour is comfortable in the white world (Seattle), he has a white boyfriend, frequents hip nightclubs, and reads at all the important literary venues. Seymour's literary success, however, is based on the raw exploitation of the lives and stories of those he abandoned on the rez.
The paradoxical world of Seymour is set principally against the paradoxical world of Aristotle, who is an alcoholic failure. Despite his name, Aristotle can't deal with white people; he finds their world and Seattle repulsive. The Spokane Indian Reservation--the very antithesis of Seattle--is the only place that makes sense to him. There are other complete, paradoxical worlds, such as Agnes Roth (Michelle St. John), who is half Jewish and half Spokane Indian, and Mouse, a cheerful musician who drinks himself to a sad death. The movie has no real start or end, just this gallery of complete characters who have responded differently to their desperate circumstances.
The characters and themes in The Business of Fancydancing, however, are not new; anyone acquainted with Alexie's art will recognize them. What is impressive about the movie, then, is not that we get to see these characters and their stories played out on the movie screen, but that the film is charged at every possible point by Alexie's poetry. Alexie is a great writer, and the film is able to transmit that greatness through the dialogue, the long spools of poetry read by Seymour, and even title cards. Indeed, the movie is not really a movie, nor is it a documentary, but a new medium to redistribute Alexie's marvelous (and at times shocking) poetry.