SMOKE SIGNALS (1999) ***
The movie may not be the only one of its kind but it is the first to receive a fairly wide distribution. It is also said that it may well become the pioneer in American Indian films the way Spike Lee's did for African American movies. (This is a facile statement unfair to the pre-Spike black films, starting with the Illinois-born Oscar Micheaux (1884-1951), the undisputed pioneer of many "race" films.)
Whether or not Smoke Signals is the beginning of something big remains to be seen. In the post-World War II years, white Hollywood did introduce revisionist Westerns that tried to replace the old cliches (among them "A good Injun is a Dead Injun," and the comic Indian) with a new awareness of historical oppression, despoiling and injustices. But strictly American Indian films will need audiences of connoisseurs who are also politically aware -- and these audiences are small. Even smaller is the public of Native Americans -- as these represent 0.7% of our population as opposed to 12% for African Americans.
Smoke Signals is about Indians (the term "Native Americans" is never used in the film) of the Coeur d'Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho. "The Rez" is no show-place, what with its very modest dwellings and local store, and a radio-station housed in a dilapidated shack. Its one-man announcer-and-everything-else sets the tone from the start by starting his broadcast with patter such as "It's a good day to be indigenous!" Cut to a "traffic reporter." He sits under an umbrella on top of a truck at a nowhere intersection of dirt-roads, describes the rare-as-hen's-teeth cars that pass by. It's all self-mocking, deprecating, good-humored, but sadly shabby and with an underlayer of resignation. Here and elsewhere there is a "no exit" atmosphere.
However, expect neither a film of protests, recriminations and denunciations, nor a documentary-style analysis of the Indians' lot, nor their glorification. The picture essentially deals with a handful of characters with a common background but no definable common cause.
Flashbacks are frequently over-used in movies, including this one, and while originally conceived to explain, they may often confuse, at least initially. Restoring a linear chronology to the film, here's what happens.
Back in 1976, the residents were celebrating the 4th of July Bicentennial. Why would Indians celebrate an Independence Day that brought them no independence? Don't ask. I can't tell why, other than perhaps, for isolated people, many of whom live under the Sign of the Beer Can, opportunities to whoop it up are welcome diversions.
During the big party, a house catches fire. It burns down to ashes, along with its proprietors, but not before Arnold Joseph has dashed in heroically to rescue their baby, Thomas Builds-the-Fire. Victor, Arnold's own baby, is also saved from the flames.
The two children grow up together, inevitably given that they have Arnold in common and that the Reservation seems most under-populated. As the story zig-zags from 1976 to 1998 and intervening years, we see the boys at different ages. The 1998 Victor is tall, handsome, athletic, long-haired. Thomas is short, bespectacled, unathletic and, in dress, looks and manner, a compleat nerd. In some scenes, his braided hair and high-pitched voice may even make the audience think that Thomas is a girl.
Thomas, who hero-worships Victor, is afflicted with logorrhea. He is a compulsive story-teller, to the amusement of some and the irritation of others, including Victor, whose footsteps he dogs. Having seen the film just once, I cannot, with any finality, sort out Thomas's interesting stories from his dull ones, but there's certainly a mixture of both. In a sense, the young man is like a medicine-man-in training or a shaman-to-be, a fact that's played up mostly for humor, but (another underlayer) with a sense of Indian culture as well.
Ten years before the present day, high-drinking Arnold who, notwithstanding his inebriation could at himself and his life realistically, took off in his truck and was never heard from. Until, that is, a message reaches his wife Arlene, his son Victor , and of course the entire community. Arnold had recently died of a heart attack, near Phoenix. Victor sets out to collect his father's ashes, as well as his pickup. But lacking the price of bus fare to Phoenix, he most reluctantly accepts Thomas's savings. The catch is that he must take Thomas along.
While very little, if anything, is said about the poverty at the Rez, the fact that Victor cannot afford a Greyhound ticket speaks volumes. This is typical of the film's several aspects that , without underlining, are stated in a matter-of-fact way and lets you infer and draw conclusions.
Here begins a variant on road movies, in three main sections: the trip to Phoenix; the visit to pretty, ex-nurse Suzy who had been Arnold's companion for perhaps ten years; the return trip. Much of this is predictable. Victor's annoyance at pesky, babbling Thomas will change into low-key, ungushy friendship.Thomas will learn his share of things.Some hitherto unknown facts about the late Arnold will surface and in some ways throw a post-mortem bridge between the deceased and Victor. Self-knowledge is enhanced. Etc. etc.
All this may not matter much to the audience. What does is the manner of its treatment: unspectacular, casual, almost calm, it mixes small actions and reactions. These are nourished by a basic sense of humor, as when the two young men talk of Indianness and of the perception of Indians by outsiders. There are several funny references to Dances With Wolves, Custer, John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Tonto and other pop images.
Throughout, the episodes and the Thomas's never ending tales vary in interest. There is somewhat more symbolism than necessary, but some it works well and is abetted by humor. As in the case of a car in the Rez that can drive only in reverse. It's a gag, but a fact too. The vehicle stands for poverty, neglect, lack of progress, acceptance of the status quo. References to leaving the Rez for a "foreign country" (the rest of the U.S.A) are amusing as well as eloquent. Thomas's intonation, a singsong with rising inflections that made me think of a combination Spanish and Irish (I later learned that the actor is Canadian), can hold one's attention even when Thomas does not come up with anything fascinating. His most touching story goes back to the time when Arnold had taken him to a Denny's for breakfast. He describes it minutely, with awe and wonder, concluding at long last "Sometimes it's a good day to die. Sometimes it is a good day to have breakfast."
Well photographed, making its visual points about physical and inner
desolation with simplicity and no artifice, using a very good musical score,
the mini-adventures (or non- adventures) of the two companions neither
constitute a detailed whole nor an exciting movie-movie. Smoke Signals
may make some viewers impatient, yet if the same people shift their minds'
cinematic gears from high to low, the movie can become one of small, quiet
insights of a life unfamiliar to most of us.