Smoke Signals is a Native American masterpiece
By Gerald Peary
JULY 6, 1998: Smoke Signals, the first feature film conceived, written, directed, and (mostly) acted by Native Americans, is cause for jubilation just for been financed and made. With big-time Miramax as its Great White Distributor, this movie should be seeable by tribal people all about the country. (It opens this Friday at the Harvard Square.)
But the historical breakthrough is not the only reason for celebration. The first Native American film is simply an all-out wonderful American film. This Chris Eyre-directed picture from a sublime screenplay by novelist/poet Sherman Alexie is so sweet and funny, and also so fearlessly emotional. You'll certainly laugh a lot, and feel sad a bit, watching the lovely story unwind; and you'll certainly savor the ensemble, some of the most capable, and charismatic, Native actors in North America. But Smoke Signals dares travel beyond its quiet verities. The movie climaxes in a truly universal flood of anguish, pain, anger, forgiveness, release. I've seen Smoke Signals twice and, in its final moments, sobbed twice: big, gloppy, purgative tears.
Here's a bit of the story. Victor (Adam Beach) lives on Idaho's Coeur d'Alène Indian Reservation with his resilient mother (Tantoo Cardinal) and his alcoholic father (Gary Farmer). When Victor is 12, his dad takes off for Arizona, abandoning wife and son. A bitter Victor, grown into early manhood, receives the harsh news one day that his wandering dad is dead in a trailer, in the desert outside Phoenix.
Should Victor care at all? He does care, but he has no money for a Greyhound bus to Arizona to claim the body. He's forced to bring along someone who'll pay both their ways, a four-eyed, uncool geek named Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams). This Thomas is prone to shut his eyes and weave long, weird, impossibly opaque, Indian stories. Thomas, get normal!
The road trip becomes, of course, a mythic pilgrimage, a psychic journey. Victor's poisonous anger toward his father, toward everyone, is tamed a bit by Thomas's unwavering kindness, openness, morality. Thomas's stories are actually holy ones, spinning through time. He's a magic Christian, a griot, a Solomon. And it's Thomas who, at the end, is charged with dropping Victor's father's ashes off a Spokane bridge.
That's where Smoke Signals soars to the universal, a wailing wall of sorrow, with a voiceover reading of Dick Lourie's mighty poem "Forgiving Our Fathers." The poem is, without naming names, about Telemachus and Odysseus, Victor and his dad, your dad, my dad: "How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream."
The moment is akin to John Huston's chilling voiceover reading of the last paragraph of James Joyce's story at the end of The Dead (1987), with snow falling all over Ireland, over the world, blanketing the living and the deceased.
That's what I told Sherman Alexie when we had lunch in Cambridge. Alexie had seen The Dead many times but never made the conscious connection to Smoke Signals. "Damn! I'm going to go to the video store and rent it again," he said. Then he surprised me: Dick Lourie is a local. He lives in Somerville, teaches at U Mass-Boston. He was Alexie's poetry editor at Hanging Loose Press.
Alexie: "I've seen the film hundreds of times, and the ending still gets me, maybe because I didn't write that poem, when the film goes from a simple, tender domestic drama and becomes spiritual, universal, tragic. The movie is about these Indians, but it seems to affect everyone's life. It's been astonishing: I had no idea of the huge, aching, father wound, of all genders, colors, races.
"After one screening, a woman told me, 'I'm going to call my father. I haven't talked to him in 12 years.' I saw her in the lobby on the phone."
Smoke Signals is based on stories in Alexie's collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfighting in Heaven. He wrote that extraordinary book in an alcoholic haze. "I've been in recovery for eight years, but I drank from ages 18 to 23. I'd buy a case of beer, rent six or seven video movies, and start drinking, get up only to change the movies, pass out. Nothing romantic, no Lost Weekend, no Nick Cage in Las Vegas. I was drunk, dirty, and disgusting. But I'd write. I'd get up, and there would be 12 pages by my word processor, and I wouldn't remember writing them."
And his screenplay for Smoke Signals? "So many people write outside their experiences. Here, there's no emotional distance. It's who I am and what I know. Everyone at Miramax thinks I'm more Victor, maybe because I'm a jock and I'm 6'2". But I have a compulsive need to talk like Thomas, and there's not much of a filter between my brain and my mouth."
His father? "I've spent my life mythologizing him. He lives at home with all my siblings. He's a decent, ordinary man."
Soon, Alexie will write and direct a screen version of his novel Indian Killer, with Evan Adams, the 5'2" Indian leprechaun who triumphs as gentle-souled Thomas, transformed into a sociopath.
"Evan is a perfect combination of sheep and tiger, the sacred and the profane,
William Blake personified. Before Smoke Signals, I saw an audition tape
of him, and his spirit came roaring off my TV. Now, I like to tease him. 'Evan,
you could be my De Niro.' "
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