Written and Directed by Sherman Alexie
Released January 14, 2002
Review by Stephen O. Murray
June 17, 2004.
Spokane/Coeur d’Alene writer Sherman Alexie’s 2002 directorial debut, The Business of Fancydancing, which was made on a budget of less than $200,000, is initially confusing and continues to feel very nonlinear, even after the viewer gets his or her bearings.
Although it is a mosaic of flashbacks and fragments of the present-day life of a Native American poet with a white audience (bearing strong resemblances to Alexie’s success and with the movie character reading some of Alexie’s poetry), by the end there is one fairly clear narrative line. That is the return to the Spokane Reservation of Seymour Polatkin [Evan Tlesla Adams], a successful native of the reservation who has made it in the white world, for the funeral of a once-close friend, the playful violinist “Mouse” [Swil Kanim]. “ Seymour feels less at home in what is supposed to be “home” (the reservation on which he grew up) than in the city (Seattle). He is confronted early and often by his once best friend Aristotle Joseph [Gene Tagaban], who went with Seymour to college in Seattle and was Seymour’s room-mate there, but dropped out and returned to the reservation where he gets drunk, sniffs gasoline fumes, gets violent, and has taken up with the half-Spokane, half-Jewish teacher Agnes [Michelle St. John] who was the one woman with whom Seymour had sex (along with 112 white guys, 16 black men, 7 Asian men, 3 men of ambiguous ethic origin, and no Indian men).
Seymour is living with a fairly patient, fairly playful, and largely clueless Anglo named Steven [Kevin Phillip] who came up to Seymour in a gay disco and asked the standard “What are you? Where are you from?” questions that Seymour finds difficult to answer and riffs on in his poetry and stories.
The movie opens with a seeming home movie of Aristotle and Seymour mugging in their graduation gowns. The life of giving readings and soaking up adulation at them is intercut with snippets of a vicious, literally in-your-face interviewer [Rebecca Carroll, whom I think is light-skinned African American with authenticity/identity issues of her own]; scenes of Seymour whirling about in 1980s Indian pow-wow dancing garb (and in women’s shawl dancing); and flashbacks to college.
Two of the most powerful scenes in the movie are flashbacks to Seymour’s college days during the late 1980s: Seymour first talking to Agnes, and Aristotle’s “I’m dropping out, come home with me” assault). Some of Aristotle’s (and Alexie’s? see The Indian Killer) aggressions are worked out on a hapless stranded motorist, but Aristotle has plenty left for berating Seymour when he returns for the funeral.
There are also recurrent shots of Mouse fiddling, with and without Agnes singing. If these are supposed to reveal Mouse’s character, they are lost on me. He looks amiable but, unlike Aristotle and Seymour, he does not articulate what’s eating at him—other than imbibing rubbing alcohol and eating bathroom cleaner sandwiches, that is. It would have made more sense for Seymour to be returning for Aristotle’s funeral, since their past relationship is made clear. Mouse floats in and out and fiddles, but there is no flashback development of what the relationship was between Seymour and Mouse before Seymour left for college, and they did not keep in touch. Moreover, Aristotle is the one seemingly more consumed by rage (and is also present in the rubbing alcohol drinking scene).
In a fairly one-dimensional role as Thomas Builds-A-Fire in Smoke Signals (1998), which was scripted by Alexie, Evan Adams managed to elicit sympathy (and to look good when he freed his hair). I didn’t recognize him as the more poised and professionally charming Seymour. The character meshes many of Adams’s experiences as a First Nations (the Canadian designation for what is “Native American” in the U.S.) gay man with those of being a successful writer about Native Americans from Alexie’s experiences on the college and bookstore circuit, and I presume from being challenged by those living on reservations about living off the reservation and strip-mining their experiences. Most of the stories in Alexie’s last two story collections are set off the reservations as is most of his most recent novel, so he can probably shrug off such charges more easily than he could when … Continue reading He is a determined, resilient Indian (“concentrated” in that he is only 5’2″) who has striven mightily and is short on sympathy for those wallowing in self-pity and free-floating aggression like Aristotle. Seymour is not going to take any blame for Mouse’s self-destruction, pointing out forcibly to Aristotle that the one who was on the scene and might have prevented it (rather than speeding it) was Aristotle.
It’s difficult to tell whether Swil Kanim can act, given how few are his opportunities to develop a character. Michelle St. John and Gene Tagaban have dramatic confrontations with Seymour and Big Speeches about their feelings. Evan Adams has the most opportunities to lay out the complexities of his ambivalent feelings about the reservation heritage that he alienates in the sense of commodifying and selling to non-Indians. Twice, he completely splits apart (while back on “the rez”) and two other times he metamorphoses into Aristotle. (When Aristotle moans “We were brothers,” Seymour fires back: “We’re still brothers.”)
Surprisingly, Seymour’s being gay is not thrown up in his face by Aristotle (or anyone else) as another aspect of selling-out. There are implications of some homoerotic feelings in Aristotle (one dancing with a black man in what seems to be a gay disco and the way he looks at a shirtless Seymour in what is perhaps a dream of Seymour’s—part of a longer sequence of interruptions by Steven, Agnes, and Aristotle, the rest of which was deleted and leads off the set of deleted scenes on the DVD). Seymour commodifies being gay as he commodifies being Indian, charming his audiences with the story of coming out (as “two-spirited”) to his grandmother and being unashamed. If he has any experience of being bated for his sexual orientation on or off the reservation, it is not recalled on the screen. For that matter, no one calls him an “apple” (red on the outside, white inside) or “coconut” (brown on the outside, white inside). (There are apples in the movie, with strong ties to the childhood friendship of Aristotle and Seymour, but they are all green ones.) Despite good reasons for having a grudge, Michelle defends him and his work to those with whom he grew up. She is also able to bat lines from Hamlet back at Seymour.
The image quality of the movie is generally good despite being shot on videotape. There are various scenes, including the graduation gown opening one, that are shot by Mouse and supposed to look unprofessional. The compositions are generally professional-looking though less striking than some in Smoke Signals.
The DVD includes half an hour of deleted scenes (the bulk of them with Mouse’s blonde girlfriend) that were wisely deleted but interesting after seeing the movie. The exception, one that should not have been cut in my opinion, is the first three-quarters of the scene in which Seymour is sitting up in bed writing a poem (not an especially good one) and interrupted by Steven, Agnes, and Aristotle. It is the only scene in the movie in which the writer is writing, though he has many of reading. Also, it’s an impressive 7+-minute single take.
The commentary track with Alexie and Adams is very interesting and laughter-filled (Adams laughing frequently). Both are quite self-critical and both are unstinting in their praise of Michelle St. John (a longtime close friend offscreen of Adams). Alexie teases Adams a lot (about his height, unmasculinity, and attributed promiscuity). Adams laughs the denigrations off and does not strike back. The denigrations are more affectionate than those aimed at Seymour in the movie, but cumulatively have something of the feeling of fag-baiting even if accompanied by some praise and evidence of respect and interest in Adams’s gay experiences.
(Especially in that Adams looks Filipino without a beard and Japanese with one, it was interesting to learn that he is in fact full-blooded (Salish), while the prototypically Indian-featured Tagaban is in fact half-Filipino.)
There is also a trailer, a set of production stills, and a “making of” feature, Sherman’s Sandbox, which is entertaining but not especially informative.
The dialogue is sometimes stilted, often barbed, and not always audible. There is a lot of music of various kinds and several kinds of dancing. Despite some awkwardness and self-indulgence (not least in arty fragmentation of narratives), I found The Business of Fancydancing absorbing. The issues of authenticity of successful “crossovers” (breakouts?) is certainly more general, as the animosity of some to celebrating the centenary of the birth of Yiddish writer and Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer shows. Suspicion for and resentment of those anointed by majority-culture gatekeepers to speak for this or that minority recur, especially for those who expatriate themselves from the roots that are their stock-in-trade and who flaunt (or just have) white partners (e.g., in French exile, Richard Wright, Chester Himes, and, especially, James Baldwin who had male ones). Self-destructive substance abuse is also widespread, if especially acute among Native Americans—and writers.
The Business of Fancydancing also makes me wish that Adams and St. John had more screen roles, together or separately.
published by epinions 17 June 2004
©2004, 2016, Stephen O.Murray
|⇑1||Most of the stories in Alexie’s last two story collections are set off the reservations as is most of his most recent novel, so he can probably shrug off such charges more easily than he could when he was Seymour’s age. Adams and Alexie are the same age; Adams looks mid-twentyish rather than mid-thirtyish, as he was when the film was shot.|