Disclaimer: I do not claim ownership of any photographic material used unless otherwise noted. This blog is intended for purposes of film criticism, commentary, and humor. If you wish to start this journey from the beginning, start with the prologue here.
Oh, the horse head? That’s just something that happens when I become depressed. Look, I, uh… I’m not really feeling into reviewing anything today.
I don’t know. I’m just… Have you ever felt homesick? Have you ever gone on a long trip or moved to another place and found yourself missing your home? Your family? Your community?
Well… that’s not how human relations work – for the most part. Reviewing A Cool Like That Christmas and being alone for the holidays recently has gotten me a little down. It’s largely because, well… I grew up in the Inland Northwest. You know where that is?
It’s this gorgeous area between the Rocky Mountains in eastern Montana and the Cascade Mountains down the middle of Washington, with the northern part of Idaho in between. You could pass through hundreds of miles of valleys and mountains with these flowing rivers and evergreen trees in north Idaho and suddenly find yourself driving through rolling steppes and dry farmland in eastern Washington. I just… I really, really miss it. I mean, hell. Look at this!
Admittedly, the area does have a number of problems. Northern Idaho in particular has the largest concentration of white supremacists in the Inland Northwest and arguably the entire Pacific Northwest, largely due to the Aryan Nations making the region their home in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 1990s, a series of attempted bombings by white supremacists in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene lead to public backlash against their respective groups, although they still haven’t vacated the region entirely. As recently as 2011, a Neo-Nazi tried bombing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Parade in Spokane.
Still, in spite of all that, I just really miss it.
I don’t feel like it.
In that case, I’m picking something to get me out of my rut of homesickness.
Today, I’m reviewing a 1998 film called Smoke Signals. It’s the first feature film to be directed, written, and co-produced by American Indians, with an all-American Indian cast. Considering how popular Westerns have been in American cinema, going back to The Great Train Robbery in 1903, it’s astonishing how the first all-American Indian film production took another 95 years to become a reality. Even African-Americans managed to direct, write, produce, and star in The Homesteader back in 1919.
Coincidentally enough, Smoke Signals was also set and filmed in my home region, the Inland Northwest. Perhaps seeing the landscape of my home will satisfy my homesickness, but is it a good film?
We begin, as with all great films, in the year 1976, only this time without some pulverized Italian shouting for a girl named Adrian. The jock for the KREZ radio station announces the morning traffic report and that the Builds-the-Fire family is hosting a Fourth of July party at their house. We then cut to the house of the ironically named Builds-the-Fire family engulfed in – what else? – fire.
We hear the soothing narration of one of our main leads Thomas Builds-the-Fire (played by Evan Adams) while the house burns. “On the Fourth of July, 1976, my mother and father celebrated white people’s independence by holding the largest house party in Coeur d’Alene tribal history. I mean, every Indian in the world was there.” This establishes a long-running part of Thomas’ character, his love of telling stories with a mixture of fact and fiction in them. He even describes being thrown out of a window as a baby thusly: “I don’t remember that fire. I only have the stories. And in every one of those stories… I could fly.”
Arnold Joseph (played by Gary Farmer) catches baby Thomas like a football, saving him while the house disintegrates into an ash heap and Thomas’ grandmother (Monique Mojica) screams in despair. Thomas finishes with this narration: “Y’know, there are some children who aren’t really children at all. They’re just pillars of flame that burn everything they touch. And there are some children who are just pillars of ash that fall apart if you touch ’em.”
That… is some good writing.
Arnold’s own baby Victor was also rescued from the house fire, and Thomas’ grandmother thanks Arnold for saving them. Arnold is in tears, saying:
Let’s just hang onto this scene for later. Arnold cuts his hair in mourning, drives away to parts unknown years later, and the film jumps to the year 1998. Apparently, Randy Peone (John Trudell) is still the jock at the KREZ radio station, and Lester Fallsapart (Chief Leonard George) is still his traffic guy, reporting on “not much traffic, really.”
We meet our second main lead Victor Joseph, played by Adam Beach. Beach has become renowned for playing complex, angry young men in Flags of Our Fathers and Law & Order: SVU and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and he displays that skill well here. He’s playing basketball at school with some other boys, and for some reason, everyone talks like they came off the set of Fargo. Not that I mind, but having grown up in eastern Washington and Idaho, it’s a bit distracting to hear that Scandinavian-esque Minnesota accent coming from these characters’ mouths. Can I get an amen?
Anywho, Victor’s mother Arlene (Tantoo Cardinal) gets a phone call from Suzy Song, whose voice sounds really familiar. Apparently, Suzy was Arnold’s neighbor down in Yuma, Arizona. Arnold died, so Suzy is asking if the next of kin can come down to Yuma to collect Arnold’s remains and earthly possessions.
Victor meets Thomas at the store, and Thomas offers to pay for Victor’s trip to Yuma if he can come along. We then get a match cut to a flashback of Thomas as a boy showing Victor a Fourth of July sparkler- goddamn, the foreshadowing in this movie is subtle! The actors playing young Victor and Thomas are… oh, boy. I hate to be the guy to give child actors shit, so I’m just going to amend my opinion that they are… delightfulyounggentlementryingthebesttheycan.
Victor’s father Arnold drives him home, going on a drunken monologue about how he could make all the white people and the reservations and the drunks and other unpleasant things vanish. It’s quite heartwarming… until Arnold elbows Victor in the face for dropping his beer.
We match-cut back to adult Victor coming home to ask his mother for advice on whether he should go on his journey with Thomas. Brian Berdan edited this film. He got his start as an apprentice editor for Blue Velvet, and his cuts and match cuts really shine through effectively in this. Arlene convinces Victor to bring Thomas along while making some frybread, pointing out how even though she is known for the tastiness of her frybread, she always had help perfecting the recipe. Victor goes over to Thomas’ house to tell Thomas he can come along, albeit with some ground rules. “First of all, you can’t wear that stupid suit.”
Cut to the next morning.
Wait… Did Victor tell Thomas the first ground rule, leave, and then wait until the next day to recite the last two rules? How must that conversation have gone over?
Anyway, Lester Fallsapart also acts as KREZ’s weatherman, apparently, as he describes a cloud resembling a tavern girl before Randy Peone starts playing “a sad song” over the radio. We meet two hippie types named Velma (Michelle St. John) and Lucy (Elaine Miles) listening to the radio while drinking Coke and driving backwards, which must be hell on their gas mileage. They stop for Victor and Thomas and offer to give them a ride in exchange for a story from Thomas. Velma’s logic behind this?
I love how this movie pokes fun at the variety of stereotypes Hollywood has accumulated about Indians over the years. Thomas even opens up his story thusly: “Durin’ the Sixties, Arnold Joseph was the perfect hippie, because all the hippies were tryin’ to be Indians anyway. But because of that, he was always wonderin’ how anybody would know when an Indian was tryin’ to make a social statement.”
Shut up, Machiavellian Television.
Anyway, according to Thomas’ story, Arnold was arrested for beating the crap out of a National Guard private, which was photographed and splashed on the cover of Time magazine. Thomas embellishes the ending thusly: “At first, they charged him with attempted murder. But then they plea-bargained that down to assault with a deadly weapon. And then they plea-bargained that down to bein’ an Indian in the twentieth century… Then he got two years in Walla-Walla.” Victor doesn’t believe the story is true. We the audience don’t know what parts are true and what parts aren’t, but damn if it doesn’t make a good story.
Seriously. The writing in this film has me absolutely green with envy. The screenplay was written by Sherman Alexie, and was adapted from a short story in Alexie’s own book The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven – which I highly recommend. The poetry of Alexie really shines through the dialogue, especially when Thomas is the one talking. There’s a common saying about films: Show, don’t tell. So, when a character has a long monologue, where you’re staring at a guy’s face while he talks, what he’s talking about had better be damned interesting. And every one of Thomas’ stories is so eloquently written, delivered with such passion in this film, it’s nothing short of poetry on film. As a fellow writer, it’s almost as if Alexie was laughing at me. But that wasn’t Alexie…
Velma makes a tongue-in-cheek remark about how Thomas’ story is a fine example of the oral tradition. She and Lucy drop Victor and Thomas off at the nearest bus station and then crack a pretty dark joke about how they’d better be up to date on their vaccinations if they’re leaving the rez.
Victor and Thomas board the bus, and the director Chris Eyre manages to get some gorgeous shots of the local Idaho landscape and even a few local landmarks, such as the Worley School building.
Thomas strikes up a conversation with a white gymnast from Mississippi named Cathy (Cynthia Geary), who claims she was an alternate for the U.S. Olympic team in 1980 until President Carter boycotted the Olympics and her dreams of Olympic gold were dashed. Victor points out that since Cathy was an alternate gymnast and not actually on the team, she wouldn’t have been able to go even if there wasn’t a boycott of the Olympics that year, so she has nothing to complain about. Cathy moves to another seat. When Thomas asks why Victor hurt her feelings, Victor retorts that she was lying and that Thomas needs to learn that people are awful and will prey upon his naiveté.
We cut to another flashback where young Victor’s father Arnold is imbibing heavily at a party and asks his son who his favorite Indian is. “Nobody,” is Victor’s response. Arnold seems hurt by this before laughing it off. At a rest stop back in the present, Thomas tells a story about this time Arnold took him to see the Spokane Falls at the Howard Street bridge.
Victor leaves in anger, and we flash back to another memory where Arlene is awoken by the sounds of a young Victor throwing beer bottles at Arnold’s truck. Arlene decides, rather spontaneously, that the family is done with alcohol. This leads to a fight where Arnold backhands Arlene, gets into his truck, and drives away. This leaves Victor devastated, so it’s no wonder he beats the crap out of Thomas when Thomas comes over asking why Arnold left.
We match-cut from young Victor running down the road to adult Victor looking down at the road from the bus and my God, the editing in this film is nice and taut! During a conversation, Victor criticizes Thomas for acting like a stereotypical medicine man and for having watched Dances With Wolves hundreds of times. Oh, come on, Victor! That is a cheap shot. What isn’t there to love about Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning ability to mimic a plank of wood?
Victor tries giving Thomas advice on how to keep white people from walking all over him by behaving “like a real Indian,” which apparently means acting mean and stoic. “You gotta look like you just came back from killing a buffalo.” Thomas correctly points out the Coeur d’Alene never hunted buffalo, only fish. Victor replies, “What?! You wanna look like you just came back from catching a fish? This ain’t Dances With Salmon, y’know.” My God, this writing is good and funny. Next, Victor tells Thomas to unbraid his hair and get rid of the suit, which leads to- hamana hamana hamana…
Victor and Thomas get back on the bus, only to find their seats have been taken by two esteemed gentlemen I’d like to name Asshole McHonky and Dickhole MacCracker.
Victor and Thomas move to other seats at the back of the bus. Urrrrgh! Now… while the following scene where Victor and Thomas gripe about how “the cowboys always win” and then burst into a song about how John Wayne’s teeth aren’t real (“Are they plastic?! Are they steel?!”) is hilarious, my more vengeful side would still prefer it if Hanzee Dent just kneecapped those two assholes.
Ahhh… Good old-fashioned Hollywood catharsis.
So, Victor and Thomas arrive in Yuma and walk all the way out in the desert to the property of Suzy Song, who is played by- wait… IRENE BEDARD??
Suzy brings a can containing Arnold’s ashes to Victor and invites him and Thomas to stay over for dinner. Victor wants to leave, but caves when Thomas decides to stay. While they’re eating frybread later and watching an old black-and-white film featuring an Indian cavalry, Thomas tells a story about a feast Arlene hosted where a hundred guests attended to taste her famous frybread. Since she only had fifty pieces of frybread, she split it all in half. Victor tells Suzy the story isn’t true.
Suzy takes a turn to tell her story about how she met Arnold, who used to give her rides home. During one of these rides, Arnold asks her what the worst thing she’d ever done was. Suzy cops to purse-snatching and sleeping with her best friend’s boyfriend. Damn, girl. Talk about spitting in your best friend’s face.
That is the last Pocahontas joke I’ll be making in this review, right hand to God.
While Thomas is asleep, Victor asks Suzy if his father ever talked about him. Suzy regales him with a story Arnold told her about how he and Victor beat two Jesuit priests at a basketball game. It’s a very moving scene. The music swells, we see Arnold retelling the story, the flashbacks of the priests against young Victor and Arnold. The small game takes on a bigger sense of importance for Arnold when Victor makes the hoop and wins the game. “It was the Indians versus the Christians that day! And for at least one day, the Indians won!” Arnold throws the ball he’s playing while telling the story…
… and the film match-cuts to adult Victor picking the ball up and revealing he and Arnold actually lost the game that day.
Suzy hears Arnold’s dog Kafka barking and we get a flashback to when Suzy finds Arnold’s body in his trailer. She implores Victor to go inside Arnold’s trailer to collect his father’s things, and Victor angrily refuses. Then Suzy reveals the awful truth of how the fire that killed Thomas’ parents started…
Arnold, drunk off his ass, was shooting off fireworks and one of them landed in the Builds-the-Fire family’s living room.
Goddamn. That is heavy.
Suzy also reveals Arnold ran into the house while it was burning to rescue Victor. Victor denies it, but Suzy shows surprising conviction in defending Arnold, considering all she really has to go on is Arnold’s word.
Victor enters Arnold’s trailer and finds a wallet containing a family photo of himself, Arlene, and Arnold in it, with the word “Home” written on the back. Victor takes out a pocketknife and cuts his hair. By morning, Victor wakes Thomas and they both drive off in Arnold’s truck without telling Suzy goodbye. While Thomas is telling one too many stories about how Arnold took him to Denny’s or how Arnold said basketball was the only thing Victor would ever be good at-
…… Yeesh. Okay, Thomas, I can see why Victor finds you annoying.
The argument escalates. Thomas argues that Arnold was more than just a drunken domestic abuser because… he rescued Victor and Thomas as babies from a fire he caused that killed Thomas’ parents?
Yeaaaah, sorry, Thomas. I know the movie is trying to get me to side with you with the stilted writing making this about Victor feeling sorry for himself, but Arnold is still largely a fuck-up. He is an unreliable narrator who may or may not have saved Victor from that fire, who caused that fire that killed two people in the first place during a drunken stupor, saved you practically by accident, cut his hair in mourning but still drank heavily for years afterward, and abused Victor and Arlene before abandoning them. Don’t get me wrong, Thomas. I am trying to see your perspective here, but the score against Arnold couldn’t be more one-sided if this were a marksmanship contest between Imperial Stormtroopers and Yu Yan archers.
During the argument, Victor barely notices a car in the middle of the road at the last second and swerves to avoid a collision, running the truck into a ditch.
When they stumble out, we find some drunk white dude ran another car off the road. Everyone’s injured, but one white woman looks seriously injured. After the drunkard tries arguing the accident was Victor’s fault, Victor runs down the road to get help from the nearest town 20 miles away while Thomas cradles the critically injured woman.
Ummm… not that I don’t respect the resolve, Pheidippides, but you still have three vehicles. Maybe check if any of them can still drive adequately before sprinting a marathon? One of those white people has to have a cell phone, even in 1998, right? Ah, well. We get some badass chanting while watching Victor run. Speaking of which, kudos to BC Smith for the soundtrack mixing indigenous music with a folk- and rock-influenced sound. When dawn breaks, Victor finally drops from exhaustion. He has visions of Suzy telling him his father went back into the fire for him and hallucinates Arnold helping him up, before revealing it’s a white road worker with a stop sign. We then cut to Thomas pushing Victor around in a wheelchair- wait…
Victor was actually going to run twenty miles in cowboy boots? Jesus, I don’t even know a sex worker in heels who’d be willing to run that far to avoid prison time! They’d just take the damn sentence.
Anyway, it turns out the critically injured white woman is going to make it, but her sister informs Thomas and Victor they should skedaddle before the police find them. Why? Because the drunk driver who caused the crash claims Victor caused the crash and tried to kill him. The sister says she told the officers the drunkard caused the crash, but adds, “I don’t think they believed me.”
… Why not? Doesn’t local law enforcement have breathalyzers? They don’t have working noses? The police chief (Tom Skerritt) even interrogates Victor and Thomas in his office, saying the drunk driver claims Victor assaulted him with a deadly weapon. Victor calls bullshit on that, saying he didn’t do anything wrong. The chief slaps his hand on a piece of paper on his desk.
When Victor disputes this, claiming he’s never had a drop of alcohol in his life, the chief asks, “Well, just what kinda Injun are you, exactly?” Then the chief asks Thomas what he thinks of the allegations against Victor. Thomas says they’re being framed. He may as well have saved his breath, because as it turns out…
The chief acknowledges the drunk driver has no case against Victor or Thomas. So, as funny as that last line was… there was essentially no reason to interrogate them.
…… Then why interrogate them and treat them like suspects, you asshole? Why, if I didn’t know any better, after this and the two bigoted seat thieves earlier, I’d say this film was implying racism against American Indians was still a problem today.
Anyway, Victor and Thomas drive back to the rez in Idaho while Suzy sets Arnold’s trailer on fire in Arizona.
Victor pours some of Arnold’s ashes into Thomas’ empty piggy bank jar and they part, closer than they were before. Thomas asks Victor if he knows why his father left, and Victor says he knows but adds, “He didn’t mean to.” Victor goes to the bridge over the Spokane Falls and throws his father’s ashes in while the soundtrack blasts “Wahjeeleh-Yihm” by Ulali over Thomas’ closing narration:
“How do we forgive our fathers? Maybe in a dream. Do we forgive our fathers for leaving us too often, or forever, when we were little? Maybe for scaring us with unexpected rage, or making us nervous because there never seemed to be any rage there at all? Do we forgive our fathers for marrying, or not marrying, our mothers? Or divorcing, or not divorcing, our mothers? And shall we forgive them for their excesses of warmth or coldness? Shall we forgive them for pushing, or leaning? For shutting doors? For speaking through walls? For never speaking, or never being silent? Do we forgive our fathers in our age, or in theirs? Or in their deaths, saying it to them or not saying it? If we forgive our fathers, what is left?”
I feel… a lot better, actually.
This was a very delightful film. Not perfect, by any stretch. It lost a lot of steam trying to figure out where to go or how to end after the car wreck and the audio can occasionally bother the senses. Sometimes you can tell when lines are dubbed over, and it’s pretty noticeable when it happens.
But overall, this was a brisk change of pace. Obviously, I’m going to have a bit of a personal attachment to this film for showcasing the good (and some of the bad) about the place where I grew up. That being said, it is an objectively good bit of filmmaking. The acting is mostly done well, the writing is stellar, the editing keeps the story very neat and focused, and the music is soothing on the ears. More than that, it has a lot to say about the various Hollywood clichés of Indians while playing with and averting or subverting those same clichés.
Like its protagonist, a fine example of the oral tradition, it can be an awkward experience in parts, but it’s still an overwhelmingly funny and charming display.
RATING: Buy it on video – 4 out of 5.
Coming up on January 5th, 2017:
The Wild West Samurai will be taking life by the horns. Literally. A review for the 1999 comedy Life will be coming.