Tag Archives: Native American

CAPSULE: WINTER IN THE BLOOD (2013)

DIRECTED BY: Alex Smith, Andrew J. Smith

FEATURING: Chaske Spenser, , Saginaw Grant, , Casey Camp-Horinek, Julia Jones

PLOT: Virgil First Raise, an alcoholic half-breed Blackfoot, wakes up from a blackout and is told that his wife has left him, taking his rifle and electric razor with her and setting him off on a boozy, hallucinatory quest to recover the items.

Still from Winter in the Blood (2013)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: A vision quest seems like the perfect plot structure for a weird movie, but although there is a lot to enjoy in this slightly surreal, unusual Indian-themed movie, it isn’t strange enough to overcome its narrative shortcomings.

COMMENTS: Waking up from a bender in a ditch, seeing visions of his dead father, Virgil First Raise complains he is “caught in an in-between place… vulnerable to the spirits.” Though not entirely successful as cinematic psychoanalysis, Winter in the Blood does capture Virgil’s physical and psychological tipsiness and vulnerability to the spirit world, which bleeds into reality. Flashbacks frequently interrupt the present-day action, often introduced in interesting ways; for example, Virgil fishes in a river and sees his childhood self and his (now absent) brother frolicking on the opposite bank. The movie also incorporates the rhythms of hard drinking; we see Virgil tippling in a bar, following up on a lead, and suddenly he wakes up in a strange bed, leaving us with a suspicion that crucial plot information may have been irretrievably lost to a blackout. That structure of memories and ellipses would be confusing enough for the average viewer, but then there are also entire subplots that are probably imagined, such as Virgil’s dalliance with a Canadian “airplane man” who is being tailed by mysterious men in suits and who wants to enlist the Indian in an obscure smuggling plot, the details of which keep shifting. The quirky and sinister airplane man scenes, particularly one where Virgil finds a fellow diner at a lunch counter inexplicably falls face-first into his soup, give the film an exciting Twin Peaks-on-the-reservation sensibility that it could have used more of.

Virgil suffers from a horde of demons—too many for a single movie—from alcoholism to survivor guilt to incompetent parents to the manhood ritual he never completed to fretting over the Caucasian impurities in his blood. His troubles materialize in an equally numerous series of symbols: the rifle, a mysterious blonde barmaid who sometimes has a tattoo and sometimes doesn’t, the airplane man, a stuffed teddy bear, a rabbit in a haystack. As a work of Native American cinema, a field that’s not overly crowded, Winter in the Blood ranks as a minor standout. The performances are mixed but generally good, the soundtrack is alt-melancholy, and the excellent widescreen cinematography captures the agrarian grandeur of Big Sky country. But all of the floating symbolism, subplots and narrative loose ends, together with the impressionistic style and some fumbling at the finale (the emotional climax feels misplaced, with Virgil’s despair unexpectedly peaking after the scene that should have brought him insight and redemption) result in a film that ends with an unfortunate lack of closure.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Real and surreal weave together, and an impeccably chosen soundtrack — by, among others, the Heartless Bastards and Robert Plant — reinforces a mood that veers from dreamy to violent with shocking suddenness.”–Jeanette Catsoulis, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS (2013)

DIRECTED BYJeff Barnaby

FEATURING: Devery Jacobs, Mark Anthony Krupa, Brandon Oakes, Glen Gould

PLOT: A young girl on the Canadian Crow Reservation in the 1970s sells pot to afford to pay a “truancy tax” that keeps her out of the prison-like Indian school, but when the sadistic government agent who runs the reservation betrays their deal, she decides to strike back.

Still from Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The trailer and description made it look like it might have some weird content; in reality, it’s a straightforward indie drama.

COMMENTS: Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a movie that is tailor made for praise from film critics: it’s a socially-conscious historical drama about an ethnic group that is underrepresented in cinema. It’s technically well-made, features an appealing young lead actress, and oozes good intentions. Since there are so few movies made by and for members of what Canadians refer to as the First Nations, refusing to pump this movie up—or, unthinkably, criticizing it—seems like an uncharitable act.

So, if you are a film critic, ethnic studies type, or a Native American starved for cinematic role models, you’ll probably fall over yourself praising Ghouls, and I’ll be hard pressed to muster much of a will to argue against you. Furthermore, Ghouls is unlikely to attract a sizable audience from outside that pool. Still, from the perspective of a member of the general movie-watching public looking at this as a standard narrative feature that I might hope to either entertain or enlighten ( preferably both) me, I have to reluctantly aver that Ghouls isn’t a success. I was keenly interested in the portrait of life on the reservation in 1976, and in the dilemma that traps clever young Aila into peddling weed to keep out of school; but as the story moves on, it becomes more predictable, turning into an endless series of scenes of white guys wailing on defenseless Indians with baseball bats until the Mi’gMaq princess brings vengeance for her people.

Ghouls is, at bottom, not so much a serious examination of life on the reservation in the 1970s as it is a post-colonial revenge fantasy. Part of the problem is the villain, Popper, the reservation’s chief Indian Agent and the most devilish of white devils. Not only is Mark Anthony Krupa (the cast’s sole gringo) the weakest of the main actors, he’s given the hardest role to try to pull off. Imagine Conan O’Brien cast as Satan to get a feeling of how this villainy plays out on screen. His character is a blatant symbol of (admittedly) unforgivable Canadian government oppression, but he is given no motivation or explanation for his moral turpitude. In fact, quite the opposite: a flashback shows how a schoolboy Popper betrays Aila’s father Joseph after he rescues him from bullies, which for inexplicable reasons causes the rescued boy to bear a lifelong grudge against Jospeh and the Mi’gMag people in general. It seems that we are to conclude that white people are just inherently, perversely evil, no point trying to explain or understand their behavior. To caricature the villain so one-dimensionally is just lazy. Frank Booth was more relatable than Popper. It isn’t impossible to create memorably despicable villains who nonetheless resemble human beings: think of Schindler’s List‘s Amon Goethe, who is recognizably fallible and human without ever becoming sympathetic. Popper should be a boss villain who gets offed (accompanied by a quotable one-liner) by Arnold Schwarzenegger in an action movie, not the antagonist a supposedly serious historical drama.

When real-life villainy doesn’t seem quite real, the story has failed. Some histrionics from a drunken Joseph at his wife’s grave and brutal slow-motion beatings designed to boil our blood don’t help. On the plus side, Devery Jacobs is fantastic, always quiet and dignified, and there’s an outside chance that Ghouls could play the same kind of role in her future career that Winter’s Bone did for Jennifer Lawrence. The camera, sound and general technical elements are all excellent. There is clearly a ton of talent on display from debuting director Jeff Barnaby and his young cast, which made it all the more upsetting to me that the story, historically based as it is, failed to ring true. My opinion matters little, however, as Ghouls hits the bullseye for its target audience, while remaining invisible to the outside world.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

Rhymes is not always logical in its quasi-mythic, circular narrative… Barnaby puts a mythic frame around a grim history, shaping it in a way that feels always like a creative adventure, not a duty.”–Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail (contemporaneous)

SATURDAY SHORT: SNOWBALLS (2011)

“Snowballs” is evidently the more bizarre of Harmony Korine’s two shorts sponsored by the designer brand Proenza Schouler. (The previous Korine short in the series, “Act da Fool,” is also available on YouTube.) “Snowballs” features two characters in Native American inspired clothing, and, not surprisingly, white trash.
CONTENT WARNING: This short contains some profanity.

86. DEAD MAN (1995)

“Do what you will this life’s a fiction,
And is made up of contradiction.”

–William Blake, Gnomic Verses

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Jim Jarmusch

FEATURING: Johnny Depp, , Lance Henriksen, Michael Wincott, , , Iggy Pop, Billy Bob Thornton, Mili Avatal, Gabriel Byrne

PLOT: Mild-mannered accountant Bill Blake heads west to take a job as an accountant in the wild town of Machine, but when he arrives he discovers the position has been filled and he is stuck on the frontier with no money or prospects. Blake becomes a wanted man after he kills the son of the town tycoon in self defense. Wounded, he flees to the wilderness where he’s befriended by an Indian named Nobody, who believes he is the poet William Blake.

Still from Dead Man (1995)

BACKGROUND:

  • William Blake, the namesake of Johnny Depp’s character in Dead Man, was a poet, painter and mystic who lived from 1757 to 1827. Best known for Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, he is considered one of the forerunners of English Romanticism.
  • Jarmusch wrote the script with Depp and Farmer in mind for the leads.
  • Elements of the finished script of Dead Man reportedly bear a striking similarity to “Zebulon,” an unpublished screenplay by novelist/screenwriter Rudy (Glen and Randa, Two-Lane Blacktop) Wurlitzer, which Jarmusch had read and discussed filming with the author. Wurlitzer later reworked the script into the novel The Drop Edge of Yonder.
  • Film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum coined the term “acid Western”—a category in which he also included The Shooting, Greaser’s Palace and El Topo—to describe Dead Man. Jarmusch himself called the film a “psychedelic Western.”
  • composed the harsh, starkly beautiful soundtrack by improvising on electric guitar while watching the final cut of the film. The Dead Man soundtrack (buy) includes seven solo guitar tracks from Young, plus film dialogue and clips of Depp reciting William Blake’s poetry.
  • Farmer speaks three Native American languages in the film: Blackfoot, Cree, and Makah (which he learned to speak phonetically). None of the indigenous dialogue is subtitled.
  • Jarmusch, who retains all the rights to his films, refused to make cuts to Dead Man requested by distributor Miramax; the director believed that the film was dumped on the market without sufficient promotion because of his reluctance to play along with the studio.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Nobody peering through William Blake’s skin to his bare skull during his peyote session? Iggy Pop in a prairie dress? Those are memorable moments, but in a movie inspired by poetry, it’s the scene of wounded William Blake, his face red with warpaint, curling up on the forest floor with a dead deer that’s the most poetically haunting.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Dead Man is a lyrical and hypnotic film, with a subtle but potent and lingering weirdness that the viewer must tease out.  It’s possible to view the movie merely as a directionless, quirky indie Western; but that would be to miss out on the mystical, dreamlike tinge of this journey into death.


Original trailer for Dead Man

COMMENTS: Dead Man begins on a locomotive as a naif accountant is traveling from Continue reading 86. DEAD MAN (1995)