American Indians in Native American Film Analysis With specific reference to film techniques in at least one scene from the film and at least one article a

American Indians in Native American Film Analysis With specific reference to film techniques in at least one scene from the film and at least one article about the film assigned in this course, write a brief essay (250+ words) in which you describe how diverse groups of people are depicted in Smoke Signals.Choose one of the following file: Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie
Section:
RACE IN CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN CINEMA: PART 9
Every few years or so, press kits arrive at the offices of film magazines announcing that a
forthcoming film about Native Americans decisively breaks with the stereotypes of the past. Smoke
Signals is the latest film to advertise itself so, but, unlike most of its predecessors, Smoke Signals
delivers on its promises. A prime component of its success is that it is the first feature to have been
written, directed, and coproduced by Native Americans, and also features Native Americans in all
the lead roles.
The storyline is a variation of the odyssey theme. In this instance, rather than focusing on a
warrior/father struggling to return to his home, the plot turns on a warrior/son struggling to
physically and emotionally find an alcoholic father who fled his home and died in self-exile. Victor
Joseph (Adam Beach), an abandoned son who has grown up on the Coeur d’Alene reservation in
Idaho, must undertake a journey to collect the ashes of his father, Arnold Joseph (Gary Farmer),
who has died in Phoenix, Arizona. Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) provides Victor the money
he needs for the trip on condition that he is allowed to go along. Unlike Victor, Thomas has
numerous positive memories of Arnold Joseph, ultimately derived from the circumstance that, when
he was only an infant, Arnold had saved him from a burning building.
Their road together turns out to have a number of detours and moments of truth, all of which are
interesting in and of themselves. More important than the incidents and challenges per se, however,
are the effects they have on the emotional development of the two sojourners. Sherman Alexie, who
wrote the script based on sections of his best-selling The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven,
has noted that American popular culture recognizes only two major Native American profiles: the
warrior and the shaman. He goes about subverting these stereotypes with various images, stories,
and songs. Although some aspects of the odyssey are somber, humor often finds its way into the
darkest moments. Victor and Thomas constantly jibe with one another and outsiders about what it
means to be a contemporary Native American. Thomas proves to be a genuine storyteller, but his
tales never dissolve into the usual hocus pocus surrounding shamans; and Victor is indeed a warrior,
but he is neither stoic nor silent. Both characters are decidedly Native American, but Native
Americans rooted in this time and place and not a fictionalized past.
The literary talent of Sherman Alexie, who is coproducer as well as the scriptwriter of Smoke
Signals, is very much in evidence throughout the film. Words count for him, whether for the sheer
joy of wordplay, or as a means of revealing a character. But the film is never talky in the sense of a
stage play. Rather, it has the kind of intelligent and clever dialog characteristic of the best studio
films of yore. In this sense, Alexie has been extremely successful in moving from writing for the
printed page to writing for the screen. And his considerable success in the former bodes well for his
future as a writer for the cinema. Throughout the 1990s, Alexie has garnered numerous writing
awards, steadily gaining recognition as one of America’s leading fiction writers. His second novel,
Indian Killer, a current best seller, is being developed as a feature film by ShadowCatcher
Entertainment, the producer of Smoke Signals.
In addition to his prose, Alexie is a well-known poet. His first book of poetry, The Business of
Fancydancing, was chosen in 1992 by The New York Times Book Review as its Notable Book of the
Year. He has since won a poetry fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and a Lila
Wallace/Readers’ Digest Writer’s Award. Not coincidentally Smoke Signals features an original
contemporary poem as its coda. The first line sounds one of the film’s major themes: “How do we
forgive our fathers?” The film concludes with a voice-over recitation of the poem that is a refreshing
break from the dumbing-down and action-oriented approach of so many contemporary films. That
the poem’s author, Dick Lourie, is not a Native American also fits into the film’s pattern of breaking
with the expected ethnic response. Using a Native American poem for this purpose would have been
far more predictable and problematic.
Smoke Signals is all the more impressive for being the debut feature of director Chris Eyre, a twentyeight-year-old Cheyenne/Arapaho filmmaker from Oregon who has previously written and directed
seven short films. He keeps the film moving at a brisk but not a hurried pace, taking time to get the
most out of a scene involving frying bread, while allowing spectacular outdoor vistas to speak for
themselves rather than being framed as picture postcards. Eyre gets a particularly strong
performance from Evan Adams, who credibly renders Thomas as an engaging cross between a
mama’s boy and a traditional seer, a sometimes nerd in funny glasses who is no one’s sidekick. Eyre
also makes effective use of Irene Bedard, as Suzy Song, who has an understanding and affection for
the deceased Arnold Joseph that his son must deal with.
No single film can be expected to undo the misinformation about Native Americans that has
accumulated over many generations. Since the politically turbulent Sixties, there has been an ongoing
movement by Native American film actors to combat ethnic stereotyping. In their wake have come
Native American producers, directors, actors, and scriptwriters. Smoke Signals belongs to and
advances this continuum. Hopefully, it will prove to be the first of a new wave of diverse Native
American films. The ethnic group that has been featured more than any other in the history of
American films is finally beginning to speak in its own voice. During the 1998 Seattle Film Festival,
Cineaste was able to speak with Alexie about the many cultural issues embodied by and explored in
his debut feature film effort, Smoke Signals.
— Dan Georgakas
Cineaste: You have called your screenplay “groundbreaking” because of its portrayal of Indians.
Why?
Sherman Alexie: Well, it’s a very basic story, a road trip/buddy movie about a lost father, so I’m
working with two very classical, mythic structures. You can find them in everything from The Bible
to The Iliad and The Odyssey. What is revolutionary or groundbreaking about the film is that the
characters in it are Indians, and they’re fully realized human beings. They’re not just the sidekick, or
the buddy, they’re the protagonists. Simply having Indians as the protagonists in a contemporary
film, and placing them within this familiar literary, and cinematic structure, is groundbreaking.
Cineaste: Do you think Powwow Highway (1989) was one of the more worthy previous efforts?
Alexie: When it came out, I loved it, and I saw it three times at the Micro Movie House in Moscow,
Idaho. But I saw it again on Bravo recently and, after working on this film, and seeing what we could
do, Powwow Highway now seems so stereotypical. The performances are fine, but it trades in so
many stereotypes, from standing in a river singing, to going up on a mountain-top to get a vision, and
the generic AIM political activism. Every stereotypical touchstone of a contemporary Indian art film
is there. Two scenes especially really made me cringe. When Philbert goes up on a mountain, he’s
supposed to leave something that means so much to him, and he leaves a Hershey bar! Then there’s
the scene with A Martinez, as Buddy Red Bow, where the police car’s coming, and Buddy has a piece
of metal or something in his hand. He jumps in the air, and there’s this brief flash shot of him
dressed in the full costume of an Indian warrior, throwing a tomahawk, and I just thought, “Oh
God?
Our expectations of movies about Indians were so low then that we embraced a movie like Powwow
Highway simply because there was no other option. Looking back, Thunderheart is a far superior
movie, just in terms of its representation. I mean, it’s a generic white guy saves the day movie, but I
think it’s better in terms of its representation of contemporary Indians. Except for John Trudell
changing into a deer [laughs]. I’ve never seen an Indian turn into a deer. I mean, I know thousands of
Indians, I’ve been an Indian my whole life, and I’ve yet to see an Indian turn into an animal! And I
know some very traditional Indian folks.
Cineaste: Would you comment on your fundamental approach in adapting your collection of short
stories, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, for the screen?
Alexie: I’ve never been one of those people who compared the book and the movie of the book. That’s
never interested me because I’ve always separated them as two very distinct art forms, so I never got
mad if the movie wasn’t the book, or vice versa. I knew from a very young age that it was impossible
to do that. I mean, you’re talking about a 300-page novel versus an hour-and-a-half or two-hour
movie. It’s impossible to convey in a movie the entire experience of a novel, and I always knew that.
Knowing that going in, I didn’t have any problems with mutating my own book. I treated my book of
short stories in adapting the screenplay as though I didn’t write it. Right from the get-go, I said,
“OK, Sherman, you’re going to do composite characters, compress time, take bits and pieces from
stories you need for this screenplay, and you’re not going to care.” The narrative integrity of any one
story was never the point, it was all about taking situations from the twenty-two short stories–it
actually ended up being adapted from four short stories–taking the best you can find in this book to
make the screenplay.
Cineaste: How did you think about structure?
Alexie: The cheapest kind of independent film to make is either people in a room talking…
Cineaste: My Dinner with Andre?
Alexie: Yeah, or Clerks. It’s either that or a road movie, and I didn’t want to make a talking-heads
movie, because that’s a tough sell to begin with. It’s hard to reach a large audience with a talkingheads movie and, if you put Indians in the talking heads, only four people are going to want to see it.
But I knew the road movie was a very time-honored structure, and also very cheap to do. Put two
guys in a car or a bus, get a camera rig, and you’re fine, it’s easy to film.
Cineaste: And it can be visually interesting.
Alexie: Exactly. You can let the landscape tell a lot of story. And if it’s a road/buddy movie, you’re
going to have a lot of music, and I always knew music was going to be a part of this. There are
specific music cues in the screenplay about traditional music or rock and roll music, or a
combination of the two. “John Wayne’s Teeth,” for example, is a combination of English lyrics and
Western musical rhythms along with Indian vocables and Indian traditional drums. I also wanted to
use Indian artists, so as not only to make a revolutionary movie for Indians, but also to use Indian
artists on the soundtrack, which fits well with the road/buddy movie structure.
There was always a template in my head for this, which was these two odd buddies, sort of Mutt and
Jeff on a road trip, Midnight Cowboy on a bus ride. One of the original drafts of the screenplay, in
fact, contained many more overt references to Midnight Cowboy. Joe Buck and Victor–beautiful,
stoic, clueless guys–are very much alike. At the Sundance Institute, I saw a documentary about
Waldo Salt, the screenwriter of Midnight Cowboy, that really affected me in the way I wanted to
make the movie. In an interview in the documentary, Salt talked about his use of flash forwards in
Midnight Cowboy, so that while the story is going, you learn more and more about Joe Buck and his
experiences back home. It was always flashforwards, that’s what he called them, that continued the
story and gave you more information. Rather than stopping the movie to be expository, they kept the
drama going. So in writing the screenplay, I always knew there were going to be flashforwards.
Midnight Cowboy was really a template for me in a lot of ways, not only in its structure, but also in
the screenwriting philosophies of Waldo Salt.
Cineaste: Would you comment on the screenplay’s semiautobiographical elements?
Alexie: My friend and I took a trip to Phoenix, Arizona, to pick up his father’s remains. At the
Sundance Festival, quite a few people asked, “Were you influenced by Powwow Highway?” because
that film’s also about a trip by two Indian guys to the Southwest. “It wasn’t really an influence,” I
said, “unless you can say that my friend’s rather died because of Powwow Highway.” The basic
creative spark for Smoke Signals came from the trip I took with my friend. It’s not my friend’s story,
but I placed my characters within that framework of going to pick up a father’s remains. That’s how
the short story came about. It’s more about my relationship with my father than about my friend’s
relationship with his father. My father is still alive, but he’s had to struggle with alcoholism, as I
have. It’s also about the struggle within myself of being this storytelling geek like Thomas, as well as
this big jock masculine guy like Victor, so it’s a sort of schizophrenic multiple personality of myself
that I develop within the movie.
Cineaste: Storytelling, dreams, and visions are key motifs in your book, The Lone Ranger and Tonto,
and in Smoke Signals. Would you comment on their cultural and artistic significance for you?
Alexie: In the book itself, I’m rarely interested in traditional narrative. My beginnings are as a poet.
My first form of writing was poetry. While there’s certainly a strong narrative drive in my poetry, it
was always about the image, and about the connection, often, of very disparate, contradictory
images. When I began working on the screenplay, and not knowing anything about screenplays, I
started reading all the typical books–you know, Syd Field and all those people–but I was not
interested in their formulas for successful screenplays. In fact, after reading them and all the
screenplays they admired so much, I realized that the qualities they were talking about were not
what made those movies or screenplays great. It was always something that exploded outside the
narrative or the structure that made the movie great, so I was always interested in going outside the
narrative and traditional formats.
In my books, I’ve always been fascinated with dreams and stories and flashing forward and flashing
back and playing with conventions of time, so in adapting the screenplay, I always knew I would use
those elements. I knew there would be moments when the camera would sit still and somebody was
going to talk, but I didn’t want just talking heads, as I mentioned earlier. I always knew that while
the person was talking, we were going to see images from the story he or she was telling. I even
develop that motif, and the fact that the story of the movie is told by Thomas, so at certain points he’s
telling the story about himself telling the story about somebody else telling a story. So I wanted to
keep those complicated layers going.
It’s all based on the basic theme, for me, that storytellers are essentially liars. At one point in the
movie, Suzy asks Thomas, “Do you want lies or do you want the truth?,” and he says, “I want both.”
I think that line is what reveals most about Thomas’s character and the nature of his storytelling and
the nature, in my opinion, of storytelling in general, which is that fiction blurs and nobody knows
what the truth is. And within the movie itself, nobody knows what the truth is.
Cineaste: Why does Thomas always close his eyes when he tells a story?
Alexie: [Laughs] That was in the book, but I don’t know.
Cineaste: There is a literary tradition of blind seers, of course.
Alexie: I really don’t know. The first time I wrote that story, he closed his eyes. I wrote, “Thomas
closed his eyes.” And it stayed.
Cineaste: For me, when I read that, it was as if he were trying to imagine it with such intensity that
he had to close his eyes and move into another realm.
Alexie: It could be that! It just felt right, it just felt like something he would do.
Cineaste: We don’t recall smoke signals as a motif in the book. Did you decide on the film’s title?
Alexie: Yeah, I did. People keep asking me, “Why did Miramax change the title?” Well, Miramax
didn’t change the title, I did. In fact, I never wanted to call the movie, This Is What It Means to Say
Phoenix, Arizona. That’s the name of the short story. I love that title on the story, but it is not a
cinematic title. There is an inverse proportional relationship between the length of movie titles and
the success of the film. Very few long-titled films do well, because people forget the title.
Even though we were getting some very good Sundance coverage, people kept screwing up the movie
title, and that would have killed the film. So, in looking for a title, we wanted something short and
punchy, but also something that fit thematically. Smoke Signals fits for a number of reasons, for me.
On the surface, it’s a stereotypical title, you think of Indians in blankets on the plains sending smoke
signals, so it brings up a stereotypical image that’s vaguely humorous. But people will also instantly
recognize that this is about Indians. Then, when you see the movie, you realize that, in a
contemporary sense, smoke signals are about calls of distress, calls for help. That’s really what this
movie is about–Victor, Thomas, and everybody else calling for help. It’s also about the theme of fire.
The smoke that originates from the first fire in the movie is what causes these events, and the smoke
from the second fire brings about the beginning of resolution. So I just thought Smoke Signals
worked very poetically. It’s something very memorable, and nobody is going to screw up that title!
Cineaste: Would you comment on the film’s theme of the absent father and specifically on the ending
of the film? How do you envision the future of your two young, fatherless protagonists?
Alexie: Well, I’m reminded of this quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez that my wife has up on the
refrigerator. He says something like, ‘Men have been running the world for how many thousands of
years, and look what we’ve done. It’s about time we let women take over.’ So that theme is in my
head, the idea that in Indian cultures in particular, men have lost all their traditional roles within
society. There are feminine and masculine roles within Indian society and, in many tribes, men and
women played neither role, or went back and forth. But those traditional masculine roles–you know,
hunter, warrior–they’re all gone. I mean, driving a truck for the BIA is simply not going to fulfill
your spiritual needs, like fishing for salmon or hunting for deer once did, so in some sense Indian
men are much more lost and much more clueless than Indian women.
I think you’d find the same thing in every ethnic or racial community, that it’s fathers who are
missing. I was doing an interview yesterday, and it came to me that brown artists–African American,
Chicano, Indian, and so on–write about fathers who physically leave and don’t come back. White
artists deal with fathers who leave emotionally, who sit in the chair in the living room but are gone.
It’s a theme that resonates. The actual physical presence of the father varies with ethnicity, I think,
so the idea of a father leaving is nothing new for me. My father did leave to drink but he always came
back. So for me it was a way of exploring that feeling of abandonment.
Cineaste: Is your vision of Indian society less dark in Smoke Signals than in Lone Ranger?
Alexie: Definitely. If you chart the course of my book, or my literary work, you’re going to see that
pattern. I always tease literary scholars who interview me, sa…
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