Academic journal article Post Script

Remembering Smoke Signals: Interviews with Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie

Academic journal article Post Script

Remembering Smoke Signals: Interviews with Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie

Article excerpt

The 1998 film Smoke Signals, directed by Chris Eyre (Cheyenne/Arapaho) from a short story and screenplay by Sherman Alexie (Spokane/Coeur d'Alene), is a landmark in Native American cinema. The film was marketed as a Native cinema first, and in the interview that follows, Sherman Alexie reminds us that it is still "the only film ever written and directed by Native Americans that received national and international distribution. It's the only film that ever went even remotely mainstream." Smoke Signals' success is measurable in other crucial ways--it was well received critically and earned a healthy profit (the film cost about $2 million to produce and grossed $6.8 million at the box office). In her history of Native American film and video, Beverly Singer (Tewa/Navajo) argues that "for too long, Native Americans have been viewed as activists and positioned as opponents of mainstream white filmmakers." She describes the way that Smoke Signals proved "that American Indians can make a good commercial product" (61).

Smoke Signals adapts the Hollywood road/buddy genre to tell the story of two Coeur d'Alene young men, Victor Joseph (Adam Beach, Salteaux) and Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams, Coast Salish). The two are powerfully connected by their intertwined family histories, which emerge through Thomas' storytelling. After Victor's estranged father dies far from home, Thomas recounts memories, seen in flashbacks, as he and Victor travel together to Phoenix, Arizona to retrieve the ashes. Tantoo Cardinal (Metis) and Gary Farmer (Cayuga) give strong performances as Arlene and Arnold, Victor's mother and father. Irene Bedard (Inuit/Cree) plays Arnold Joseph's mysterious neighbor who, like Thomas, helps Victor understand his father by telling stories about the past. Although much of the action takes place away from the reservation, the flashback sequences consistently represent reservation life as both beautiful and precarious. Alexie drew heavily from his own life experiences in scripting this small, intimate film, and part of the film's depth lies in its oscillation between comic and tragic modes and in its contradictory tones of introspective privacy and expansive public address.

Smoke Signals deftly wields the lexicon of popular culture to assert a contemporary indigenous presence in American mass media. The film's self-reflexive, direct engagement with media stereotypes, especially the romantic "vanishing Indian" of Westerns like Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990), reframes and educates audiences about the history of these images even as it pushes against and past them. Characters in the film are highly aware of this history of misrepresentation as well; Victor gives Thomas lessons at one point on "how to be a real Indian," while Thomas tells stories about state persecution for the "crime" of "being Indian in the Twentieth Century." By humanizing Native characters, depicting broadly recognizable family problems, and bringing viewers together around ironic one-liners, Smoke Signals reaches out to multiple audiences. The film is extraordinary for its counter-appropriation of popular culture as a sign system to tell a Native story. Its images and jokes re-calibrate Westerngenre cinematic discourses of tragedy to humorous and comedic effect. It is a film about the power of storytelling to shape our memories and our realities--and also about the importance of Native voices in cinematic storytelling. It offers a definitive portrait of Native modernity in a realist mode, yet at the same time the film's aesthetic sensibility is quite stylized and poetic. This aesthetic is especially clear in the disjunctive transitions to flashback, which Alexie calls "magical," and in a nuanced soundtrack featuring Native groups such as Ulali and the EagleBear Singers.

Miramax had already purchased distribution rights for Smoke Signals when the film premiered at the Sundance film festival in January 1998, where it won both the Audience Award and the Filmmaker's Trophy. …

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