Sunday, April 18, 2010


For Wednesday: The most perceptive introduction to Sherman Alexie, who wrote the screenplay for "Smoke Signals," is a biographical piece on Alexie in The Guardian, a British newspaper. Read it. Also read the reviews of "Smoke Signals" linked to the bottom of this post.

Sherman Alexie's first impression doesn't last very long.

Which is probably a good thing.

All too often he comes across as flippant, angry, sarcastic. Especially sarcastic. Funny, but sarcastic. He talks about things we don't want to hear about. Race, for one. Alcoholism, for another. He makes wisecracks about the injustices done to American Indians through history, and we don't know how to take him. Sometimes he looks kind of smug. Other times he vents his anger. But as he keeps talking, listeners come to realize there's more to him than wisecracks.

We'll see both sides of Sherman Alexie in action today.

In the first TV gig, Alexie talks about stereotypes of Native Americans on Cobert Nation Oct. 28, 2008. Amid all the wisecracking, he and Cobert acknowledge positive stereotypes can be just as damaging as negative stereotypes ... Alexie wonders why New Agers take wolves and eagles and other predators as spirit animals ("my spirit animal is the squirrel"), and trades wisecracks with Steven Cobert (5:18). As so often happens on Cobert's show, there's more than wisecracking going on. When you've finished laughing, you realize they are both trashing our most commonly held stereotypes of American Indians ... and there's more truth than we'd like to admit to what they say about the stereotypes.

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In February 2009 Alexie spoke at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Here he chatted informally with Dine (Navajo) students before the speech. (A couple of translations: "Rez" is a common abbreviation for an Indian reservation, and a "HUD house" is a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development low-income housing unit.) Notice how straightforward and serious he is, especially compared to his public appearances.

Next we'll watch an in-depth interview with Enrique Cerna of KCTS-TV Seattle that aired July 11, 2008, on the Conversations at KCTS 9 show. In it he talks about his life, his writing, alcoholism ... and how he broke that cycle in his family. (26:44)

One of Alexie's main points, especially now he's writing for younger readers, is what he told his interviewer in Seattle: "What you realize when you talk to young people is that everyone feels like an outsider ... when you're 16, everybody feels like a freak."

Reviews of 'Smoke Signals'

For your viewing enjoyment, some reviews of "Smoke Signals," the 1998 movie based on Sherman Alexie's collection of short stories titled "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."

From the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website, this plot summary:

Synopsis: Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-A-Fire are brought together by Victor's father who saves Thomas from a fire that destroys his house and kills his parents. In close proximity all their lives on the Coeur D'Alene Indian reservation in Idaho, the boys could not be more different. Victor is the extrovert who excels at basketball and Thomas is the savant who lives with his grandmother after the death of his parents. The journey the two young men take to the home of Victor's estranged father in far off Arizona brings out of the past the remarkable events that brought them together.
You can see how Alexie takes material from his life, changes it around and uses it his art.

This excerpt from a Siskel & Ebert review televised June 28, 1998, featuring Gene Siskel of The Chicago Tribune and Roger Ebert of the Sun-Times, sums up the way I feel about the movie after watching it a couple of times:

Siskel: Obviously, Smoke Signals is not, in any way, a standard film involving Native Americans. These are very specific characters, but not every utterance and every event in the film revolves around their Indian heritage. The result is to expand our notion of just who Native Americans are and can be. This thoroughly entertaining film Smoke Signals could turn out to be a milestone in Native American cinema. It could become the equivalent of the black cinema's She's Gotta Have It by Spike Lee in terms of contemporizing characters. Obviously, I'm giving a strong recommendation to Smoke Signals.

Ebert: I loved it, too. I'll tell you, Gene, the interesting thing here is that, for once, I felt I was seeing real Native Americans everyday, talking to each other, living life, without all kinds of filters of history and tradition and archetypes and stereotypes between me and the screen. These are just two people.

Siskel: People first!

Ebert: And that was really refreshing. And the acting is lots of fun, especially the smaller of the two actors, who can't stop talking and is really engaging.
Just two people ... and people first ... and that is refreshing.

Janet Maslin's review in The New York Times (June 26, 1998) says the movie's stories "describe a contemporary American Indian culture coming to terms with its past in offbeat, unexpected ways. These range from casual asides about George Armstrong Custer to the patter of the reservation's radio station, where "It's a good day to be indigenous!" is a way to greet the morning."

Peter Travis, reviewing the movie in Rolling Stone (July 17, 1998), says:

When it comes to American Indians, Hollywood either trades in Injun stereotypes or dances with Disney. Forget that. Smoke Signals, written and directed by Indians, also casts Indians as Indians. "No Italians with long hair," says Sherman Alexie, 31, the Indian poet, novelist and short-story writer who brings a scrappy new voice to movies with his first screenplay. And what a comic, profane and poetic voice it is. Alexie risks pissing off the PC [politically correct] cavalry as he explores the humor and heartbreak of being young and Indian and living on a reservation ("the rez") at the end of the twentieth century.
Peter Stack, movie critic for The San Francisco Chronicle (Jule 3, 1998), said the movie "looks at Indian life in a down-to-earth yet irreverent way that focuses on its engaging characters." But more importantly, he adds, it "also clicks as an on-the-road adventure with Victor and Thomas playing off each other." Stack says:

The sullen, skeptical Victor is clearly annoyed by his sidekick's wacky stories and dorky way of dressing. He urges Thomas to get cooler clothes and affect a tough-guy swagger -- ``you gotta look like a warrior,'' he says.

But Thomas is an irrepressible spirit whose talk is more than nattering -- he has an uncanny ability to seize on wisdom at the same time he's going for a cheap laugh.
I think you could say the same thing about Sherman Alexie.

Friday's assignment. I'm giving you extra time because it's long (printed out it takes 11 pages single-spaced). It's an in-depth interview with Alexie on Smoke Signals" in Cinaste magazine ... "Sending Cinematic Smoke Signals: An Interview with Sherman Alexie." By Dennis West and Joan M. West.
Cineaste 23.4 (Fall, 1998).

1 comment:

Starleigh Grass said...

Hi, I'm an Alexie fan and a secondary school teacher. It's cool that you're using Alexie in your class. Do your students enjoy studying him?