Film » Film Stories

Native Son

Sherman Alexie gets a load off his chest in The Business of Fancydancing


The quandary facing Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams), the complex Native American poet and novelist at the heart of the rough-hewn but fascinating The Business of Fancydancing, is as old as literary striving itself, especially minority literary striving -- how to reconcile gnawing contradictions within the self and maintain a coherent identity. The delicate-looking but intense Polatkin, we come to see, is a sophisticated, well-traveled writer with profoundly mixed emotions about having left behind his brothers and sisters on the reservation. He's gay and unequivocally proud of it, but he's drawn to a half-Jewish, half-Spokane Indian woman named Agnes Roth (Michelle St. John). Seymour's a truth-teller who expresses himself through the cunning lies of art, a forward-looking explorer obsessed with the past, a city dweller who will never get over the country, a child of tribal magic who cannot ignore its midnight twin, tragedy. He's fulfilled, and he has a huge chip on his shoulder.

Connoisseurs of American Indian writing know Seymour Polatkin's creator well; independent-film buffs know him too. He is Sherman Alexie, the Spokane/Coeur d'Alene Indian who has published eight books of groundbreaking poetry and fiction since 1992, including the wonderfully wry The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. He's quickly become a leading chronicler of the Native American experience while collecting a slew of awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Granta magazine and assorted states arts commissions. He also found time to adapt one of his short stories for a memorable little road movie called Smoke Signals, which he produced as well.

By most measures, Alexie is a success. But the cultural/psychological tug-of-war that seems to be both the bane of his life and the wellspring of his art clearly hasn't diminished -- no more than the social and racial "doubleness" eloquently addressed by African-American writers from Richard Wright to Maya Angelou has ever diminished. In Polatkin, who is surely Alexie's alter ego if not his double, we see the rage and resentment, the guilt and self-indulgence, the wit, sensitivity and strength of the outsider/artist at work. It can't hurt to think of Fancydancing as a companion piece to Before Night Falls, Julian Schnabel's vivid 2000 portrait of a gay Cuban poet tormented by his own impulses and by the Castro government.

Although it takes the name of Alexie's first book of poems, the film is actually a deceptively untidy fusion of memoir, literary manifesto and dramatic incident, held together by intermittent recitations of Alexie's early verse. Shot on digital video, it looks most often like a shaky home movie. But there's nothing amateurish about its tour of Polatkin's restless consciousness. Fancydancing leaps back and forth in time from Polatkin's impoverished childhood on the Spokane Indian Reservation to his self-absorbed college years in Seattle to his emergence as a published writer and his return to the rez, after nine years, for the funeral of a violin-playing boyhood friend called Mouse (Swil Kanim) who has died of a drug overdose. Naturally the writer's homecoming stirs in memory the whole tangled mess of his past -- his alcoholic parents, his artistic ambitions and pretensions, his divided emotions about leaving home for education and career. Most crucial, there's his complicated friendship with an angry, bullying rez warrior called Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban), who was once Polatkin's best friend and soul brother but has long since become alienated from him.

Along the way, we behold Polatkin in his many guises-- genial autograph-signer and ostensible refugee from his roots, homosexual lover and lover of literature, public celebrity and (to some he left behind) sellout. As self-examination, the film is as solipsistic as it is brutal, and in the end Alexie gets more issues, large and small, off his chest than some viewers may care to absorb. For most people, though, Polatkin's often aggressive, frequently tender postures are thoroughly arresting. In this low-budget effort, at least, Alexie may not be the nation's most fluent or technically advanced movie director, but he brings all his ironic intelligence -- the great elasticity of his mind -- to bear on a striking portrait of a writer with plenty to say and the means to say it, yet still struggling to hammer out his place in the world.

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