February 20, 2003

Cornell Cinema

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Sometimes a movie is not quite a movie. Poet/novelist Sherman Alexie’s The Business of Fancydancing, his debut foray into film, defies almost all the conventions of the medium, and the result never really feels like a film — which, of course, is both good and bad. The film is the semi-autobiographical tale of the fictional Native American poet Seymour Polatkin. Informed by Alexie’s poetry and sharply satiric writing, The Business of Fancydancing explores issues of subtle racism, life on reservations, the challenges of creativity and writing, and complex interpersonal relationships. Alexie deftly juggles these big issues, and though it occasionally appears that he has more on his plate than he can really handle in a two-hour film, he does make great points throughout the narrative.

The film’s story is told through an intricate (and sometimes confusing) system of flashbacks, dreams, and imaginings, the story constantly folding back in on itself at every turn. Seymour’s departure from “the rez,” his role in college as a prominent organizer of Native American student groups, readings of his poetry, and dreamlike soliloquies on a black background are all woven together to create an eventually coherent narrative. Seymour is continually questioned about the validity of his art. How can he write about reservation life when he hasn’t been to the rez in years? Where do his poems come from? Particularly revealing is an interview he gives to a reporter, during which he is obviously embarrassed by her probing questions and hides behind sarcastic comments to avoid addressing the pain he feels.

Seymour is also questioned extensively about his ethnicity. “Yes, I’m always mistaken for Asian,” he says to one admirer of his poetry, and throughout the film his ethnic identity is a subject of speculation and interest. The film is excellent at bringing out the uncertainty and fear that Seymour feels as an artist of color — best expressed in his frequently gorgeous and confrontational poetry, written by Alexie.

The film, as such, is a vehicle for Alexie’s own ruminations on his life and his people. Adding to this feeling is the near-documentarian approach to the actual filming. The movie is shot on low-grade stock, giving the impression of a home movie or an amateur documentary. The camera is always close to the actors, intruding on their private space, creating the sense that the filmmakers have caught these people by surprise in their most unguarded moments. This is particularly true of the scenes on the rez itself, when Alexie’s camera captures emotional sing-alongs and intense conversations about memories, love, and authenticity.

The film’s unique style — shards of narrative like a broken mirror, reflecting the many sides of identity — makes for an always interesting experience, even when Alexie’s considerable ambitions get ahead of his actual skills as a director. Still, for the debut from a writer-turned-filmmaker, The Business of Fancydancing is a fascinating movie. It’s a film with a lot to say, and some very unique ways of saying it, which is a lot more than can be said for most movies.

Archived article by Ed Howard