"When faced with a problem you do not understand,
do any part of it you do understand; then look at it again."
~(Robert A. Heinlein - "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress")

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Thursday, May 09, 2013

"Big truck just went by. ...

-- Now it's gone."   ~Morning traffic report on the "Res"

My previous post "Toughest Pawnee" ...  resulted in this email from an Air Force buddy in Montana ...
Hi Paul,
    Good stuff on Wes Studi and the other Indian actors.  I grew up with Indians, adopted and raised two Indian kids, and still call them all Indians.  None of my Indian friends seem to mind; they haven’t yet insisted I refer to them as Native American.  I love Studi’s performances; you’re absolutely right—he owned Dances With Wolves for those few minutes..  Graham Greene and Adam Beach are other favorites.
    Adam Beach first came to my attention in Smoke Signals, an excellent film made on a reservation near Spokane and Couer d’ Alene.  If you’ve seen that film, you’ve witnessed scenes (drunken parties, domestic violence) right out of my life.
 * * *

    Anyway, nice catch.  These guys are all great actors.  I felt the entire cast of Smoke Signals deserved awards, particularly Gary Hall.  It sure portrayed the “Res” way of life accurately.

    Now to look up those PBS titles you gave.

One of my greatest joys is when something I've written strikes a chord with someone, and I hope he forgives me for using part of his email in this post.

No, I had not seen Smoke Signals (1998), although I had heard about the title. I took so long to reply because I needed the time to hunt it up and watch it.

It's a keeper, and I loved it enough that I decided this would be my response.

"Big truck just went by. -- Now it's gone."
That local traffic report, on the "Res", would also be an accurate report on the part of rural Arkansas that I've experienced. (***'s comment in his email, "... you’ve witnessed scenes ... right out of my life." also apply to rural Arkansas.)

The movie is mostly about Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) ...
 Adam Beach as Victor Joseph - from aveleyman.com

... coming to terms with the recent death of his father Arnold (Gary Farmer) who had left the family ten years ago.

As I can find no mention of a Gary Hall involved with the movie, I suspect that *** was really thinking of Gary Farmer,...
Cody Lightning as young Victor Joseph and Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph
(Screencap from DVD)

... who truly does rate at least a nomination.

There's an inside joke in the movie involving Farmer: In the movie, while riding on the bus on his way to where his father has died, Victor remembers a drunken party during his childhood, where his father is repeatedly asking him, "Who's your favorite Indian?", to which young Victor replies, "Nobody!"

Three years before "Smoke Signals", Farmer co-starred with Johnny Depp in one of the weirdest westerns I can recall, Dead Man (1995), in which a hapless soul, William Blake (Depp) is on the run for an accidental killing, is slowly dying from a bullet wound and encounters a very strange Indian (Farmer) who calls himself Nobody. 

Nobody tells a tale of being captured by whites ("Stupid White Man") as a kid, taken from one town to another ("Every time I was moved, I found people waiting for me that looked the same as the ones before. I wondered how they kept moving whole towns like that") until he was eventually taken across the ocean to London, where he was educated (somewhat) and introduced to the poems of William Blake, telling Depp's character, "Now I know that you truly are a dead man.".

He continues the tale of his escape, of returning across the ocean and working his way back to his village, where no one believed his story, laughing him out of the village, calling him a name that translates into, "Man who talks loud, saying nothing!". He concludes, "I prefer Nobody".

Instead of giving a summary of "Smoke Signals" that would spoil things for any of you who've yet to check it out, I'm gonna concentrate on trivia that relates it to "those PBS titles you gave" (referring to four Tony Hillerman Jim Chee and Joe Leaphorn mysteries I mentioned in the "Toughest Pawnee" post).

"Smoke Signals" won the Audience Award and Filmmakers Trophy (and was nominated for Grand Jury Prize); all in Dramatic category, for first-time Native American (Oh, alright, Indian) director Chris Eyre, at the Sundance Film Festival. That festival is an annual event by the Sundance Institute, an outfit devoted to helping and promoting independent film makers. It was founded (and is presided over) by actor Robert Redford.

Redford's production company was involved with all four of the Hillerman titles and I doubt that it's much of a leap to think he saw "Smoke Signals" and was impressed with Eyre; enough to maybe being the one who chose him to direct "Skinwalkers" and "A Thief of Time".

Adam Beach was pretty early in his career when he did "Smoke Signals", but this is some of his best work.  Not because he's stuck at some level, but because this role allows him more range than most roles he's gotten, from being an asshole (when he torpedoes a blonde on the bus who claims to have been an alternate on the Olympic Gymnastic Team) to releasing pent-up grief from the very bottom of his soul in another scene.  I expect that Eyre was the one to pick him for the role of Jim Chee in "Skinwalkers", already knowing what he could do.

Farmer is in three of the Chee/Leaphorn movies; as a Hopi policeman in "The Dark Wind", and as Leaphorn's superior Captain Largo in "Coyote Waits" and "A Thief of Time".

As *** notes above, almost all of the cast in "Smoke Signals" deserved awards.

Someone I was particularly impressed with I had never even heard of, much less seen before: Evan Adams (Thomas Builds-the-Fire)...
(Screencaps from DVD)

... an Indian nerd, always telling stories that no one (especially Victor) wants to hear.  I said above, "The movie is mostly about Victor Joseph", but in reality it's about Thomas telling the story of Victor Joseph.

As much as I like Adam Beach, right there is the true owner of this movie. :-)

Thursday, May 02, 2013

"Toughest Pawnee" ...

... is how actor Wes Studi (a full-blooded Cherokee from Oklahoma) is listed in the credits for Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990).

In it, he plays the lone survivor of a Pawnee raiding party that has not fared so well in a skirmish with the Sioux. Before the surrounding Sioux close in to finish him off, he takes his moment to loudly try to educate them about their ancestry, personal hygiene, sexual habits, and whatever else he feels they might need enlightenment on.  For a brief moment or two, he owns the movie.

(This movie was also the introduction (for most of us, although he'd been acting for 14 years by the time it came out) to Canadian Indian Graham Greene, as Kicking Bird. I mention him because he's gonna show up again, below.)

Magua say, "Understand English very well." ...
Wes Studi as Magua - from nativeamericanactors.tumblr.com

If "Dances with Wolves" was the first movie in which I saw Studi, Michael Mann's absolutely wonderful Last of the Mohicans (1992) was the one in which I really took notice of him.

An English Officer, leading some troops and a few civilians from Albany to  Fort William Henry, has given an instruction to whom he believes to be a Mohawk scout, not knowing that Magua is a Huron who was taken in by the Mohawks after his village was destroyed by English soldiers. So, you could say that Magua has serious issues with the English.

The Officer punctuates his instruction with, "Do you understand?". After hearing Magua mutter something in Huron (NOT at all complimentary) he asks, "What did you just say?".  Magua, looking straight at the Officer he's leading into an ambush, replies, "Magua say, 'Understand English very well'."

Wes Studi is mesmerizing here, playing an adversary who has reasons for being what he is.  I truly think he deserved a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for this. He probably wouldn't have won as Gene Hackman took it for his role of "Little Bill" Daggett in "Unforgiven" that year and was pretty well unbeatable, but he should have at least been nominated.

"NOW what?!!!" ...
Wes Studi as Hanover - from weirdwildrealm.com

... would make a fine alternate title for a guilty pleasure of mine, Deep Rising (1998), in which Treat Williams appears to be having the time of his life playing a boat captain for hire, in the South China Sea, who keeps finding plenty of reasons to utter that exclamation.  

Famke Jannsen ("Goldeneye", "X-Men") plays a con-woman on a floating casino, apparently playing her in Sandra Bullock mode.

And, Wes plays Hanover, the leader of a pack of mercenaries who hire the boat to launch a bit of piracy against that casino, only to discover it wrecked by a monster, with only a few of the passengers (including Jannsen) and crew still surviving.

In truth, to call this movie "dumb" is a disservice to the word. But, it is a "fun" dumb, and makes you wonder, "Where the Hell is Mystery Science Theater 3000 when you really need it?".  This is absolutely perfect material for it.

As for Studi here, he has a demise (earned) that is worth the price of admission by itself. If his kids ever saw it, I'll bet they just ate it up. :-)

"That's not very Navajo." ...
Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Adam Beach as Jim Chee
from italychile.blogspot.com

Author Tony Hillerman wrote a series of novels, set in the Navajo Nation ...
from nnrecovery.navajo-nsn.gov

from destination360.com

... and mostly about Sergeant Jim Chee and/or Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn; both of the Navajo Tribal Police.

Chee is very enamored with the old ways, wants to become a spiritual healer and still has superstitions around bodies and burial sites.

Leaphorn is almost a polar opposite; having been born on the reservation but raised outside of it.  He has little tolerance, and even less patience, with those superstitions; preferring reason and logic.  

One of his quirks is the map of the reservation he keeps on his wall, using pins with different colored flags to mark the locations of various crimes and incidents. He once admitted that he doesn't know how it helps him to solve crimes other than the fact that it seems to help him think.

Four of Hillerman's novels have been made into one film and three made for TV movies; thanks to Robert Redford's production company.

The Dark Wind (1991) was a theatrical release, with Lou Diamond Phillips and Fred Ward as Chee and Leaphorn, respectively. Nice piece of work; worth seeking out.

But, the really good versions are the three that were made for PBS's American Mystery series: Skinwalkers (2002), Coyote Waits (2003), and A Thief of Time (2004).  These are the ones pairing Adam Beach and Wes Studi.

In "Coyote Waits", we run into evangelical Christian/con-man Slick Nakai ...
Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn and Graham Greene as Slick Nakai
Modified from avalon-medieval.blogspot.com

When we meet him here, he's using his Cadillac as a taxi, delivering someone to Leaphorn's house.  When Leaphorn inquires about his driving a taxi, Slick mentions losing his permit to set up his revival tent on reservation land.

Leaphorn: "I heard about that. Something about a collection plate."

Slick: "Everything I get, I give to God. Everybody knows that. -- 'cept you."

(Slick is also in "A Thief of Time". I've a reason to bring him up. You'll see.)

In "Coyote Waits", Chee and Leaphorn are investigating the apparent killing of Officer Delbert Nez (a close friend of Chee's) by Ashie Pinto.  Local Defense Attorney Janet Pete (also Chee's current girlfriend) has gone to Leaphorn's office to get his take on the situation.

On seeing the familiar map on Leaphorn's wall, with its colored pins ...

Janet Pete (seeing three yellow ones that Leaphorn uses for "oddities"):
 "What about those yellow ones?"

Leaphorn (pointing to each in turn): "Here's Ashie Pinto's shack.
 "Here's where Officer Nez lived. --  And, here's where he died."

Janet Pete: "Forms a triangle."

Leaphorn:  "Very large triangle. Two Navajos, who might as well have lived on two different planets -- they met here. I don't think it was by chance."

Janet Pete: "You're sure about that?"

Leaphorn: "Nothing happens by chance."

Janet Pete: "That's not very Navajo."

Leaphorn: "No. That's me."

Now, I love these movies and consider Joe Leaphorn as my favorite of Wes Studi's roles.

But, not everyone agrees.  Here's the reason I referred to Greene so much.

A visitor to the IMDB page for "Coyote Waits" wrote a review, in which he stated preference for Graham Greene as Joe Leaphorn, noting that in the books, Leaphorn had a way of interrogating you by putting you at ease and letting you talk and ramble on and on, while he's just sitting there and taking it all in, quietly putting the pieces together.

In contrast (he noted), Studi's version would look at you as if wondering how your scalp would look on his lodge pole.

I suspect that reviewer would take this photo ...
Wes Studi as Joe Leaphorn - from pbs.org

... and declare, "I rest my case!"

Ok!  I have difficulty in arguing with that.

But, Hell!  I still like the guy. :-)


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