It may look the same today, but as Sherman Alexie walked down the aisle of the Kenworthy Theater in Moscow, Idaho, he realized his last memory of the place was, well, a little bit hazy.
“I was just recalling with a friend of mine who I went to school at Wazzu with that this is the first time I’ve been in this theater sober,” Alexie said, glancing around the old theater at the Palouse premier of his second movie, The Business of Fancydancing, last September. “And I’ve been sober a long time.”
Eleven years, actually, he says with pride, urging other young tribal members in the crowd to follow his lead and just “put down the booze.” But though he’s more sober now than years past, his movies most definitely aren’t. They are, in his own words, getting “rowdier and stranger.” But they’re still funny, he adds. And so is he.
“Are there any Nee-Mee-Poo in the crowd?” Alexie asked before the movie, referring to the presence of any Nez Perce, who shouted to let their presence be known.
“You have to go. This movie contains intellectual material you may not be ready for,” he deadpanned, going on.
“How about any Coeur d’Alenes?”
Several audience members yelled.
“Have I slept with any of you?”
“All the non-Indians in the crowd are like, ‘What’s going on?’ Alexie joked, feigning a couple whispering to one another. ‘I think they’re being cultural, honey.’ “
Raised on the Spokane Indian Reservation in Wellpinit, Washington, Alexie graduated from Washington State University with a degree in American studies before becoming a literary success with his novels, Reservation Blues and Indian Killer. Though his roots are in Eastern Washington-his mother translated a song for the movie into the native Spokane language and the Spokane Tribal Council approved his filming on the reservation-that doesn’t mean he always likes it or it always likes him. “Are my sons going to grow up on the rez? No. Do they go there? Yes. Will they live there? No.”
Seven-eighths of the reservation is against him, he notes, and it’s not hard to understand why, when he speaks with such brutal honesty-some might even say disdain-about ignorance, alcoholism, and other problems on the rez.
“. . . There’s not that much different between white farmers in Colfax and Spokane Indians on the rez. They’re rednecks with actual red necks. I love my people, but . . . dang.”
In his edgy second film, as in his books, Alexie’s not out to win any popularity contests. He admits there’s not a single lovable character, as most moviegoers long for, but rather people “that are really flawed and messy.”
The movie poignantly reunites two best friends from the Spokane Indian Reservation-Aristotle Joseph (Gene Tagaban) and Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) 16 years after they graduated from Wellpinit High School. Both characters left the rez for Seattle, but a painful rift eventually deepens between them, as Seymour builds a successful literary career as a gay native American poet and Aristotle returns to the rez, where he condescendingly refers to Seymour as the “little public relations warrior.”
Many back on the rez feel Seymour’s sold out and can’t stand him. But when his childhood friend dies, he feels obligated to return for the first time in years to the people there, including his college girlfriend (Michelle St. John), half-Jewish, half-Spokane Indian, now dating Aristotle.
The movie’s other characters include an obnoxiously aggressive interviewer (Rebecca Carroll) who constantly critiques Seymour’s work and fame, and Seymour’s white lover in Seattle, who discourages Polatkin from going home to the rez for the funeral by pleading, “they’re not your tribe anymore, I’m your tribe.”
Alexie’s first film, Smoke Signals, earned $6.7 million in its U.S. theatrical release, almost four times what it cost to make–approximately the amount spent on donuts on the set of Spiderman, Alexie adds, while Fancydancing was made for the amount of money spent on coffee in Smoke Signals.
But unlike Smoke Signals, which Hollywood loved, Fancydancing has proved too rough around the edges for some, with its brutal portrayals of rez life, intimate gay scenes, and literary hijinks. One reviewer called a tender scene between Seymour and his college girlfriend “terrible writing,” only to find out from Alexie that the dialogue was among the 35 lines in the film lifted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
It has played at dozens of American film festivals, but international film festivals all rejected it. Alexie’s not disappointed about the diverse response. Whether you love it or hate it or could care less, you’ll get the same reaction from him: “It’s all good.”
“It’s a weird little movie,” Alexie says. “I don’t begrudge the reservation for not liking it. You don’t have to like it. I didn’t make it for that. I love to make people laugh. I love to piss people off. . . . It’s a great job. . . I get great big checks made out to narcissism.”