The Moorish Wanderer

Course 2 : ‘Smoke Signals’, the native American road-movie

Posted in American Minority Voices by Zouhair ABH on January 20, 2009

Today is a good day to die…

We had the opportunity to watch a movie about Native Americans, a movie based on the novel : ‘The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven‘. Here follows a summary of it, and then let us have a deeper look at the movie.

The story centres around Victor Joseph and Thomas Builds-the-Fire on the Coeur D’Alène Indian Reservation in Plummer, Idaho. Thomas is the eccentric tribe storyteller and Victor is an assertive basketball player with a brooding disposition. The two young men are linked through Victor’s father, Arnold.

Arnold rescued Thomas as an infant from a house fire that killed his parents. Consequently, Thomas considers him a hero. On the other hand, Victor, who endures Arnold’s alcoholism, domestic violence, and eventually abandonment, regards his father with both deep love and bitter resentment. Thomas and Victor grow up together as neighbors and acquaintances, fighting with each other and simultaneously forming a close, albeit uneasy, alliance.

When Arnold dies in Phoenix, Arizona, where he has settled after separating from Victor’s mother Arlene, Victor and Thomas embark on a cross-country journey to retrieve his ashes and belongings. The trip turns out to be a soul-searching endeavour for both men. Neither of them lose sight of their identity as “Indians”, but their perspectives differ. Victor is more stoical and pragmatic, and Thomas is more idealistic and traditional (and a romantic to the point of watching the feature film Dances with Wolves countless times). This dichotomy continues all through the film and is the source of Victor’s irritation with Thomas. Once in Phoenix, Victor must confront his conflicted feelings toward his father, as well as his own identity.

He also must grapple with information provided to him by his father’s friend, Suzie Song; namely, the true origins of the fire that killed Thomas’ parents. Arnold, drunk one night, accidentally shot off a firework into the living room window, causing the fire in his neighbors house. The trip turns out to ultimately cure Victors brooding disposition toward life and shows him why his father became an alcoholic, was abusive, and eventually left their family. The film concludes with Victor achieving a better understanding of Thomas and his unconditional reverence for Arnold. (Wikipedia Courtesy)

The movie is full of symbols : the first one is the coincidence between the 4th of July, and the family drama (4th of July being the foundation of the USA celebration) a reference to origin of the Native Americans misery, perhaps ?

The reservation seems to live in a whole other world : weather is more or less the same, inhabitants use the same cars as 50 years ago. Events repeat themselves as rituals : the KREZ broadcast, Fallsapart everyday traffic report… the Coeur d’alène tribe lives in a bubble that ‘protect’ them from the outside world.
Would that mean the Natives are enjoying their lives in the reservation ? surely not. One could notice that alcohol has an important role : Joseph, an alcoholic among many others, drinks at 9. a.m, and beer is only a way to avoid looking at the misery they live in. Alcohol brings violence, at every level, especially symbolic : the dialogues are usually crude, very far from the subtle exchanges we are acquainted with.

There is this other point that occurs frequently during the movie : everything refers to the past, and not the ‘historical’ or ‘actual’ past, but an ‘idealised’ past, just as Thomas, or Arnold told stories that were not accurate, though thy sounded like myths or legends.
Setting that aside, the first contact with Europeans -as between Natives and the newcomers or settlers- was full of caution, and maybe passive hostility. A road movie full of metaphors that confirm the previous observations : the constant reference to the past -through Thomas’ recollections- and sometimes, attempts of ‘cleansing rituals’ : Phoenix, the mythical bird, the ashes, the fire that started it and will end it.

To sum up, the movie, though low budget and with no famous casting, was easy to watch and appreciate. It gives a fair view on the Native Americans problems, and ends -and perhaps, the only concession made to the American happy ending- in an explicit note of bright future hope.

I couldn’t resist to it, but Geronimo was my favorite Western movie as a Child :