Tuesday, June 16, 2009


“Rain in the Mountains” is the name of an Indie movie (available at Netflix) and also the chosen name of the lead character. The name is a gentle spoof of N. Scott Momaday’s quite famous “The Way to Rainy Mountain,” as well as being very appropriate for western Washington where this movie was made. The movie is a sort of movie version of a garage band, except that through the magic of saying “Native American” at the right time and place, the little production crew received a “six-figure” grant from NYU.

If you go to the following url, you’ll find a journal of the whole process : http://www.makingthemovie.info/2005/06/making-rain-in-mountains.html Everyone is very young (most looked non-Indian), and therefore watches themselves living in that reflexive manner of the video/twitter generation. Watching the movie with the comments on tells you more about the producer/director/writers than the movie content, which is a fairly simple but potentially rich plot. Briefly, an Indian man who is out of work walks home through a field. He comes to a hanged man in a tree who looks like maybe a lost member of the Carradine family. (Nothing is made of the Tarot or “Dangling Man” motif.) He talks. The Indian man, having been raised off the rez, doesn’t realize that he’s got a trickster in front of him: Napi, maybe, who always makes his point by doing the wrong thing and encouraging everyone around him to get involved. The gimmick is that the dead man tells the hero that he must recover his heritage.

The story is then about all the trouble this earnest fellow gets into. It’s not subtle nor is it more then a surface effort -- too literal to yield much more than gentle satire and so charming because of Steve Pierre, the main actor, that we really have a good deal of sympathy for him. His practical and capable wife, as usual, is the key to his survival. His sceptical son, who declares his father “a lot more fun than other fathers,” is mostly the representative of likely audience point of view. The directors commented that this actor boy was pretty unhappy with having to wear Good Will clothes, as he is a bit of a dandy, and he didn’t like getting dirty. Nice stereotype breaker. In fact, the usual Indian stereotypes were quite neglected: all Indian parts were played by Indians who fit their parts and often -- partly because they were non-actors -- were about as likely to improvise their speeches as to say scripted lines. Robert Satiacom, the local sheriff, was really excellent at this. I loved that with his standard brown-and-beige uniform (the same as the uniform I wore myself in the Seventies as an animal control officer, technically a sheriff’s deputy) he wore some quite magnificent Navajo turquoise-and-silver bracelets. His hair was in a pig-tail. Pierre had a ponytail.

When you listen to this DVD with the comments on, you hear about the most authentic Indian factor of all: this actor was gone that day because of food poisoning, that one was gone that day because of a death in the family, the other one was gone that day because of something mysterious. The worst of all was that Steve Pierre had a massive stroke, striking him down to the floor with paralysis and inability to speak. In the hospital he spelled out on an alphabet board, “Finish movie.” All actors hung right in there in spite of interruptions and long drives across the country, but the hardships are typical of poor people with large families. Casting calls had been answered on every rez in Washington State. Steve and Joe Heldman were best friends at home, so when Steve was struck down, Joe went home to prepare for the worst, possibly a funeral. Thankfully, he made a full recovery and was able to attend film festivals showing the film later.

Most of the story had been shot and the resourceful writer was able to rewrite and invent scenes that shifted to the other characters so the movie could be finished. I didn’t read all the entries on “Making the Movie” which turns out to be a bottomless website resource for Indie producers. I’ve marked it for return. Even home vid makers could really benefit from all this information and advice.

When I started to write this post, what I had intended to focus on was the reaction from imdb.com commenters which was split right down the middle again -- we live in such a split society that I sometimes wonder how we avoid being altogether paralyzed. Anyway, one half of the audience HATED this movie. They consider Native Americans to be Sacred People who cannot be criticized or mocked in any way. I called a Manhattan magazine to see about business to do with Tim Barrus who wrote three books as “Nasdijj” and ran into exactly this attitude. The young assistant I talked to thought that pretending to be a Native American was absolutely, flatly, unforgivable. “Would you say you were Indian if it meant you could walk again?” I asked. (Tim AND the publisher made more money by presenting the books as authentic memoir than they would have as the accounts of a white witness. Tim's share almost paid for his hip replacements.) “Oh, NO!” said the young man, as fervent as if he were Saint Peter declaring he would never betray Jesus.

The people of this frame of mind HATED, HATED the movie and declared it to be nothing but junk. Then there were the people who knew or were Indians. They loved it. They recognized it. They got the jokes. (There were no commodity cheese jokes.)

It’s hard to keep in mind that making impossibly virtuous images of minorities is one way to keep them down, because the reality never measures up and so those people always feel as though, like this main character, that they’ve somehow fallen short. Think of women on pedestals. And if the non-Indian sees an Indian drunk, or impoverished, or otherwise faulty, the first reaction is that they aren’t “real,” that they deserve what they got because they threw away their heritage. Now it is legitimate to do anything to them. They are like fallen women.

My best advice is to watch this movie with an Indian friend. If you don’t have one, you’d better get around and find one. Or more than one. Each will have an independent take on the story. All of them worth discussing.


Chas S. Clifton said...

I kept thinking of "The Red Green Show" but with more pathos.

J. Ott said...

Hi prairiemary,

Thank you for your very thoughtful comments on Rain in the Mountains (and for the kind words about my Making the Movie website).

As one of the crew members, working on the movie was really an eye-opening experience. First of all, that making movies isn't very glamorous. And second, what makes it fun is the people you're doing it with.

Everyone on that movie, Native and non-Native, was a really unique and fascinating person. I learned a great deal more about people that summer than I did about filmmaking.

And what I think the directors, Joel and Christine, did well was letting the actors' personalities come through on screen, as you very keenly observed.

It was really a labor of love for all involved as that 'six-figures' ($100,000 - the lowest of the six figures) went exclusively to what you see on screen. So I'm glad to see that it is out there with a life of its own among audiences. Reviewers like you who bring their unique personal views are what give the film its true value.

Many thanks,
J. Ott