Friday, May 03, 2013
WHAT YOU GET IS WHAT YOU SEE
This post considers two movies about Native Americans interacting with whites. The first one is “Wind River,” (2000, PG) “The 1854 Wyoming historical drama is based on Tom Shell's adaptation of the true life memoirs of Pony Express rider Nick Wilson.” “It would be an appropriate film to show as part of the fourth grade curriculum in California schools.” (Dr. Brad Bryant, IMDB reviewer)
The second one is “The New World” (2005, PG-13) about the Jamestown Colony and the legendary story of Pocahontas. Now this ill-fated colony has been returned to the news because of the newly discovered proof of cannibalism in the "starving time" of 1609–1610. Only 61 of the 500 colonists survived the period. The eaten person was a fourteen-year-old English girl of good family who had died earlier and was dug up to be butchered.
Historians were not surprised. They had already read shocking stuff. “During these first years of the colony, many of the people lived in cavelike holes dug into the ground, and in the winter of 1609-1610, they were ″...driven through insufferable hunger to eat those things which nature most abhorred, the flesh and excrements of man as well of our own nation as of an Indian, digged by some out of his grave after he had laid buried there days and wholly devoured him; others, envying the better state of body of any whom hunger has not yet so much wasted as their own, lay wait and threatened to kill and eat them; one among them slew his wife as she slept in his bosom, cut her in pieces, salted her and fed upon her till he had clean devoured all parts saving her head...″
“Wind River” is PG and “The New World” is PG-13 because it is “sexy,” I guess. The latter is unsuitable for many grownups, as it will challenge their ideas of the founding of the United States, the nature of indigenous people, and the real moral core of English gentry, even though the movie spares them any scenes of cannibalism or shit-eating. Tom Shell, who directed “Wind River” appears to be a “utility director,” while Terence Malick, who conceived, wrote and directed “The New World,” is widely considered a genius. “Wind River” is a kind of “utility movie,” where expectations are fulfilled and the standard marks are hit without any particular challenge. To most people, this is what movies are supposed to be. They like the fight scenes. There are some great stunt horseback fighters in this film.
“The New World” is a philosophical treatise in images: what IS the nature of human beings, what is our moral obligation to those who are different and so on. Malick uses the script only as a guide to accumulate a lot of images which he edits into a more direct way of conveying “felt concepts.” In that sense, I’m with him. I write with words, he writes with film clips. I revise, he revises. We both have fancy educations, his far more advanced than mine. We like the meta-story.
It’s interesting that there is a pool of NA actors and since now the whole “truth and authenticity” thing has become so literal, they are the only possible casting choices for some movies. But in “Wind River” both Russell Means and Wes Studi are cast against their natural personalities. Means is a violent and self-important man playing a wise old chief. Studi plays a war-like rebel but is actually a thoughtful and generous person. Studi is in both films. He was particularly invested in learning the original language in “The New World.” He is a growing man with a broadening awareness.
Both films have an element that must trouble the pedophile-phobes. The actress who plays Pocahontas, Q'orianka Kilcher, was twelve when cast and fourteen when the movie was shot. We pretend kids this age are not sexual and, in fact, relations with them are unlawful, but historically a woman this age would be considered adult, just not a free-range person -- very much confined and supervised, not because of her age but because of her gender. Studi said he worried a little about Kilcher but she was “tough, very tough,” and her mother shadowed her. In real life the mother/daughter team are politically active worldwide for autochthonous issues. Q’orianka had a tribal Peruvian father but was raised in Hawaii by her mother. I thought of Obama. In the movie she is freedom and delight “personified,” exactly that which the Eden-seekers expected to find in the land but couldn’t see.
Blake Heron plays a little older adolescent when he sort of semi-voluntarily gets trafficked into a boy-man relationship with a middle-aged Indian (actually a Californian with an hispanic name, A. Martinez, who’s been acting since 1968). If you look at it that way, the older man tying the boy onto a horse and then cutting away the pants from his crotch when the friction of riding rubs the inside of his thighs painfully bloody . . . well, you see what you’re looking for, don’t you? Wes Studi’s character claims he wants to buy the boy to ransom back to whites, but is that all there is to it? Martinez supposedly captures the boy to replace sons who died. Both of the “mothers” in the story are idealized.
In some ways “Wind River” is more revealing than “The New World,” because “Wind River” is so unconscious, as we say. Malick is fully aware of longings, sexual and otherwise, and human vulnerability to grotesque darkness. Shell is just sticking to the script, which is meant to present a family story in a family way, but sometimes is transparent to the underlying history which -- true or not -- potentially has the same elements. Isn’t the teenaged rebellion of the boy against his older brother both sexual and Oedipal, in the absence of the father?
There are several specifically NA movies about to break into publicity. Arnaud Desplechin, a French auteur admirer of Truffault, is about to release “Jimmy P: Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian.” This is based on a book I’ve had for a long time: “Reality and Dream” by George Devereaux. I bought it from the Hyde Park Powell’s when I was in seminary, thinking that the author as well as the analysand was Blackfeet, since Devereaux is a common local name. As it turns out, Devereaux was the analyst. He cleverly disguised the analysand by using his tribal name. As it happens, that’s also a familiar name around here. The part will be played by Benicio del Toro, who is Puerto Rican with Spanish citizenship. But the ground of analysis is both reality and dream, identity and deception, mix and match.
“Reality and dream” is a pretty good category for any movie that’s supposed to have Indians in it, whether or not they are played by “real” Indians. I suppose that “reality and dream” might be a description of any movie with humans in it, whether or not played by “real humans”, whatever those are.
http://winterinthebloodfilm.com seems to be about finished. Lovely website to visit.