Friday, September 09, 2016


Trying to move from old patterns to seeing new ones and then using them, is not easy and a person needs examples.  After once again looking at the typical Euro structures of two opposed opposites who war for control. so that the shape of the story is Stephen Pressfield’s “inciting incident” that begins rising action through one crisis after another to a final climax that resolves everything into a new norm, I was looking for an example of “rhizome” plotting — one thing after another.

At first I was thinking of the Irish movie called “Calvary” — NOT Cavalry and NOT Calgary!  John Michael McDonagh had been making movies about crime bosses, using a powerful actor named Brendon Gleeson.  He’s a big solid ginger man who in this version of him has a beard and is not young.  He wears the classic cassock of the priest and tries to epitomize the classic force for good we imagine in the parishes of Ireland, which is solidly Catholic enough for priests to function as the guides for a whole parish, undivided by denominational loyalties, at least in this part of the island.  The idea is that he was widowed and then joined the priesthood, which his daughter interpreted as abandonment.  In terms of plot, this takes sexual matters off the table but leaves intimacy and family in play.

The structure is that of the Stations of the Cross as Jesus is required to lug his own cross to the top of Golgotha where he will be crucified.  McDonagh was not cross-cultural enough to realize until the movie was distributed that not everyone recognizes Cavalry, much less the Stations.  But anyway, the series of challenges to morality, love, and good sense in the movie don’t seem exactly matched to the Stations, which are still marked in the churches here on the rez and in Valier by small art works circling the sanctuary.  The strange consequence is that people here would understand this movie better than the dominant urban bi-coastal Americans who believe they know everything.

We wrestle with the problem of the virtuous father-figure who is supposed to lead us, but no one will consult him or rely on him, much less obey.  The classic benign strong man is forced into violence, anger, and drunkenness.  The “inciting event” is a man who was brutalized by a pedophile as a child and who had thought out the problem of revenge.  “Who will care if I kill my abuser?” he asks.  “It will be one vengeful act in a world full of them.  But if I kill a good man, people will be horrified and begin to think.”  He announces this in the beginning and enacts it at the end.  The question of the Stations then is whether the priest is enough of a good man for anyone to be shocked when he is executed.  We ask that about Jesus.

But this film, which is gorgeous in the grand but ascetic way of the Irish seaside in the hands of a skilled cinematographer, stops being a flat progression and becomes stairsteps of crisis and resolution until the end.  Most of it is conveyed through the state of the priest, which Gleeson is well able to do.  This is European, classically structured, and fulfilled by fine workmanship in the hands of one writer/director and his crew.

So I had to look for a rhizome structure — one point of growth connected to another in a horizontal way by a road/trail/stolon/interval.  And I found one.  Netflix is currently streaming “Songs my Brothers Taught Me,” about Sioux siblings on the Pine Ridge reservation.  Note: “songs” are usually in verses, maybe with a refrain.  Even tribal drum songs are like this.  

The writer/director this time is Chlo√© Zhao, born in Beijing, educated partly in London and partly in Massachusetts, therefore thinking at a high level of international sophistication.  Forrest Whitaker stepped in to produce and the Sundance machinery helped.  Many people are worried about teenage rez suicides and they tend to gravitate to the Sioux.  (There is no suicide in this plot.)  Zhao created this film by visiting and revisiting the place and the people whose lives gradually accumulated into this narrative of “going along” through life as best one can, without having any dependable goal or guidance.

There are three ‘love affairs” whose magnetism pulls the plot.  The older teenager, on the lip of adulthood, is in love with a girl (maybe low quantum) whose family is able to leave the rez.  His intention is to meet her in LA and continue the relationship. 

His mother has slipped into alcoholism but loves her children and after a while feels she loves God.  

But the guiding emotion is the sister, just now entering adolescence and feeling her brother wanting to leave.  Zhao made thirty trips to the rez to develop this story, which is near-secret glimpses of the actors’ real lives.  Even Irene Bedard, who is a well-known and respected actress, is drawing on her lives she knows.  You wouldn’t have access to this world without Zhao and her actors.  This is not script but real testimony by participants.

It begins with horse breaking, pastoral and gentle, but with thunder always sounding.  Then sister walks on the prairie at sundown.  Part of the poignance of this film for me is that when Gloria Reevis was this age, she used to walk with me after school and ask me questions.  I’ve hardly had any interaction with her since then, but the sense memories of walking along boundary street next to the campgrounds — undeveloped in those days — chatting late in the afternoon — has stayed with me for half a century.

If there is a plot line here, it is alcohol.  Brother is a bootlegger.  He’s also a boxer.  The high school is intriguing: the romantic architecture, the big old grizzled teacher, the classroom full of animals, the limited futures.  The last one I knew like this was at Jefferson High School in Portland, my alma mater (Class of ’57) when it was considered one of the best ten high schools in the US but was at the time of my visit near-ghetto.

I should probably not tell you much so that it will unfold without interpretation, so you can make your own connections.  But you should know that the song at the funeral is a ’49, a conflation of old white songs with “Indin singin’.”  Sometimes at a pow-wow where events are meant to be purely Native American, you can hear faintly another group singing ’49’s.  A tendency among tribal people is the constant “budding” off of sub-groups that feed back into the main group, reaching out to other circumstances but also enriching the original.

Watch the material culture in this film.  Walmart fabrics, constant laundry, prison family talk through glass, scrubs and t-shirts and jackets with commemorative insignia.  Cheap abandoned lawnmowers and kid-bikes.  Old cars that still run.  No tourist dream-catchers, beading, feathers.  I LOVED the visionary Green Man with his tattoos and his patchwork clothing.  This is a Japanese style!
But it is also deeply related to the indigenous way of using what there is (denim rather than hide), recycling as creation.  On the Blackfeet, the Reevis family often has a visionary dimension like this man.

In fact, what I see is how Asian the NA deep impulses can be.  Their genetics come from an Asian matrix, which includes chromosomal structure not present in Europe.  Google if you dare.  This is extremely emotional and politically “hot.”  Fifty years ago, it would have been dangerous to suggest because of memories of WWII.  Many NA soldiers served in the Pacific and have never given up the enemy status of Japan.  This is not explicit in the film, but I think it’s relevant to Zhou’s ability to relate that her genetics are close. 

Racism is not here a matter of white oppression but of poverty, cowboy and Catholic ways of being, and the constant nearness of tragedy.  Demonstrators are not much appreciated.  Progress here is persistence, finding the path through the badlands.  And yet the badlands are beautiful in a stark way.

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