Cultural mediation and the possibility of a native counter-cinema.
I do not regret the decision I made in that regard, but when I reflected on the process that brought me to that choice, it occurred to me that I might have been glossing over some very salient cultural complexities in my unabashed enthusiasm for an authentic and unmediated Native film. The central question that emerged was whether there actually was such a thing as an unmediated text of any kind, and especially whether we could usefully speak of an unmediated cinematic text. I wondered, quite simply, if it was possible at all and, if so, what such a liberated artifact might look like.
The question of mediation bears heavily on our teaching practices in general, and especially on the decisions we make as teachers of ethnic (in this case Native) literatures. The issue is also germane to any discussion of counter-cinema in a global sense, where the point of film itself is to undermine, deconstruct, or otherwise oppose the established conventions and common thinking of a popular, and often racialized, majority. In this sense, to entertain the question is almost to resurrect the debate over whether one can "use the master's tools to deconstruct the master's house." Where Native film is concerned, however, the issue of whose tools can do what work is complicated by the politics of authenticity that permeate academic circles today. In such a context, the critical point is not only whether a Native (or any ethnic) counter-cinema can exist, but also who is authorized, genetically, culturally, or by whatever standard, to produce such a subversive body of work. In short, the questions, "What constitutes 'resistance' where films are concerned?" and "What makes a film 'Native'?" converge and complicate any easy notions of an authentic and unmediated Native counter-cinema.
The primary complications that emerge in this regard are the issues of funding, genre, and the medium of film itself as a vehicle for Native experience. Each of these subsets represents a sticking-point in the debate over authentic and unmediated cultural or political projects in film. The question is to what extent these factors affect Native films as ostensibly genuine artifacts that are politically engaged and culturally connected in some meaningful way. If production values in some Native film have been lacking, such as in the film Naturally Native (Jennifer Wynne Farmer, Valerie Red-Horse, 1998), and if the mechanics of Native film have been invested primarily in conventional filming techniques, and if only certain genres of film (documentary or buddy films, for example) have been established as traditional modes for entry into the marketplace, then to what extent can we say that a truly authentic and unmediated Native film tradition currently exists? I believe that a Native counter-cinema does exist and, moreover, that it functions in powerful and important ways, both politically and culturally. However, it is possible to get at the fundamental value of Native film by thinking in terms of unmediated, and therefore more authentic, cinematic texts.
Until very recently, Native films were productions created primarily as documentaries. This fact, of course, is less a consequence of any particular Native affinity with the documentary form than it is a function of economics (Leuthold 50). Documentary films are generally less expensive to produce and the primary sources of funding available to Native film makers have been limited enough in scope to render documentary films the primary medium for communication. There are, of course, certain limits to the exposure of documentary films in general, in addition to the strictures placed on a film by the conventions of that modality. In this way, from the very beginnings of Native film, it has been an overtly mediated field of representation. This is not to say that the cache of documentary films produced by Native artists is somehow unimportant. Nothing could be further from the truth in fact. Their portability as pedagogical tools in the classroom and their credibility with broader audiences as truth-bearing, almost journalistic, pieces makes them essential works in the broader scheme of things. In addition, many Native documentary films are quite impressive in their imaginative use of the genre itself. The point is only that the emphasis on the documentary is a result of economic (and by extension cultural) mediation at least as much as any other factor; and this fact pre-empts at the outset any delusions we might harbor as to the possibility of an unmediated Native film.
Even laying the issue of documentary versus feature film aside, there is a very complicated set of procedures and strictures that are laid in place when any given film maker seeks funding. Different funding sources each require a differing level of control over directing decisions, creative processes, and the final product. In the end, finding a source that will allow totally unrestrained license would be rare indeed, if at all possible (50). The film maker Victor Masayevsa, Jr., for example, has to go out of his way to find funding sources that will allow him to maintain copyrights to his films (45). He has been fairly successful in this regard; but his results may be exceptional given the difficulty of finding funding for Native film projects in general.
Related to the issue of funding is the issue of technical training. Many grant funds, especially those provided from government sources, require the incorporation of internship and professionalization plans. For example, The National Association for Public Broadcasting, which is a major source of funding for Native film projects, is instituting a structure to provide training for emerging Native film makers (49). Steven Leuthold notes that there is a certain degree of danger inherent to this training process, asking whether there is "a danger that agencies may destroy indigenous media forms through media education, training, and development" (52). The issue essentially revolves around the idea of employing structural formulas, conventional techniques, and cultural praxes developed by and large by an outside, or "other," culture. The question is, how can a Native film survive as a Native film if it is always-already overdetermined by the technical conventions of a non-Native institutional practice?
The issue of training and technical conventions is almost a moot point, though, when we consider that television and film are not traditional forms for conveying Native knowledge; there is nothing intrinsically Native about film in general. Moreover, because it is a medium that involves, evolves, and engenders its own conventions for representation, any cultural content for which film is the chosen vehicle for transmission will inevitably undergo a series of very complex processes of mediation which is endemic to the process of film production (it is called "media," after all). Given this institutional ambivalence, what becomes essential is a critical awareness and a large degree of self-consciousness on the part of both film makers and those of us who decide to read and write criticism on these artifacts.
Regardless of its ambivalent nature, it is still clear that film is a form of media that can be assimilated by Native artists in beneficial ways, as we will shortly see. Adaptation, reformulation, and dialogue within a larger film tradition are not only possible, they are inevitable, and may also be beneficial as well. The problem of creative control and technical influence will remain as troubling and complicated issues in Native film, especially where authenticity and mediation are salient concerns. In spite of these problems, however, film remains a powerful medium. It has proven to be inherently assimilable to the needs and purposes of Native artists who are themselves not only conscious of the perplexing nature of film production, but are intelligent and creative enough to forge culturally and politically engaged works in the face of such ambivalence.
Perhaps the best example of a cultural artifact that successfully navigates the troubled waters of institutional mediation can be found in the film Smoke Signals (Chris Eyre, 1998). Much of the political force that inheres in the short fiction that served as the basis for the film is lost in the translation of Thomas Builds-the-Fire and Victor into film. Certainly the film adheres in most ways to the "facts" of the story, but when we read the story in The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, we cannot read it apart from other stories that feature the same characters. We understand Thomas's storytelling and the full political force behind those stories only when we read "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire" as well. Moreover, those politics inform the way we read "What it Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona." From a conventional standpoint, the power of Thomas's cultural critiques in "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire" (the heavy-handed indictment of American imperialism and the tragedy of the massacred ponies, for example) had to fall away in order for the piece to function as the foundation for a buddy film. The emphasis on the friendship between Thomas and Victor, which becomes one of the two central aspects of the film draws the focus away from the ethnic politics that are so much in evidence in Alexie's fiction and in Thomas's stories outside of that particular episode.
If Native politics, and especially the most hard-hitting of them, fall out when the film is produced, that is, in part, because it makes the film more easily digestible for a non-Native audience, which is, for the most part, unprepared to see Natives in films other than Westerns and frontier romances. The film is not without its political moments, of course. I am reminded of the scene on the bus where Thomas and Victor have the run in with two "cowboys." The result is the song "John Wayne's Teeth," which comes to emblematize the troubled racial relationship between Natives and non-Natives in North America. Much of the politics in these incidents are cased in humor, which is a standard for buddy films in general, and is even more important for one of this type.
The humorous treatment of Native politics helps to ease the critique for an audience that might not appreciate being assailed directly. The content of the political critiques in the film, in short, are mediated both by the film's genre (a buddy film/comedy) and by the broader audience the film seeks to reach, and it is this mediation that confers power to the film because it enables Alexie and Chris Eyre to reach an otherwise disinterested audience and, according to Jacquelyn Kilpatrick, paves the way for other Native films by serving as a gateway to the mainstream, "providing that 'second' of reality necessary to make the existence of American Indian filmmakers 'real' for the film industry" (232).
Another film that is often credited with similar force is Powwow Highway, the "original" Native buddy film that serves, in many ways, as a precursor to Smoke Signals. Powwow Highway (Jonathan Wacks, 1988) may not have achieved the broad acclaim that Smoke Signals did, but it still represents a pivotal moment in the development of Native film.
As such, it is instructive to consider the film from within the context of authenticity and mediation, primarily because it marks a moment where Native actors finally begin acting Native roles in a fairly well-publicized Native story. The film, based on a novel of the same title written by the Huron author David Seals, conveys a Native activist politics through the character of Buddy Red Bow and complements that with the character of Philbert, who is a more traditional storyteller, much like Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and who is interested in advancing his culture through different means than the militancy of the American Indian Movement (AIM), of which Buddy is a member. The film does everything we might expect a Native film to do: it presents the problematics of identity through Buddy's nephew and niece, who have to ask what tribe they are from; it voices the political concerns of AIM through Buddy and his friends; and it represents Native concerns over land development on reservations through the exploitative practices of the Overdyne Corporation.
All this, coupled with the official imprimatur of Native novelist David Seals and a partial cast of Native actors playing Native parts, might tempt us, as undying acolytes of ethnic purity, to cry out in joy at the authenticity of the film and praise it as unmediated and pure. On the other hand, the fact that the main writer for the film adaptation was Janet Heaney, a non-Native script-writer, and the fact that the actor who plays the main character is Latino might have the sardonic voices of the authenticity police crying "foul" at the racialist practices of institutions bent on the appropriation and commodification of Native identities. The reality, of course, lies between these two poles. To consider the film an unmediated event would be naive, but to dismiss any possibility that it does some productive work in terms of Native politics would be equally irresponsible. Like Smoke Signals, Powwow Highway represents an important milestone in Indigenous representations in film. Although it is not a pristine example of unmediated representation, we should recognize by now that such an idea is most likely unattainable.
What we might learn from these films, and others, is that assimilation, appropriation, re-appropriation are, in a certain sense, different words for describing dialogue, interface, or intertext, even if those processes have not always been even or devoid of power inequities. Dialogue, interface, and intertext are, for better or for worse, types of mediation; they represent an interfusion of cultural ideas that leaves its mark on both sides of the equation. As critics of film and literature, it is incumbent upon us to reconceptualize our feelings toward this mediation. Non-Native mediation of Native cultural artifacts can, and often has been, a negative process; much representational violence has been done to Native communities through the public institutions of film and literature, and many of us are familiar with the insidious mechanisms that have been at work in the public discourses that treat Native themes and cultures. Fortunately, however, this does not mean that such violence is always the inevitable result of cultural intertext, or that it is the unavoidable consequence of communication and interface between Native and non-Native cultural spheres.
Here it is helpful to reflect on Thomas King's vision of the type of change he hopes to effect through his filmmaking:
You begin to chip away--not at the stereotypes, because they're fixed in the imagination, but you begin to offer alternatives, different ways of reading, different ways of seeing the same drama....Yes we have the stereotypes and cliches. No, I can't do much about those particularly, nor do I want to beat my head against the wall trying to destroy those. [...] All I'm interested in is saying, "Hey, you got that over there. Okay, enjoy it while you can, but how about looking at this over here?" Not as an alternative, just as maybe a continuation of this conversation. (qtd in Kilpatrick 193-4)
King's idea of "continuing the conversation" is pivotal to the way we perceive mediation in film. Mediation is inevitable in the same way that stereotypes and cliches are almost inevitable, and the best tactic for unseating those inevitabilities, for somehow salvaging something positive, forceful, and real from the situation, is to understand the conversation taking place. This entails recognizing, as King appears to recognize, the place that Native films occupy in that conversation as alternative visions in dialogue with what is a normative standard for non-Native viewers.
This intercommunicative position is most certainly a mediated one. However, many filmmakers feel that rather than being a negative phenomenon, this mediation is a uniquely positive position from whence the complex realities of Native cultural existence can be voiced more productively. Like Thomas King, Sherman Alexie and Chris Eyre both feel a responsibility to counter one-dimensional Native characters and the fanciful representations of Natives in American popular culture. For them, part of this project includes a clear recognition of the cultural exchange that has occurred historically between Native and non-Native peoples. One example of this recognition comes in their strategic representation of Biblical stories in Smoke Signals. In an interview with Julien Fielding, both Alexie and Eyre comment on the way that Christianity and legends culled from Biblical sources each inform their work. Alexie comments on the irony he sees in critics who try to read the film from a strictly Native spiritualism point of view, when the inspiration for much of the film, especially the "Jesus frybread" scene and another scene he claims comes almost directly from the book of Isaiah, is rooted in his experience as an Indian who grew up Catholic (para 7-8). For Alexie, recognizing these moments of interpenetration between Christian and Native spiritualisms is part of his responsibility as an artist concerned with writing about the realities of his own experience rather than romances about the ideal "Indian" he might hope to be: "I write about what I am, not what I want to be" (Fielding para 7).
Likewise, Eyre, who was raised Presbyterian, remarks on the influence Christian spiritualism has had on his work: "I believe there was an influence--although it's not a bad thing" (Fielding para 10). Eyre responds especially to the possibility of creating a film completely unmediated by non-Native influences, remarking that such a vision is not only utopist and impossible, but also serves as a crutch, as an idealism that limits his growth as an artist:
I don't believe in boxing another culture out to make yours better. It's a crutch I don't rely on. Some talk of a Utopia where a film is all Native cast and crew. There is no such Utopia. That's a crutch. I'm interested in expanding myself as an artist. Skins [Eyre, 2002] is a cultural movie to me. (ibid para 12)
Not only is the ideal of an all Native cast and crew a virtual impossibility in practical terms--the process of creating a film, and especially a good film, is simply too complex--but it isn't even necessarily a positive goal for Eyre. To be preoccupied with such exclusivity might actually work against his broader goals as a film maker and an artist.
In both Sherman Alexie's and Chris Eyre's cases, to harp on authenticity or to bemoan cultural mediation in their work is inimical to their designs as artists seeking to represent a certain truth about their experiences as Native people. Part of that truth involves portraying the cultural complexities that arise from a few centuries of geographical, political, and cultural contact, contact that has often been violent but has nonetheless been fundamental to the constitution of both Native and non-Native experiences today. This history of contact has resulted in a series of cultural mutations and adaptations that culminate in the present and are voiced through the anti-romances of filmmakers like Alexie and Eyre. In this way, they remain adamant in their attempts to re-represent Natives in public discourses such as film and literature which are troubled by the pressures of ethnic, cultural, and economic mediation. In their scheme, however, Native people can be active agents in those complex processes of mediation rather than simply the innocent victims of institutional processes somehow larger than, and outside of, themselves. Theirs comes as conscious self-insertions into the dialogues that constitute Native identities in the public sphere. It is a seizure of power, an act of demanding their own place in the nexus of those mediating phenomenon that come to bear on representations of Native lives.
This artistic politics puts Alexie and Eyre in a peculiar position as Native filmmakers. While most of the tenor of this essay has been concerned with identifying the impossibility of avoiding mediation in projects that are as complex as films are, it is also true that the struggles for resources and power over creative decisions cannot be dismissed. I am reminded here of a conversation between Burch and Newton, two characters in Gerald Vizenor's film, Harold of Orange (Richard Weise, 1984). The two men are members of the board that will make the final decision as to whether Harold will be given the funds necessary to start his pinchbean operation. When Newton asks incredulously whether Harold actually thinks he can change the world with a foundation grant, Newton's response is, "Who could change the world without a foundation grant?" The irony in this scene involves the inevitable mediation of ethnic projects that require outside funding, and it also tells of the ironic position that trickster figures like Harold (and Alexie and Eyre) find themselves in. Harold, in keeping with Vizenor's overall vision of the Postindian Warrior, takes it upon himself to force change from within, or at the very least, to "reclaim their estate," as the manifesto at the beginning of the film relates, from the institutional machinery of non-Native (but soon to be Nativized) capital. The trickster, then, becomes a practiced hand at identifying and manipulating those instances of meaning and techniques of persuasion that resonate with non-Native audiences. Always ironic, Harold (and Alexie and Eyre) is quite self-conscious about the ways he "uses the Master's tools" against the Master himself.
As a film, Harold of Orange is itself emblematic of this strategy. It functions as an artifact which uses popular media against itself. It unseats, mocks, and appropriates conventional thinking about Natives in order to deconstruct and counteract those fixations. The medium of film is instrumentalized in the struggle to dismantle popular notions about indigeneity and to assert the right to certain resources controlled by a racialized majority. This film, of course, was never intended as a mainstream production; and we would have to ask after its visibility in the context of U.S. culture at large in order to formulate a responsible critique. But, it seems that there is a certain resonation between Harold in this film and Native filmmakers who are immersed in the complex politics of film production, a politics that amounts not only to economic mediation but to cultural and political overdetermination as well.
As we can see so clearly in this reading of Harold of Orange, the contest often comes down to money: who has it, and how we can get it, become the driving questions behind projects in the public sphere. The surest technique for getting funds, of course, is to make sure you have a salable commodity. Steven Leuthold reminds us that "the danger of the mainstreaming of Indigenous media is that 'aboriginality' becomes an ascription to be negotiated more as a commodity than as a recognition of content or authority" (53). In the end, it appears that the danger of commodification is an inevitable one and, in fact, commodification will take place whether there is an authentic Native involvement or not; this is part of the irony of the situation. But knowledge of that irony equals power. Media adaptation implies a desire to reach a broader audience and, to a certain degree, a non-Native audience. Negotiating the ironies of commodification is the price to be paid for entry into the public conversation about Native identities, and, in the end, this is a conversation we simply cannot afford to be left out of.
In light of this situation, the extent to which we can talk about a non-mediated film event is clearly limited. In spite of that mediation, however, there is no responsible way to argue that there are not some very powerful politics at work in most Native films written and directed by Native artists. Perhaps a useful alterNative to thinking in terms of authenticity and mediation in regard to this body of work, then, might be to think in terms of any given film's function as a form of Native counter-cinema.
Here I want to work with three varying definitions of alterNative cinematic practices in order to tease out what a Native counter-cinema might look like. (1) The first involves the work-principles of Jean-Luc Godard, considered by many to be the father of European counter-cinema. For Godard, counter-cinema involved a set of aesthetic, technical, and organizational practices that would challenge the supremacy of Hollywood in film production. This meant strategically deploying techniques that alienated the viewer (in the interest of drawing attention to the representational--ie. unreal--quality of film) and also using a practice he called "making political films politically" (Elsasser 121).
Perhaps the best way to understand what is meant by "making political films politically" is to look momentarily at a second category of film called Third Cinema. Third Cinema is defined by Mike Wayne as the "cinema of social and cultural emancipation" (1). Taking its cue from Godard's counter-cinema, it involves a focus on collective and democratic working practices, the most important aspect of which is the involvement of a film's subjects in the production of the film itself. For example, it means that Native workers would actually be employed in various capacities on the set of any film that treated Native people. Moreover, this participation should extend beyond the positions of "consultants" (read "Native informants") and also entail technical participation in all aspects of production. The nominal idea is that the collaboration of the film's subjects in the creation of the film itself will lend a degree of credibility and authenticity to the project (Wayne 4950). In addition, such a film would serve, ostensibly, as a mode of support for its subjects rather than simply as a mechanism for appropriating and commodifying those communities and their stories.
These two definitions congeal in a more general description of counter-cinema which will serve as the basis for my intervention here. This general definition is articulated thusly by Michael Goldberg:
Counter-cinema refers to the rough grouping of films, film makers, and institutions which attempt to set themselves against the formalist and ideological domination of Hollywood cinema. The name counter-cinema suggests a discursive practice that actively opposes mainstream cinema and thus offers an alterNative to the discourses that mainstream cinema helps construct. One could include avant-garde, art, and Third World cinema in this group, all of which attempt to create some level of distantiation in the viewer by questioning, subverting and/or openly challenging the basic codes and conventions of classical Hollywood cinema. These would include cohesive and linear narrative structure, continuity editing, mise-en-scene that perpetuates cinematic realism, cultural stereotypes, etc. Counter-cinema is often self-reflexive, bringing attention to itself as a film and to the institution of cinema. While these films clearly distinguish themselves as "oppositional" in both form and content, the degree of distanciative effects varies greatly across films placed in these categories by film critics, and the battle over definitions gets to the heart of debates concerning the efficacy of using the institutional discourse of cinema as a means of effecting political change.
Clearly my definition of Native counter-cinema will involve ethnicizing the formal goals of counter-cinema proper. Ethnic counter-cinema, here a Native counter-cinema, involves a process of racial or ethnic overturning rather than an aesthetic politics alone. In contrast to Godard's conception of a counter-cinema, which relies almost exclusively on "distanciative" aesthetic techniques as grounds for political dissent, a Native counter-cinema might involve an alterNative aesthetic practice, but it may not, and it certainly could not be confined to the sphere of aesthetics alone. Rather, what might make a Native film counter-cinematic would be its self-conscious posturing as an alterNative to the ossifying representational practices of Hollywood film where Native (or any ethnic) communities are concerned.
In the end, Steve Cannon points out that Godard's theoretical motivations for developing a counter-cinema were ultimately unrealizable. He argues that direct intervention, in a political sense, ceased to be a key activity for Godard after a certain point (78). Part of the problem was that it simply wasn't "enough to make films about the struggle [wherever that may be] and screen them to its participants or potential sympathizers; that, they argued, leaves the audience in the same relation to the film as bourgeois cinema, i.e. passivity" (78). The complication they encountered was the problem of reaching a larger audience, in much the same way that Native film today has to be concerned with reaching a non-Native audience in order for its program for changing minds about Natives to become a reality. Aesthetic alienation, in its purest form, is antithetical to the ethnic politics of Native cinema. This type of alienation can be practiced only in degrees because entertainment, and the expectation of it, is the key to retaining audiences that might be less receptive to the film's original content. Raising awareness and changing minds requires the attention of your audience, and that audience, by and large, has been conditioned through its exposure to Hollywood blockbusters to have certain expectations about what a film should be. One of the central ironies of aesthetic counter-cinema is how one can expect to assimilate that audience to a new, alterNative aesthetics without countenancing their expectations for entertainment. We can look again to Thomas King's strategy of "chipping away" at stereotypes for a slightly more nuanced view of how this might happen. What is clear, though, is that absolute aesthetical alienation is an elitism that ethnic politics in film cannot afford, at least not at the moment. (2) Instead, Native counter-cinema concerns itself primarily with the representational politics that inhere in popular characterizations of Native subjects. As such, it is charged with positing more realistic, even "authentic," figurations of Native communities and characters in place of--or in the face of--traditional modes of representation. In the final analysis, these re-configurations take on technical forms that often adhere more or less to the structural and technical conventions of Hollywood cinema. (3)
Different as any notion of a Native counter-cinema might be in terms of aesthetic and ethnic politics, it is in large part still subject to some of the same problematics that non-Native counter- and third-cinemas must countenance. These problematics center, not coincidentally, around the issue of mediation; specifically the question is whether it is possible, in the end, to subvert the institutional practices of a dominating cultural structure like Hollywood when that institution is an overdetermining factor in the very medium your work employs. Put in simpler terms, the question is, "Can you use a film to subvert film practices?" Thomas Elsaesser responds to that question with a critique of the principles of counter-cinema. He argues that "identification and antagonism are two sides of the same coin, competition with Hollywood leading to an emulation of the American model" (122). Later, he characterizes the influence of Hollywood on alterNative film practices this way:
In this field, Hollywood retains its pre-eminent position because of the totalizing effect which its stories, myths and stereotypes have on national as well as international cultural production: Hollywood dominates trade in both film and television, with classical feature film-making being a sort of medieval Latin [...]. One of the consequences might therefore be that the relation of national cinemas to Hollywood, of television to national cinema, and of national cinema to counter-cinema should be thought of as a series of palimpsests, a sequence of texts, each rewriting other cinematic and pre-cinematic spectacles in the form of intertextual narratives [...]. (124)
The significance of this idea to our conversation on Native filmmaking, and on the possibility of an "authentic" Native film practice, is clear: alterNative film practices can never be completely self-engendered; they can never be absolutely unmediated precisely because of their historical and cultural situation as dialogic engagements with normative practices. That does not mean, however, that a Native counter-cinema cannot be effective in positive ways. Aside from being merely a form of overdetermination in the pejorative sense, dialogue also constitutes and contains the possibility for intervention. The basis for the conversation may be set already (in this case by conventional Hollywood representations of Native peoples), but the dialogue can be shifted in significant ways if a Native film can garner enough of a critical mass from non-Native audiences. As an example, the film Smoke Signals, in spite of its being a mediated cultural event, still represents an important interjection of Native voices into a genre that historically and habitually elides Native contributions. Moreover, the film manages to maintain a significant Native politics, albeit voiced through fairly traditional film techniques. (4) In the final analysis, maintaining even a semblance of those politics in the face of cultural pressures to depoliticize and sanitize content for public markets should be seen as nothing short of a victory. To have those politics voiced through a film that received so much popular attention is even better.
Peter Wollen articulates the problem in similar terms to Elsaesser's. He maintains that counter-cinema cannot have an absolute existence. Rather, it can only exist in relation to the rest of cinema. Moreover, struggle and dialogue with the rest of cinema, rather than alienating, only brings the two closer together (533). Completely revolutionary cinema, counter-cinema as an aesthetic practice, and an ethnicized Native counter-cinema are all vanishing points in this conception. They are ideals to be sought diligently, for political reasons, but which can never be obtained in reality, at least not in any unmediated sense. It is, in fact, the pursuit of such ideals, and critical reflections on that pursuit, that bring about and realize the ultimate goals of visibility, provocation, and political change.
Sherman Alexie's other film, The Business of Fancydancing, is worth mentioning here because it is probably the one Native film that most closely adheres to Godard's principles for an aesthetic counter-cinema. Peter Wollen writes the following schematic for setting Godard's "seven deadly sins of the cinema against the seven cardinal virtues":
Narrative Transitivity Narrative intransitivity Identification Estrangement Transparency Foregrounding Single diegesis Multiple diegesis Closure Aperture Pleasure Unpleasure Fiction Reality. (525)
A quick reading of Alexie's film shows that, in almost every category, it fits the prescription set here for an aesthetic counter-cinema. Moreover, it is a much more intense film that instantiates and emphasizes Native politics in a way that Smoke Signals did not.
Godard developed two strategies for breaking the flow of his narratives in film. The first was to use chapter divisions, each with its own "title screen," the function of which was to interrupt the easy flow of events in the film and thus call attention to it as a form of representation. Another was to organize his scenes in a picaresque manner as almost random and unconnected series of episodes and incidents in the film (Wollen 526). Likewise, what is arguably one of the most effective parts of The Business of Fancydancing is what I call the "Black-Screens," those several moments in the film where the screen, with black background, centers some white text with clues as to how the viewer should understand the preceding action and the scenes that follow. For Alexie, these moments represent an opportunity for intervention in addition to interruption. Rather than functioning simply as headings, they remind us, for example, that "Seymour Polatkin is full of shit" and give us often ironic clues as to how certain figures in the film understand the issues being dealt with. They also function as intertextual links to fictions outside the film itself as well as reminders of the fictions being written within the film. Thus they serve the dual purpose of establishing a narrative intransitivity and functioning as apertures, what Wollen describes as "overspill" and "intertextuality" outside the film itself (529).
Another of Godard's principles involves the purposeful disruption of his viewers' identification with his characters (529). For example, in different moments he will mismatch voices and characters or have his characters address the audience directly in order to prevent his audience from being drawn too far into the film's world and too close to the figures that populate it. Although Alexie tends to avoid such extremes in his film, he does mediate his own multiple audiences' access to the film through "ethnic estrangements." There are certain Native codes at work in the film that are intended to resonate with a Native audience and, at the same time, pass right by non-Native audiences unaware of those codified significations. In one moment, talking about his fictional writing, Alexie calls these "Indian trapdoors," meaning that "Indians fall in. White people just walk right over them" (Purdy 15). Alexie's hope, then, is that his Native viewers will identify with the film in ways that non-Native viewers might not, and the mechanism for ensuring this identification/alienation complex is to introduce culturally specific content that is familiar to certain audiences. One example is the way he plays with the shawl dance in the film. Alexie's primary character, Seymour Polatkin, the gay poet, dons a dancing shawl and performs a traditionally female role. In other moments this might take a simpler form, like the bubbling vats of fry-bread the camera pans over at the beginning of one of the funeral scenes. In any case, Alexie's various attempts at mediating meaning for his multiple audiences amounts to a set of strategies for alternately alienating and drawing closer to his various audiences.
Alexie's separate strategies of ethnic encoding, his conscious deployment of Queer codes, and the ultimate fungibility of his two primary characters coalesce in a film that consciously rejects the possibility of an absolute, monolithic world. For Godard, this multiplication of diegetic possibilities (defined as the opposite of a unitary, homogeneous world) constitutes a desirable "rupture between different codes and different channels" within film (Wollen 528). The frequent lapses in time in The Business of Fancydancing, sometimes carefully identified as flashbacks and other times not, represent a collapsing of the easy and singular temporality of Hollywood film. We might identify those few scenes where Victor and Seymour seem to be alternately narrating the same story, each positing himself as the protagonist, as pivotal in this regard. Here, the easy narrative split between Victor and Seymour is undone and the two characters become one voice, multiplying the diegetic possibilities in the film. This strategy, along with the interrupting black-screens and other scenes such as those that develop the back-story of Steven and Seymour's courtship (nightclub scenes on a black backdrop), function as tools for drawing attention to the representational quality of the film. Rather than rendering the film transparent, an apparently completely "real" experience, The Business of Fancydancing continually foregrounds itself as an imaginative Native representation.
As such an imaginative Native representation, however, The Business of Fancydancing has more in mind than simply entertainment. There is a political project that lies behind this work; it involves an often uncomfortable recognition of racial conflict and ethnic disjunctures. Godard's emphasis on such "unpleasurable" aspects of film came as an attack on consumer societies as a whole, especially as they were catered to and represented in popular cinema (Wollen 530). For Alexie, the project is one of countering ethnic consumerism. The goal, at least in part, is "provocation, aiming to dissatisfy and hence change" (530) non-Native spectators' ethnic preconceptions and racialist assumptions about Native communities and Native struggles. This non-pleasure is perhaps most salient in the scene where Victor and Mouse stop for a stranded White motorist on the side of the highway. Rather than kindly helping the man, they beat him down in a scene of apparently random violence in which Victor goads the hesitant Mouse saying, "Hit him, or I'll hit you." This scene is perhaps the most uncomfortable in the film for White viewers, and my students' reactions when I show the
film in class bears that out. It is a disturbing moment of violence that is unsettling in its apparent irrationality. But Alexie defends the scene by noting that it is not random at all and, in fact, that there is a salient point to be proven by the scene. In the commentary to the DVD, Alexie remarks on the irony of a White audience that cannot understand, in moments like this one, why Native people might react violently toward them. For him, this nonplussed and often defensive reaction to the scene represents an elision of a protracted history of victimization and violence against Native people. The separate responses of Victor, the angry Indian who initiates the violence in this scene, and Mouse, who clearly wants no part in the beating, represent in microcosm the ambivalent feelings Native communities might well harbor toward the White majority surrounding them, and at whose hands they have suffered so much injustice. The unpleasure in this scene, embodied in the discomfort it elicits for White viewers, is intended less to justify ethnic violence than it is to provoke a serious understanding of a fraught relationship between historically antagonistic racial sets.
Clearly The Business of Fancydancing adheres fairly closely to the standards for counter-cinema set forth by Godard.; there are, however, complicating concerns that should be dealt with immediately in the course of this analysis. The first is the fact that many of these alienating techniques devised by Godard to serve as moments of resistance to popular film have been appropriated by Hollywood. The extent to which Hollywood appropriations of these techniques are successful in undermining counter-cinema's politics is debatable. Suffice it to say, however, that to follow Godard's technical examples as late as today may be cliche already, a capitulation to a mediation that is now accepted, perhaps formulaic, if not altogether mainstream. The second, and I believe more significant, concern involves ethnic mediation. Godard was not Native, so the question arises as to whether patterning a film after his aesthetic principles for counter-cinema mitigates the possibility of that film's constituting a distinctly Native counter-cinema. Is the film somehow less authentically Indian for its being a simulation of a non-Native aesthetic politics? In response to this question, I reiterate that mediation of some sort is inevitable in film and, in the end, that mediation is not in and of itself a negative phenomenon, especially for a writer as intelligent and self-reflexive as Alexie. Here, the aesthetic politics of Godard's counter-cinema becomes the basis for an ethnic politics that is most certainly Native. There is clearly an interface between the aesthetic politics of counter-cinema and the Native politics that Alexie succeeds at voicing through the film. In the end this clearly amounts to mediation, but it is nonetheless a mediation that is productive in the sense that the end result is a very powerful Native film. In addition, the mediated quality of the film in this regard reflects the reality of Alexie's influences as a Native writer and in this way is as "authentic" a film as any we are likely to encounter?
Clearly The Business of Fancydancing belongs to a body of films that we can responsibly refer to as a Native counter-cinema. Mediated as this field of cinematic texts may be, it is nonetheless significant in cultural terms and it embodies a politics of representation that refuses to capitulate to, and more often than not directly opposes, the romanticized and stereotypical expectations established by Hollywood. As a final instantiation of this line of thought, I want to refer briefly to another Native film, Doe Boy (2001), written by Randy Redroad and directed and produced by Chris Eyre. Doe Boy represents a pivotal moment in Native film because it manifests all the complications of producing an authentic and unmediated ethnic text. It is a film intended to penetrate a popular market while still maintaining some degree of ethnic particularity and representational responsibility.
Perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this particular film is the way it represents Native people living ordinary lives and preoccupying themselves with everyday concerns, at least to the limited extent that the terms "ordinary" or "everyday" can be applied to the reified space of a film. Given today's cinematic culture, which is intent on exoticizing Native characters, traditions, and histories (even Native films sometimes give way to this impulse), to tell the story of a (two-thirds) Native family that is centered on their coping with love, sickness, death of family members, friendships, leaving home, and father-son relationships in realistic rather than overtly ethnicized ways represents a signal moment in Native film. Put differently, the personalities of the Native characters in Doe Boy are invested in more than just their ethnic identity. The particularities of that ethnic identity are still there--manifest, for example, in Doe Boy's grandfather and his traditionalism--but that ethnic identity works in concert with the characters' personalities, adding depth and dimension to the film rather than dominating it. This matter-of-fact representational style may well be precisely the thing that makes the film appeal to a larger, non-Native audience, but it is also precisely the thing that makes this film a more authentic-looking representation of a particular Native experience. We would do well to think again of Thomas King's strategy of "showing alterNatives" to stereotypes rather than directly countering them. In a sense, to directly counter a stereotype is to draw attention to it again and to reinscribe it.
Doe Boy, because it refuses to concern itself at all with stereotypes in that direct way, simply offers a powerful alterNative to ossifying representations of Native people. The film is presented in a way that is more true to lived experiences than the fanciful romances and overt misrepresentations of traditional, exoticized Hollywood Indians, which themselves fall out of the equation in the face of such a forceful representation and moving story.
Even in spite of its insistence on not directly countering such stereotypes, the film nonetheless involves itself in salient Native concerns. The very idea of an Indian hemophiliac, for example, is intriguing and provides an aperture through which we might countenance the issues of blood-identity, cultural mixing, and identity politics. We might think, in comparison, of Sherman Alexie's poem, voiced by Seymour Polatkin in The Business of Fancydancing, (6) in which the narrator is no longer allowed to give blood because so much has been taken already. Finally, the theme of sickness as the result of racial admixture is a salient conversational point that bears heavily on Native identities, and their politics, yet today.
That the film is careful not to overdo its politics in this regard might also make it an object of criticism. The danger, it could be assumed, is that those politics go unsaid in the end unless we out them explicitly in the way other films, such as The Business of Fancydancing or Powwow Highway, do. As an academic, I am especially prone to ask for a hard-hitting Native politics more than a good story. Explicit politics makes what I do for a living much easier after all. When a text is complex and ambivalent, as Doe Boy tends to be, I am more likely to see it as diluted or mediated content. In the end, however, the film does not let things slide; rather it lets them slide to the background in order to avoid a situation where those politics undermine the film's re-configuration of Native families as real entities with quotidian concerns much the same as other, non-Native, families. This politics of re-representation stands on its own as a significant contribution to film and literature, Native or otherwise.
As a final note, it is worth mentioning the way that the film appropriates certain conventions and puts them to the representational service of Native cultures. The narrative technique of the film, for example, is a traditional mechanism often employed in Hollywood. Essentially a narrative voice, ordinarily some wizened character in the story, brackets the text and interjects himself (usually not herself) into the action of the film. In this case, it is Doe Boy's grandfather, played by Gordon Tootoosis, who serves this function. He is, in fact, given the last word in the film: "There was a boy who was part deer and part bird, part science and four-leaf clover. There was a boy who dreamed of becoming a good story, and made it happen." The emphasis here on "making a story," though, renders this technique of narrative bracketing in a particularly Native light. The film is presented by the narrator as the story of a boy who is trying to make a story, a presentation which positions the film in relation to a long tradition, here Native, of orature and historical telling. It amounts to an appropriation of a Hollywood convention that signals mediation but, more importantly, is an assimilation of a technical tradition that serves to reconfigure Natives in film and to influence popular conceptions of Native families. The film is not revolutionary counter-cinema in this regard, and, as far as technical execution is concerned, it is not even particularly Native. But, Doe Boy is, nonetheless, an incredibly powerful Native cinematic representation that does much in the way of changing its audience's perspective on what Indians look like, both on the screen and off.
In the end, it is necessary to make distinctions between films like The Business of Fancydancing or Doe Boy and non-Native films that propagate dangerous and racialist representations of Native cultures. The danger, however, is that such distinctions allow us to fall too easily into the trap of establishing polemics as the basis for ascriptions of authenticity. Polemical conceptions of cultural mediation are dangerous because they tend to posit simple absolutes in place of real complexities. Perhaps a better option for categorizing Native films, then, is on a continuum from more to less authentic rather than emphasizing a totalizing conception in which a particular artifact is either authentic and unmediated or not.
In this way, we could productively critique films like Last of the Dogmen (Tab Murphy, 1995), which involve little or no Native participation. This first category might also include films such as Steven Seagal's On Deadly Ground (1994), which uses Asian actors to play Native parts, or a familiar cast of western films in which Natives are almost exclusively played by White actors, except in some instances where Native actors are given parts as extras. At the same time, we would be equipped to distinguish these films, themselves constituting what is probably most dangerous about popular media's representations of ethnic communities, from films like Thunderheart (Michael Apted, 1992), Pocahontas (Michael Gabriel, Eric Goldberg, 1995), Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992), or Dances with Wolves (Kevin Cosner, 1990), in which Natives figure as slightly more than backdrops, and are far from being developed, complex, or "real" characters. This second class of films is almost more problematic insofar as they actually incorporate Native people into the cast, lending an aura of authenticity that might otherwise be absent if not for the participation of a Graham Greene or a Russell Means.
Further along the continuum, we might locate films such as Powwow Highway, the Canadian television show Big Bear (Gil Cardinal, 1998), or the film Black Cloud (Rick Schroder, 2004), all of which represent a more responsible collaboration between non-Native and Native voices. This category involves films that are staples of Native cinema, widely known and often respected as positive representations, (7) yet nonetheless involving significant input from outside Native cultural communities.
Finally, we might posit films like Smoke Signals, The Business of Fancydancing, Skins, Whale Rider (Niki Caro, 2002), Rabbit-Proof Fence (Phillip Noyce, 2002), or Doe Boy at the opposite end of the spectrum from the violently appropriative tradition of Hollywood films embodied in Westerns and the Hallmark library of films. Here we have those films that are accepted as most authentically Native and are often seen as unmediated cultural texts, held out (rightly so, perhaps) as the gold-standard in Native film representations.
When we are teaching Native film, we should most certainly privilege the artifacts on this end of the spectrum over others, giving preference to literary and filmic texts most firmly under the control of Native artists themselves. Native literature and film are properly their domains after all, so, by all means, limit the number of non-Native participants on the list. But, in the end, there are two scenarios we should work hard to avoid. First, we should avoid the easy assumption that any and all non-Native writers or film makers writing about Natives are inadmissible. Second, we should avoid the other easy assumption that a text authored by a certified, licensed, authentic, or "card-carrying" Native artist exists somehow beyond the pale of mediation. Such an utopist vision elides the reality of cultural production which, as a standard rule, includes mediation as an inevitable and sometimes desirable cultural fact. In regard to genres such as film, which are inherently hyper-complex in their production, to capitulate to the second assumption is a delusion that borders on lunacy. As we move further into a globalized society and a globalized marketplace, cultural goods will inevitably undergo a process of mediation. In large part, that is the price to be paid for publicity. The discussion, then, turns to what means there are at our disposal to counter the overdetermining effects of that mediation. How do we, as politically engaged cultural blocs, maintain our own selves and advance our own agendas in the face of institutions that house multiple competing social communities? To thus shift our intellectual focus should prove infinitely more productive than desperately grasping for some sort of unmediated authenticity in the midst of infinite cultural complexity.
In regard to our teaching agendas, any conversation about the texts we have our students read should include a dialogue about cultural mediation. This is especially the case when we talk about media such as film or television, but is also appropriate when we defer to any text. The hope is that our students will not only learn to respect authenticity and the righteous politics of self-representation, but that they will also come to recognize the many forces that influence textual production and, therefore, complicate easy notions of authenticity, which give way too easily to stereotyping and cultural separatisms. The goal is that, by countenancing the problematics of production and mediation, we can come to recognize and better appreciate the truly complex cultural world we all occupy together.
Alexie, Sherman. "This is What it Means to Say Phoenix Arizona." In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 59-75.
--. "The Trial of Thomas Builds-the-Fire." In The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven. New York: Grove Press, 2005. 93-103.
The Business of Fancydancing. Dir. Sherma Alexie. Wellspring, 2002.
Cannon, Steve. "Godard, the Groupe Dziga Vertov and the Myth of 'Counter-Cinema.'" Nottingham French Studies 32:1 (Spring 1993): 74-83.
Doe Boy. Dir. Randy Redroad. Wellspring, 2001.
Elsaesser, Thomas. "Hyper-, Retro-, or Counter-Cinema: European Cinema and Third Cinema between Hollywood and Art Cinema." In Mediating Two Worlds: Cinematic Encounters in the Americas. Eds., John King, Ana M. Lopez, and Manuel Alvarado. London: British Film Institute, 1993. 119-135.
Fielding, Julien R. "Native American Religion and Film: Interviews with Chris Eyre and Sherman Alexie." Journal of Religion and Film 7:1 (April 2003).
Goldberg, Michael. "Counter-Cinema." [a definition] <http://faculty.uwb. edu/mgoldberg/courses/definitions/counter-cinema.htm>. Accessed 11/01/2006.
Harold of Orange. Dir. Richard Weise. Vision Maker Video, 1984.
Kilpatrick, Jacquelyn. Celluloid Indians: Native Americans and Film. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1999.
Leuthold, Steven. "Social Accountability and the Production of Native American Film and Video." Wide Angle 16:1-2 (August 1994): 41-59.
Powwow Highway. Dir. Jonathan Wacks. Anchor Bay Entertainment, 1988.
Smoke Signals. Dir. Chris Eyre. Miramax, 1998.
Wayne, Mike. Political Film: The Dialectics of Third Cinema. London: Pluto Press, 2001.
Wollen, Peter. "Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent D'est (1972)." Film Theory and Criticism. Eds., Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 525-533.
(1) Because the term counter-cinema comes with its own historical and cultural baggage, situated as a descriptor that appertains to a specific historical and geographical moment (Europe in the early 20th century), and because the term has been worked in different ways since that moment, it is necessary that we recognize the discursive violence we will be performing on the term in order to make it travel to our domain in native film studies.
(2) One might add that traditional forms of transmitting Native knowledge often involved entertaining qualities and relied on aesthetic practices that would not alienate the listener. In this sense, one might argue by extension that distanciating aesthetic practices would be a radical change from normative cultural modes of sharing knowledge
(3) We have seen already how Alexie and Eyre are involved in this process, which is complicated further by the many differing notions that obtain among Native artists and intellectuals today of what constitutes an "authentic" Native subjectivity.
(4) I'll not recapitulate those moments here because to do so would be a digression; and also because it is fairly easy to find other studies that develop those politics clearly Suffice it to say that there are enough jokes and offhand references to traditional and romantic simulations of Natives to clearly situate the film in (antithetical) conversation with Hollywood's conventional representations of Natives
(5) It is almost beside the point to mention that I have no real evidence, aside from the awesome coincidence in the technical aspects of The Business of Fancydancing, that Alexie is familiar with Godard. Intelligent as he is, though, I would be surprised it he were not. In addition, Alexie's work is clearly informed, even if indirectly, by the aesthetic politics of counter-cinema originated by Godard.
(6) The poem also appears in the book The Business of Fancydancing under the title "Giving Blood."
(7) Though any of the films along this entire continuum might be properly labeled "sympathetic," we should all be well aware by now that such sympathy does not necessarily equate to a "positive" or responsible representation.
Florida Atlantic University
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|Publication:||Studies in the Humanities|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2006|
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