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The Business of Fancydancing

You want to know what chanting and ceremony are all about? Here it is. Plenty of fusion-style music too. The sound track is great. The screenplay is by poet Sherman Alexie, whose fictional stand-in is a gay Indian poet called Seymour Polatkin. The film opens with the poet reading from his work to, apparently, no audience. He’s behind a store window, so there is a glass wall between him and the people, who blithely walk by. Which is how any artist feels, at least part of the time. We see some of the reviews he has received, e.g. “Seymour Polatkin is full of shit.”

An eternal problem for the screenwriter is how to cram in all that exposition, the necessary minimum of information the viewer of this fiction really needs to know about the characters and how they got there, and where they are, and what year it is, and so on. I like how the back-story is presented here. The poet is looking at himself in a mirror, dressing for an event. Another man is in the room, standing behind Polatkin, and what he says reveals part of the back-story.

His name is Steven, and his life has been deeply affected by the poet’s work. “You wrote the poems that keep me awake,” he says. Steven recites one of the poems. What a nice, personal, loving tribute for a friend to offer. This is a father poem, and Steven confesses that he had not talked to his father for many years. “When I read your poem I picked up the phone and I called him.”

We can tell these two guys are friends, and before long it’s evident they are lovers and partners. We also learn more about the poet and his past through his public appearances. He tells a bookstore audience how he emerged from the closet and told his grandmother he was a two-spirited gay man.

Polatkin also frequents another venue, a disco where the dancers are all different kinds of people who probably wouldn’t be found together. I’m reading this as Seymour Polatkin’s subconscious, inhabited by all the people he knows from his different worlds.

That is the essence of the poet’s problem. He belongs to many cultures, and some people tell him that is the equivalent of belonging to no culture. But Polatkin isn’t buying it. Which is what makes him a poet. He talks it all out with a TV journalist, on an eerily empty stage where the two of them regard each other intensely and engage in verbal fencing matches. The Interviewer is his anima, his conscience, his guardian angel who practices tough love, an alternate personality, or some amalgam of those entities and more. It’s a very effective cinematic device to handle introspection.

On the rez, a man called Mouse has committed suicide. He was a genius violinist and a general hell-raiser. In a flashback, Mouse bitches about how Seymour Polatkin stole pieces of his life and used them in poems as if they were his own. Even though Mouse is a gifted musician, he doesn’t understand how art functions, probably not even his own. The person Mouse complains to is Aristotle. They all grew up together, and were partners in petty crime, and so on. Another flashback shows their degenerate drug habits. These rez kids huff gasoline and gases from spray cans. This film is just wonderful for finding ways to visually and aurally express thoughts and emotions. For instance, we know that Mouse understood Aristotle, whose spirit inspired some of his finest music. We aren’t told this, we see and hear it.

At a poetry reading, Seymour reads a piece about selling his blood for money to travel to Mouse’s memorial. He sees the apparition of Mouse sitting in the audience, looking real as anybody, judging the poem.

Seymour Polatkin makes it to the memorial. The 13th Step is the rez community center, its interior walls painted in vibrant colors, not bland Caucasian eggshell. Agnes is there. She’s half Jewish and half Indian. They met in college and had an affair, then Seymour told her he was gay, and switched over to men. He didn’t plan to ever go back to the reservation, but Agnes decided to move there, and teach music. She more or less accuses him of being a race traitor, but their relationship still appears to be about 90% good. They love each other in a highly individual way, and she always stoutly defends him to the others who say he’s sold out, etc.

Seymour and Aristotle started college at the same time, but Aristotle just couldn’t take it. There is a very affectionate scene between the two of them, which may be a fantasy. If nothing like this ever happened, the poet certainly wanted it to happen. Anyway, for Aristotle, the price to live in the white man’s world was just too high, and he dropped out. Even though he was, as a school official condescendingly said, “one of the bright ones.”

And Seymour, despite being both Indian and gay, preferred to take his chances in the larger world. He never did understand Aristotle going back to the stifling prison of the rez. The Interviewer also asks Aristotle many questions – which I read as Seymour’s efforts to understand his friend – but Aristotle stoically refuses to say a word. He just sits there, and finally gives a warrior yell.

At the memorial, Seymour stands up in front of the people as if to say something. He stoically remains silent, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer. But inside he’s screaming, just like Aristotle did with the Interviewer and the bureaucrat. He walks out of the communal hall and leaves the reservation.

In the last song, the music teacher expresses her sadness for the sadness of the poet.

Extra bonus: Two “Northern Exposure” actors are in The Business of Fancydancing.

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