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Posts Tagged ‘success’

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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According to everyone, and I see no reason to doubt it, the musician portrayed here by Michael Pitt is a Kurt Cobain figure. That’s as in, Christ figure, or father figure. Heavy stuff. And yet there are such people, and we call them icons. Which is a strange word choice, because an icon is only a picture, whereas some icons are, well, real. But which was Kurt Cobain?

My problem with this film is, there’s too much of the disintegration process, of which shorter and more varied hints would have been quite as expressive. And not enough of why he was so, you know, iconic.

Last Days starts with Blake wandering through the woods, swimming, spending the night out by a campfire, and muttering to himself. A lot. If you didn’t have previous knowledge of the subject, you’d think he was one of the last schizophrenics they held back before emptying the institution. Eventually, he goes back to the big, dilapidated house where the band members are staying.

Pretty early on, two Mormon missionaries come to the house, and one of the musicians listens to their rap. It’s about a pure being, that must be sacrificed. (I doubt if this will spoil it for anybody: Blake kills himself at the end.) I guess we’re supposed to have this resonate in our minds when watching him go through his craziness. Which is all well and good, but I say, convince me. I want to see why Blake qualifies as sacrificial virgin (figuratively speaking, of course) material. What was so great about the guy?

The only real hint we get about Blake’s specialness is a song he plays when by himself, which is apparently a Michael Pitt composition. He told an interviewer that the scene was shot at least half a dozen times, and for each take he extemporized a different song. The director chose the one that we hear. There is also another Michael Pitt song on the soundtrack, where all the instruments are played by him. Pitt also said he initially had doubts about using his own material, because it might seem callously self-promotional.

Ricky Jay, in one of his incomparable cameo appearances, tells a long story about a Chinese magician. I think the point is, some people can catch a bullet in their teeth, but others can’t, and we’re supposed to remember that, and make the metaphorical connection, and deduce that Blake tried to catch a bullet in his teeth and couldn’t.

Blake is on the phone with someone who tries to get him to commit to the planned tour, because everybody’s been working hard to put it together. Blake never says a word, just listens and then hangs up. Whenever he feels threatened, he puts on layer after layer of clothes and runs away from the house. He mutters to himself indoors a lot, too, and never says a coherent word throughout. He’s always passing out in a heap somewhere. In black lingerie – is this La Femme Nikita? – he slinks around the place pointing a gun at the sleeping band members and their mates.

This may show an incriminating lack of empathy, but, basically, Blake stirs up my impatience with people who are not entitled to so much despair. There would be a temptation to shake him and say, “What’s you fuckin’ problem, man?” The only thing more annoying than someone who has everything and brags about it, is someone who has everything and cultivates angst. If you’re already a gloomy type, stay away from downer drugs. I don’t think there’s any depiction of heroin use in the film, which is kind of a classy touch, if I’m remembering it right and didn’t miss any scenes. But of course Cobain was a well-known junkie.

Poor Blake just can’t cope with ordinary human needs. The Courtney Love figure shows up and very gently talks to him, and wants him to come with her, right now – presumably to a rehab clinic. She asks him if he told his daughter he’s just a rock and roll cliché. Still, I bet Courtney was never even that reasonable.

Here’s one of the things bugging Blake. Like the Midnight Cowboy theme song says, “Everybody’s talking at me.” One guy needs help with a song he’s writing. Another needs money to go settle a legal matter, and they want a heater, because the house is freezing. Granted, everyone has a different breaking point when it comes to feeling beleaguered and overwhelmed by demands. Still, this guy can’t seem to handle anything at all. What’s the point of being rich and famous, if all you’re going to eat is the worst kind of junk cereal, and a mac and cheese mix that you don’t even bother to prepare correctly?

All in all, it’s another proof that nature can’t heal. Supposedly, if people have beautiful places to live and plenty of access to fresh air and green, growing things, they will attain mental health and conduct themselves beautifully. Hah. The picturesque country estate, the gorgeous nature all over the place, they don’t help this guy a bit. He’s just wacko.

Directed by Gus Van Sant

RELATED: on the despair topic: Jeremy’s Prophecy

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