And we’re back with another edition of Friday Flix. This week we go to a lesser known but splendidly superb movie I was first introduced to in film school: Smoke Signals.
Something I love about movies is their ability to transport you into different worlds, different cultures, and different viewpoints. So I very much appreciated a little slice of life film maybe giving a little insight into growing up as a Native American. The screenplay is written by Sherman Alexie, who drew on his experiences growing up in the Spokane Indian Reservation, and directed by Chris Eyre, also Native American, whose goal is to “focus on contemporary Native American life, with a rejection of conventional stereotypes.” (via Wiki)
Movie description via Netflix:
On a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, reservation, nothing ever changes — until the estranged father of Victor Joseph (Adam Beach) bites the dust in Arizona, and Victor must go collect the cremated remains. The problem is, Victor can’t afford the fare. But annoying nerd Thomas Builds-the-Fire (Evan Adams) will float Victor a loan … if Thomas can tag along. This tender tale of self-discovery is based on acclaimed author Sherman Alexie’s short stories.
Smoke Signals is a beautifully put together movie with lots of quotable lines, high emotion, great performances, and great story.
CHARACTERS WITH MOTIVATION
The movie has two protagonists, although most of the story belongs to Victor. For him, life is mostly about trying to reconcile his drunkard father ditching him and his mom several years ago.
Victor starts out as a kind of likeable jerk, and as we go more and more into backstory you understand why he treats Thomas the way he does and I think his fears in becoming the loser he believes his father is.
Poor geeky, almost Urkle-esque Thomas admires Victor like the older brother and family he never had. For him the journey is figuring out, as the film puts it, what it really means to be an Indian. His innocence and honesty are what give him an awkward charm and grates on Victor.
So how do we tie these two polar opposites together? Because Victor’s drunkard father saved Thomas from the fire that killed his parents when he was a baby. This reeks of wonderful story tension.
Native American culture is well known for its emphasis on the importance of storytelling. And the filmmakers employ this device well with Thomas’s voice-over narration for part of the film, which is more like him interweaving poetry on the screen. For me it gave a lot more depth and emotion to scenes that might have been boring otherwise.
It helps, of course, that Sherman is Native American to get this kind of authenticity into the film. But the point is paying attention to certain kinds of detail when crafting story. We must always ask ourselves what is the best way to tell our stories? Why? We should be able to explain why we chose third or first person. Why we’re doing it disjointed or chronological. There should be purpose in everything we do. And when we weave it together carefully, it comes together so natural people will likely think crafting story takes no effort at all. (Poor ignorant schlubs…)
For me a lot of the emotion of the story came through by laying down trails of meaning that culminated in the ending. In the very beginning of the movie Victor is playing a basketball game, which becomes extremely significant toward the end of the movie.
If we want something to have significance, we’ve got to lay the groundwork at the start in a seemingly innocuous way. But don’t go overboard with your symbolism. In fact, most author comments I’ve read on symbolism (I’m thinking of Ray Bradbury in particular) pretty much advise that we craft story first, like a rough draft, and let the symbolism come out on its own. Then when we see what our subconscious has brought us, we take that symbolism and hone it to have meaning later.
STORY TELLING AS A STORY TELLING DEVICE
The film uses a lot of backstory to tell its story, especially about a man you never really meet in the film—at least not in the present: Victor’s father. But these stories are told in reaction to what’s happening in the present. In other words, the character is confronted with a similar event and remembers a story about his father.
Don’t mistake this with permission to info dump. I think as writers we all, in the beginning, want to include every bit of detail of history on our characters up front so our readers understand everything they need to know. I did it in early iterations of SHADE. Some published authors still do it with prologues (which annoys me to no end).
Also, we don’t learn every little detail about Victor’s father chronologically in these backstory scenes. They have something very important to tell us about the story, and are related to some event going on in the present story. It’s something I’m finding the book Everneath does well too (although it’s a different device Brodi Ashton uses vs. Sherman Alexie’s method).
But it can work like a mystery tale, unfolding just enough information to keep the audience asking questions and forming their own conclusions which they either hope to see resolved or shattered and resolved in a different way. They do it beautifully in Smoke Signals.
Smoke Signals is available on Netflix and Hulu Plus and is about $5 for a DVD on Amazon. Watch this movie for a cultural experience, a slice of life or learning experience, or just because it’s a quirky, fun movie. And most importantly to figure out why in the world I posted this YouTube video below.
Have you seen Smoke Signals? Would you recommend it? Have you seen any cultural movies you would recommend? Let us know.