The Business of Fancydancing (2002)
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
Not long after I saw and The Business of Fancydancing I verbally triedto describe it to a friend and was surprised at how badly I failed. Iliked the film immensely, but when I tried to sum it up in words it cameout sounding bland and conventional.
Thankfully, words are Sherman Alexie's business, and he knows what he's doing. Alexie wrote and directed 1998's highly enjoyable Smoke Signals and has published at least a dozen books and short story collections.
The new film, which opens today at the Lumiere, concerns a gay American Indian (the movie's term) poet named Seymour Polatkin -- beautifully played by Evan Adams (Smoke Signals) -- who has left his Spokane, Washington reservation for the limelight and mainstream success.
Over the course of the film, we meet the most significant facets of Seymour's life -- his friends. His white life partner, Steven (Kevin Phillip), likes to tease him about his fame, but does not figure into Seymour's true existence, which revolves almost completely around his former life on "the rez."
He also remembers his one female love, the beautiful Agnes Roth (Michelle St. John), whom he slept with once before he accepted the fact that he was gay. The two have remained friends over the years.
But Seymour's greatest friends -- and inspirations -- are his two childhood companions, Mouse (Swil Kanim) and Aristotle (Gene Tagaban). Aristotle once attempted to go to school with Seymour in Seattle for a while before giving up and returning to the rez. Mouse, a wise and soft-spoken violinist, never left at all.
When Mouse dies after drinking a mixture of alcohol that humans were not meant to consume, Seymour returns to the rez for the first time in years to attend the funeral. You might imagine that this would be a film about Seymour introducing his white boyfriend to his Indian family, but the boyfriend is not invited. This is about Seymour and his demons alone.
Alexie runs these scenes in no particular order, like random memories feeding off of one another -- one leading to the next and connected only by the merest threads of logic. Early in the film, he shows a group of mourners preparing Mouse's corpse for the funeral. Over the scene a woman sings a chanting song, "Goodbye, Mouse, Mouse," that continued to haunt me even after the movie was over.
But this is before we even know Mouse's name or who he was or what happened to him. Alexie simply assumes that we'll stick with him. And we do.
Other scenes feature Mouse and Aristotle alone, showing a display of Aristotle's furious temper. How could Seymour be remembering them when he wasn't there? The answer is in the film: Seymour, Mouse and Aristotle were so close that their three memories became one single memory.
Alexie glues together the film's disparate scenes with an interview. An aggressive, antagonistic interviewer (Rebecca Carroll) probes Seymour's life to get at his art. Seymour resists and jokes around at first, but eventually breaks down into tears as the interviewer gets to the heart of the truth. At first these scenes did not work for me because as an interviewer myself I've never gained any ground by being antagonistic. But eventually the point of the scene comes through and it works.
As to the "fancydancing" of the title, Alexie includes other inter-scenes of Seymour and other characters dressed in traditional garb and dancing against a black background, presumably to reflect their states of mind at the time.
In addition, we hear a generous sampling of Seymour's poetry, all written by Alexie himself. And though I'm no poetry scholar, it resounded with passionate power to me.
If The Business of Fancydancing has one flaw, it's the digital video cinematography by Holly Taylor. Not that it has anything inherently wrong with it, but since the film is made up of memories and poetry, it needed a warmer, dreamier feel. It needed to be shot on film. The digital video gives the film a cold reality that only serves to kill the mood.
Even though a film about a gay American Indian poet probably won't start a riot at the box office, it is a film with a totally open heart and a bravura centerpiece performance by Evan Adams that won me over completely. If the Academy is still patting itself on the back for last spring's long-overdue interracial awards, it should continue to do so and consider Adams for Best Actor.