I saw two films, Haircuts Hurt and Cowboys and Indians: The J.J. Harper Story, in early December as part of the free screenings at the 12th Native American Film and Video Festival, organized by the Film and Video Center of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in lower Manhattan, near Wall Street and in walking distance of the old World Trade Center area. Haircuts Hurt (1992), a ten-minute short film written and directed by Randy Redroad (Cherokee), and Cowboys and Indians, written by Andrew Rai Berzins and directed by Norma Bailey, are two movies with an obvious point of view and purpose: the way that culture, history, and politics—power in different forms—affects Native Americans is the subject of both. In the first, set in the United States of America, an Indian mother takes her long-haired young son to a barbershop to get his hair cut before starting school. The two barbers are simple men—mocking, unthinking, practical white men; and they look surprised and uncomfortable when the mother and son enter, and it’s not long before they have to apologize for some of their comments, some involving an old Native man who puts down a can and begins to play a flute outside the shop. The little boy does not want his hair cut—what is more natural than that hair should grow; and how can the boy understand why he should have his hair cut? His mother (played by Randy Redroad’s own mother) says that it’s so he will be like the other boys, the big boys, at school, so he’ll fit in. Meanwhile, the mother recalls her own childhood, how she liked her own long dark hair and the ambivalence she felt when given a doll with long blonde hair. The social expectations regarding gender and ethnicity and how they become aesthetic standards and personal preferences, of course, are not unique to Native Americans; and that is what makes such a story one that others can relate to—and yet, as I watched, I wondered about how often I have heard and seen similar stories (often) and about the stories that remain untold.
Randy Redroad, who has also directed The Doe Boy (2001) starring James Duval, was at the screening of Haircuts Hurt, and introduced the film by saying that for him it was like looking at a pimply high school picture; and after the screening when I told him I liked the film, he smiled but said, “that old thing.” Apparently Redroad himself has moved away from such simplicity. This is how Bret Fetzer describes Redroad’s The Doe Boy on the Filmbug web site (accessed December 14, 2003):
James Duval shines in this vivid, affecting coming-of-age story. The Doe Boy follows Hunter (Duval)—a half-Native American, half-Caucasian boy with hemophilia—from childhood to his life as a young adult. His father (Kevin Anderson) doesn’t know how to relate to a boy who can’t work with tools or play sports; his mother (Jeri Arredondo) fights to protect her vulnerable son. When his father finally takes him on a hunting trip, Hunter accidentally shoots a doe—leading to the nickname "doe boy," which haunts him. It’s difficult to describe The Doe Boy; a story summary sounds gimmicky and doesn’t capture the writing and performances, which are beautifully detailed and bracingly honest. Most importantly, despite not having a propulsive plot, The Doe Boy doesn’t drag or meander. In fact, you may want it to slow down so you can spend more time with these characters, whose lives are hurtling by.
Screenwriter and film critic Jon Bastian remarked on Redroad’s masterful approach to his subject on the web site of Film Monthly in a May 30, 2001 posting (accessed December 14, 2003): “In a very brilliant moment early on, he makes us understand completely what it’s like to have the condition with one simple shot of young Hunter (Andrew J. Ferchland, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer) brushing his teeth — very, very slowly and carefully so as not to make his gums bleed. Later on, Redroad plants an open can of beans on a kitchen counter during a scene between father and son, razor-sharp metal lid pried up at an angle, and it heightens the tension without ever being otherwise referred to, making the entire audience squirm at its potential danger. Compare this approach with the Hollywood version, where early on the worried parents would sit down with a doctor, who would explain everything you ever needed to know about hemophilia in great detail, adding, "Keep him away from sharp objects. And if he ever gets hit, it could be fatal!!!" The bean can would be highlighted with a shock cut to its jagged lid, soundtrack blaring danger and Hunter’s hand dancing dangerously close.” Why offer affirmative quotes for a film I have not seen? The Doe Boy stands in for the films many of us would hope to see made, the films we would like to enjoy, films that do not always gain production funding, critical attention, commercial distribution, or public patronage. On the web site of All Things Cherokee (accessed December 14, 2003), Christina Berry wrote, “The sad irony of a mixed-blood Cherokee who suffers from a rare blood disease is very compelling, and enthralling. The picture is also an interesting coming of age story, which explores his struggles with love, health, tradition, and family.” The film won the Sundance/NHK International Filmmaker’s Award. I did not see it on the list of films to be screened at the Smithsonian 12th Native American Film and Video Festival; but it has been made available on video and DVD from commercial sources. Redroad’s earlier Haircuts Hurt may be the inevitable noting of the kind of fundamental conflicts that occur in cultures that exist within larger societies with divergent histories and different values.
Cowboys and Indians (2003) opens with two boys playing cowboys and Indians, as many of us have when children—a game pantomiming adventure, chase, conflict, and violence, partly inspired by the Western films and novels that were popular for very long. The movie, made as a television film for a Canadian network devoted to Native subjects, APTN (Aboriginal Peoples Television Network), with some mainstream support, is based on a book by Gordon Sinclair Jr., an investigation of a real life story, the 1988 shooting of Manitoba leader J.J. Harper by a Winnipeg constable (a policeman). The police force apparently covered up the circumstances of the shooting; and this scenario is very familiar to Americans who have followed police brutality cases involving African-Americans and Latinos in the United States: certain people are seen as both dangerous and expendable, an impression that renders officers fearful and more likely to use their guns. Prejudice influences perception, and perception precipitates (fear, irrationality, rage and) extreme punishment; and it is a bitter irony that policemen respond in a way that embodies the very qualities they anticipate in the people they fear, as in the game of cowboys and Indians, with the Indians seen as wild and untrustworthy, a rewriting of the historical facts.
Cowboys and Indians stars Adam Beach (Saulteaux; Windtalkers, Smoke Signals) as John Joseph Harper and Eric Schweig (Inuit and German; The Last of the Mohicans, The Big Eden) as Harper’s half-brother Harry Wood. Harper and his brother leave a bar one night, and Harper decides to walk home, but he doesn’t make it home as he becomes embroiled with a constable, Robert Cross (Currie Graham), who is tracking down two guys who stole a car. Harper is killed by the policeman, who claims there was a physical confrontation with Harper. Harper’s brother Harry Wood tries to get justice for his brother despite the obfuscation of the police officers and the justice system. The movie, about ninety minutes long, has an engaging subject but it is entertaining because of its performances. Harper is smart and funny and Beach’s performance seems natural—true, believable, while Schweig gives Harry Wood controlled fury, pride, and brotherly love. (It was interesting for me to see Schweig as Wood and consider how his obvious strength might be threatening to others. When he was in scenes with policemen, I was worried that he too would be punished for their fears.) Currie Graham conveys the mundane weakness of his character, Robert Cross; he was believably ordinary, stupid, cowardly, and violent—and also worried and possibly guilt-stricken (the character takes to drink). Garry Chalk as a supervising inspector moves from confident professionalism to guilty, conflicted nervousness. There are also moments of humor that occur when young people are called to testify in court in the film—one boy refutes a too-formal police statement accredited to him, saying, I don’t talk like that. A young woman rejects the possibility that she might have confused a walkie-talkie or cell phone with a gun (who aims a walkie-talkie at anyone?). The other actors create a sense of community, of reality. There are enough details in the film to convey different areas of concern—personal, communal, historical, political, and even spiritual. The murdered man’s father is willing to forgive his son’s killer, something he sees as healing for himself and also for the killer.
I am reminded that to describe someone is also to offer a judgment; and that what we see says as much about the observer as the observed: where do our sympathies lie, and what is the extent of our understanding? For so long, whites in Europe and America described everyone else—made the rest of the world brute, savage, demon, or slave, beneath or outside the standards of their definition of civilization; and now the former describers are themselves being described (James Baldwin said this, but so have others)—and now where pens and cameras move, we see blood, a history of blood. It was the Europeans and their descendants who behaved as barbarians upon their ambitious but confused arrival in Native lands (trying to find a path to India?); and yet leaving Cowboys and Indians, I wondered about the other stories Native Americans have to tell. (I had intended to see more films in the Smithsonian Native festival series, but a blizzard of snow in New York made that difficult. I have seen and liked films featuring Native Americans shown in various theaters in years past such as Peter Bratt’s Follow Me Home, 1997, Chris Eyre’s Smoke Signals, 1998, and Zacharias Kunuk’s The Fast Runner, 2001; and have appreciated how people such as Jim Jarmusch in Dead Man, 1995, used the Native American presence for its iconic and philosophical value, but I wish there were more feature films and that they were more easily available. I recall too that Arthur Penn’s 1970 film Little Big Man, which focused on a white man reared by Indians, was one of the first films I saw in a theater as a boy, but the festival has let me know that there have been already more films made with and by Native Americans than I was aware of.)
The themes explored by Haircuts Hurt and Cowboys and Indians are often referred to as minor or minority issues, issues that affect a relatively small number of people in a society or that do not reflect the principle concerns of a society. However, aesthetics and personal choice (Haircuts Hurt), and law and justice (Cowboys and Indians), are not small concerns; and these two films do say significant things about the larger societies in which the characters live. It is true that they do not say all or even most of what there is to say about those societies, just as they do not say most of what there is to say about their central characters or the specific cultures those characters belong to—and that may be said to be their limitation, although Cowboys and Indians, partly because of its longer length and its basis in fact, did suggest some of the more interesting elements of Native culture, such as the spiritual concerns, the burial ceremony, and the ritual pipe that is shared and smoked before a public inquiry begins. Seeing Beach’s J.J. Harper making fun on a television program was an affirmation of personality and of participation in contemporary technology. Seeing Schweig’s Harry Wood threaten a Native politician with the loss of votes in a coming election was something else that chipped at cliché. (I’m less interested in seeing how Native Americans are like everyone else than I am interested in seeing how Native Americans live in the contemporary world. To see clichés about the reservation is not any more enticing than seeing clichés about black ghettos or Spanish barrios.)
With Haircuts Hurt and Cowboys and Indians still in mind, I saw The Barbarian Invasions, a new film written and directed by Denys Arcand that offers a very different view of Canada (from Cowboys and Indians) and of life. The Barbarian Invasions is about a father and son; it is also about family in the broadest sense, including friends and lovers, as well as about the past, culture, politics, and death, the communal networks and social references that are usually expected to give meaning to individual lives. The film begins in an office, with a son, played by Stephane Rousseau, receiving news of his father’s illness over the phone from his mother. We then see a crowded hospital, and a nurse delivering a thin wafer—communion—to some of the patients. She is uncertain about who is who, as there are so many people and a faulty computer patient tracking system. The father and mother, who have been separated for about fifteen years, argue in front of the nurse giving communion. Their arguments are angry, smart, resentful, and funny. Not long after, when the father is alone, he is accosted by a former lover, who complains that he never listened to her, not to her body or spirit, and these are not the first or the last recriminations that will come his way. The father (played by Remy Girard), a professor and bohemian intellectual, was a “sensual socialist” and had many affairs. The mother later tells the son’s companion, a woman, as they go through the father’s residence, “With luck, we’ll find some panties.” Meanwhile, the son arranges for the father to have tests done at another hospital, and joins his father in the ambulance for the trip. The son is practical, his professional business manner of use to him in his response to his father’s illness—but it’s clear that he feels various emotions too, concern, sympathy, and a certain anger for his own childhood. There is a brutal father and son argument while the father is in his hospital bed; it is obvious that neither even thinks of restraining himself. The father is disappointed that the son is not an intellectual, and doesn’t share his values; and the son resents that the father’s pleasures and values made the family’s life unstable. The mother later reminds the son of the things the father has done for him, things a child cannot or does not know—how the father rocked the boy for forty-eight hours straight when he was a baby and very sick, and that the father would call the son’s school regularly to see how the son was doing.
The father receives an audio-visual transmission from his daughter on the son’s laptop via satellite from the daughter’s boat; the daughter is an adventurer, always traveling—possibly the rootlessness is a result of her childhood. The father cries after seeing the transmission, though it is a very happy message. (Both children are strong, independent, and resourceful; and the daughter says this in one of her transmissions.)
The son negotiates, even using financial bribery, with various hospital personnel—top administrators and union leaders—to get his father a better situation, a floor suite that is then cleaned, painted, and decorated. It is obvious that to have money is to be able to exist in a uniquely private realm—one chooses one’s environment, one chooses one’s concerns. (I don’t recall aboriginal or Native American concerns being mentioned in The Barbarian Invasions, though other cultural and political concerns are noted; and it’s interesting to be reminded of how one group’s reality can be of little concern to another. Often disruption—boycotts, protests, violence—or new acquisitions of power—through economics, law, or politics are ways of gaining attention for a group’s neglected concerns.)
A television talking head comments that on September 11, 2001, with the two planes crashing into the World Trade Center, the barbarians were no longer outside the empire but are within. The empire’s actions outside its central borders are made resonant within (or as I once heard an immigrant say in a British context, We are here because you were there). The history of mankind is a history of horrors, the father says to the nurse, recounting the many millions of people who have died as a result of politics and war during the 20th century. The father’s thoughts and comments are full not only of social criticism but of self-questioning—and regret and sorrow.
The son contacts his father’s friends, and invites them to visit—and they do, and begin to reminisce about the past—their sex lives, their intellectual preoccupations, and their political sympathies. They have changed in various ways—acquired or lost comfortable positions, become less entranced by sex, and begun to see the philosophies that previously obsessed them with humor.
To eliminate or reduce his father’s pain, the son wants to locate heroin, which someone describes as morphine mixed with chemicals—and the son goes to the people who know who has heroin: the police, a practical, funny, and improbable choice, but the police—an attractive couple, a suited man and a woman with a casual street look—tell him they cannot help him get drugs. The policeman tells him to look to his friends for help, for contacts. The daughter of one of his father’s friends, a proofreader and heroin addict (played by Marie-Josée Croze) who is alienated from her mother, is induced to help. (At one point, when the policeman is speaking to the son in the son’s car, the masculinity of the man placed against the son’s sensitivity raised the possibility of a kind of slight erotic tension; one sensed the balance of yin and yang.)
“We don’t know the past, how can we know the future?” asks the father, both lamenting the limits of human curiosity and understanding, and also asserting an openness to what might happen.
The son’s companion, a woman apparently in the art business, is asked by her firm to see the sculptures and relics held by a church. The priest giving her a tour of the now worthless objects says that around 1966 people left the churches in droves. It’s obvious that many people have abandoned organized Western religion, or changed the nature of their worship, integrating it with other value systems, while other religions in the world retain passionate devotion, such as that of the Muslims, a devotion that yet wants to transform the world in its image.
What is the individual’s place in the world? Can he make a difference? The father feels as if he hasn’t accomplished much—he’s written a few papers but no books. He wonders if he has learned anything or found meaning in his life.
The son brings his father to the lakeside cottage of one of the father’s friends—and there father, mother, son, friends, and former lovers visit, to see the father through his last days. It’s a time of warmth, community, reflection; and it is impossible not to see this as the ultimate value of the father’s life—that he could inspire this.
The son has obviously begun to see his father in a different way, more humanely, more imaginatively; and the son also faces his own temptation when he feels himself becoming attracted to the proofreader/addict, a slim, short-haired, waif who seems intelligent, sensitive, reserved, and mysteriously sad. When near an outside fire, in a moment of quiet intimacy, the proofreader/addict tosses the son’s suddenly ringing cell phone into the fire, I heard a gasp in the theater—and onscreen the son and the young woman both laugh.
When the father decides he wants to die—or, more precisely, that he is ready to die, a tray of heroin-filled needles is prepared by the young woman; and the needles take on an almost sacred quality. “My guardian angel,” says the father to the proofreader/addict, as she comes nearer, his friends and family having said their goodbyes, and his daughter having sent a teary message. Will he go through with it?
I think The Barbarian Invasions is ultimately about what makes life meaningful; and that meaning cannot be assumed even in the life of an intelligent man who is self-conscious about his choices and values. The film features characters, people, who have thought about a great many things—and very much about themselves: and it is possible to think both about the self and the world. (Intelligence is not individual but collective, claims one of the father’s friends in the film, but it is clear that the father and his friends are very distinct individuals, gifted and flawed in particular ways. The father recalls how political ideology blinded him to real world consequences when he made approving comments about the Chinese Cultural Revolution to a beautiful woman who had, with her parents, suffered its ambitions. To believe in ideas and yet know their limits is not ordinary.) The father and his friends expected to become the kind of people they themselves like and admire—and isn’t that what most of us understand as what it means to be free, self-determination? These people, though they may be seen as indulgent and permissive, hold themselves to standards in line with those they judge the world; and that’s why the father questions the meaning of his life, and why the film has substance—and why, ultimately, his life has meaning.
The characters in The Barbarian Invasions would seem to have more practical freedom than the people in Haircuts Hurt and Cowboys and Indians; however, it is the people in Cowboys and Indians who produce positive change in their society through their activism following J.J. Harper’s death. If we could see how their ideas translate into public or political acts for the father and his friends in The Barbarian Invasions, acts that affect even strangers, the film might have greater reverberations. Yet, the commitment to ideas shown by the characters in The Barbarian Invasions is exemplary, since to be committed to art, ideas, or spirituality is to give some of the deepest and highest aspects of human experience a significant place in one’s life.
Many Americans in the U.S. seem to prefer that characters in films and people in life have petty, personal reasons for having profound, public ideas—possibly unlike the people of Canada and Brazil, who are also “Americans,” possibly not. (I remember that when I organized a Cultural Politics Discussion Group years ago, 1989-1993, at first at ABC No Rio and later at Poets House in Manhattan, a group that discussed literature, philosophy, politics, film, music, and whatever else came up, I would regularly get comments from people who didn’t understand why it was important to get together to talk about these things. I was grateful for the participants, Rebecca, Tom, Katie, Curt, Peter, Paul, Jessica, Michael, and the others, who did understand why.) That ideas alone—especially important ones—should have genuine appeal, and might distract a man from the material and mundane, or give him a different response to the material and mundane—is unsettling, and for some unfathomable; but while ideas do not ensure the perfection of a life, what kind of life is possible if you do not think, do not know what you think, or are incapable of changing your thinking?
I find that in the face of very serious worries about the present moment and the future—about concerns for stable employment and financial security, and housing, food, and health care, the aesthetic and the philosophical are even more necessary: art delivers complex human experience in a meaningful form; and contemplation allows one not to be totally diminished by circumstances. Consequently, seeing the paintings of El Greco (the Greek, Domenikos Theotokopoulos) or Sanford Gifford’s Hudson River paintings in Manhattan’s Metropolitan Museum, visiting Soho art galleries, strolling in Central Park, looking at the different shapes of houses in my New York neighborhood, listening to the singing of Ella Fitzgerald or B.B. King, reading William Demby’s novel Love Story Black or Toni Morrison’s Love or reading the cultural criticism of Robert Warshow (The Immediate Experience) or the literary criticism of W. Lawrence Hogue (The African American Male, Writing, and Difference: A Polycentric Approach to African American Literature, Criticism, and History) or that of Keith Clark (Black Manhood in James Baldwin, Ernest J. Gaines, and August Wilson), attending discount matinee screenings of new films, or writing a film review or writing, especially, a poem or short fiction story, can seem as necessary as filling out a new job application or making a doctor’s appointment. Then, against despair and fear, and even desperation and shame, can be placed contemplation, pleasure, and hope. Yet, watching films is sometimes like looking at the memories, night dreams, and fantasies of other people.
I like all kinds of movies, but The Barbarian Invasions is one kind of film I love. It’s not only about individuals, it’s about a generation, a culture—and it’s hard for me to imagine that anyone could see it and not think that it’s about important matters. I did not see Denys Arcand’s The Decline of the American Empire, an earlier film by the same director that featured some of the same characters. “If you saw Arcand’s Oscar-nominated 1987 (sic) film, The Decline of the American Empire, you’ll remember these same logorrheic Quebecois (both the characters and the actors, who return to play their saggier, paunchier selves) gassing on, also over dinner but under very different circumstances, about the sexual adventures they’d had or dreamed of having, mostly with each other,” wrote Ella Taylor in her (November 21-27, 2003) LA Weekly review of The Barbarian Invasions, a review she began by describing The Barbarian Invasions as “wonderful.” Taylor also wrote, “The film has the fluid rhythms, the delight in talk and food, and the nourishing intellectual richness of Renoir, Louis Malle and, in a certain mood, Bertolucci.” Why praise and mock the film at the same time? (Shouldn’t people who are thinkers be shown thinking and talking about their thinking, just as football players are shown playing football and talking about the game? In the recent In America, directed by Jim Sheridan, a painter and a writer meet and do not talk about their work, when in life they would talk about when they were first inspired to be artists, their influences, their pleasures and frustrations, and current projects. This is one of the most critically well-received films of recent months, along with Dirty Pretty Things and Mystic River and 21 Grams, films in which an extraordinary or traumatic event motivates much of the action, but I found In America frustrating in its depiction of the two artists, though I admired the vibrant performances of Paddy Considine, as the actor/father, and Emma and Sarah Bolger, who played his daughters. I was surprised to find that I disliked the character and performance of Djimon Hounsou as the (black) painter, one of the family’s neighbors; we do not learn anything significant about his character other than that he paints and is ill—where did he grow up, study, and who have been his friends and lovers, and where is his family? How did he become ill—through blood transfusion, drug use, or sexual contact? Despite certain gestures toward reality—these people live in an apartment building full of junkies, and the actor and his family have little money—and the film’s prevalent sentimentality—the artist is warmly befriended by the family and he has a benevolent influence on them, there are absences of detail that suggest disregard for the painter and what is really involved in being an artist or thinker.)
The Barbarian Invasions is the kind of movie that some label pretentious or artificial, words often used to describe anything that aspires to intellectual weight. About Arcand and this work, David Sterritt in The Christian Science Monitor’s November 21, 2003 Movie Guide said, “But here, as in previous movies, his work is a bit too neat and calculated to make the emotions ring really true.” I disagree; it is possible to think and feel simultaneously and to produce work that lives on both levels, as this film does. Gene Seymour in the November 21, 2003 Newsday wrote, “How much you are able to tolerate, much less enjoy, The Barbarian Invasions may well depend on how old you are, how close you feel to the sentiments of its core clique of aging libertines and/or how long you can float with what the narrator of the old “Rocky and Bullwinkle” show would call ‘airy persiflage.’” It’s honest of him to locate the perceiver as being as important as the perceived, but the casual reference to a cartoon for the location of a critical vocabulary says as much. It’s not encouraging that respectable critics, critics I’ve admired, would indulge this kind of anti-intellectualism, but that makes this film more valuable not less: the film comes out of and encourages the development of qualities of intellectual seriousness and sensual responsiveness that are threatened by convention, ignorance, indifference, and misunderstanding.
In his New York Times review of the film, which appeared earlier on October 17, 2003 (the film was viewed as part of a festival screening), A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Arcand is at heart a populist filmmaker, but his brains are at least as well developed as his heart. The Barbarian Invasions has had enormous success at the Canadian box office, in both English and French-speaking areas, and it is easy to see why. Its humor is broad and its emotions large and accessible. But it is also, at the same time, a sophisticated and rigorous analysis of recent history, in Quebec and beyond. It is an elegy, a seminar and a long, sloppy party, full of food, wine, maudlin moments and endless conversation. Civilization may be declining gradually all around them, but they don’t mind. They’re in no hurry.” It is, of course, not true that the characters in the film do not mind civilization’s decline: why is it hard to accept—and describe—the existence of both social concern and pleasure? Is it that the work that we often see is so often about one or the other, or that the sensibilities with which work is received are puritanical and primed to notice what they consider binary oppositions? Again, A.O. Scott is one of the film critics I like, as are James Agee, Vincent Canby, Pauline Kael, Stanley Kauffmann, Elvis Mitchell, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gene Seymour, John Simon, Alan Stone, and Armond White; and, despite the qualification I have made, I’m grateful for Scott’s review of the film.
We see films in various genres (I saw the comedies Bad Santa and Stuck on You in the last two weeks and liked both), and many films are full of various kinds of contrivances, full of trivia and irrelevance, and seem intended not so much to entertain as to obscure and exploit, and yet films featuring intellectuals or politics, films that encourage awareness and offer pathways to feeling, such as Haircuts Hurt, Cowboys and Indians, and The Barbarian Invasions are sometimes seen as unnatural constructions, as if human beings still lived in a state of nature, when to be human, not merely on the most ideal level but at the most elemental level, is to be a knowing being, to be able to choose, to do, and to make, to be able to respond imaginatively to one’s environment and create new relationships. I was reminded by Haircuts Hurt, Cowboys and Indians, and The Barbarian Invasions, in different ways, of human possibility—and as there are too many things in the world that have discouraged belief in this possibility, I honor such films.