The success of his film Smoke Signals offered Native American writer Sherman Alexie an entree into the world of Hollywood.
It was a short sojourn. Alexie's interest in busting stereotypes ran headlong into the film industry's weird conservatism, which favors target-marketing over story line and big-name stars over talent, casting Filipino actor Lou Diamond Phillips as an Indian in movies like Young Guns and Renegades to fill theater seats. Alexie, a member of the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene tribe, wanted to tell stories about real Indians.
So it didn't work out, and for this we should be grateful - it helped turn Alexie toward low-budget, independent filmmaking, where he could more freely and truly render his stories.
Not surprisingly, Alexie's new release, The Business of Fancydancing, explodes our preconceptions about race, sexuality and artistry. It's the story of Seymour Polatkin, a gay Indian poet who leaves the Spokane Indian Reservation to make it as a writer in Seattle. But while Polatkin is the darling of white, middle-class readers, the people he left behind on the reservation hate his guts for selling out and co-opting their stories. After years away from home, the death of a friend draws him back to the reservation to confront his culture and past.
Woven into Polatkin's story are other threads - the squalid suffocation of rez life, alcoholism, interracial relationships, the pseudo-intimacy between a writer and his readers, the tokenism of mainstream America when it comes to Indian Country. The story contains many parallels to Alexie's life, and he often riffs on the blurry, difficult line he's walked while making a living with his art.
"In this capitalistic culture, an art form has become very much a capitalistic endeavor," he told Radio High Country News. "It's hard to tell where the art ends and commerce begins. So that's what the business of fancydancing is to me - the way in which tradition can become a commodity."
Filmed on digital video, Fancydancing is decidedly low-budget - the lighting and cramped shots of some scenes feel like BBC video productions of theater. But in the same way that Alexie turns his experiences with government commodity cheese and rough and tumble rez life into great fiction, he shows us that film artistry does not need a budget of millions.
The film will probably not be coming soon to a theater near you - Fancydancing has a limited (though growing) release schedule for a few Western cities. But Alexie's not finished yet, and whatever he does is sure to provoke and surprise. Whether it's film or poetry or prose, it's great to watch Sherman Alexie dance.
A Radio High Country News interview with Sherman Alexie is available on CD. Contact email@example.com, or call 800/905-1155.
Note: in the print edition of this issue, this article is accompanied by a sidebar, "Sherman Alexie in his own words."
To find out more about Sherman Alexie and his work, go to www.fallsapart.com.