starring Evan Adams, Michelle St. John, Gene Tagaban, Swil Kanim
written and directed by Sherman Alexie
by Walter Chaw Reading a little like an anguished autobiography of a certain kind of success and the ethnic price of it, Sherman Alexie's The Business of Fancydancing demands an examination of the compulsion to use "Native American author" as a prefix to Alexie's name. It's not a success in a conventional sense and that's actually somewhat to its credit--having made a living as a Native American author with a mostly white readership, Alexie's aim here seems to be one of defying traditional Western narrative forms in favour of the liquidity of a more aboriginal oral tradition. If its performances are uneven and some of its characters and events completely superfluous, The Business of Fancydancing gets a great deal of leeway based solely on the raw intimacy of Alexie's uncompromising point of view.
Seymour Polatkin (Evan Adams) has a lot of prefixes: homosexual, lauded, poet, Native American--prefixes shared by Alexie, only substitute "father" for "homosexual." Back on the Spokane Indian Reservation where Seymour grew up, the friends he left behind--including the angry Aristotle (Gene Tagaban) and violinist prankster Mouse (Swil Kanim)--pass the time getting drunk and bitterly identifying the sources of Seymour's work as episodes from their own lives. The idea of identity theft and the helplessness of some ethnic authors (in any medium) in avoiding a real or perceived ransoming of their heritage is central to the picture; during a contentious interview where Seymour is asked why he always writes of his Reservation, he responds: "I try to write other things, but I always end up back on the Rez." When Mouse kills himself, Seymour returns to the Rez against his and his lover Steven's (Kevin Phillip) better judgment.
There is a certain literariness about The Business of Fancydancing that I found fascinatingly uncinematic. As directorial debuts go, I'd place the picture on a par with John Sayles's The Return of the Secaucus Seven: neither film exactly works as a film, and both suggesting a gifted writer moonlighting as a director/screenwriter. Yet Alexie uses his background well in scenes where he allows Seymour to luxuriate in his prosody, reading his poetry in bookstore windows and improvising verses for his lover. The best and most poignant line of The Business of Fancydancing comes during a conversation between Seymour and his pre-outing girlfriend Agnes (Michelle St. John). Reminiscing about what was, and fantasizing about what might have been, Agnes asks, "Why do we always talk about impossibilities?" Seymour responds: "Because without that there's only silence."
What Alexie does best is map the internal divide of a man divorced from his ethnicity, going so far as to twice portray a literal split of Seymour's identity: first during the funeral service where one Seymour howls his grief while the other stands mute, next when one Seymour drives away from his childhood home while the other stays behind. Needless to say, there's a great deal of poignancy to Seymour's struggle: it is personal and rings of veracity and an almost Shakespearean angst--whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of a stereotypical failure to assimilate into a conquering culture's definition of success, or bear up under a sea of disapproval from the people who love and understand you the best. The Business of Fancydancing is an important film if not a particularly good one: there are just too many interludes where Alexie's literary affection for barbaric yawps and other bold symbolic pronouncements (the titular "fancydancing" the chief offender) embarrass the subtlety of the outstanding insights offered. But when the picture works, it works like maybe no other film documenting the duality of, proximately, the Native American experience. Originally published: August 2, 2002.