The Humanism of Smoke Signals

Smoke Signals is a seminal piece of Native American cinema. In fact, it’s one of the only Native American films written, directed, and produced by Native Americans that has been absorbed into the Western canon. Based off of various short stories from Sherman Alexie’s “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” (another piece of Native American art that’s been critically accepted), the film’s plot is contingent on modern Native life. The thing is – the “Native American-ism” present in the film isn’t what makes it great. The characters and their relatable, endearing qualities of pain and healing make them human, and this human core is what makes the film great.

Victor, the main character of the film and arguably the main character in “…Fistfight in Heaven,” is in pain. His pain stems from his father Arnold’s departure from his family and reservation – Arnold “disappears,” which he claims is the only thing he’s ever been good at. Victor consistently takes this pain out on those around him, particularly Thomas, a boy that’s intrinsically linked to him by his father.

Victor and Thomas are dichotic opposites – where Victor is violent, Thomas is peaceful; where Victor is popular, Thomas is an outcast; where Victor was raised by his parents, Thomas was orphaned as a baby. Thomas being saved by Arnold is a complex factor in Victor’s life, and is perhaps the primary reason for his long held distain for Thomas. Thomas has happy stories of Arnold, but Victor only has memories of pain and abandonment of his father. When Victor is told that his father also saved him from the fire, he refuses to accept this because his negative construct of his father was wrapped around this abandonment and perceived favoritism of Thomas. Ultimately, Victor seems to accept that his father started the fire on accident, an event that shaped the lives of everyone involved. The fire also explains Arnold’s pain and why he felt the need to disappear from the reservation for so long. Victor is ultimately healed when he gives a portion of his father’s ashes to Thomas and spreads the rest into the river.

Thomas is in pain as well, but his adjustment to being orphaned and ostracized by much of the tribe is different from Victors’. Instead of turning to anger and violence, Thomas tells stories to explain his own pain and the pain of those around him. Instead of striving for popularity and entertainment, Thomas focuses on his grandmother’s wellbeing. Thomas is marginalized by a group of marginalized people; an outcast among outcasts. Thomas is eager to please, and is hurt when other’s don’t accept him, but he rarely changes his own behavior for the sake of others. He foots the bill to collect Arnold’s remains not only because Arnold is an important figure in his own life, but because he wants to get closer with Victor – someone who, I’d wager, he sees more as a brother than a friend. Thomas’ healing comes, as always, from helping people, and part of his healing came from Victor relinquishing part of his father’s ashes.

There are numerous Native American symbols in the film, but hair is one of the more intriguing ones. Hair serves as a symbol of being Native; the longer and freer it gets the more of a Native you are. Arnold chops his hair off after starting the fire, showing his rejection of himself as a member of the tribe. Victor cuts off half of his hair after accepting his father’s death, either as an act of solidarity with his father or as an act of change in his own life, a break away from the past. Thomas unbraids his hair when Victor convinces him that’s what a real Native should do, but reverts to his standard braids and suit following the car crash. Likewise, fire, alcohol, fry bread and more all serve as interesting, complex Native American symbols present in the film.

Smoke Signals can be, and has been, praised for being Native American to its core, but its true strengths lie in the relationships between characters and their respective growths throughout the film. Some characters are perhaps a bit one dimensional, but the theme of pain and healing permeates the film and makes it what it is. Smoke Signals isn’t just a good Native American film – it’s a damn good film outright.



Wicked Problems in the LGBT Community

Wicked Problems, as outlined by Martin Carcasson, are technically without solution. This is because there are always competing underlying values on two typically dichotomized sides. Carcasson also offered a three step solution to these problems via the “Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision Making:” divergent thinking, working through the “groan zone,” and convergent thinking. In order to work through this three step solution, both citizens and government must constantly communicate and problem solve with one another – an optimistic, but workable, solution.

What Carcasson didn’t do much of in his article was give a whole lot of examples of what Wicked Problems are, though any American citizen could list off dozens of them that are gridlocked in government at this very moment. There’s the Wicked Problem of abortion, which has such strong ideological stances on both sides that reaching a solution without the three steps seems impossible. Then there’s the Wicked Problem of government spending, where both sides have equal but unflinching merit, and without solution we’re constantly stuck in a stand-still that doesn’t offer much to the country in terms of progress. There’s even the Wicked Problem of climate change, where one side has almost no merit, but the strong ideologies of both sides make it impossible to move forward without radical change in discourse.

There are Wicked Problems involving the LGBT community as well. For a long time, gay marriage was a Wicked Problem where, despite the total constitutional legality for same sex couples to get married, it was still argued against based on religious reasoning. This Problem wasn’t solved by constant communication between government and citizens, rather it was solved by the Supreme Court in a sweeping decision.

There’s the issue of transgender bathroom use, where one side is concerned about the safety of non-trans people using bathrooms, and the other side is concerned with not only safety for trans people, but for the ability to fulfill their chosen gender roles. It’s a Problem that won’t be solved easily, and could use more critical and group problem solving, particularly in the third and final stage.

There’s even a Problem with gay men donating blood. Though the law was recently changed for men who have had sexual interactions with other men being banned for life from donating blood, there’s still a ban that states gay men can’t donate blood if they’ve had sexual interactions with another man within the past 12 months. A married, committed gay man who has proven to be STD free can’t donate blood with this rule in place, and the Problem isn’t going to change because people on the other side of the ideological spectrum have safety concerns. It’s another Problem that could use extensive discourse.

Wicked Problems are tricky, but everything has a solution. It’s tough being part of the LGBT community when there’s a huge swath of the population that will be against us no matter what, but this constant communication, this dynamic discourse is certainly enticing, and I hope it’s considered by both government and citizens moving forward. Even though it’s hard for me to hear out the other side of the argument sometimes, I think it’s healthy for both sides of any Wicked Problem to come together and suss out a solution,  no matter how hard that may be sometimes.

The complex alpha-male structures in Pixar’s “UP.”

The original concept of the “alpha-male” in today’s society is beginning to fade away. No longer is it seen as a term of status and power, but rather a term connected with male privilege, hyper-masculinity, and perhaps even rape culture. I found Ken Gillam and Shannon Wooden’s article “Post-Princess Models of Gender: The New Man in Disney/Pixar” to be fascinating in a landscape that has changed drastically even in the last decade.

Because Gillam and Wooden wrote their article in 2008, there are now 8 new Pixar movies that they were unable to analyze through their “post-princess lens.” I thought it would be interesting to use this lens on newer Pixar films. Because “Brave,” “Inside-Out,” and “Finding Dory” all have female protagonists (a step in the right direction,) I’m only going to analyze one of the remaining 5 films: “UP.”

In their article, Gillam and Wooden assert that “Woody from Toy Story, Mr. Incredible from The Incredibles, and Lightning McQueen from Cars experience a common narrative trajectory, culminating in a common “New Man” model: they all strive for an alpha-male identity; they face emasculating failures; they find themselves in… “homosocial desire”and a triangulation of this desire with afeminized object; and, finally, they achieve (and teach) a kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man.” The newer Pixar movies move towards even more complex, less traditional character arcs for their protagonists.

In “UP,” the majority of protagonist Carl Fredricksen’s life is compressed through a brief montage in the beginning of the film. In this montage, he grows old with his wife Ellie – they grow through adolescence, get married, buy a house, get pregnant, suffer a miscarriage, enter retirement, and ultimately, Carl outlives Ellie. From that point on, Carl’s only goal is to use his flying house to reach Angel Falls in South America, a destination which he and Ellie always planed on moving to at some point or another before life got in the way. He speaks to Ellie throughout the film, sometimes he speaks to her empty chair, sometimes to old photographs of her, and sometimes to other objects in the house that remind him of her.

It could be argued that Carl does have a sort of “alpha-male” complex, and that this side of him precipitates a position that is “fraudulent, precarious, lonely, and devoid of emotional depth,” as Gillam and Wooden described for earlier Pixar protagonists. Indeed, all of these words could be used to describe Carl’s state throughout the film, but he’s much more complex than some of those earlier characters. He unintentionally becomes the de facto caregiver of secondary characters Russell, Doug, and Kevin, and though he doesn’t at all fit the role at first, he becomes a much more successful caregiver by the end of the film by building bonds and letting go. It could be argued that these actions demonstrate that kinder, gentler understanding of what it means to be a man, but ultimately, Carl’s strength comes from the memory of Ellie herself, and from literally letting go of the things that attached him to her in order to lift off and save Russell and Company from danger in the film’s climax. Not only does Carl’s progressed age set him apart from most alpha-male caricatures, but his lack of romantic pursuit paints him in an interesting light – instead of desiring a female character, he longs for his wife’s missing company.

“UP” can be sifted through some of Baudrillard’s theories to interesting effect. Pertaining to the simulation of history through cinema, he wrote, “The great trauma (of the period between WWII and the Cold War), is this decline of strong referentials, these death pangs of the real and of the rational that open onto an age of simulation. Whereas so many generations, and particularly the last, lived in the march of history in the euphoric or catastrophic expectation of a revolution – today one has the impression that history has retreated, leaving behind it an indifferent nebula, traversed by currents, but emptied of references.” In the beginning of “UP,” Carl and Ellie are children who are obsessed with the adventurer Charles Muntz, whose films showed him adventuring around the world in search of new discoveries. They spend their lives trying to save up enough money to move to South America, where Muntz was reported to have gone missing. By the end of the film, Carl discovers that Muntz is still alive, and that he’s the villain trying to capture Kevin the bird by any means necessary – this drastic disparity between expectation and reality caused by cinema in Carl’s mind causes a system-shock of sorts. Carl’s nostalgia of Muntz’s adventures created a “hyper real” representation of history in his mind, and he chased it throughout his life. However, in poetic fashion, Muntz has been unable to let go of the past like Carl was, and as they fought throughout Muntz’s museum filled with his life’s work, they destroyed many of the artifacts that Muntz had spent his life discovering. Carl and his ability to move on in life defeats Muntz’s inability to grow, and ultimately, Muntz’s alpha-male tendencies become his own undoing.

What is considered “alpha-male” becomes complicated in the gay community, particularly in gay relationships, as pre-constructed notions of dominance and submission in such a relationship aren’t established by gender constructs. In my opinion, this is a wonderful advantage that gay couples have, as societal structures don’t force certain norms upon these couples. They are relatively free to construct their own, personal structures within a relationship, without the complications of certain alpha-male roles getting in the way. It would be interesting to see what Pixar would do with a gay protagonist (no, Dory doesn’t count,) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them explore that territory in the future.



Homophobic Scripts

There’s a script for every marginalized group in America. There’s a script that leads citizens to expect black men to be criminals, a script that expects women to be submissive, a script that expects muslims to be violent. What we don’t know about others, we naturally fill in with the scripts that society has set forth. This, of course, also applies to the LGBT community.

In Gilliam and lyengar’s “Prime Suspects,” they assert that scripts naturally allow observers to “fill in” the gaps of knowledge they don’t necessarily possess. The gay “script” leads people to assume gay men are sexually promiscuous, that lesbians are inherently masculine, and that transgender people are mentally unstable. In fact, almost all of the gay script can be traced back to the notion that homosexuality is a mental disorder, which the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders didn’t remove from their pages until 1973.

In this sense, scripts are simply structures that people assume for others, and are formed and reinforced by stereotypes. In Travis Dixon’s “who is the victim here,” he asserts that “…stereotypes are cognitive structures or categories that affect the encoding and processing of information. These structures or schemas direct attention to some stimuli and away from others, influence categorization of information, helpus ‘fill-in’ missing information, and influence memory. The activation of a stereotype increases the likelihood that this knowledge will be used in subsequent judgments.” All of this, in effect, explains the psychological process that allows people to make racist, sexist, or homophobic assumptions about any given person, despite not actually knowing said person.

In Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation,” he discusses the concept of the Panopticon. The basic concept suggests that the mere idea of an authority figure is enough to make people behave as if said authority actually exists. I believe this idea can relate back to concepts of God/a higher power, wherein though no empirical evidence of such a being exists, it’s enough to make people live their entire lives on the chance that it does, and that they will be punished if they don’t act accordingly. This can be tied to the historically religious condemnation of homosexuals, and how gay people have lived their lives in shame, thinking anything they do, regardless of if it’s actually observed by outside parties, is a damnable sin. I lived much of my life this way, thinking that if I acted on my natural desires it would be seen and I would be punished for it. That, of course, is ridiculous, but being raised in a religious household has made it that, even as comfortable in my lifestyle as I am, I still feel uncertainty in my own actions for no discernible reason. A bit of a stretch, I know, but it was a thought that crossed my mind while reading Baudrillard.