Sunday, July 21, 2013

Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie

Indian Killer by Sherman Alexie (4/5)

A creative writing instructor of mine once said, “Those who write poetry tend to love people, but those who write fiction tend to hate people.”  According to him, because a novel has to put its characters through so many obstacles, a novelist has to have a streak of sadism.  Perhaps it’s because Sherman Alexie is also a consummate poet that his love for his characters always shines through his fiction, especially in his first short story collection, The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven and his first novel, Reservation Blues.  It seems a little strange, then, that Alexie chose a serial killer as the subject matter for his second novel, Indian Killer.  This seemed like particularly dark subject matter for an author whose writing can be laugh out loud funny.

Indian Killer spans a number of different characters whose paths constantly criss-cross, but they all orbit around a series of violent murders in Seattle by a perpetrator dubbed “The Indian Killer.”  The Indian Killer gets his name because he stalks, murders, and scalps his victims and then leaves behind two owl feathers.  The plot seems like it might belong to those modern day dime store novels, the airport paperback.  And while Alexie indulges in elements of the thriller—there are tense scenes where we don’t know whether the killer will get his victim or not all written, like the point of view shot at the beginning of Halloween, from the perspective of “the killer”—he is far more interested in how these acts of violence are read by and acted upon by the residents of Seattle.  Four hundred years of racial resentment and anger between whites and American-Indians boil over thanks to these murders.

If there is a main character, then it is the absurdly named Native-American, John Smith, who was adopted by a wealthy, well-meaning white couple from Seattle.  As John grows up, he becomes increasingly alienated from his white parents.  Despite the fact that his parents have the means to send him to college, John takes on a job in construction after graduating from high school, but even in this environment he’s an outsider.  It’s hard not to read descriptions of John’s awkward interactions with people—his inability to read others and strange social maneuverings—and not think about autism.  Alexie appears to be using mental development disorders as a sort of metaphor for cultural estrangement.  As an Indian raised by white parents, John belongs to a culture of one.

In addition to John, the other central native character is Marie, a Native-American activist and college student.  While the murders are happening, Marie, an English major, is taking a course on Native-American literature by an anthropology professor, Dr. Mather.  Mather is a white native sympathizer, who prides himself on his enlightened attitude towards American-Indians, but becomes increasingly incensed when Marie consistently challenges his notions about native cultures because he lacks an experiential component.  For Marie, Mather’s knowledge is suspect because he has never really lived on the rez. 

Mather is affecting a kind of passing (he loves to mention that he has been adopted by Native-American tribes), and this passing is echoed by another character, Jack Wilson, a mystery writer who holds onto a historically suspect idea that one of his ancestors may have been a famous Seattle Indian.  Wilson, who used to be a police officer, writes mystery paperbacks about a Native-American, Aristotle Little Hawk, who also happens to be a private detective.  Wilson engages in representations of Native-Americans that Alexie hopes to disfigure with his literature.  Alexie describes the love plot of the average Aristotle Little Hawk novel in the following manner: “A beautiful white woman fell in love with Little Hawk in each book, although he was emotionally distant and troubled.  The beautiful white woman fell in love with Little Hawk because he was emotionally distant and troubled.”  But even as Wilson gives in to Native-American tropes, unable to break out of a narrative that has been building for four hundred years, he is also naively well-meaning.  He wishes to honor what he sees as his own Native-American ancestry, even though he is blonde and blue-eyed.

Much of the novel allows for Alexie to play with notions of identity.  The anthropology professor, Dr. Mather, seems to be an attack on academics who would unravel notions of authenticity.  Often these academics tend to come from wealthy or middle class backgrounds and are more interested in abstract notions of race than in the day to day material experience of minorities in America.  Likewise, Wilson wants to have race both ways.  He wants the benefits of a white experience while also holding onto an ersatz native background that legitimizes his occupation of native lands.  Marie’s angry and exasperated attack on those who don’t fully understand Native-American experience in the 20th/21st century seems to be Alexie’s way of pushing against these condescending liberals.  But on the other end of the spectrum, there is Truck Schultz, a conservative radio personality that represents America’s bigoted id.  Unlike Wilson and Dr. Mather, Truck is explicitly anti-Indian, and his radio program keeps dredging up racist discourse from centuries past.  For Alexie, these are the twin poles of misguided white beliefs about Native peoples.

Even though the novel goes to some violent and dark places, Alexie never fully lets go of his sense of humor.  He once referred to the book as a “feel good novel about interracial murder.”  And you get a sense that Alexie really cares for his characters, even for those whom he disagrees with.  Still, this creates a somewhat uneven tone for the entire book.  If Indian Killer is less successful than Alexie’s earlier work, it is because he is pushing his craft forward.  Maybe he will develop a streak of sadism, yet.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

Before Midnight

 Before Midnight (5/5)

The Before films never previously dealt with relationships.  Or at least they never dealt with the day in, day out labor of maintaining a relationship over the course of years.  Before Sunrise lovingly details the opening stages of romance, and Before Sunset reignites this relationship while including the added pressures of growing older.  Before Midnight, then, is the first of this series to actually investigate how Jessie and Celine might function as a married couple entering into middle age together. 

As its impossibly gorgeous European locale, Before Midnight takes Greece.  Jessie has been invited to a kind of summer writers program at the home of a Grecian author.  Jessie’s son from his first marriage, Hank, has spent his summer in Greece with Jessie and Celine.  The film’s opening sees Jessie sending Hank back home, and it captures the nice dynamic between an inarticulate early teen and his loquacious father.  Jessie keeps on trying to engage his son in conversation, but Hank doesn’t bite, and you start to think that maybe the relationship between the two is strained.  But before passing through security, Hank blurts out that this has been the best summer of his life.  Jessie returns to Celine and their twin blonde headed moppets who are waiting outside the airport, but it is clear that the geographical divide between he and his son weighs on Jessie, a problem that has subtly torn at Celine and Jessie’s relationship.

Like the two prior films, Before Midnight could easily have been produced as a stage play.  The film can be divided into at least four distinct parts: the drive home from the airport, the Grecian dinner party, the walk to the hotel, and the confrontation at the hotel.  In each section, the camera maintains long shots that hold for what I would imagine are at least ten minutes at a time.  The drive home appears to be nearly one long shot.  But Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy have developed such charisma and so easily inhabit these characters that their back and forth creates a kind of suspense.  We wish to know what each character will say next. 

The movie’s fulcrum is a playful dinner scene where several generations of diners discuss the possibilities and permutations of relationships.  A twenty-something couple who are clearly infatuated with each other at the same time deny that monogamy is even possible.  A couple, around the same age as Jessie and Celine, clearly takes a cynical view of their relationship and never really take it seriously.  The elderly host, meanwhile, speaks to the necessity of always being two in a relationship, of never fully melding your identity with that of your husband or wife.  In one story that’s bandied about, a guest recounts a lengthy autobiography/letter left behind by her grandmother where her husband only takes up a grand total of a few pages.  For this woman, her female friends were the relationships she truly cherished. 

The entire film culminates with a confrontation in a hotel room.  As a present, Jessie and Celine were given a hotel room for the night so that they could get away from their two daughters and have a romantic evening.  This eventually results in a truly epic fight.  But on their walk to the hotel, the two engage in the kinds of conversations that we have come to expect from these two.  At the same time it is clear that after nine years, these little tete-a-tete’s have become increasingly rare.  After reaching the hotel, their romantic evening is stymied by an argument that begins with an off handed comment Jessie made earlier about wanting to move back to the States in order to be closer to his son, a comment which resulted in a number of subtle and not so subtle jabs by Celine over the course of the day.  But soon the argument veers off in a number of directions, building on nine years of issues left unresolved. 
Perhaps the closest cinematic equivalent to the blow up between Celine and Jessie is the Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor drama Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf?  But despite the level of anger and the deep wounds Celine and Jessie inflict on one another over the course of this argument, it never quite veers into the bleak cynicism of Wolf.  Burton and Taylor’s characters love seemed to manifest only when they were tearing at one another.  It knew no other form.  We know that Celine and Jessie are capable of transcending all of the every day difficulties of life.  Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater also manage to stage the fight in such a way that it veers from raw to humorous.  A combatant might spew an argument ending decree only to come back with an “And another thing…”  The filmmakers are also careful to take the complaints of disappointments and unmet needs seriously.  Neither character is fully right nor wrong.  When Celine engages in a typical feminist argument that she is burdened with the childcare, we might not fully agree with the degree of her claims.  But at the same time it’s clear that Jessie is attempting to position her as the irrational female.  No doubt, there is some truth in Celine’s critique that sexism affects their relationship.

Before entering the hotel, Jessie and Celine sit by the Mediterranean watching the sunset.  Jessie narrates the sun’s disappearance over some seaside cliffs: “Still there. Still there. Still there. It’s gone.”  The fight in the hotel room is at times so mean spirited, so vicious that it could easily be the end.  Their relationship might one day be there and the next gone.  And like the previous two films, things end somewhat ambiguously.  We are not given full closure on the story of Jessie and Celine, because as an audience, we must leave before their narrative is truly over.  But call me an optimist, because I think these two will stay together long into old age.  Despite it all, they are just too interesting together to break up. 

It’s hard to overstate what the trio of Hawke, Delpy, and Linklater have accomplished with the Before Trilogy.  Each successive movie only deepens these characters.  And the themes have become more nuanced, more multifaceted with time.  If Before Midnight isn’t the most enjoyable of the three movies (and that’s not to say it is ever dull), it is perhaps the best of the trilogy.  My guess is that Midnight marks the end of this series, but without a doubt the relationship between Jessie and Celine lives on in the minds of their fans.  The characters seem to live outside of the screen.