Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

IAS Film Notes: Pow Wow Highway

The last few days have been very busy. I attended the Arizona Quarterly Symposium, where I saw excellent talks, including one by our own Susan White that made great use of still and clips. I got to hang out with zonaroja, who was in town for the conference, and other people whose company I greatly enjoy. And I was the discussion leader for the International Arts Society screening of Pow Wow Highway last night, which was well received. Here are the film notes I wrote for the occasion:

Pow Wow Highway

Jonathan Wachs, director – United States (1989)

Pow Wow Highway is a film about letting go. The past haunts the Lame Deer Reservation of the Northern Cheyenne, where Philbert Bono (Gary Farmer) and Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez) live, as it haunts all of Native America. But the manner of that haunting is complex. At the beginning of the film, Philbert sees an ad on television for used cars. Inspired, he heads out to buy one. As it turns out, the lot he visits is really just a field, the wares it displays better suited for scrap metal than steaming down the highway. It's a depressing spectacle, reinforcing the sense that the reservation and its inhabitants are no longer in working order. Once powerful, the cars he sees have been rendered impotent by neglect. And so have Philbert's people. When Philbert stares out the rusty skeletons, though, his face lights up. In his mind, as the next shots reveal, the inert hulks become galloping horses, the death of the machine transformed into the life of the creature. He sees ghosts, surely, but he welcomes the sight.

His friend Buddy initially mocks this mode of seeing. Sharp-tongued, his mind not dulled by drink or despair, he resists spirits with the self-assurance that comes with Enlightenment. Like the eighteenth-century philosophes who set out to rid the world of superstition, he perceives tradition, not as a shelter, but a prison. He wants his tribe to face the future instead of the past. And yet Buddy is himself haunted. Later in the film, when he and Philbert find themselves on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he meets up with two men who served in Vietnam with him. The first, Wolf Tooth, looks and acts like an intellectual, better suited to life in the mainstream than on the reservation, where he is singled out for abuse by the bullies who run the place. The second, however, is as bad off as those cars in the field. He can still throw a knife clear across the room to make a point, but the war and its aftermath have almost silenced him. The radical difference between these two men reminds us of the war inside Buddy. Even though he can pass as a well-adjusted man in the present, there is damage lurking beneath that impression of fitness. He's like the used car that looks too good to be true. Philbert, on the other hand, resembles the rusted hulk of the 1964 Buick he drives away from the field: awkward and out of shape, he runs a lot better than a casual observer would imagine.

As it turns out, it is Buddy who needs to let go of the past. Although Philbert is committed to reanimating his tribe's atrophied traditions, he is not incapacitated by nostalgia for a time of plenty. From his perspective, narratives of progress or decline are irrelevant. The past is what we make into the future: it faces us no matter what direction we turn. Buddy, by contrast, remains fixated on the injuries suffered by his people and, in the process, himself. Even his time as a radical in the American Indian Movement, when he fought a different sort of battle alongside Wolf Tooth, holds him captive. He was there, man, not only in Southeast Asia as the threadbare slogan suggests, but also at Wounded Knee. But his "was" eclipses his "is," as the AIM T-shirt he proudly wears indicates. He is a progressive living in the past.

The film turns on the irony of this condition. Although Pow Wow Highway fits neatly into the genre of the road movie, it is also -- like many other films involving journeys -- a conversion narrative. Buddy has to transcend the condescension he directs at his people, Philbert included, and learn to see the world through the lens of faith instead of doubt. Early in David Seals's 1979 novel The Pow Wow Highway, on which the film is based, we get a clear sense of the sense of superiority that accompanies his hard-won worldly wisdom:
Buddy had the larger visions. To be Cheyenne was everything.

The great world out there was doomed. Even the Sioux were damned. Civil war after Wounded Knee was tearing them apart. They had always been the obvious target of the secret police. The Cheyenne would lie low until America spent itself and its economic glory into inevitable oblivion. Even the Navaho knew it was coming.

It remained only for the Cheyenne to pull together, and not in some phony reproduction of the past. Even poor old Philbert, whom everyone loathed, harbored some hopes of returning like eagles to caves in Bear Butte, where Sweet Medicine began their race. Ugh!
Buddy sincerely wishes to lead his people. But his thoughts follow a pre-determined plot that saps the will to act. The passivity of Seals's language here, which reflects Buddy's stream of consciousness, makes this point beautifully. If "to be Cheyenne" is everything, to act Cheyenne and, more importantly, to act as Cheyenne is, by implication, nothing. Buddy recognizes the need for his tribe to "pull together," but conceives of himself apart from them. If he has the "larger visions," it is because he believes that they are doomed to be small without his guidance. The problem, though, is that he can't make out where to lead them. After all, waiting for the "inevitable oblivion" of your oppressors hardly constitutes purposeful action.

This critique of countercultural radicalism manages to be sympathetic to Buddy's worldview without endorsing it. Both the book and the film make it clear that his paranoia is justified. What isn't, though, is the paralysis that accompanies it. The only reason that Buddy gets a move on, literally and figuratively, is because his sister Bonnie's arrest in Santa Fe forces him to act and because Philbert has already acted on his desire to procure a "pony." Buddy mocks the calm sense of purpose with which Philbert confronts the world. It is that attitude, though, that is able to achieve results in the film. When, upon arriving at the jail where Bonnie is being held, Buddy makes a big fuss, he is dragged out of the building without even getting to say a proper hello. Philbert, meanwhile, takes advantage of the distraction to investigate its empty corridors -- most of the officers and staff are at a Christmas party -- ultimately emerging unscathed with $4000 he has found in the basement.

In a sense, then, Pow Wow Highway is arguing that belief is more practical -- in the sense of getting things done -- than doubt. A key exchange between Buddy and Philbert bears this out:
Buddy: You tell everybody fairy stories.

Philbert: The stories of our ancestors. How they solved problems. Often the problems never change. Nor the people.

Buddy: Yeah, well it's just too bad those stories don't tell us how to keep our reservations from turning into sewers.

Philbert: But they do.
Philbert is certainly no apologist for the status quo. At one point in the novel he speaks approvingly of Leonard Peltier, the activist still being held in Federal prison for what many people feel were trumped up charges. And the film ends with him extending his hand, thumbs up, to Buddy, for the special shake used by AIM radicals. Yet he recognizes that making his world better can only be possible if he sees it that way first. His vision may not be as large as the one Buddy possesses at the beginning of the film, but it is ultimately a lot more powerful. Philbert sees reality just fine -- he knows that his "pony" is a 1964 Buick -- but he also demonstrates the capacity to see through reality. In the middle of the film, after he and Buddy have agreed to drive Wolf Tooth (Wayne Waterman) and his partner Imogene (Margot Kane) to Denver, to which they are fleeing from the corruption and squalor of Pine Ridge, the foursome find themselves in a classic High Plains blizzard. But Philbert placidly presses on. When he does finally pull the car over, it is not because he has admitted a failure of vision, but because he wants to see a historical landmark commemorating the trek a party of Cheyenne took from their Oklahoma diaspora back towards their homeland. We see him standing in front of the sign. Then Buddy joins him. Philbert has become the latter's guide, reversing the asymmetry in their childhood relationship, when Buddy picked on him mercilessly. Buddy may be more enlightened in an intellectual sense, but only Philbert is able to peer through the "white out" to make out a future that respects the past while escaping the bondage of memory. Where others see damage, he discerns potential.
Tags: everyday, film, ias

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