Moving Forward

'Smoke Signals' director Chris Eyre takes his progressive new film on the road

At 10 a.m. on a gloomy Saturday in September, a crowd of people, most of them Native Americans, steps single file into the back of a semi truck parked near the Peacemaker Center off Cedar Avenue. Inside there are more metal steps and a black curtain, which each person must push past to enter the dark bed of the semi. Then each visitor settles into one of 110 cushy stadium seats in a movie theater with cup holders, free popcorn, and very loud THX surround sound. With the help of this fancy "Cinetransformer Mobile Cinema," Smoke Signals director Chris Eyre has taken his new feature Skins on the rez road, from Costa Mesa Pow Wow to Navajo Nation to Pine Ridge, where the movie was filmed. Minneapolis is the seventh of 11 stops, and this is the first of four free screenings today.

"Of course, we realize this is a relocation bus," cracks one older woman as she takes her seat. The crowd laughs, and she pushes it: "At least this time we get an in-flight movie."

As the lights dim and Skins begins (with a roll call of Pine Ridge statistics: poorest of all U.S. counties, life expectancy less than average by 15 years), I decide that Eyre's movie is actually more intent on grounding viewers than on taking them for a ride. Where Smoke Signals set two engaging young men forth on a surreal road trip, Skins focuses on a Pine Ridge family whose problems can't be escaped through simple motion. Rudy (Eric Schweig) is an earnest reservation cop; his brother Mogie (Graham Greene) is an unrepentant alcoholic who loiters at the liquor stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska, just outside the reservation. Greene's cantankerous Vietnam vet wags the tongue of a trickster: He's a holy fool, and today's audience cheers him on. But Skins dares to expose Mogie's ugliness, too--dares to be angry about wasted lives like his.

The inquisitive one in the family: director Chris Eyre on the set of 'Skins'
First Look Pictures
The inquisitive one in the family: director Chris Eyre on the set of 'Skins'

"Somebody wrote that Smoke Signals was a more mature movie," Eyre says later, sitting on a nearby park bench. "And I thought, 'Wow, they missed the boat.'" The 32-year-old director takes another bite of his glazed donut and shakes his head. "I find Smoke Signals to be a charming movie, and it has the same sensibility in the end: We're trying to touch those we love and hold onto them. But this movie is much more vulnerable. I'm talking about owning Mogie. For Indian people, that's maturity. That's about owning the good, the bad, and the ugly--not just the powwow, horse-culture bullshit. That's how you grow, how you move forward."

If Rudy's emotional journey provides the movie's spine, Mogie represents its heart. Greene, one of this country's best (and most underutilized) actors, shrugs off some clunky speechifying to fashion an indelibly incorrigible character. (Jennifer D. Lyne's script, based on Adrian C. Louis's eponymous novel, does leave me nostalgic at times for Smoke Signals' deft and surprising dialogue, which came courtesy of Sherman Alexie.) Whether Mogie is woozily aiming a rifle or defending Madonna, his great love, Greene's physical comedy finds the fiery soul beneath the beer-soaked haze. He even projects some sass from under a mummy mask of medical gauze. (The man deserves to be grasping a gold statue next year.)

All the screenings before Minneapolis's have attracted turn-away crowds. Eyre wishes he could keep his theater on the road, but even this jaunt is costing his producers six figures. After the 10 a.m. screening, Eyre shakes hands with viewers. ("It's the closest I'll come to being a rock star," he jokes.) His lead actor Schweig quietly tells the audience that his mother died of alcohol addiction, that he never knew her. An Inuit/German, he was raised by a white adoptive family. "I left home at 16 and started drinking. I'm an ex-Mogie myself."

It's that tradition of deep alienation that leads to Rudy's transgressive final act--involving a bucket of crimson paint and George Washington's face at Mt. Rushmore. Initially the gesture strikes me as a smart-ass prank--on the part of Rudy and the movie. But the resulting image is so heavy with history and portent that it makes my head spin--especially since I'm seeing the film on a day in mid-September.

"I was cutting the movie when 9/11 happened," remembers Eyre, who is of Cheyenne-Arapaho descent. "And my first instinct was, 'We're never going to be able to distribute this movie--at least not with that ending.' I thought that what 9/11 was going to do--and did do--was galvanize our patriotism. Since then, I think this is the way the movie is supposed to be. Because what we should be doing, after 9/11, is examining ourselves so that we can move forward collectively. We say we want to be the world's humanitarians, but the relationship between the U.S. and Indian Country is an open wound. I certainly don't have the answers, but I'm pissed off enough that I want the American family to look at itself and be honest. I'm like the kid who wakes up in the morning and asks, 'Why are things like this?' How does a county like Pine Ridge exist in this country? I still don't understand."

 
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