Monday, April 16, 2012

Pow Wow Highway

1989, 88 min., R - language, mild violence
IMDB says... Social realism regarding struggles of reservation-dwelling Native Americans in the North Central states of the US. Main character is an introspective and lovable person in a process of seeking pride and identity through tradtional and mystical means of gathering power. His high school friend, who is a Vietnam War Veteran, is exerting power as a highly principled social activist, using a modern rational materialist adversarial model of progress. Written by Stan Detering <>

The 73rd Virgin says... Uh wow. I had no idea. The movie I saw is about a chubby, dreamy young Cheyenne man, Philbert, living on the Rez in Lame Deer, Wyoming, who decides it is time to start gathering “medicine” in order to become a great warrior. He has selected for himself a warrior name, Whirlwind Dreamer, now all he needs is a pony and 4 tokens that show he is on the right path to becoming a warrior. He trades a bag of grass, some whiskey and a few dollars for a rusted out Dodge Dart, (I think - not good with car models), names it “Protector the War Pony” and prepares for greatness.

Gary Farmer brings a wide childish smile and sense of wonder to every scene and line of dialog. He is the main reason to see the movie. Here he visits his Aunt and receives no encouragement.

While this is going on an evil mining corporation is presenting development plans to the tribal council, promising more employment and profit sharing. The tribe’s livestock purchasing agent, Indian rights activist, environmental activist, decorated Vietnam vet and all-purpose hot-headed good guy is Buddy Red Bow (A Martinez – not a typo – no period either). He confronts the corporate front man Youngblood and threatens the mining company’s interest.

So – stay with me here – the mining company gets the FBI to work with Santa Fe, New Mexico local police to frame up Buddy’s sister, Bonnie, on a drug trafficking charge in order to get Buddy to leave the Rez while the tribal vote is on. Yeah…maybe it worked better in the novel by David Seals.

Anyway, this sets up the road movie aspect as Buddy takes some money he was supposed to use for livestock purchases and hires Philbert and Protector to take him to Santa Fe. They begin their road trip in the right direction but Philbert has a CB radio conversation with an Indian truck driver who tells him to visit Sweet Butte in the Black Hills of South Dakota (I didn’t catch the Indian name for the holy spot).

Philbert celebrates climbing the butte by settling in for a Hershey Bar, but thinks better of it and leaves it as a token. Then they meet a couple Sioux who invite them to a powwow (spelling is flexible - sometimes pow-wow, sometimes pow wow) at the Pine Ridge Reservation. This is really the best part of the movie because it focuses humorously but somewhat thoughtfully on Philbert’s development and has some very nice scenery.

Not in the clips is a fine scene where Philbert stands in a stream and sings to the sun(set? maybe sunrise. Dunno) and coaxes Buddy to join him.

While at Pine Ridge they meet up with another ‘nam vet, Wolf Tooth (Buddy seems to know and have served with every American Indian who set foot in ‘nam), and his wife who have run afoul of the villainous Sioux tribal leaders and are giving up and moving to Denver. These parties all confront each other at the powwow where the names AIM and Leonard Peltier get dropped, when yet ANOTHER ‘nam vet (Graham Greene stealing his one scene) breaks it up with an unlikely knife throw. Other than Greene, some of the acting problems come to the fore.

There are several more excellent road movie moments as the crew heads on to Santa Fe. But then they have to figure out how to wrap up the story and things start to get sloppy. They hook up with a white-eyes girl named Rabbit (Amanda Wyss) who happens to be Bonnie Red Bow’s best friend and seems to have been introduced in order to admire Buddy and to talk like Holly Hunter, and then we head for our conclusion.

The last 30 minutes degrades much of the positive vibe of the first 60 as the movie tries to be too many things at once, and the story structure gets less believable and more random. Characters conveniently appear out of nowhere and we get a clunky car chase involving a police car doing the old pop up and roll over trick apparently due to a broken windshield.

Most of the lead acting isn’t very good, while the supporting actors are better. A Martinez looks and acts like he dropped in from Welcome Back Kotter. Apparently he was in The Cowboys with John Wayne and seems to work constantly on TV to this day. My wife recognized him. The bad guy Anglo actors are about as skilled as the bad guy Anglo actors in Hong Kong movies.

We can add one sheep for Farmer’s performance and perhaps for this movie’s foundational status since it puts in place all the pieces for the great Smoke Signals and the very good Skins. A handful of scenes juxtapose the presumed glory of the old Indian warriors with slow tracking shots through the devastation and poverty of the modern-day reservation.

It also gives us Graham Greene not long before his Oscar nominated performance in the execrable Dances With Wolves and Wes Studi (a real Vietnam vet) only a few years before his pitch-perfect Magua in Last of the Mohicans.

Beatle George Harrison has an Executive Producer credit. The Band’s Robbie Robertson does much of the soundtrack and does one song with rent-a-status-enhancer U2 even before they started lending their star power to every other art house movie. The movie is dated 1989 but in the credits has a parenthetical 1985, so maybe it sat on the shelf a while. To belabor the point, it’s worth seeing mostly because of Gary Farmer.

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