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The New Western

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carl richardson

Well, 1992 is not 2014. People still had problems. They did not own tiny screens to touch with the tip of a forefinger to make it all better. But seriously, a movie like Thunderheart (1992) illustrates westerns in their present guise. They are about any age, era, decade, or other measurement of time that follows the so-called Wild West. One thing that has not changed is the West's sharp distinction from the East. In Old Westerns and New Westerns alike, the West is different. That is because it is. In Thunderheart, ARM, or the Aboriginal Rights Movement, mimics AIM, the American Indian Movement. The film re-creates with embellishments the unrest that occurred on Pine Ridge Reservation. It is all there: shootouts with the FBI, unexplained murders, and as much unsightly poverty as the most unrepentant slummer would ever wish to experience, first-hand or vicariously.

I cannot watch such a film without wondering how it got made and why. Despite a big-name star, a renowned director, as well as additional recognizable actors, the Native American world is basically not an attention-grabber. I can say this with some conviction because I live in the vicinity. Years back, in NYC, I was an avid reader of Tony Hillerman. After five years in New Mexico, I have seldom if ever heard his name mentioned. It was from his mysteries that I learned about shape-shifting, sand-painting, and the black market in pottery. Sometimes, while on the road, staring into the distance, looking at one mesa formation after another, surrounded by faded green vegetation, it seems as though to be here is to have been exiled. In ancient Greek dramas, when characters are banished from great city-states, it is to places like Nowhere, South Dakota they are sent. To be here is to be forgotten. Few prior acquaintances will even bother to call, let alone visit. To be here is also to be out of one's mind. The West is pure lunacy, hundreds of miles out, stranded, weird, and inconvenient. With so little to see or do, why do people complain about casinos? But that is a different matter, involving the entire Judeo-Christian tradition, I suppose.

Ah, but the true denizen of this outer universe knows it with a high degree of sophistication hard to come by. There is such a character in the film. He is an old man in whom the living memory of Ghost Shirts and Wounded Knee still survives. He tells as much to the young detective, Ray Levoi (Val Kilmer), part Sioux. Some of the drama has to do with the parallel ways in which reality is interpreted. White and Red perspectives share little common ground. The Sam Shepherd character, Frank Coutelle, sees every action and situation according to the point of view of the dominant culture. But early on, Levoi gets a case of double vision. From then and there, it only gets worse. He has an epiphany as well as a persistent, troubled feeling that he is not so much on a reservation to solve a crime and get out, as to delve deeper into who he really is.

Today, people are all ancestry dot com affiliates. I am asked all the time about where I come from and what my heritage is. It is an epidemic. These casual, unintended assaults are mostly irrelevant and mask to a substantial degree the emptiness and silliness of the inquiries. What's wrong with an undefined human being? I believe I read somewhere that the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, in conversation, always claimed to be from Switzerland. Not everyone wants to deal with the dubious link between a blood corpuscle and a national flag. But sometimes, the opposite actually occurs. One thinks in terms of the larger aggregate. No man is an island says it all. If things were all right in the aforementioned Native American world, there would not be a need for the discussions that occur in the movie about nations, full- or half-bloodedness, and related esoterica. There is more than a hint, however, in this story, that Levoi is being called upon or chosen for a reason he himself must determine, whether through a homicide investigation or transcendental self-analysis.

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