April 22, 2007

Revisiting Dances

Looking for Mr. DunbarWhen it was released 17 years ago—yes, it’s been nearly a generation—DWW was heralded as a masterpiece of sorts, a film that humanized Indians by portraying fully-developed characters speaking their native tongue.

But that was then, and then isn’t now. The film has grown wearisome; the portrayal of John Dunbar as the White superhero swooping in to save the Indians was just a new age version of an old, old tale. But maybe, just maybe, it’s time to revisit that idea. Maybe, just maybe, Dances With Wolves isn’t so bad after all.

16 comments:

greggie said...

All right. Here it is. My big confession. My guilty pleasure: I saw DWW nine times in theatre. nine. I own the special edition DVD. and the regular edition DVD. the 'making-of' book. and the book "mystic warriors of the plains" by Thomas E. Mails that served as a primary reference for DWW. what can I say, aside from it's shortcomings, it was a solid piece of filmmaking and storytelling.

I was fourteen when it came out, and that previous summer, I had driven across the country--through the great plains--with my grandparents to Montana to help them move (from Ohio). My brain was ripe for that film to make an impression.

As a fourteen year old, I hadn't gotten really anything in school that amounted to a balanced discussion of westward expansionism. The term came up, the teacher glanced over what the prevailing attitudes were among the US government at the time and we moved on.

I feel 100% confident that if it had not been for those two things, having driven through the Black Hills and visited several reservations, and then having seen DWW, I would not be writing this today. Blue Corn comics would be anathma to me. Issues of Native Soveriegnty would probably be important to me, but I would lack any depth in understanding what the issues really are. The reason I say this is that immediately after watching DWW, luck put three books in front of me that changed my understanding of the world. "Wasichu: The Continuing Indian Wars" (which ironically was in the school library--why didn't the teachers ever read it?); John Fire Lame Deer: Seeker of Visions & Black Elk Speaks. By the time I turned fifteen, I was getting regular demerits for refusing to stand during flag pledge. Yes, directly or indirectly, DWW made me a radical--or at least peaked my interest enough to lead me towards real history books (not the ones the school board approved).

In retrospect, I can see the obvious flaws with DWW. Even in the special documentaries included in the special features, one can easily pick up on a sense of paternalism on the part of the filmmakers--thus it isn't surprising that it should be obvious in the final film as well (aside from the fact that the entire premise of the film was paternalistic).

But as far as progressive filmmaking, I would give DWW kudos.
Especially when one stands it next to "Black Robe" which came out soon thereafter (which I saw in the theatre as well. I remember leaving the theatre feeling traumatized.). In my opinion "Black Robe" was unique in it's blatent racism--I feel Black Robe went beyond stereotypes--or rather it tried to revamp Native stereotypes by adding "sadistic" & "barbaric" to the list. I rented it not too long ago, to re-evaluate it from the perspective of a 30 year old brain. I am still appalled by that film.

I am not, however, a DWW apologist. Scenes like the one in which the Pawnee are attacking the Lakota village: The first wave makes it's way into the camp--the camera follows a pawnee warrior as he runs through the encampment, looking here and there for Lakota....and WHAM! Stone Calf breaks the stock of a Remington across his head. The Pawnee drops like a sack of potatos...then Dunbar appears. "NO!! You gotta SHOOT the gun!!" he says. Now...one would have to assume that a mid 19th century Lakota elder would know what to do with a rifle. In fact, in a scene just prior to this (when they are rushing around because they receive word that the Pawnee are coming), Dunbar tells STONE CALF and Ten Bears that he has "Maza Wakan"--the Lakota word for rifle--and he and Smiles-a-lot go to retrieve them rom Ft. Sedgewick. Don't you think that since there is a Lakota word for rifle, that the Lakota of that time would be familiar with rifles?

Also, in an earlier scene, (just prior to the Buffalo Hunt scene, and just after the scene in which the village, en route, come upon the skinned bison carcases), there is a celebration after the Lakota had--it is implied--killed and scalped the hunting party responsible for the wasteful slaughter of the bison. During this scene (and an even earlier scene where dunbar interrupts a ceremonial dance to convey that he'd seen buffalo and gets the shit kicked out of him)--in both of these scenes, I believe one can hear/see rifles going off. But somehow Stone Calf needs the Lt. Dunbar course in firearm training. Not only is this presumptuous, but it is also a continuity error.

I think that if you can watch DWW with a critical eye, it is still a classic, though.

Rob said...

Wow, Greg. Thanks for an excellent example of how entertainment media can shape one's perception of reality.

I'm sure Dances with Wolves had a positive effect on my view of Indians too, although it wasn't the same kind of turning point. You can bet it enlightened many people the same way.

If a movie like this can change perceptions for the better, stereotypical movies and comic books and mascots can change them for the worse. That's what we're all about here: criticizing the negative and accentuating the positive.

greggie said...

well, you know....
I guess some folks are STAR WARS nerds...oh crap, I'm that, too!!

I am not holding DWW up on a pedesatl
If anything, my reaction to it maybe could speak volumes as to how much more work needs to be done in regard to fostering positive multicultural perspectives?

Rob said...

Dances is still a milestone among Native-themed movies. I'd say it's still one of the best. But yes, we need to do more to make movies from a Native and multicultural perspective.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Okay, one more post. But - but - but... That only means you disagree with the story, and that would be fair. But if you then believe that the film disagrees with history, then you have fallen into the same sand trap that has Rob Schmidt bogeying the 14th hole at Sawgrass when he had a shot at beating Tiger Woods. As writerfella has posted heretofore, the only 'bad science' he saw in DANCES WITH WOLVES was the incident of the Conquistadore Helmet. The original novel was about the Comanche in Texas and somehow was transmogrified into a screenplay about the Sioux at Costner's insistence. The Comanche indeed did meet the Spaniards in the 15th Century in what is now Texas, but the Sioux never met the Spaniards because they did not occupy what is now the Black Hills in that same Century. Disagreeing with the story is not the same thing as the story disagreeing with history, as the film is fictional and not in any way approaching a documentary. If fiction is demanded to agree perfectly and seamlessly with history, then it no longer is fiction, as fiction is about things that never happened but that we wish that they might have. Rob Schmidt has done comic book stories about Natives that purely are fictional, but he fails to see that even his stories never occurred. That does not diminish their appeal as entertainments and in fact even may enhance them. One may work in a medium of entertainment and still not understand the principles by which such matters operate. It is not logical, but it is most often true...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Greg gave an example of bad history in Dances: that some Lakota didn't know how to operate a rifle. Add that to your list of the story's disagreeing with history.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
We now are back at writerfella's hotel, and the undergraduate escort suddenly asked if he could stay in writerfella's room. writerfella said yes, but he succinctly stated that the young man must sleep in his own sleeping bag on the floor. Even writerfella knows the difference between fantasy and reality...
Wow, fiction and reality are at war, and Rob continues to say that they somehow must be one and the same. What does that mean, except that Rob yet actually has to encounter realities that do not agree with his fantasies? Poor baby! This is something that writerfella deals with every day of his life. How writerfella responds to such a war has made his life both interesting and valuable. Sounds like Rob has gone through life with many earmuffs and blinders installed...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

Greg told us how Dances impressed him, Russ. But you seemed to have missed his point entirely. Until he read more on the subject, Dances was his main source of info on Indians. Its fantasy was his reality.

I've said that many people can't tell the difference between what's real and what's fantasy in a movie. That's exactly why so many people think Indians are savages: because they saw it in a movie and thought it was reality. They, not I, didn't know the difference.

Are you really so obtuse that you don't understand this much yet? It amazes me that I can make the same point over and over and people like you still can't seem to grasp it. It doesn't matter how many times I quote people like Greg who learned Indians from movies, you just don't get it.

Wow. I suggest you take a course in Stereotypes 101 before you open your mouth again. To someone who has actually studied the subject for years, you're only embarrassing yourself.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
For writerfella, Stereotypes 101 was lived rather than taken as a mere course. It is you, Rob, who are embarrassing yourself because you never will fathom what stereotypes and racial bias and discrimination really mean to the victims. You may not realize that you only are a moccasin salesman and not a wearer of same...
All Best
Russ bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

As usual, you couldn't address any of the points I made in my response. So noted.

When I claim to know how being stereotyped feels, you'll be the first to know. But my postings are on how stereotyping happens, not how it feels. How it feels is irrelevant to the question of how it happens.

You may have been stereotyped in life, but you sure don't understand anything about the stereotyping process. In other words, you can't see the forest for the trees. As you've amply demonstrated in your comments.

Yeah, my expertise is so "embarrassing" that my site's traffic has roughly doubled in the last few months. I was just cited in a New York Daily News article on SCALPED even though the author didn't contact me. Compared to this growing recognition, your opinion of me is worthless.

Even on its own terms, your moccasin analogy fails. A moccasin salesman is quite likely to know more about moccasins than a moccasin wearer. This becomes obvious if you consider a shoe salesman vs. a shoe wearer. Or do you claim to know more about footwear than a salesman who spends eight hours a day thinking about the subject?

Yep, you're like a moccasin wearer who buys a pair of moccasins and then wears them without thinking about them. While I'm like a moccasin salesman who has studied the subject thoroughly and knows all about it. I take it back...your analogy is right on. Thanks for making my point for me.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
And now writerfella will reveal WHY he rarely answers the circuitous questions asked by Rob Schmidt on this blog. And it is this: they are 'have you stopped beating your wife?' questions. Answer yes, and you admit that you beat your wife. Answer no, and you're saying you haven't stopped...
These are 'lawyer' questions in that they so are couched that the asker already knows what the answers are that he wants, and if the respondent falls for the subterfuge, he loses. Thus, Rob always speaks of winning or losing in the confrontational politics that he practices on this blog. But writerfella ignores those questions and proceeds on his merry way, much to the displeasure of the webmaster. Poor baby, he so is devoted to the attributes of social and/or political debate that he has forgotten the simple characteristics and pleasures of ordinary conversation. Wow, that's sad...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

As usual, you couldn't address any of the points I made in my response. So noted, again.

In particular, you have nothing to say about feeling vs. understanding stereotypes or wearing vs. selling moccasins. These are statements, not questions, so your inane comment about "wife-beating" questions doesn't apply.

I love your litany of excuses for not answering questions. Sometimes you think you've already answered; sometimes you think the questions are unfair. The only constant is your failure to answer.

Apparently, your idea of "ordinary conversation" is telling me why I'm wrong or asserting how much more you know. As you've done in this exchange.

When you engage in "ordinary conservation" like that, you can expect to have your ignorant claims and cowardly refusal to answer questions slapped down...hard. No way should I or anyone else have to tolerate your arrogant attitude of superiority.

If you think I'm displeased at ridiculing your juvenile antics, you don't know me very well. There are few things I enjoy more than putting a blowhard and obfuscator in his place.

russell said...

Writerfella here --
Wrong-o, again. writerfella came to this website with no preconceptions, and so he continues. It is Rob who established this website with a plethora of preconceptions and therefore only can defend same. Now, the test is if there is a response, and then all viewers then analyze exactly what he says and how it was said. If ther is no answer, then that itself is the answer...
All Best
Russ Bates
'writerfella'

Rob said...

As usual, you couldn't address any of the points I made in my response. So noted, yet again.

I didn't say you came to the website with preconceptions, so that's another non sequitur. As for me, I've documented why I believe things with facts and evidence. You'd lose fewer debates if you did the same.

Translation of "If there is no answer, then that itself is the answer...": If you can't answer a question, you won't answer it. When you can't take the heat, you stay out of the kitchen. Smart move on your part, because I kick your butt whenever you try to challenge me.

Next time you buy a pair of moccasins, ask the salesman where they came from and how they were made. And next time you come across a Native stereotype, ask me to explain it to you. Like the salesman, I'll be glad to help.

Anonymous said...

umm you idiots wasichu means whites + jhon dunbar is named dances wit wolves coz he was playin wit a wolf

Rob said...

Thanks for stating the obvious, Anonymous. Now tell us something we don't know.