March 03, 2008

Indians in Next Stop Wonderland

In this 1998 romantic comedy, Philip Seymour Hoffman is a supposedly committed activist. At the beginning of the film, he leaves girlfriend Hope Davis to protest with the "Tantoonis" in Arizona. It seems this tribe is trying to protect some burial grounds from being flooded by a dam.

Later he returns, disillusioned. The Tantoonis saved their land only to build a casino on it. What's a card-carrying liberal to do, the movie implies, if even the noble Indian is a sellout?

Several problems with this scenario:

1) "Tantooni" isn't remotely like the name of an actual Arizona tribe. It sounds like something out of Star Wars or a Tarzan movie. The result is that the tribe seems more remote and exotic than it would be in reality.

2) There may be one or two cases where tribes have built casinos on or near burial grounds. There are 400-some cases where they haven't. In other words, the situation in Next Stop Wonderland is an extremely unlikely exception, not the rule.

3) So what if the Indians used the land to build a casino? Should they have let the dam flood it instead? One of the reasons for having land is to use it for the tribe's benefit. That includes ventures such as mining, tourism, or gaming--none of which are traditional Indian pursuits.

4) Hoffman's character was hopelessly naive if he didn't realize the tribe might use the land for a casino. In 1998, the idea of building Indian casinos was well established. If he cared about this outcome, he should've investigated it. Even if the tribe kept its plans secret, which is unlikely, the surrounding communities would've publicized the possibility of a casino.

In short, Next Stop Wonderland presents a minor but typical case of stereotyping Indians. The fictional Tantoonis live in the middle of nowhere, Arizona. Their existence is defined by protesting against progress. But they're no good at it; they need the white man's help to protect themselves from development. Once they achieve success, it turns out they're insincere and amoral. In fact, they're so greedy they'd build a casino on top of their ancestors.

Other than this brief exchange about Indians, the movie was good but not great. Rob's rating: 7.5 of 10.

For more on Native-themed movies, see The Best Indian Movies. For more on Indian gaming, see The Facts About Indian Gaming.


writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Boy, that film really must have flown under the radar, as writerfella never heard burble one about it. So, from research, Wonderland of the title is a subway stop in Boston. The movie basically was a romantic comedy. Hope Davis and Philip Seymour Hoffman are on-again, off-again couple who hit the big split and she winds up with Alan Gelfant, a plumber-turned-Marine-Biologist due to her meddling mother. Other than the storyline of will-they-get-together-or-not, any Native subplot must have been a throwaway McGuffin. Other than the above, Boxoffice Mojo tracks its performance domestically at $3,395,581 which means it was a humongous flop. Written and directed by Brad Anderson, there seem to be no other credits for that name...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

As I said, there's only a brief exchange about Indians. It doesn't rise to the level of "subplot."

You can make a quality movie for less than $1 million, you know. A movie that earns $3.4 million may be an underachiever, but it isn't necessarily a flop.

Brad Anderson has written and directed several movies. None of them are major, but this isn't his only credit.

According to my rating system, Next Stop Wonderland is about as good as John Ford's Fort Apache and Cheyenne Autumn, Randy Redroads's The Doe Boy, and Dick Wolf's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Now that you know, you can check it out.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Boy, Rob, the Director's Guild is going to be knocking on your door very soon, after that one! Hint: don't answer, and they won't shoot your dogs, or sully your laundry, or even tell your neighbors that you are wanted on several warrants for DUI. But if Gus van Sant pops up several times in your backyard, move!
All Best
Russ Bates

Anonymous said...

While I agree it is good to keep hollywood, or in this case, independent cinema, in check, with regards to Native representation, I do think in this case, Seymor Hoffman character is obviously not to be taken seriously. If nothing else, I think his character is supposed to be a caricature of white liberals who are lost.

In the film he is flakey and obviously not a good match for Hope Davis, who seems to be sleepwalking through her relationship and life. Her heart is broken when he leaves no doubt, but that could be attributed to her "poet's soul" more than anything.

I remember seeing this film in Dallas Tx in the late nineties and I liked it so much I own a copy of the dvd. It is a flop depending on your idea of what a flop is. It is an independent film made for little to no money and screened at sundance in it's day. Any film that makes it to distribution is hardly a flop in my eyes.

I'll admit I did have problems about the issue of the "tantiooine" tribe, which does sound very much like a reference to star wars (maybe on purpose?) but after some reflection I came to love the film for what it was, an unconventional love story that plays with narrative in an interesting way. Plus it has an awesome bossa nova soundtrack.

Rob said...

People learn about the general idea of a Native stereotype from a thousand particular instances of that stereotype. Will talking about the general idea help eliminate the particular instances? Maybe, but I doubt it.

No, the way to combat a stereotype is instance by instance. Especially in cases like this one, where most people won't notice or pay attention to the Indian bits. If I don't point out this example of the pervasive stereotyping around us, I'm betting no one will.

But if I bring it to people's attention, that's one more case where they'll have to think about Native stereotypes. They'll have to decide whether the Indian bits make sense or not. I'm betting they'll agree with me, and leave a little wiser than when they arrived.

This posting is already in the top 50 if you Google "Next Stop Wonderland." It'll be permanently available for anyone who seeks a critique of the movie. Those who weren't thinking of Indians will think of them when they find my writeup.

You weren't looking for something about the Indians in Next Stop Wonderland, were you? I presume you found my posting at random, read it, and thought about it. I presume it brought up some points you hadn't considered before.

If my analysis has raised your consciousness even a little, it's served its purpose. It may do the same for others who comes across it. That's about all I can hope for.

Anonymous said...

I find your response condescending, considering I'm a Native, (Comanche/Creek) and to be honest, you seem a bit pedantic and self serving. While I find it decent that you are attempting this crusade against Native stereotype, which I already mentioned in my previous post, I think you assume things about me as a random poster that you may not know. I am a Native obviously and I am a filmmaker, something you probably didn't know. I know all to well about stereotype but I also know what it is to make a film, albeit short films, and I know how important creative freedom is, and the need for our own people to create our own fictions.

You are not Native, insofar as I can tell, and it's pretty ridiculous for you to assume that I need to be taught something about stereotype. You suffer from Dances with Wolves syndrome it seems. You really need to watch what you say because Native people are out here, being smart and intelligent and creating works and responding to posts on the internet. Some of us do have access to technology, have read a book or two, do think. Some of us are out there trying to create and make it.

Rob said...

Take a look in the mirror, Jason. You're the one who chided me for taking Hoffman's character seriously when I "obviously" shouldn't have. If you act condescending toward others, don't be surprised if they adopt a similar tone.

Not that I was actually being condescending, mind you. You're imagining things if you think I was trying to "teach" you about stereotypes. My answer was geared toward explaining why I acted. You implicitly questioned why I was analyzing Next Stop Wonderland and I explicitly answered you.

In doing so, I didn't say one word about you personally. Too bad you can't say the same. With your claims that I'm "pedantic" and "self-serving," you've descended into an ad hominem attack. Fortunately, I couldn't care less what you think of me.

That you're a Native and a filmmaker, that Natives need to make their own films, are irrelevant to this debate. The only way your background would be relevant is if it gave you some insight into why the movie's Indian references were phony. If that's the case, please tell us why the creators made those choices and not other, better choices.

So what if they were exercising their "creative freedom"? I was exercising my creative freedom by criticizing them. Are you saying they should be free to create films but I shouldn't be free to criticize them? Or what, exactly?

FYI, I've critiqued a few hundred Native-themed movies, TV shows, comic books and other works of fiction. How many have you critiqued, Jason? Unless the number is greater, spare me. The only ridiculous assumption here is that I need to be taught about criticism.

Rob said...

No, I'm not Native, though I work for a Native-owned business. Yes, I'm creating PEACE PARTY, a multicultural comic book featuring Native Americans. Not to mention several hundred articles, short stories, comic strips, and (parts of) screenplays and novels.

So spare me the assumption that creators are somehow above critics. That critics can't hope to understand the creative process. I don't believe it's true.

If it were true, it wouldn't matter. Since I'm a creator also, I understand creation as well as criticism. I can see the creative process from both perspectives.

In fact, the two go hand in hand. My critical ability to analyze makes my fiction better. If others listened to me, it would make their fiction better too.

Anonymous said...

Okay you are way defensive and taking this correspondence into areas I'd rather not go into, but it appears it's heading that direction.

My comment about Philip Seymour Hoffman's character is not condescending nor can I understand how it could be construed as such. He's obviously a buffoon, a clown, a caricature of a left wing hippie archetype. Anyone who watches the film can understand this. How is my pointing out the silliness of a silly character condescending?

Also let's look at this quote from you,

"You weren't looking for something about the Indians in Next Stop Wonderland, were you? I presume you found my posting at random, read it, and thought about it. I presume it brought up some points you hadn't considered before.

If my analysis has raised your consciousness even a little, it's served its purpose. It may do the same for others who comes across it. That's about all I can hope for."

You didn't say one word about me (personally)? What would you call this? How many times did you type the word you or variants of you? FOUR that's how many. IF this wasn't directed at me, then whom?

And talk about condescending? Holy geez is all that crap condescending. That you Rob for that lesson in what you as a white person think I need to know as a Native about identity! I guess all those years reading Harjo, Momaday, Alexie, Welch, northsun, were pointless! I guess hanging out and talking with other Native filmmakers and writers was for naught. Guess working on sets and making my own shorts never gave me that insight no sir ree.

As if I need a lesson about stereotype from an anglo who works on comics and "works" for a Native owned company?

I realize you didn't know that I was Native. I give you that one. For you to continue to extend this rant and become even arrogant about it is a bit past the point of ridiculousness.

If you can't see why my Native background would have any relevance into a discussion of stereotype or the Native narrative, I can't help you there and I don't even have the time to try.

Keep on critiquing those 300 plus tv shows, movies, etc. More power to you. How many have I critiqued? I don't know, nor do I count them. Also are we talking papers? the internet? periodicals? Scholarly journals? Discussions? Conferences?

Listen, I think it's good what you do, for your intended audience, whoever that is. I'm assuming it's anglos and maybe the one or two curious Native people who surf the web and are looking for genuine Native entertainment stories.

I'm gonna let this go cause I've already spent much to much time responding on this. I've got a spec script to proof for a friend writing for ABC, a Navajo short film set to leave for shortly and my own scripts to work on, you know...creating things.

best o' luck Rob

Rob said...

Jason, you wrote, "Seymor Hoffman character is obviously not to be taken seriously." To whom is that obvious? It isn't and wasn't obvious to me, since I took his character seriously enough to post something on it. It's condescending to tell others what they should and shouldn't take seriously.

As for my "personal" comments about "you," refresh your memory about what I wrote in the fifth comment in this thread. I began explaining why I did this posting with the following pronouns: "people," "people," "people's," "they'll," "they'll," "they'll," "anyone," and "those who weren't thinking about Indians." The common denominator is that they're all references to people in general.

After four paragraphs of general references to people, I then referred to the generic "you" as an example of how people might learn something from this posting. A remark isn't "personal" if it has no personal characteristics other than the pronoun "you." It's "personal" only if you completely ignore the context, which makes it clear I'm talking about everyone, not singling someone out.

Here, I'll illustrate the point with an example: "How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice." That isn't a personal comment either because the "you" in the sentence isn't Jason Asenap the unique individual. It's "you" as a stand-in for anyone who's reading the comment--the generic "you."

Have I answered your questions yet? Okay, let's go through them one by one. "You didn't say one word about me (personally)?" Nope. "What would you call this?" An impersonal reference, not a personal one. "How many times did you type the word you or variants of you? FOUR that's how many." Yes, but I typed variants of "people" or "they" eight times in the previous paragraphs. That shows my intent. "IF this wasn't directed at me, then whom?" At anyone in your position, not at you personally.

In short, you're the only one who (over)reacted defensively. After you wrongly assumed I was criticizing you personally, you responded with a slew of personal attacks. And here we are.

Rob said...

As for your other comments, thanks for telling us what is and isn't obvious, Jason. After publishing one book, two comic books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of Web pages and blog postings, I really needed your input on what I should take seriously. Not.

Do you have any other pointers on how to criticize movies, TV shows, plays, books, and comic books with Native themes? Because I've done only a few hundred such critiques and you may have done more. Why don't you tell us how many critiques you've done of any kind and we'll see how your experience compares to mine.

Your assumption about who my audience is also misses the mark. There's no way of knowing for sure, but I get a rough sense from e-mail and other indicators. It's more like a 50-50 split than a 99-1 split between non-Natives and Natives.

FYI, my comics are used in Native schools. My articles appear in Native publications and on Native websites. I've spoken at Native venues and on Native radio shows. Therefore, I couldn't care less if you think I'm speaking only to non-Natives and have nothing to offer Natives. If you don't realize how many Natives follow my work, that's your problem, not mine.