Getting beyond savage stereotypes

FILM and video have become common tools for minority groups in search of self-expression, exchange of information among their own members, and communication with the larger society that surrounds them. One established example of this trend is the Native American Film and Video Festival, now in its fourth year of presenting recent works on Eskimo and Indian peoples of North, South, and Central America. This year's event, which starts tonight and runs through Sunday evening, features no fewer than 17 new productions (mostly in documentary form), as well as appearances by 26 filmmakers, video artists, and Indian speakers. It is clear evidence that the native American community has taken a strong and seri ous interest in reaching out to the world, and inward to itself, through motion pictures.

This is a welcome phenomenon, especially when one considers the interest that Hollywood has taken in Indians for a long time -- exploiting and demeaning them, by and large, in westerns full of savage stereotypes. The latter-day decrease in such portrayals is due as much to the decline of the western genre (replaced by science-fiction and war-movie formulas) as to a raised national consciousness vis-`a-vis ethnic and minority groups. If westerns eventually stage a comeback (a clear possibility, since tim e-tested formats die hard in the movie world), there is every chance that the old Indian caricatures will revive along with them -- unless programs like the Native American Film Festival can get their message across forcefully and often.

Much in the spirit of outwitting the movie establishment at its own game, the festival's 1985 event will start with a screening of ``Harold of Orange,'' a modest but amiable film about an Indian ``trickster'' who dreams up whimsical ways of enhancing his people's quality of life and then hits up staid foundations for financial support. As played by native American actor-comedian Charlie Hill, the hero makes a nice corrective to the image of Indians as either savages (noble or otherwise) or grunting sto ics. Richard Weise directed the yarn from a screenplay by Gerald Vizenor, an Indian author and professor. The picture's own support came from such sources as the National Endowment for the Arts and Robert Redford's noted Sundance Institute.

The festival, organized by the Film and Video Center of the Museum of the American Indian in New York, will continue with a ``Media Makers Symposium'' and programs of ``Native Americans on Film'' and ``Native Americans on Video.'' The events will take place at three sites here: the American Museum of Natural History, the American Indian Community House Gallery, and the Mark Goodson Theater and upstairs lounge in Columbus Circle. `The Trip To Bountiful'

At a time when movies cater mostly to teen-agers, writer Horton Foote marches to a very different drummer.

His commitments to mature subject matter and a thoughtful style shine through such recent works as ``1918'' and ``Tender Mercies'' and can be traced back for decades in his career. Yet such are his strength and skill that even trend-obsessed Oscar has taken notice more than once: Foote has garnered long-separated but much-deserved Academy Awards for two fondly remembered pictures, ``Tender Mercies'' in 1983 and ``To Kill a Mockingbird'' in 1962.

His latest film, ``The Trip to Bountiful,'' finds this genteel rebel still untouched by fashions of the moment, which currently include the ``Goonies'' syndrome and the ``Rambo'' plague. In everything from story to locations to dialogue, the new drama reflects his devotion to exploring the humanity, aspirations, and emotional depths of ordinary people in ordinary places.

The main character, played by Geraldine Page, is an aging woman with a profound longing in her heart: to leave the Texas city where she lives with her son and daughter-in-law, and make an odyssey to Bountiful, the town of her youth.

It seems clear that she's a bit dotty, hatching feeble schemes to get her way and closing her mind to the fact that Bountiful has long since declined, emptied out, and faded back into the Southern swamp. But the mix-ups of her mind and memory don't make her feelings any less real, valid, or poignant. And addled or not, she's a feisty woman with a lot of pluck. Before long she's on her way to Bountiful after all, pursued by her exasperated offspring but helped by the kindness of strangers and buoyed by h er own indefatigable spirit.

This being a Horton Foote story, it's not surprising that there are no bad guys in it, only some weak or misguided folks who mean better than their words and actions indicate. And as the film unfolds we start to see their side of things, too: the very real frustrations of the son who doesn't have the strength or patience to take his mother seriously enough, for example, and the pitiable inner emptiness of the daughter-in-law who can't see past her own wants. Even minor characters come alive with an emot ional force that's rare in today's films -- the considerate stranger who joins our heroine during a lonely bus ride, the sheriff whose unexpected compassion plays a key part in her quest. Despite their brief time on the screen and their peripheral part in the action, these people are real and important to Foote, and become so for us through the clarity and conviction of his writing.

If the film doesn't measure up to Foote's best work, it's because the basic mechanisms of the plot -- the lonesome heroine, the wistful memories, the journey that must ultimately come to nothing -- are too familiar to offer much surprise, and take few unexpected twists along the way. Some sections also reflect the drama's theatrical origins, especially near the beginning, when the action seems more stagy than cinematic. (``The Trip to Bountiful'' was first written and produced as a play.)

The performances are excellent, though, with Geraldine Page (just a little too expansive) at the head of an intelligently chosen cast including John Heard as the son, Carlin Glynn as his wife, and Rebecca De Mornay as the bus-ride companion. The picture was directed by first-timer Peter Masterson, who wisely puts himself entirely at the disposal of Foote's delicate screenplay.

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