In 1998, Sherman Alexie wrote the script of this film (directed by Chris Eyre) based largely on his short story This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona, combined with many ideas from several other stories from his collection The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven.
Where do the stories come from?
Victor learns from a phone call that his father has died far away in Arizona and he’s expected to collect the few belongings he left. Victor’s father, Arnold, left him and his family many years ago and Victor has resented him since he was a kid. Besides, there isn’t enough money for such a long travel, so maybe Victor won’t do that journey, after all. But Thomas, a weird guy Victor has known since a kid, offers the money, if Victor agrees to bring him along.
The first part of the film is about where this story starts, which is the Coeur d’Alene Indian Reservation in Idaho.
There are a lot of bad memories nesting in the folds of time, here, for Victors. He remembers so many things about his father, and none is happy, though it’s quite obvious that he loved his father and would have never wanted him to leave. We become quite familiar with Arnold’s insecurities, drunkenness and sudden bursts of violence, because this is what Victor remembers of him, together with the pain of seeing him go.
When Victor and Thomas start on their journey, they meet Lucy and Velma going around the rez on their car, always in reverse because of a mechanical malfunctioning. The girls offer to drive them to the bus station in exchange for a story. Thomas, who’s a storyteller, tells of when Victor’s father was young in the Sixties and how he got two years in prison for being an Indian in the XX century. Quite impressed, Lucy asks Victor whether that’s true and Victor’s answer is, “Thomas, you so full of shit.” So we never learn whether Thomas’ story is true, though the girls accept it as “a fine example of the oral tradition.”
The film is structured as a road movie, so the central part is about moving from one place to another – and not just physically.
The central part is all about confrontations, meeting new challenges, understanding one’s position. The This Ain’t Dances With Salmons episode, arguably the most popular of the film, is mostly about this: how things are as opposed to how they appear and why.
On the bus, Thomas and Victor meet a young woman who tells the story of how she was a gymnast who had the possibility to enter the Olympic team as a spare, but because of unfair playing against her, she was left out. After hearing the story for a while, Victor points out that because she was a spare, she would have only compete if one of the gymnasts got hurt. And since none of the gymnasts got hurt that year at the games, she wouldn’t have compete anyway, so it doesn’t really matter whether she was on the team or not. She should just stop complaining and tell lies.
It’s all about perspective.
The last part of the film is about coping with what you find ‘when you get there’. Because of course there are things waiting for you, and you knew it from the beginning. I think the essence of any narrative journey is dislodging things inside the characters and give them means they didn’t know to posses in order to face what is awaiting them in the best possible condition. Which of course doesn’t mean it will be easier, it merely means you’ll be able to look into the storm, if you so choose.
Victor isn’t the same character he was at the beginning. The journey has implanted so many doubts in him that he has lost every certainties he had about his father – and this sure is the best position he could find himself in when finally facing his father’s ghost.
Characters are the flesh and blood of this story
The plot of Smoke Signals is skimpy, really. Basically, guys get on a bus, go fetch a dead man’s belonging, go back home. There isn’t much in terms of action. The story is all inside the characters, that’s where the actual journey occurs. And the fuel of the journey is the characters’ relation to each other and to each other’s stories.Smoke Signals is a film about magic. Does that make it a film abous lies or about the truth? #storytelling Click To Tweet
The most important relation is the one between Victor and Thomas. Victor is the dead man’s son. Thomas isn’t a relative, but as an infant, he was saved by Arnold from the fire that killed Thomas’s parents. From memories and stories is obvious that Victor and Thomas have always been bound, not just by being kids the same age on the rez, but also by their relationship to Arnold. As adults, they have widely different memories about Arnold, and while at the beginning you naturally think Victor’s memories must be true, as you learn about Arnold from Thomas, you start thinking about perspective. Are Victor’s memories really true, or are they coloured by his obvious bitterness and resentment toward his father?
While having breakfast on the road, Thomas tells Victor yet another of his stories, about that time when he was a kid and he had a vision. The vision told him to go to the Spokane river and wait. Thomas went. He waited and waited. In the end, Arnold appeared and asked him what he was doing. Thomas said he was waiting for a vision and Arnold told him the only thing he was going to get was mud. So he took him up and bought him a large breakfast. Thomas concludes the story with, “Sometimes is a good day to die. And some times in a good day to have breakfast.” And I believe this statement doesn’t get lost on Victor, who may say he doesn’t understand what Thomas says half the time, but I think he understands perfectly.
This is the apex of the intermingling between past and present. Throughout the film, stories from the past intrude on the story we’re following. Sometimes we see adult Victor on screen together with child Victor and this creates an overlapping of stories and a layering of truths and meanings, a mingling of realities that becomes surreal.
When Victor and Thomas come to the place where Arnold died, they meet Susie, who called to give the news.
Susie is a keeper of stories. In fact, all three characters are keepers of stories, and all the stories are about the same subject (Arnold), though they seem to concern widely different people depending on who’s telling the story.
While stories are scattered throughout the film, this last part is particularly dense with them.
These stories tell the truth, Thomas says. These stories are all lies, Victor says. I think what make them one or the other is magic. Magic appears in more than one story and shapes the story itself. That’s what makes it a lie in Victor’s view, though that’s what makes you see life in a new perspective in Thomas’ view. When he asks Susie to tell a story and she asks whether he wants the truth or the lie, Thomas says, “I want both.” Whereas Thomas accepts the story as it comes knowing that it will bring something valuable to him anyway, Victor, who’s acutely aware of perspective, wants the truth, though he might not be so open to what truth he will receive.
Magic does alter a story, but it can also let truth surface in a way that facts can’t. Susie tells Victor the story his father told so often, about a basketball match he and Victor played against two priests at the rez. In the story, Victor is so good, so full of magic, he scores one last point at the last minute and wins the match. Victor tells Susie that’s a lie, he never scored that last point. And still, through the altering in that story, through the magic infused into it, Arnold’s true feelings for his son finally emerge.
Magic is the heart of stories
Nothing magical happens in this film, and still this film is all about magic. It’s about the surreal, that crack between facts and their true meaning. That place where facts and meanings overlaps, where past and present overlap, and where they are just slightly out of sync, just enough to let you see beyond.
This is a storyteller’s outlook on life.