Saturday, April 30, 2011

Stay Away, Joe (1968, Peter Tewksbury)

The worst of the worst, Elvis takes on an unforgivable role of a Native American, eating up every stereotype in the book.  Elvis in redface doesn't look much different than tan Elvis in Paradise, Hawaiian Style, and doesn't attempt (though probably a good thing) to sound like anyone but Elvis.  Katharine Hepburn's role in Dragon Seed was unforgivable, and that was 1944.  At the height of the civil rights movement, it is a wonder this ill-advised film got off the ground.  Native Americans are drunks, loafers, brawlers and brothers in the worst possible sense.  Always played for comedy, one Native American character falls asleep in an outdoor bathtub (see, the Native American is uncivilized-- nay-- savage, as even their modern homes and vehicles are rundown) with a drunken smile, up to his neck in beer cans.  Unlike the typical Elvis brawl for loyalty or chivalry, here much of the tribe comes together in a bar and duke it out for kicks.  No one is even upset with each other, that's just life on the rez.  A similar scene happens earlier when Elvis and co. wrestle around, treating women like cavemen dragging women by the hair, before the good ol' boys all splashdown in the watering hole.  All of the fighting action is accompanied with Looney Tunes thunks, boinks and whistles, missing only a laugh track that could be useful in something of such ill-humor.

Filmed in Sedona, Arizona, Stay Away, Joe stars Presley as rodeo star and half-breed Navajo Joe Lightcloud.  But this is no Flaming Star.  The characteristics that make Joe a success are in direct opposition to the things that make him Native American.  He has pull in the "real world" because he has stepped away from the reservation.  He makes his money away from his tribe and, though he has a strong family loyalty, this isn't represented so much as a Navajo trait but a decent, human one.  After all, Joe has been to the enlightened side and his return to the reservation seems more of a responsibility.

To prove that the Navajo aren't altogether worthless, Joe has somehow convinced his congressman to give him a bull and 20 heifers upon his return to the reservation.  It seems like an impossible task, but he wants to train up the tribe in how to raise cattle on their land.  Working alongside his father Charlie (Burgess Meredith in war paint), the challenge is a treadmill.  The Keystone tribe quickly barbeques the bull, and Joe sells off the remaining cattle to modernize his stepmother's house.  Meanwhile, Joe is being chased by naive Mamie (Quentin Dean) who has her shotgun toting mother convinced the savage laid her.  The conflict culminates in a wedding in which the mother proclaims, "I've never been so ashamed in my life."  While certainly a racist sentiment, the quote should have been a public apology for everyone involved in the film's production.

The film is full of slapstick, but it certainly is not humorous.  The fighting and action is all over the place, but its anarchy is indecipherable with no narrative purpose other than stereotype.  The film ends with everything in shambles.  The government aid was floundered, the upgraded home disheveled; it's as if the filmmakers had been given a potentially strong metaphor of what Navajo life must have been like at a rocky time in our nation's cultural history (a metaphor, perhaps, spelled out in the book and completely misinterpreted?), and squander it without the slighest recognition.  Worse, the movie ends with the tribe looking the most irresponsible in a film of buffoonery.  If the lesson to be gleaned was to let the tribe be happy on its own terms, the terms are spelled out through mindless inebriation and guffaws.

It's something similar to Billy Jack (white guy trained in Karate plays a half-Indian the white women can't stay away from) but, where that suffers from amateurish, one-dimensional contrived moral sympathies, at least it's wanting you to feel somethingBilly Jack uses politics as a narrative device without giving them any depth beyond brutality (which, too, is pretty irresponsible in a movie about the Natives' "loyalty" played by a white man), while Stay Away, Joe skirts political debate to laugh it all off.  The final laugh isn't a cynical, hopeless one in which to laugh is our only response to the world's anarchy, it's a cop-out-- a filmmakers' irresponsibility that paints the Native irresponsible.

Also, Elvis sings a song to a bull.

Strangely, outside of some really bad grease paint, Elvis looks not only healthy, but happy in the motionless narrative.  Perhaps the shiftless hi-jinks of the movie played right into the attitude Elvis's Memphis Mafia were used to on the earlier movie sets.  Elvis's entourage had to be warned on the set of Clambake to keep the practical joking to a minimum.  Here, instead, two of them (Joe Esposito and Charlie Hodge) were given bit roles.  Perhaps Presley was finally resigned to the contractual nonsense (and in this way, maybe the metaphor to the Native Americans dealing with bureaucracy finally does make a little sense) and realized, if you can't beat 'em, laugh. -- ZERO/four stars

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