Dances with Oscars


Somers, Montana. The Academy Award nominations are out again, and again we give the greatest honors to the film that best contradicts the values we maintain outside the movie theater.

This year the film of choice is "Dances With Wolves," which celebrates American Indian traditions, a way of life we have done our best to eliminate over the past century. Last year it was "Driving Miss Daisy," celebrating interracial friendships (not quite a hot trend), and the year before it was "Rain Man," a sympathetic look at autism. Just two years earlier, it was "Platoon," which condemned -- well, let's not even think about it.

How can we produce films like these, eat them up at the box office and laud them with Oscars, while ignoring the messages they express so powerfully?

Take "Dances With Wolves." In the middle of a war, here is a movie that applauds a soldier who turns against his own army. It exalts an America without television, central heating or Wall Street; an America, for that matter, in which the arrival of people like us was a natural disaster rather than manifest destiny. It shows a wild West in which the white man, compared to the graceful Lakota, was more oaf than hero.

Then we exit the theater, leaving behind the friendly cluster of tepees in winter camp and the gentle gait of horses walking up a mountain trail. We elbow past strangers to get to the noisy, smelly cars that will take us to the rigid, complicated houses whose solid roofs have made us strangers to the sky.

We walk from a world in which the Sioux and Pawnee were most able, into a world where nearly half of American Indians will die before age 45. We dry our tears for a man who would die -- and kill -- for what he holds dearest, and remember all the reasons it is too dangerous to love.

If that were not irony enough, remember that this is a Hollywood production, not some low-budget counterculture film. "Dances With Wolves" celebrates the rugged individualist, but we only get to see it at our local theater because the moguls of mass culture have approved it for mass consumption.

I have always wondered whether art was supposed to strengthen or challenge our values. I'm starting to understand: both, and neither.

Art is slippery stuff. The morality of the movie screen is not like the morality of the church pulpit. Religious teachings, for the most part, are cut and dried, but art doesn't work that way. When it comes to right and wrong, a movie can both reinforce and reject what we believe -- in the same scene.

A movie can show us the beauty of tepee life even as we sit in upholstered chairs. A movie can make us long for a thundering of buffalo, when most of us have never seen a single bull. A movie can make us look at our stud-wall houses and asphalt highways, and wonder if there isn't a better way.

But maybe squatting next to an open fire doesn't sound very comfy, and raw buffalo liver doesn't whet your appetite. Maybe you'd rather earn your keep at the office than in a hatchet battle with the Pawnee.

Then why put the film up for all these awards? The same reason we gave awards to those other movies, which was not their technical brilliance, but the bridges they built. The movies we laud build bridges between races and classes, present and past, woman and man, cowboy and Indian, victor and victim, traitor and patriot. They build a bridge between what we know in our heads and what we feel in our guts: between what is and what could be.

'Asta Bowen is a non-fiction author and essayist.

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