CHRISTMAS IN THE CLOUDS: Written, produced and directed by Kate Montgomery. Producer, Sarah Wasserman. Cinematography, Steven Bernstein. Production design, Mark Worthington. Editors, Maysie Roy, Mary Ann Skweres. Composer, Stephen McKeon. Starring Tim Vahle, Mariana Tosca, Sam Vlahos, M. Emmet Walsh, Graham Greene and Sheila Tousey. With Rosalind Ayres, Jonathan Joss, Shirley Cheechoo, Rita Coolidge, Lois Red Elk, Wes Studi. Native musicians: Walela, Carlos Nakai, the Navajo Choir, Keith Secola, the Wild Band of Indians, Pamyua, Bob Bayless. Native Fine Artist: Dan Lomahaftewa. Majestic Films, 2001. PG. 97 minutes.
This funny, fine family-friendly film reaches out to a larger audience with its fall 2005 U.S. theatrical release in selected cities after winning awards at film festivals and special screenings since 2001. That it is a come-from-behind winner is not the reason you should see it, however. The movie stands in its own right as a heart-warming, comic blast of Native American humor, proud and unapologetic.
The story takes place in a beautiful lodge (actually the resort at Sundance) nestled high in mountains that were the summer home of the Ute Indians centuries ago. Ray Clouds on Fire (Tim Vahle) is the native son who’s come home, now the general manager of his tribe’s struggling ski resort. His zealous marketing director and front desk greeter, Mary (Sheila Tousey), tells him an incognito critic from the prestigious Worthington Travel Guide is coming. Although they will not know which guest is the travel guide writer, Mary is sure she’ll be able to tell.
Ray tries to inspire his kitchen to outdo itself for the next few days, but he has trouble with his vegetarian chef, Earl (Graham Greene), who doesn’t want to cook meat. The maids (Shirley Cheechoo, Georgina Lightning) are planning to bring their kids to work because school’s out for the holidays. Phil (Jonathan Joss), the handyman, is looking forward to a new crop of snow bunnies. And Ray’s own father, the retired chief of the tribe, Joe Clouds on Fire (Sam Vlahos), is obsessed with winning the new Jeep at the big bingo party to impress a woman pen pal.
On the other side of the country, Christina Little Hawk (Mariana Tosca) tells her mother (Rita Coolidge) and grandmother (Lois Red Elk) that she’s planning to fly out West to check out the man who’s been writing her such romantic letters. She’ll travel incognito, of course.
Two guests arrive at the resort, Mabel (Rosalind Ayres) and Stu O’Malley (M. Emmet Walsh), neither of whom meets Shirley’s romantic notion of a resort critic. But when a lovely young woman named Tina (Tosca) comes to the desk, Shirley rushes off to tell Tim the Worthington woman has arrived. Of course, he wants to make a good impression.
Well, you can see where some of this is going, but you have no idea how much you’ll enjoy getting there. The mistaken identity plot offers lots of opportunities for missed communications, but the subplot that involves O’Malley and old Joe turns out to be as important for the story. The Utah mountain scenes are gorgeous, with all that white powder snow and incredible vistas. Makes me briefly wish for a white Christmas.
If you’ve never seen a movie that pictures contemporary Native American people in non-stereotypical roles, Christmas in the Clouds is a great introduction. The film will be included in a film and DVD festival Feb. 10-12 at the Bijou, co-sponsored by Eugene Weekly and the Wayne Morse Center for Law and Politics on the UO campus. The issue of ethnic identity in movies is central to both the festival, “Imagining Indians: Indigenous North Americans in Film,” and to an unique, excellent art exhibit of movie posters, “Marquee Massacres: Native Americans in 100 Years of Global Movie Graphics,” Jan. 27-March 4 at the Jacobs Gallery in the Hult Center.
This film opens at the Bijou on Dec. 23 and is highly recommended. It will make you happy.