‘Winter in the Blood’ — and Hi-Line on the brain

Panel

Ed Kemmick/Last Best News

After a screening of “Winter in the Blood” in Livingston on Saturday, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, Alex Smith, center, and William “Gatz” Hjortsberg talked about books and movies, Hollywood and the Hi-Line.

LIVINGSTON — On a gorgeous first day of summer, something like 120 people crowded into an auditorium for the Livingston premiere of “Winter in the Blood,” a movie rich in beauty and brutality.

I doubt anyone in the audience regretted giving up a couple of hours to the Montana film and to the panel discussion that followed.

Like the novel by the late James Welch, a Blackfeet and Gros Ventre author, the film is a bitter love song to the state from one of Montana’s great writers. Directed by twin brothers Alex and Andrew Smith, natives of Missoula, it stays close to the source material and may be one of the most intensely Montanan movies ever made.

And fittingly, the movie was yet another expression of an artistic sentiment derived from the Hi-Line, that collection of prairie towns strung out along Highway 2.

The screening was the centerpiece of the How It Happens Festival, a two-day celebration of the arts organized by Montana Quarterly editor Scott McMillion. On Friday, three of the stars were pianist-composer Phil Aaberg, painter Clyde Aspevig and Montana poet laureate Tami Haaland, natives, respectively, of the Hi-Line towns of Chester, Rudyard and Inverness.

Winter in the Blood” plays out on the Fort Belknap Reservation and in neighboring Highway 2 towns.

As Alex Smith said during the post-screening discussion, “This is like a Hi-Line-goes-south festival, which is really cool.”

The movie premiered just about a year ago at the Los Angeles Film Festival and has since been shown in a handful of Montana cities. Alex Smith — his brother was scheduled to attend the Livingston festival but had to cancel — said he is making plans for a Billings premiere but doesn’t have a date yet.

I will admit that I couldn’t wait to see this movie, but I was also worried that it couldn’t possibly match the brilliance of the book. I felt the same way about “A River Runs Through It,” another Montana book that builds to a terrible tragedy and is narrated by a man who has lost his only brother.

And in both cases I spent the first half of the movie trying not to, but finding flaws, sins of directorial  omission and lapses of style. But both times I eventually surrendered to the power of the movies as movies, and both films managed to convey the gut-shot impact of the books’ final scenes.

In “A River Runs Through It,” the filmmakers simply inserted, in a voiceover, author Norman Maclean’s unforgettable words. In “Winter in the Blood,” Smith said, they were going to do something similar, using most of the bitter outburst that Welch put into the mouth of his unnamed narrator as he struggled to pull a calf out of a mud bog.

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Instead, they pared it down and then down some more, lopping off nearly two pages of dialogue. The result is a beautifully evocative, mostly wordless portrayal of something that is not quite catharsis or redemption, but at least an acceptance of fate.

Smith said he and his brother, who are sons of the author Annick Smith, who also read at the festival, grew up knowing James Welch as a family friend. He said they were haunted by “Winter in the Blood” for 40 years and felt compelled to make this movie.

It was a brave act. It’s hard to say how non-Montanans will react to this achingly honest portrayal of Native American despair, alcoholism and violence. That final scene of near-redemption is transcendent, but first you have to watch the narrator stumble through 90 minutes of bruising, bloody drunkenness.

Smith’s wife, Dana Wheeler-Nicholson, who plays a waitress named Malvina in the movie, said Native American audiences have been amazingly embracing, which has felt more important than any validation they received from Hollywood.

Smith said Indian audiences are more likely to laugh than white audiences because they understand Welch’s gallows humor and they sympathize with the “if-you-don’t-laugh-you-cry kind of place” portrayed in the movie.

Smith also talked about their decision to film the movie on the Hi-Line, rather than chasing the financial incentives of filming in Alberta, as the makers of other “Montana” movies have done.

He said they were motivated by the idea that “if we embraced Montana, Montana would embrace us.”

Among the benefits of filming in Montana, he said, was that it seemed everybody on the Hi-Line is a hoarder, since they don’t know when the next recession will hit. As a result, nearly all the props they needed, from the 1950s and 1970s, were given to them by local people.

And there were layers of history and echoes of different eras everywhere. The lead actor, Chaske Spencer, is a Lakota-Nez Perce Indian who was born in Poplar. The movie’s climactic scene was filmed just five miles from where the Nez Perce leader Joseph surrendered after his people’s epic, fighting retreat.

“That’s the find of stuff that happened every day,” Smith said. “And it wouldn’t have happened up in Alberta.”

I should mention that the panel discussion also featured William “Gatz” Hjortsberg, a Livingston novelist and screenwriter who wrote the screenplay for “A River Runs Through It.”

His main contribution was to tell a long and wonderfully funny anecdote about Hollywood, that bottomless well of vanity and mendacity. No summation would do it justice. My advice to you: If you get a chance to hear Hjortsberg speak, take it.

At the end of the discussion, Smith appealed to the audience to help spread the word.

“This film is living and dying on word of mouth,” he said, so if you see it and like it, tell your friends, send out a Tweet and put it on Facebook.

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