In our drought-ridden Southwest, the sight of a sprinkler left to spray unsupervised for hours tends to cause alarm among the environmentally cautious. While cataloguing civic life on the periphery of Palm Springs, Robinson Devor’s Pow Wow internalizes this quotidian paranoia in its recurring images of golf courses being generously watered, the soothing buzz of which carries into the soundtrack as an uneasy refrain. The predominant subtext of this eccentric community portrait is the use and abuse of land in the Coachella Valley’s hostile ecosystem, a topic with historical and social dimensions that Devor teases out in small doses, all while positing water as a precious commodity with political significance of its own.
In Pow Wow’s opening minutes, over the first of many (probably a bit too many) drone shots depicting bisections of verdant fairway and arid desert, an unseen narrator synopsizes the tale of Willie Boy, a Paiute Indian who in 1908 fled his Southern California town with his beloved cousin after killing an uncle who disapproved of their romance. Armed white men gave chase, but Willie Boy, fast and savvy, managed to elude them, only to die later of natural causes. (Notoriously leftist filmmaker Abraham Polonsky dramatized Willie Boy’s struggle in 1969’s Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, a few clips of which are excerpted here by Devor to rather feeble effect.) Pow Wow includes monologues from one cowboy atheist-cum-amateur researcher to give some context to Willie Boy’s fatal adventures, like elaborating on his preternatural cognizance of the hazards of the environment, but mostly the tale’s inserted here as a microcosm of a historical pattern: whites pushing out Native Americans to pursue their own idea of a society out West.
With that foundation laid, Pow Wow goes about matter-of-factly documenting what that society now looks like. Trust-fund kids ride horses on tracks partitioned off from the surrounding desert. Country club members tool around on golf carts in the wee hours of the night. An Austrian heiress kills time in her inherited suburban tract home, while somewhere down the street, comedian Shecky Greene reflects quietly on his past as daytime television plays to no one in the background. These snapshots of privileged leisure time and idle wealth are characterized by an aura of weary aimlessness that might be seen as one bent version of the American dream—a state of perpetual insular relaxation best encapsulated by the titular cowboys-and-Indians dress-up party held annually at the golf course and which, as seen here in fleeting long shots, comes across as a pretty drab shindig.
The film’s tension between ethnographic ensemble study and thesis-oriented docu-essay is irreconcilable.
But the kinds of folks who attend the pow wow comprise only half of the film’s dramatic personae. Devor devotes as much time to blue-collar workers, outcasts, and other wayward souls whose inclusions don’t readily fit any particular thematic schema. These figures are often placed in compare-contrast proximity to their upper-crust costars, and one of the more on-the-nose cuts juxtaposes a scene of an indigenous Paiute family hanging out in an abandoned pool against one of a naked white man submerging himself in a hot tub at a luxury spa. But in an intriguing directorial choice, the people aren’t visually differentiated. Devor shoots the majority of his footage with a wide-angle lens, favoring full-body portraits so as to emphasize the relationship between humans and landscape. The implication is that we’re all implicated in and affected by environmental manipulations regardless of our direct involvement—even, and most distressingly, the few remaining Paiutes who continue to exercise a non-obstructionist lifestyle.
Describing Pow Wow in such a way might make it sound stern and accusatory, but in fact it’s quite the inverse: casual and discursive, almost to a fault. The film is organized with cryptic chapter headings—“Warfare,” “Transition Zones,” “Dream Voyages”—that imply certain narrative movements that don’t always pan out, and if the line of thought starts to drift, Devor uses the words of a historian, rephrased throughout the film, as a cover: “There’s an associative power to time…this constant dialogue of the past and the present about the future.” It’s revealed that this same historian was the one who related Willie Boy’s story earlier in the film, making him the clear stand-in for the filmmaker, connecting disparate dots in time and wedging his own tentative conclusions into the uninterrupted flow of an unfamiliar community.
If that’s the case, however, then why do some of Pow Wow’s most memorable vignettes—like a little boy juggling a snake atop a trailer home, and an older gentleman casually philosophizing as he takes a bike ride at dusk—veer the film away from a sociopolitical agenda in favor of pristine glimpses into mundane desert existence? Devor is clearly too curious a filmmaker to fall into his own philosophical ruts. In the end, Pow Wow’s tension between ethnographic ensemble study and thesis-oriented docu-essay may be as irreconcilable as the chasm that separates the film’s oblivious baby boomers from the deceased Paiutes resting beneath their sprinklers.