How fitting that the first domestic production of a PBS program previously dominated by the British should depict the very people who were on this continent before Europeans came calling. Skinwalkers, a film set in the Navajo Nation airing on Vermont Public Television at 10 p.m. this Friday, is the premiere presentation of "American Mystery!" Images of Old Glory -- albeit not always a welcome symbol for indigenous communities -- have even been added to the familiar Edward Gorey animation that precedes the oh-so-English "Mystery!"
Published in 1986, Skinwalkers is one of 13 crime thrillers featuring Navajo cops that Tony Hillerman has authored during the last three decades. Executive producer Robert Redford chose the novel to launch what he hopes will be a Hillerman series on PBS. Judging by the maiden voyage, it's a grand idea.
The initial broadcast last Sunday was overshadowed by slick fare on the three major networks: a Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis biopic, a quickie retelling of the trapped Pennsylvania coal miners' rescue, and an homage to Julia Roberts. Luckily, public television is savvy enough to repeat itself.
Skinwalkers director Chris Eyre also made Skins, which opened October's Vermont International Film Festival in Burlington. Skinwalkers screenwriter James Redford -- son of Robert -- was in town a while back to promote a documentary he produced about organ donations, titled The Kindness of Strangers. His mother, Lola Van Wagenen, lives in Charlotte.
Eyre's intriguing new two-hour movie unfolds in the Four Corners region of the Southwest. As Officer Jim Chee, the handsome Adam Beach -- Nicolas Cage's co-star in Windtalkers -- is a pragmatic young tribal policeman who also studies the ancient rituals of his forebears. He's becoming a medicine man, an occupation that suddenly seems endangered. Medicine men are being killed, and clues left behind point to legendary preternatural forces. Skinwalkers are shape-shifting witches. Wicked ones at that.
The middle-aged Joe Leaphorn, played by the craggy and charismatic Wes Studi, is a no-nonsense detective with a dim view of Native superstitions. Even his wife Emma (Sheila Tousey, in a sweetly sardonic role) lovingly chides him for being a crank. But Leaphorn's skepticism gives his relationship with the spiritual Chee a lively tension.
The mismatched team crosses paths with some interesting characters: Rubin Maze (Noah Watts), a teen punk who likes to cause trouble; Dr. Stone (Michael Greyeyes), a cheerful doctor at the reservation hospital; and Janet Pete (Alex Rice), a pretty, part-Navajo public defender.
If not brought on by witchery, the contemporary deaths may be connected to a defunct paint factory that once caused lead-poisoning health problems for people living nearby. The environmental meets the metaphysical. The plot also offers some biting satire, as when two German tourists who've been carjacked tell authorities the culprits were "Injuns."
Chee, who is experiencing visions that may be prompted by a skinwalker curse, seeks advice from his mentor Wilson, portrayed by Saginaw Grant. "The dark wind blows on everyone," the older man suggests, by way of explaining how to cope with adversity. "You just have to push yourself through it."
Pushing through the racial divide, television has made room for African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. American Indians remain the invisible ethnic group. Except for a rare show like "Northern Exposure," the medium's multicultural mix is missing one important culture. There's a need for more Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee.
-James Bond certainly doesn't need any more publicity. Die Another Day, the latest in a 40-year-old cinematic franchise that never expires, has gone into overkill with newspaper, magazine and TV entertainment coverage. But there's a bright local angle in the blitzkrieg of stories about the Pierce Brosnan-Halle Berry picture: Schonbeck Worldwide Lighting, a family-owned Plattsburgh company, is behind the 61 crystal chandeliers and wall sconces that illuminate "the Ice Palace" in Agent 007's new adventure. One of these fixtures is even instrumental in saving the day for the debonair spy.
The 19th-century German firm, which relocated to Canada after World War II and branched out to upstate New York in the early 1970s, has bought back five of the icicle-shaped chandeliers from the film's producers. According to creative director Eileen Schonbeck Beer, a fourth-generation crystal wizard who lives in Burlington, they're up for bid at Sotheby's auction house through December 2 to benefit Habitat for Humanity. Other Schonbeck objets d'art hang in the White House and Buckingham Palace, home to the ice-queen namesake of Her Majesty's Secret Service.