John Sayles Sayles, John (Vol. 198) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

John Sayles 1950-

(Full name John Thomas Sayles) American director, screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Sayles's career through 2003. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 10, and 14.

An acclaimed independent filmmaker, Sayles is best known as screenwriter, director, and editor of a collection of highly personal, sometimes quirky films that have garnered limited commercial appeal despite their popularity with critics. His most notable films include Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), and Lone Star (1996).

Biographical Information

Sayles, whose parents were both educators, was born September 28, 1950, in Schenectady, New York. He was educated at Mt. Pleasant High School in Schenectady, where he excelled less as a scholar than as an athlete, earning letters in four sports. After graduation, Sayles attended Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, and was active in intramural sports and drama; he majored in psychology and earned a B.S. degree in 1972. For the next several years, he worked at a series of blue-collar jobs in several cities including Boston, where he worked in a meat-packing plant, and Albany, where he served as an orderly in a nursing home. Meanwhile he acted in summer stock productions in New Hampshire and wrote short stories that he submitted to various periodicals without success. In 1975 Sayles sold his first story to Atlantic Monthly and won an O. Henry Short Story Prize. He continued writing and within the next few years had produced two novels, several more short stories, and numerous nonfiction articles. He began writing screenplays for Roger Corman, known for exploitation movies in the science fiction and horror genres. The earnings from his screenwriting career, along with the MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant he received in 1983, enabled him to finance his own projects—films on which he retains creative control by not only writing, but directing and editing them as well. His first independent production, Return of the Secaucus Seven, appeared in 1980, and in 2003 he completed his fourteenth independent film, Casa de los Babys. His services as screenwriter and script doctor for other producers and directors are still in great demand, and he continues to take on such assignments, sometimes uncredited, in order to continue making the type of films for which he has become famous. Sayles divides his time between his home in Hoboken, New Jersey, and his upstate New York farm, both of which he shares with his longtime partner, actress Maggie Renzi, who has produced several of Sayles's films.

Major Works

Sayles's first published short story was the award-winning “I-80 Nebraska.” He also produced two novels during the 1970s: The Pride of the Bimbos (1975) and Union Dues (1977), the latter was nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He then turned to writing screenplays for Corman's genre films, including Piranha (1978), Alligator (1980), and Battle beyond the Stars (1980). Sayles's critical reputation rests, however, on those projects that reflect his personal vision of such social and political issues as racism, urban decay, corruption in major league baseball, and the violence surrounding the unionization of coal miners. His narratives tend to be dialogue-driven and slow-paced, and he typically employs a large ensemble cast that includes no major Hollywood stars.

Sayles's first feature film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, involves the reunion of a group of idealistic college friends, now in their thirties, concerned that they have betrayed the values they espoused ten years earlier. The film is widely considered the inspiration for Lawrence Kasdan's far more successful The Big Chill (1983) which treated the same subject matter with a much larger budget. Sayles's next offering, The Brother from Another Planet, deals with racism and achieved a minor cult following. In 1987 Sayles released Matewan, based on the true story of the Matewan massacre in the post-World War I coal fields of West Virginia. Like most of Sayles's films, Matewan resists the stereotypical Hollywood happy ending and culminates in bloodshed and defeat for the struggling miners. Eight Men Out (1988), Sayles's representation of the 1919 Chicago White Sox scandal, shows the dark side of America's favorite pastime, unlike most baseball films. The year 1991 marked the release of City of Hope, his bleak view of urban life in a medium-sized city on the skids. The following year Sayles turned to a more personal film, Passion Fish, the story of a wheelchair-bound former soap opera star who returns to her hometown in the South and recovers from her physical and psychic wounds with the help of a nurse who is a recovering drug addict. Lone Star is perhaps Sayles's most successful film to date. A richly-layered story of the cultural history of a Texas border town, the work explores tensions between African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Anglo Americans that began many decades earlier. Sayles's most recent efforts include Men with Guns (1998), Limbo (1999), Sunshine State (2002), and Casa de los Babys (2003).

In addition to his many screenplays, Sayles has also produced a third novel, Los Gusanos (1991), about the Cuban exile community in Florida. His most famous nonfiction works include Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan (1987) and Sayles on Sayles (1998).

Critical Reception

Critical assessments of Sayles's stories have frequently been more enthusiastic than the reception from the viewing public. Many critics consider him a writer first and a director second, praising his narratives as thoughtful and intelligent. But because his films often foreground the story rather than the stylistic elements, and because exposition is often accomplished through dialogue rather than visual devices, Sayles has received a fair amount of negative attention from critics as well. Many film reviewers have considered his pacing far too slow, and others have suggested that his true medium should be television. Sayles's choice of subject matter, however, has earned him a reputation as a filmmaker with integrity, whose concern for the downtrodden and willingness to explore class distinctions are uncommon in American cinema. Andrew Sarris claims that Sayles's films typically depict “the gritty, grimy world of losers and underdogs and sufferers,” and Randall Kenen calls the director “the troubadour of the grotesque.” For Sarris, Sayles is a rare filmmaker who understands “the subtler overtones of class distinctions, social injustices, and economic inequalities in a land flooded with fantasies of equal opportunity and limitless upward mobility.” Andrew Kopkind believes that regardless of the specific social or political issue that Sayles explores, “the cultural message beneath the plot is always the same: movies need not be escapes, rituals or mystifications of ordinary experience. They can instead be mirrors for self-evaluation and parables of real life.” His films typically enjoy brief runs in a limited number of theatres, many of them art houses.

Many critics have remarked on the strong sense of place apparent in Sayles's films, whether it is a Harlem neighborhood in Brother from Another Planet, the threatening landscape of Alaska in Limbo, the Louisiana bayou country in Passion Fish, or the Donegal coast of Ireland in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994). Thulani Davis believes that the quintessential location for Sayles's films is Hoboken, New Jersey, which features “the face of decaying urban working towns all over, unglamorous, exposed to the elements-physical and spiritual.” She suggests that he recreates this type of space regardless of where he shoots a film. Various critics nominate different titles as Sayles's best film: Claudia Dreifus considers Matewan his masterpiece; Gavin Smith believes that Lone Star “marks his most fluent and lyrical use of the medium,” and Andrew Sarris puts Passion Fish near the top of his Ten Best List for the year 1992. Despite their differences, however, most critics agree that Sayles is one of the most important independent filmmakers in America; he is, as Trevor Johnston puts it, “the doyen of American independent film-making.”

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Pride of the Bimbos (novel) 1975

Union Dues (novel) 1977

Piranha (screenplay) 1978

The Anarchists' Convention (short stories) 1979

The Lady in Red (screenplay) 1979

Alligator (screenplay) 1980

Battle beyond the Stars [with Anne Dyer] (screenplay) 1980

Return of the Secaucus Seven (screenplay) 1980

The Howling [with Terence C. Winkless] (screenplay) 1981

New Hope for the Dead (play) 1981

Turnbuckle (play) 1981

The Challenge (screenplay) 1982

Baby, It's You (screenplay) 1983

Lianna (screenplay) 1983

The Brother from Another Planet (screenplay) 1984

The Clan of the Cave Bear [based on the novel by Jean M. Auel] (screenplay) 1986

Matewan (screenplay) 1987

Thinking in Pictures: The Making of the Movie Matewan (nonfiction) 1987

Wild Thing (screenplay) 1987

Eight Men Out (screenplay) 1988

Breaking In (screenplay) 1989

City of Hope (screenplay) 1991

Los Gusanos (novel) 1991

Passion Fish (screenplay) 1992

The Secret of Roan Inish (screenplay) 1994

Lone Star (screenplay) 1996

Men with Guns (Hombres Armados) (screenplay) 1998

Sayles on Sayles [edited by Gavin Smith] (nonfiction) 1998

Limbo (screenplay) 1999

The Sixth Day (screenplay) 2000

Sunshine State (screenplay) 2002

Casa de los Babys (screenplay) 2003

Andrew Kopkind (review date 6 October 1984)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kopkind, Andrew. Review of The Brother from Another Planet, by John Sayles. Nation 239, no. 5 (6 October 1984): 332-33.

[In the following review, Kopkind contrasts Sayles's film style with the style typical of Hollywood cinema.]

John Sayles makes movies to scale—or is it movies to go? Alongside the vast supermarket of Hollywood epics, blockbusters and high-concept product, his cinema of convenience is sparsely stocked with snacks and munchables: a lesbian sandwich on wry, lightly chilled 1960s nostalgia and soul food to take out—far out. Sayles can execute a movie from blank paper to answer-print in the time it takes the conglomerate filmmakers in...

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John Sayles and Pat Aufderheide (interview date autumn 1986)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayles, John, and Pat Aufderheide. “Filmmaking as Storytelling: An Interview with John Sayles.” Cineaste 15, no. 4 (1987): 12-15.

[In the following interview, conducted in the autumn of 1986, Sayles discusses the story behind the film Matewan and the way it was translated into film.]

John Sayles' latest movie, Matewan, premiered at Cannes and opens this autumn in the U.S. With Haskell Wexler as cinematographer, a cast long worked with, and a feature role by James Earl Jones, the film tackles a piece of buried American history. It's about a 1920 conflict between coal miners in West Virginia and coal company private police. The lead character,...

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Dorothy McGhee (essay date September 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGhee, Dorothy. “Solidarity Forever.” American Film 12, no. 10 (September 1987): 42-6.

[In the following essay, McGhee examines the making of Matewan, outlining the difficulties involved in producing a period film on a shoestring budget.]

October 1986. Down in Ingram Branch, in the mountainous heart of West Virginia, the evening air is sharp and chilly. A rickety, unrestored church, home to John Sayles's visiting film shoot, is lit with grotesquely bright klieg lights, and Allied vans full of production equipment and costumes block a bumpy gravel road. Most of the crew, with the exception of cinematographer Haskell Wexler and one or two...

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Ring Lardner Jr. (essay date July-August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Lardner, Ring, Jr. “Foul Ball.” American Film 13, no. 6 (July-August 1988): 45-9.

[In the following essay, Lardner discusses Sayles's Eight Men Out, in which the director plays the role of Lardner's father in the story of the 1919 World Series scandal.]

I can sympathize with the problems writer-director John Sayles is facing. He has to make a few hundred extras look like a World Series crowd of thousands. He has to direct actors—whose previous baseball experience has been on a purely amateur level—to look, throw, catch, hit, run, and slide like professional champions. He has to remain in charge of all aspects of the shoot while himself playing a...

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Errol Black (review date September 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Black, Errol. Review of Matewan, by John Sayles. Canadian Dimension 22, no. 6 (September 1988): 34-6.

[In the following review, Black praises the historical accuracy of Sayles's rendering of the Matewan massacre.]

In the years immediately following the end of the First World War, the United States was torn by class conflict, which took the form of bloody and protracted strikes that involved millions of workers and affected virtually every industry and community in the country.

The workers involved in these confrontations were seeking wage increases to offset the 14 percent decline in real wages experienced during the War, an end to the...

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Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Isaacs, Neil D. “John Sayles and the Fictional Origin of Matewan.Literature/Film Quarterly 16, no. 4 (1988): 269-71.

[In the following essay, Isaacs disputes Sayles's account of the connections between his novel Union Dues and the film Matewan.]

John Sayles's Thinking in Pictures is the kind of book Stirling Silliphant had in mind twenty years ago when he agreed to chronicle, for The University of Tennessee Press, the making of the movie A Walk in the Spring Rain from his own script. A crucial difference is that Sayles was writer/director on Matewan and Silliphant writer/producer on Walk. While Silliphant could...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 23 October 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Outside and Inside the Law.” New Republic 201, no. 17 (23 October 1989): 24-6.

[In the following review of Breaking In, Kauffmann contends that Sayles fails to develop the story sufficiently, resulting in a film that is flat and disappointing.]

John Sayles gets fertile ideas for screenplays, but they never grow sufficiently. The Brother from Another Planet, Matewan, Eight Men Out, to name a few, all had interesting subjects, and all got thinner as they went along. Sayles as screenwriter is something like an actor who does a terrific first reading of a role, then doesn't develop much after that.


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Thulani Davis (essay date June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Thulani. “Blue-Collar Auteur.” American Film 16, no. 6 (June 1991): 18-23, 49-50.

[In the following essay, Davis explores Sayles's role as spokesperson for the working class.]

Hoboken, New Jersey, seems an unlikely place for American film-making, even though one of the few things you ever hear about it is that On the Waterfront was filmed there. However, when independent filmmaker John Sayles migrated to Hoboken after making his first film, he found what has become the weathered landscape of a John Sayles film: the face of decaying urban working towns all over, unglamorous, exposed to the elements—physical and spiritual. It is a landscape he...

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Randall Kenan (review date 24 June 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kenan, Randall. “Miami Vice.” Nation 252, no. 24 (24 June 1991): 856-58.

[In the following review of Sayles's novel Los Gusanos, Kenan praises the author's story of Miami's Cuban exile community, acknowledging some difficulties with the overly complicated narrative.]

“Forgive me, my friend,” says Don Quixote near the end of Cervantes's epic, “for having caused you to appear as mad as I by leading you to fall into the same error, that of believing that there are still knights-errant in the world.” But that vision of chivalry didn't die with the old crusader; today its adherents tote submachine guns and high explosives, or so John Sayles tells...

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Stanley Kauffmann (review date 14 October 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kauffmann, Stanley. “Municipal Bonds.” New Republic 205, no. 16 (14 October 1991): 32-3.

[In the following review of City of Hope, Kauffmann discusses the shortcomings of Sayles's screenplay and the strengths of the director's cinematic style.]

In one regard John Sayles resembles Woody Allen: he has had on-the-job training as director and has benefited from it. Of course almost all directors learn as they go along, but not many have started at the low level of these two. Like Allen, Sayles began as a writer; filming, to him, apparently meant merely adding pictures to his scripts. Now he understands cinematic resources and how to rely on them. With...

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John Sayles and Claudia Dreifus (interview date November 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayles, John, and Claudia Dreifus. “Interview with John Sayles.” Progressive 55, no. 11 (November 1991): 30-3.

[In the following interview, Sayles discusses the place City of Hope occupies within his body of work.]

John Sayles manages to do what no one else does in the world of the cinema: He calls his own shots, writing, directing, financing, and editing movies about the hidden corners of American life. In an industry in which Terminator 2 is the money-cow ideal, the forty-one-year-old Sayles somehow pulls off wonderful small pictures on themes that the rest of movieland ignores. Baby, It's You, his only major-studio production, sheds...

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John Sayles, Gary Crowdus, and Leonard Quart (interview date December 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayles, John, Gary Crowdus, and Leonard Quart. “Where the Hope Is: An Interview with John Sayles.” Cineaste 18, no. 4 (December 1991): 4-7, 61.

[In the following interview, Sayles discusses the way his own views on the problems of urban life inform the film City of Hope.]

John Sayles is one of America's foremost independent filmmakers. His debut film, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980; see interview in Cineaste, Vol. XI, No. 1), reflected the exceptional talents at dialog and characterization he had previously demonstrated in his novels Pride of the Bimbos (1975) and Union Dues (1977) as well as the short stories anthologized in...

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Andrew Sarris (essay date May-June 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sarris, Andrew. “Baby It's You: An Honest Man Becomes a True Filmmaker.” Film Comment 29, no. 3 (May-June 1993): 28-30.

[In the following essay, Sarris explains why he put Sayles's Passion Fish near the top of his Ten Best list for 1992.]

Eagle-eyed readers of the January-February 1993 Film Comment have noticed a bit of inconsistency if not outright hypocrisy in my contrasting opinions on John Sayles in my article on Hal Hartley, in which I casually dismiss Sayles as cinematic spinach, and in my 1992 Ten Best list, where I cite Sayles' Passion Fish among the finest of the year, second in my estimation only to Christian Vincent's La...

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John Sayles and Trevor Johnston (interview date September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayles, John, and Trevor Johnston. “Sayles Talk.” Sight and Sound 3, no. 9 (September 1993): 26-9.

[In the following interview, Sayles discusses his writing and directing processes and the advantages and disadvantages of working outside the Hollywood system.]

As the latest young turks fight to see who can make the cheapest ‘guerrilla’ feature, John Sayles' position as the doyen of American independent film-making seems more than ever assured. Having started his career as a novelist and learned his screenwriting craft at the Roger Corman school of exploitation graft, Sayles' 1980 feature debut as writer-director with the seminal ‘reunion’ picture...

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David Sterritt (review date 3 February 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sterritt, David. “The Secret of Roan Inish Is Told with Myth, Magic.” Christian Science Monitor (3 February 1995): 13.

[In the following review, Sterritt contends that in The Secret of Roan Inish, Sayles handles the daily experiences of his characters more skillfully than the story's mythical elements.]

The Secret of Roan Inish reveals a side of John Sayles that we don't often see.

A fiercely independent filmmaker with a strong humanistic streak, Sayles is best known for pictures focusing on social issues. His works include Matewan, about a labor dispute; Eight Men Out, about corruption in baseball;...

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Stuart Klawans (review date 29 July-5 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Klawans, Stuart. Review of Lone Star, by John Sayles. Nation 263, no. 4 (29 July-5 August 1996): 34-6.

[In the following review, Klawans criticizes the storytelling technique in Lone Star, suggesting that Sayles is more interested in defying narrative conventions than in telling a good story.]

My editors disagree completely with the following remarks. Nevertheless: I think John Sayles gave away his game a couple of years ago in Passion Fish, his movie about a soap-opera star who is paralyzed in an accident—the sort of event she's been confronting five days a week on TV, and which she now faces in “real life.” The suppression of...

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Philip Kemp (review date August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kemp, Philip. Review of The Secret of Roan Inish, by John Sayles. Sight and Sound 6, no. 8 (August 1996): 63.

[In the following review, Kemp praises The Secret of Roan Inish as a charming story with strong cast performances.]

[The setting for The Secret of Roan Inish is] Ireland, the 40s. Ten-year-old Fiona Coneelly's mother is dead and her father, who works in the city, can no longer cope with looking after her. He sends her to live with her grandparents, Hugh and Tess Coneelly, on the coast of Donegal. Hugh points out to Fiona the now-abandoned off-shore island of Roan Inish, where all the Coneellys used to live, and tells her how his...

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Richard Alleva (review date 16 August 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Alleva, Richard. “Who Killed the Sheriff?: John Sayles's Lone Star.Commonweal 123, no. 14 (16 August 1996): 19-21.

[In the following review, Alleva faults Lone Star for a complicated plot and slow pace, but praises the film overall.]

Lone Star is John Sayles's latest exploration of The Way We Live Now. One of the very few filmmakers to have won significant literary recognition (he's received the National Book Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant), Sayles brings a novelist's appetite for texture and characterization to his movie work. In his films, voices aren't drowned by gunfire. His storytelling is patient, thorough, sometimes...

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Richard Combs (review date 18 October 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Combs, Richard. “Re-Touch of Evil.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4881 (18 October 1996): 20.

[In the following review of Lone Star, Combs maintains that Sayles is unable to handle the scope of a story involving so many plots and subplots.]

“Forget the Alamo”, says the heroine of John Sayles's Lone Star, reversing the battle cry that has been part of American folklore ever since the Alamo mission was defended by a handful of independence-seeking Texans against a Mexican army in 1836. The heroine, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), is Mexican-American, a schoolteacher in a small town on the Texas border with Mexico, and she knows something about the...

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Cliff Thompson (essay date December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Thompson, Cliff. “The Brother from Another Race: Black Characters in the Films of John Sayles.” Cineaste 22, no. 3 (December 1996): 32-3.

[In the following essay, Thompson explores Sayles's representation of African Americans in his films, suggesting that the writer/director has consistently avoided stereotypes and created sympathetic characters.]

“You afraid of me? Don't be,” a minor black character says in John Sayles's 1992 film, Passion Fish. The character is addressing the crippled former soap-opera star played by the white actress Mary McDonnell, but he might be talking to the American moviegoing public. Virtually alone among black movie...

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Joan M. West and Dennis West (review date December 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: West, Joan M., and Dennis West. Review of Lone Star, by John Sayles. Cineaste 22, no. 3 (December 1996): 34-6.

[In the following review, West and West discuss Sayles's representation of competing ethnic groups in Lone Star, contending that the film offers a realistic picture of the current state of multicultural America.]

Lone Star is writer-director-editor John Sayles's film version of menudo, the hearty and picante tripe stew popular in Mexico's northern states. Into his stewpot Sayles pours one-third modern Western, one-third love story with a twist, and one-third murder mystery; he stirs these ingredients briskly with a...

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George Packer (essay date summer 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Packer, George. “Decency and Muck: The Visions of John Sayles and Oliver Stone.” Dissent 44, no. 3 (summer 1997): 105-09.

[In the following essay, Packer compares the careers of John Sayles and Oliver Stone, maintaining that although both filmmakers have leftist political leanings, only Sayles succeeds in conveying his convictions on screen.]

If any left-wing points of view still reach the broad American public, it's usually by some accident of mass culture. Bruce Springsteen rose to fame independently of his Guthrie-like sentiments for the poor and oppressed (the more they dominate his music, the less popular he's been); Al Franken achieved stardom on...

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José E. Limόn (essay date autumn 1997)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Limόn, José E. “Tex-Sex-Mex: American Identities, Lone Stars, and the Politics of Racialized Sexuality.” American Literary History 9, no. 3 (autumn 1997): 598-616.

[In the following essay, Limόn argues that Lone Star presents a “radical revision” of traditional gender roles in relationships between the Anglo-American and Mexican communities.]

John Sayles's new film, Lone Star, will provide closure to an argument I wish to make concerning certain American identities. I will also have occasion to revisit another classic treatment of such identities in the film High Noon. Before film became their primary discourse, these identities...

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Rose Marie Berger (review date July-August 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berger, Rose Marie. “Languages and People Disappeared: The Danger of Men with Guns.Sojourners 27, no. 4 (July-August 1998): 59-61.

[In the following review of Men with Guns, Berger maintains that Sayles is exploring, within his film, the extent to which individuals acknowledge, and are therefore partially responsible for, the actions of their governments and police forces.]

Rough hands gripped mine. I stared down, uncomfortable, at the yellow and silver Formica table. “Tat nupal,” the voices began, “tey tinemi tic ne ylhuicatl.” In a rundown tract house in the weedy suburbs of Washington, D.C., five Salvadoran refugees began their...

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Todd F. Davis and Kenneth Womack (essay date fall 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Davis, Todd F., and Kenneth Womack. “Forget the Alamo: Reading the Ethics of Style in John Sayles's Lone Star.Style 32, no. 3 (fall 1998): 471-85.

[In the following essay, Davis and Womack praise the visual style of Lone Star and discuss the film's handling of the cultural history of a Texas border town.]

Blood only means what you let it.

—John Sayles, Lone Star

In an editorial of 26 March 1997, Linda Chavez, the President of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a nationally syndicated columnist, laments Hollywood's subtle “chipping away at the incest taboo,” arguing that John Sayles's 1996 film, Lone Star, advocates incest as “just another alternative life style choice.” While Chavez derides the film as a “boring, politically correct saga about prejudice and murder in a small Texas town,” her critique of Sayles's narrative neglects the tremendous import of incest as a metaphor for the history of ethnic struggle in Frontera, Texas, Lone Star's fictive cultural battleground (“Kiss” 25).1 Similarly, Laura Miller of Salon Magazine ridicules Lone Star as “a sort of Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from dozens of garden-variety movie clichés and ordered by its creator to deliver a moral of bland multiculturalism” (3).2 As with Chavez, Miller seems loathe to recognize Sayles's deliberate narrative design and his express interest in commenting upon the fractious cultural dilemmas of our past and their often silent impact upon the present. In Lone Star, Sayles skillfully exploits the incest taboo as the vehicle for his analysis of the interconnected ethnic threads that constitute contemporary American life and the often uneasy relationships that continue to exist between the races. Sayles's incest metaphor also provides the writer and filmmaker with a prescient means for exploring the ways in which our shared history impinges upon the ethical choices that confront us in the present.

Sayles constructs his ethical examination of Frontera's historical and present-day cultural dilemmas by virtue of an arresting and carefully plotted visual style. As Martha C. Nussbaum notes, an artist's sense of style—whether visual, literary, or otherwise—often functions as a means for rendering ethical judgments. In Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Nussbaum argues that “form and style are not incidental features. A view of life is told. The telling itself—the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary, of the whole manner of addressing the reader's sense of life—all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life's relations and connections,” she writes; “life is never simply presented by a text; it is always represented as something” (5). In Lone Star, Sayles employs the film's cinematography as a dramatic means for commenting upon the nature of Frontera's shared sense of culture and community. By using a series of flashbacks and flashforwards, Sayles highlights the sociological disjunctions between Frontera's segregated past and its relationship to the ethnic tensions that plague the border town's historical present.

Sayles produces Lone Star's striking visual style through his careful manipulation of the audience's sense of time and place. By altering our traditional understandings of temporality and setting, Sayles succeeds in demonstrating the ethical interconnections between the past and the present. In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1981), the French rhetorician Gérard Genette offers a useful mechanism for exploring the particular narratological elements that establish style and tempo within a literary work, in Genette's case, Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. These narrative movements—specifically, summary, ellipsis, descriptive pause, and scene—reveal the stylistic foundations that produce the overall impression that a given narrative evokes. Such movements establish a tempo within a text, and their efficacy can be measured by the effects they create within that narrative. With Lone Star, the application of Genette's narrative principles usefully demonstrates the moral impact of Sayles's visual style, as well as of his strategic, ethically motivated tampering with traditional conceptions of time and place. Genette's narratological schema also underscores the manner in which the narrative elements inherent in Sayles's film function as a means for considering the “disruptive power” of history, in the words of Richard Schickel, and its remarkable impact upon the present when the past remains obscured by a veil of silence (95).

Yet the application of Genette's theories of narrative discourse to film calls into question many of the rhetorician's arguments regarding temporality and textual duration. In contrast to the variable nature of the reading experience, the cinema confronts its audience with a markedly different, more controlled form of narrative consumption. Simply put, the notion of screen time differs dramatically from reading time because film—at least under normal, theatrical viewing conditions—never stops rolling; the conditions of cinema strictly control narrative duration, itself a more elastic and mutable concept during the reading experience. “Just as we cannot choose to skip around in a film or go back and rewatch a portion,” David Bordwell observes in Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), “so we cannot control how long the narration takes to unfold. This [limitation] is of capital importance for filmic construction and comprehension” (80). In short, projection time governs the audience's reception of film narrative. While Genette's theories of discourse prove revelatory when applied to the cinematic experience, a stylistic reading of film demands consideration of the various narrative properties specific to film as a storytelling genre. As Edward Branigan notes in Narrative Comprehension and Film (1992), “By linking style to the fundamental time of projection, style becomes a basic ingredient of cinema—one of the ways in which the medium controls narration and the spectator's perception of plot and story” (149).

Although understanding the constraints of projection time highlights the inherent stylistic differences between filmic and literary narratives, the notion of cinematic implied authorship demonstrates the decidedly similar function of authority in each medium. While the contingency of the projector seems to negate some of the value of Genette's theories to film study, particularly his notion of the descriptive pause, understanding the role of authorship in film underscores the cinematic relevance of his theories regarding summary, ellipsis, and scene. “Films, like novels,” Seymour Chatman argues in Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film (1990), “present phenomena that cannot otherwise be accounted for, such as the discrepancy between what the cinematic narrator presents and what the film as a whole implies” (130-31). For this reason, as consumers of film narrative—as with literary texts—we depend upon a given film's implied author for the manner in which we consume the cinematic experience.3 Simply put, we perceive what implied authors or narrators perceive; we often share in their speculations about the narrative's possible outcomes, as well as in their emotional responses to the events that they encounter on the screen. The cinematic narrative's principal focalizer essentially operates in this sense, then, as the director's alter ego, the character through whom the audience experiences the film's story, plot, and dialogue.

In Lone Star, Sayles's narrative traces the multicultural progress of Rio County by following Sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper)—both the son of Frontera's former and legendary sheriff, Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), and the film's implied narrator—in his investigation of the apparent murder of his father's misanthropic predecessor, Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). In the film, the specter of his celebrated father's local mystique haunts Sam as he begins to discover the mysterious past shared by Frontera's at-once segregated and interconnected Anglo, Hispanic, African-American, and Native-American communities. While Sayles uses the conventional stylistics of the murder mystery to establish the frame of the story, his true search remains clear: Frontera, once a town on the margin of Anglo-American expansion, now resides on the frontier of American multiculturalism. As with many border towns in the United States, Frontera's limits of demarcation seem arbitrary in nature. Those who live in town share a heritage and a history that binds them to one another in unexpected, and, at times, shocking ways; because of the bonds of history, Sayles seems to argue in Lone Star, it is often difficult facilely to sort out the good from the bad, the right from the wrong. Sayles further complicates the intersections of race and class, for by placing a military base in Frontera, he establishes the historical precedence of protectionism that permeates much of the thinking in Frontera and in America in general. The presence of the military base also allows Sayles to introduce a number of African-American characters into Frontera's predominantly Anglo and Hispanic multicultural mélange. Together, these afford the director a microcosm of race in the United States, as well as an element of flux, for those who live on the base are not rooted in Frontera's past in the same ways as the locals.

Early in the film, Sayles establishes Sam Deeds as Lone Star's principal focalizer. Because he represents the law, his search—while personal in some regards—touches the lives and locations of virtually all of the characters. Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan explains that “focalization has both a subject and an object. The subject (the ‘focalizer’) is the agent whose perception orients the presentation, whereas the object (the ‘focalized’) is what the focalizer perceives” (74). In many ways. Sam serves as the moral or ethical compass of the film; his perceptions of Frontera and its inhabitants certainly orient the viewer to the landscape of intersecting cultures while also allowing for a form of mediation. Because Sam appears to be a man of reasonable actions and reasonable conclusions, he creates a sense of reserved judgment that in turn permits the viewer to watch and wait. Sayles exploits the conventions of the murder mystery in Lone Star as a means for heightening his audience's curiosity about the puzzling events of Frontera's past; as the film's literal detective, Sam leads us on a quest for the truth—not only about the identity of Wade's killer, but also about the truth of Frontera's cultural history. As David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson note. “It is the detective's job to disclose, at the end, the missing causes—to name the killer, explain the motive, and reveal the method” (69). Transcending the genre, Sayles's murder mystery does not push the viewer toward a verdict; rather, Sayles seems more intent on challenging the viewer to deliberate over the affairs of Frontera instead of merely judging them.

In this fashion, Sayles narrates much of Lone Star—especially Sam's own uneasy relationship with his father and with the past—through the use of summary.4 What makes Lone Star of interest stylistically is the fact that Sayles actually uses summary as more than simple connective tissue. While Sayles employs summary in order to underscore the importance of other moments in the film that take place in the historical present, the summary scenes, nonetheless, transcend their role as mere background. In effect, by placing more weight upon summary than is customary, Sayles suggests the ethical portent of history and its intimate relationship with the present.5 To this end, Sayles projects Sam, as “listener,” into several summary scenes by using ellipsis, a narrative element that highlights the connections between the past and present, elucidating the shared interstices of the Frontera community. In his study of narrative discourse, Genette establishes two forms of ellipsis, explicit and implicit. Explicit ellipses clearly indicate a lapse of time, according to Genette, while implicit ellipses suggest a more indefinite time-lapse and can only be inferred by the reader based upon a gap in a given narrative's continuity (106-09). Most often using explicit ellipses, Sayles signals such transitions in Lone Star by drawing the viewer's eye toward details of historical significance. First panning either left or right, up or down, Sayles then uses a form of the elliptic cut to connote a shift in time, and, in certain instances, a shift in place as well. Bordwell and Thompson define this process generally as elliptical editing, which consists of “shot transitions that omit parts of an event, causing an ellipsis in plot and story duration” (260).

The first instance of explicit ellipsis occurs early in the film in the Café Santa Barbara. There, Hollis Pogue (Clifton James), former deputy and current mayor of Frontera, holds forth to a court of “two good old boys” on the legendary subject of Buddy—whom he hopes to honor with the naming of a park and the commissioning of a statue.6 Before Sayles shifts his narrative into the past through the stylistic device of ellipsis, he allows Sam to engage Fenton (Tony Frank), one of the good old boys listening to Hollis, in a dialogue about the commemoration in the present. Fenton is enraged because, as he puts it, “every other damn thing in the country is called after Martin Luther King; they can't let our side have one measly park.” Pointing out that the other possibility for the park commemoration concerned a Mexican-American youth who was killed in the Gulf War, not an African American, Sam goads Fenton into a more animated racist diatribe. In response to Fenton and Sam, Hollis suggests that “the Mexicans that know, that remember, understand what Buddy was for their people.” At this juncture, Fenton entreats Hollis to tell the story of how Buddy came to be sheriff in 1957. Although at first Hollis demurs because “everybody heard that story a million times,” he eventually agrees when Sam says he wants to hear Hollis's “version of it.” At each point in the film when Sayles shifts, through ellipsis, from the present into the recounted past, he purposively demonstrates that what we are receiving is a “version” of history. Sayles's use of summary prods the viewer toward an understanding that history is personal, political, and, perhaps most important, contextual; his decision to use the generic conventions of the murder mystery, moreover, supports the idea that the truth of the past is always shifting in relation to the vantage point of the observer. While many readers might struggle with the idea that history shifts depending on context, few would deny that a murder investigation involves finding clues within the stories of witnesses and suspects, that the objective act of the crime is lost to the past and may only be discovered through the myriad tales of those who live on. In Lone Star, we journey through ellipsis into summary so not only that the story the silence of historical memory seeks to avoid may be heard, but, as Lone Star's conclusion reveals, that all stories inevitably impinge upon one another.

While Genette's theory originates with written narratives, the principles of ellipsis and summary offer insight into film as well. In this case, the film cut—the most common transition between shots—functions in film in a manner similar to an ellipsis in print narrative. Sayles uses the traditional cut in Lone Star to great effect in his visual narration of Frontera's multicultural tableau. For instance, the film opens with three simple cuts that establish the army base, Pilar Cruz's school, and Mercedes Cruz's café as important settings for the story. Sayles chooses, however, to use elliptical editing—which he achieves with tracking shots—at several strategic points in the film to emphasize the interconnections within Frontera's many different histories, the ways in which the past and the present preside over the actions of those living in the here and now. In the first instance of elliptical editing, Hollis begins his version of the story about the night that Buddy became sheriff. As the ellipsis begins and Hollis's story shifts into summary, the camera moves from the faces of the men who are gathered around the restaurant table in the present moment to a tight focus on the tortilla basket that rests in the center of the table. Sayles cues the audience to the shift in time by highlighting the basket's plastic construction in the present in contrast to its straw fabrication in the past. Far more subtle than a superimposed date on the screen, this technique not only emphasizes the fluidity and consequence of time's passage; it also serves as the means via which Sayles symbolically conflates Frontera's sense of cultural past and present.

Hollis's story serves as a striking visual introduction to Buddy's character and creates a moment in which we may observe Sam's reactions to the looming presence of his dead father. One of the ancillary themes running through Lone Star concerns the relationship between fathers and sons. When Frontera's citizenry often remind Sam in direct and indirect ways that there will never be another sheriff like Buddy, they imply that Sam will never live up to the standards of his father. In a corollary story, Colonel Del Payne (Joe Morton), the new commander of the army base, struggles both with the forty-year divide that rests between himself and his father, Otis Payne (Ron Canada), owner of “Big O's,” the only bar in town where African Americans feel welcome, and with the increasing separation that grows between himself and Chet (Eddie Robinson), his high-school aged son. Sayles emphasizes the significance of knowing the past through interpersonal relationship as he explores the dynamic within these families. The notion that knowledge comes through such relationships is introduced early in the film at the school board meeting where angry parents argue about the multicultural pedagogy that Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) employs in her history courses. The assembled parents challenge her current teaching methodology because she supplements the approved textbook with lessons that attempt to expose students to several different perspectives of a single historical event, a technique replicated by Sayles himself as he offers multiple perspectives in the narrative construction of Lone Star. The meeting exposes the divisions in the community that have evolved over time because of the lack of intercultural relationship and communication among Frontera's citizenry. As with Sam or Del or Chet—whose personal lives have been separated by anger and misunderstanding—the community as a whole can come to no true understanding of its many histories without the ability to listen to one another in human relationships.

On one level, by making a film like Lone Star Sayles encourages his audience to engage in ethical debate with the very problems that threaten his characters. Through the compelling form of the murder mystery, Sayles draws the audience into a relationship of desire for the knowledge of what actually transpired at the scene of the crime, but, as a result of that knowledge, he presents us with a story that transcends generic boundaries and moves us into closer relationship with the concerns of the other cultures he introduces in the film. In “Film and Cultural Identity,” Rey Chow explains that because “cultural identity is something that always finds an anchor in specific media of representation, it is easy to see why the modes of illusory presence made possible by film have become such strong contenders in the controversial negotiations for cultural identity; film has always been, since its inception, a transcultural phenomenon,” Chow contends, “having as it does the capacity to transcend ‘culture’—to create modes of fascination which are readily accessible and which engage audiences in ways independent of their linguistic and cultural specificities” (169, 174). Without the relationship that Sayles creates via the murder mystery, however, the transcultural experience that Lone Star offers would not carry the same ethical import. Because Sayles draws his characters together naturally through Sam's detective work, their lives and histories commingle in an authentic fashion, compelling the audience toward a deeper understanding of race and family. As with his earlier films such as The Brother from Another Planet (1984) and City of Hope (1991), Sayles establishes cultural metaphors in Lone Star in order to highlight the deeper interconnections that define our shared sense of humanity. As we discover in the film's startling conclusion, Sayles's primary concern—although we become involved with the very real families that populate Frontera—is that we come to a knowledge of the universal family of humanity, an idea, he suggests, that ultimately binds us to one another.

Yet Sayles's films inevitably recognize that coming to an understanding of the nuances of interpersonal connection often exacts a painful price. In effect, as we move through the stories of characters whose lives were touched by Buddy, we begin to recognize that Sam's efforts at solving the murder of Wade indicate a cultural shift that many in Frontera simply don't wish to make. In his review of Lone Star, Schickel suggests that “the silence of [Wade's] grave symbolizes a larger and more conspiratorial silence afflicting Frontera. […] Sayles wants us to count the costs of silence too—in the baleful distortions it imposes on the people who keep it, in the damage it eventually does to innocents like Sam and Pilar when they are not let in on the secret it shrouds. Above all,” Schickel continues, Sayles “wants us to understand that when we deny history we grant it a more disruptive power” (95). The cultural shift that must occur in Frontera involves the embrace of histories, not the denial of history. In the past, when Frontera was a town ruled by Anglos, order was founded upon a single narrative, and Buddy not only helped author that narrative but also worked hard to enforce it. While he certainly did not use the sadistic measures of his predecessor, the desire for a peace founded upon a single narrative remained. Not surprisingly—as we see in the stories told in visual summary by Minnie or Big O or Chucho—the African-American and Hispanic communities did not seek to disrupt Buddy's narrative or abolish his rule as sheriff. The conditions they lived under during Buddy's tenure were far more amenable than those during the tyranny of Wade. But at the current juncture in Frontera's history, the next generation is no longer satisfied by the single historical narrative embraced by the town's elders, and, because of this turn away from a single organizing myth of the good Buddy Deeds and the evil Charley Wade, we witness the disruptions at the school as Pilar attempts to demonstrate the diversity and complexity of history or the revelation encountered by Del as the young female private in his command explains to him that she is in the army because “this is one of the best deals they [the white majority] offer.”

The use of visual summary, and, in some instances, descriptive pause, also provides Sayles with a means for imbuing the setting of Lone Star with a striking sense of the various ethnic figures who surround greater Frontera—from the Mexicans who live just beyond the nearby river's watery borders to the Native Americans selling cultural artifacts on the outskirts of town and the Texans themselves, who function as modern caricatures of mythic Western archetypes from a bygone era. Sayles allows his audience to encounter these different cultural factions by placing Mexican, Native-American, and Texan characters, respectively, in the path of Sam's murder investigation. While attempting to learn about the circumstances of the death of Eladio Cruz (Gilbert R. Cuellar Jr.) during Wade's tenure as sheriff, Sam visits Chucho (Tony Amendola), a former Texas resident and the current owner of a tire repair shop, in the Mexican border town of Ciudad León. Known locally as the Rey de las Llantas (“King of the Tires”), Chucho narrates the events surrounding Wade's cold-blooded murder of Eladio by way of summary, while also musing about the “invisible line” that divides Mexico and the United States. This invisible line not only divides those two countries, but also the past and the present, imbuing the boundary with both geographical and historical significance. Hoping to learn more about his father's past, Sam later visits Wesley Birdsong (Gordon Tootoosis) at the Native American's roadside stand. During their ensuing conversation, Wesley sifts through a variety of cultural artifacts, from a longhorn skull and a wooden replica of the Alamo that also functions as a radio to a rattlesnake skin and souvenir buffalo chips. Through a series of descriptive pauses, Wesley informs Sam about Buddy's restless past, as well as about the former sheriff's extramarital relationship with a mystery Frontera woman. According to Genette, descriptive pauses occur when the author withdraws from the diegesis, or story, to describe a scene that the reader and other characters in the passage are not currently viewing (99-102). In this manner, Wesley—as he pauses to examine the found objects of Frontera's past and narrates the events of Buddy's youth—provides Sam with valuable personal insight into his father's personal history.7 The dusty, unsold contents of the Native American's roadside stand also signal the viewer about the ephemeral nature of Texas's Western past and the declining value of that past in the state's shifting multicultural present.

Finally, Sam's encounter with his manic-depressive ex-wife offers valuable visual clues about the fate of the archetypal Texan in the modern world. Once a cultural icon of Western life and values, the Texan—represented by the personage of Bunny (Frances McDormand), Sam's former wife—now struggles to find a sense of identity as the exaggerated caricature of the sports fanatic. Disparaged by her father for being too “high strung,” Bunny sits in a living room that functions as a virtual museum of Texas sports memorabilia. Wearing a Houston Oilers sweatshirt and a Dallas Cowboys hat and sitting in front of a big-screen television, Bunny perches on a couch surrounded by signed footballs, team posters, and videocassettes of Texas professional and college football games. Bunny's obsession with the world of Texas sports manifests itself in her wide-ranging knowledge of football statistics, even including such sports ephemera as the weight-lifting abilities of local high-school football players and the nuances of the professional football draft. Yet, as with Chucho and Wesley before her, Bunny functions as but one more piece of the multicultural puzzle that confronts Sam as he searches for Wade's killer.8

In order to illuminate further the ethical nature of Sayles's use of visual summary, we must first examine the narratological element that Genette refers to as scene and how scene in Lone Star pushes Sam and Pilar toward radical insights about their love and their relationship to the community of Frontera. Although the most startling revelations in the film occur in summary passages, as an audience we remain concerned about the effect of these revelations on the characters in the present. A scene most often occurs in dialogue, says Genette, and “realizes conventionally the equality of time between narrative and story” (94). Sayles skillfully uses summary to comment on such scenes in his visual narrative, and their juxtaposition in Lone Star is loaded with ethical import. Sayles concentrates the film's most dramatic energy in three scenes involving Frontera's painful, yet ultimately remedial, excavation of its monocultural past. In the first scene, Sayles narrates Mercedes's arrival in Texas and her first meeting with Eladio, her future husband, using a brief visual summary that provides a flashback to 1945 of Mercedes crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico to Texas by moonlight.9 Sayles carefully juxtaposes this summary with a scene depicting Enrique (Richard Coca), one of the employees in Mercedes's restaurant, begging her to help him care for his girlfriend, who has broken her leg while illegally entering Texas. When Enrique confronts her with his dilemma, Mercedes instinctively decides to call the border patrol, for she prides herself on only hiring legal immigrants, whom she admonishes to speak English—“This is the United States,” she recites to the employees of the Café Santa Barbara, and “we speak English.” Yet Enrique's situation reminds her of her own initial passage to Texas and Mercedes eventually chooses to assist Enrique in his plight without notifying the border patrol. By deciding to act on Enrique's behalf and implicitly sanction his girlfriend's illegal entry into Texas, Mercedes opts to embrace, rather than redact, her own personal history.

Sam comes to a similar conclusion about Frontera's jaded cultural past when he finally discovers the identity of Wade's killer. As the narrative of Lone Star seems to reach its dramatic apex, Sam confronts Hollis and Otis late one night at Big O's, the last place where anyone ever saw Wade alive. As Otis begins to narrate the events of that fateful evening, the camera pans from the present into the past through the bar's back room, where we suddenly see a much younger Otis engaged in an intense card game with four other African-American youths. Interrupted by Wade, Otis's after-hours guests scatter, leaving him alone to face the sadistic sheriff. As Wade prepares to shoot Otis at point-blank range, Hollis, the sheriff's ever-present deputy and the witness to his numerous human atrocities, fires upon his superior just as the shadowy figure of Buddy enters the bar. Fearing for Hollis's safety if the truth of Wade's death ever emerged, Otis, Hollis, and Buddy decide to allow legend to narrate the tale of the late sheriff's disappearance. As “time went on,” Otis explains to Sam, “people liked the story that we told better than anything the truth might have been.” Yet with the identity of Wade's killer finally revealed, Sam chooses to ignore the literal truth of history and let Buddy's role in the popular story of Wade's death endure. “Buddy's a goddamn legend,” Sam concludes; “he can handle it.” Again, as with Mercedes before him, Sam—through the visual auspices of Sayles's narratological summary—allows history to repeat itself rather than correct the fraudulent narrative of the past. By letting Buddy's legendary deeds on behalf of Frontera survive, Sam embraces, rather than disavows, the border town's ethnically beleaguered past.

While the knowledge of his father's actual role in the disappearance of Wade provides Sam with some sense of conclusion to the murder investigation that he conducts throughout Lone Star's narrative, his close inspection of Frontera's past confronts him with several alarming questions about his personal heritage. During the course of his forensic study of Frontera's cultural past, Sam and Pilar rekindle a romantic relationship that finds its origins in their teenage years. Sayles employs summary as a means for informing the audience about their romantic past and the sudden, dramatic demise of their relationship at the hands of Buddy. In one instance, Pilar laments—rather ironically, considering her enduring feelings for Sam in the present—that “nobody stays in love for twenty-three years.” Sayles segues from Pilar's words in the present to a 1972 summary scene at a drive-in movie theater, where we witness Buddy and Hollis in the act of surprising the half-clothed Sam and Pilar in their car. As the sheriff and his deputy separate the couple and begin taking them back to their respective homes, the crowded drive-in erupts in a round of car horns and brightly lit headlights. Sayles skillfully shifts from his summary of the past into a present-day scene depicting Sam alone at the abandoned drive-in theater, sitting on the hood of his squad car and staring at the broken-down movie screen.

Sayles later contrasts the image of Sam's lonely vigil at the drive-in theater with the meeting between Sam and Pilar at the drive-in that closes the film and also provides the impetus for Chavez's strident critique of Lone Star. For the first time in his narrative, Sayles chooses to dispense with his summary of the past and confront his characters in a mimetic scene that boldly and completely interacts with the present, with the here and now of Frontera.10 As Sam reveals the identity of Buddy's mystery woman as Mercedes Cruz—and, in the process, finally explains the intensity of the connection that they shared for so many years—Pilar reacts to the silence that suddenly and conspicuously lies between them: “So that's it?” she asks; “you're not going to want to be with me anymore? I'm not having any more children,” she continues, and “I can't get pregnant again, if that's what the rule is about.” With the narrative of Frontera's past once again confronting them in the present, Sam and Pilar decide to “start from scratch”: “Everything that went before, all that stuff, that history,” Pilar remarks, “the hell with it.” As the couple stare at the blank tableau of their future in the image of the abandoned drive-in's dilapidated movie screen, Pilar confidently urges Sam—indeed, Frontera's entire populace—to “forget the Alamo.” Sayles shatters the visual silence of the screen with the optimistic strains of Patsy Montana's 1935 hit, “I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart.”11 Through his depiction of Sam and Pilar in the act not only of reconfiguring their shared past together but also of assenting to their incestual relationship, Sayles once again demonstrates the manner in which his characters opt to revise the narratives of the past—to allow history to repeat itself while simultaneously reviving their love for each other—in order to facilitate senses of community and interpersonal connection, elements of humanity previously denied to them by Frontera's culturally fractured past.

By constructing his visual rendering of the interconnections between the past and present communities of Frontera, Sayles succeeds in fashioning the elaborate incestual cultural metaphor that so troubles Chavez. In Lone Star, Sayles reminds us about the tremendous pull that the past exerts upon our lives in the present, as well as about the necessity of reading contextually the narratives of the past in order to glimpse the possibilities of the future. In her introduction to the anthology Two Worlds Walking: Short Stories, Essays and Poetry by Writers with Mixed Heritages, Diane Glancy claims that in America there is a movement toward wholeness based on our diversity, that we need to examine “the worlds that walk within us,” to recognize the “new order of migration, in which the going is the journey itself, rather than arrival at a destination” (xi). By allowing his characters to embark finally on the journey of Frontera's future, Sayles confronts the denizens of the border town with the need to establish and maintain a genuine sense of community, an aspect of humanity withheld from them previously both because of the tyranny of Wade and because of the rigidity of the cultural narrative authored by Buddy. While Sam's murder investigation never results in an arrest, trial by jury, or verdict, his search for the truth—even as he chooses to embrace the narrative of the past—reveals the value of community to Frontera's endurance and cultural health. As Julie D. Balzekas, an executive committee member of the Joint Center for Poverty Research, reminds us, “Responsible behavior is at the core of all moral teachings—in fact, one could argue that those lessons of responsibility most essential to the healthy functioning of a culture become the morals of that group” (14). Finally recognizing themselves as a community of disparate cultures with a shared sense of history, the citizens of Frontera under Sam Deeds's watch succeed in accepting the responsibility for their past, their present, and, ultimately, their future.

Imbuing Lone Star with a carefully constructed incestual metaphor—as opposed to the incest taboo that Chavez laments—allows Sayles to underscore the ethical force of his screenplay, a narrative that achieves its moral aims through Sayles's skillful use of visual style. “Style itself makes its claims, expresses its own sense of what matters,” Nussbaum remarks. “Literary form is not separable from philosophical content, but is, itself, a part of content—an integral part, then, of the search for and the statement of truth” (3). In this way, style functions essentially as an ethical construct, as a vehicle for Sayles's considerable cultural and ethical arguments. Reading Lone Star in terms of Genette's narratological elements reveals the manner in which Sayles's film succeeds as a dramatic rejoinder to the cultural dilemmas that mark our past, as well as a genuine vision of American life and the shifting sense of identity that defines our contemporary value systems. “The urge to find one's place, to create and feel the comfort of community, is the abiding American story,” Edward Guthmann observes. “Whereas European, African, and Asian cultures are marked by diaspora—by parents losing their children and populations struggling to preserve tradition and continuity—the American story is one of improvising an identity” (D1). In Lone Star, Sayles narrates an essentially American story, for his characters not only struggle to embrace the competing narratives that mark our past, but also attempt to improvise the stories that will decide the course of our shared cultural future.


  1. It should hardly be surprising that Chavez proves to be equally critical of the initiatives of the multicultural project. In “Multiculturalism Is Driving Us Apart,” Chavez argues that “the re-racialization of American society that is taking place in the name of multiculturalism is not a progressive movement, but a step backward to the America that existed before Brown v. Board of Education and the passage of major civil rights laws of the 1960s” (41).

  2. As with Miller, Barbara Shulgasser seems unconvinced about the ethical imperatives that mark the narratives of Sayles's films: “You want to stay with him because Sayles really is on the side of morality, fairness, and sensible thinking,” Shulgasser writes, and “you want his movies to be as entertaining and riveting as he is ethical and high-minded. But they just aren't” (D3).

  3. In Narration in the Fiction Film, Bordwell describes the implied author of a given film as an “invisible puppeteer, not a speaker or visible presence but the omnipotent artistic figure behind the work.” Because of the peculiar nature of the cinematic experience—and particularly because of the fact that in most films “we are seldom aware of being told something by an entity resembling a human being”—Bordwell questions the necessity of determining a film's implied authorship. “To give every film a narrator or implied author is to indulge in an anthropomorphic fiction,” he writes (62). Yet in a film such as Lone Star, with its explicit cultural agenda, the character of Sam Deeds clearly functions as Sayles's alter ego and the cinematic vehicle through which he exerts his own “visible presence” upon the film.

  4. Genette defines summary, in terms of his narratological schema, as those moments in a narrative that provide the background or history for later scenes. In fact, says Genette, “summary remained, up to the end of the nineteenth century, the most usual transition between two scenes, the ‘background’ against which scenes stand out, and thus the connective tissue par excellence of novelistic narrative” (97).

  5. As Chatman observes in Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film (1978). “The cinema has trouble with summary, and directors often result to gadgetry.” In summary scenes, Chatman adds, “The discourse is briefer than the events depicted” (68-69). In Lone Star, Sayles constructs summary scenes by depicting Sam in the acts of “listening” to past events. By creating a series of flashbacks, Sayles provides his detective with a mechanism for assembling clues from the past in order to solve the mysteries that confront him in the present. A mere observer of such moments in the film, Sam never actively participates in the summary scenes' construction. Rather, Sam—along with the audience—witnesses the events as they unfold and purposefully withholds judgment about their significance until the film's conclusion.

  6. The eventual statue itself functions as a microcosm of Frontera's monocultural past. In the screenplay, Sayles offers the following description of Frontera's memorial to Buddy Deeds: “The cloth drops to reveal a bas relief in brass set in a block of smooth limestone. A decent likeness of Buddy in uniform, his hands on the shoulder of a small Mexican-looking boy who stands beside him, eyes raised worshipfully” (57).

  7. In effect, Sayles employs Wesley's analysis of the various objects in his roadside stand as a means for providing Sam—and indeed, the audience—with essentially nondiegetic material about past events taking place outside of Lone Star's narrative space. In this way, the descriptive pause usefully applies to filmic narrative by fulfilling Sayles's desire to provide Sam and the audience with significant extratextual information about Buddy's mysterious past.

  8. In his review of Lone Star, Mick LaSalle fails to recognize Bunny's significant cultural import: “Frances McDormand has a bit as the sheriff's football-fanatic ex-wife,” LaSalle writes, “a role that should have been left on the cutting-room floor. It's five minutes of McDormand, bug-eyed, rattling about football statistics” (D3).

  9. In this instance, Sayles essentially merges Genette's notion of summary with his use of the traditional flashback scene. In Lone Star, summaries provide significant background material that Sam—the implied author and narrator—will later employ in his solution of the film's murder mystery. Yet such scenes also function as flashbacks because they allow us, in Branigan's words, to “see an actual, present memory image of the character” as he or she relives a past experience (176).

  10. While much of Lone Star's narrative essentially summarizes the past as Sam attempts to solve the detective story that undergirds the film, the mimetic scene at the drive-in signals a dramatic shift in the manner in which the audience consumes Sayles's narrative. Suddenly thrust into the present, viewers no longer interact with Frontera's history as they did throughout the rest of the film. The drive-in scene takes place in real time and without narratological intrusions from the past in the form of summaries or ellipses. As the film closes, this scene produces a startling visual and emotional effect on the audience by forcing us to consider fully Frontera's multicultural present, as well as “the way we live now,” in the words of Roger Ebert (449).

  11. Interestingly, Montana crossed several cultural barriers of her own, becoming the first female recording artist to enjoy a million-selling record. She later performed “I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart” as a duet with Smiley Burnette in Colorado Sunset (1937).

We would like to thank Ryan Kelly of the John Sayles Border Stop and the proprietors of the Script Shop for their assistance in procuring a copy of the unpublished Lone Star screenplay. Thanks are also due to David Bordwell for his advice and guidance during the production of this essay.

Works Cited

Balzekas, Julie D. “Loss of Taboos.” Letter. Chicago Tribune 31 March 1997: 14.

Bordwell, David. Narration in the Fiction Film. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1985.

———, and Kristin Thompson. Film Art: An Introduction. 4th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1993.

Branigan, Edward. Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge, 1992.

Chatman, Seymour. Coming to Terms: The Rhetoric of Narrative in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1990.

———. Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1978.

Chavez, Linda. “Kiss and Tell.” Chicago Tribune 26 March 1997: 25.

———. “Multiculturalism Is Driving Us Apart.” USA Today: The Magazine of the American Scene 124 (May 1996): 39-41.

Chow, Rey. “Film and Cultural Identity.” The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Ed. John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1998. 169-75.

Ebert, Roger. “Lone Star Holds a Mirror to America.” Chicago Sun-Times 3 July 1996: 37.

Genette, Gérard. Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Trans. Jane E. Lewin. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1980.

Glancy, Diane. “Introductory Note.” Two Worlds Walking: Short Stories, Essays, and Poetry by Writers with Mixed Heritages. Ed. Glancy and C. W. Truesdale. Minneapolis: New Rivers, 1994. xi-xii.

Guthmann, Edward. “Lone Star—Summer's Smart Sleeper Hit: Sayles Film Quietly Builds an Audience.” San Francisco Chronicle 1 August 1996: D1.

LaSalle, Mick. “Sayles Connects in Lone Star: An Old Murder Looms over Border Town.” San Francisco Chronicle 21 June 1996: D3.

Miller, Laura. “Virtue's Hack: John Sayles Makes Movies with All the Right Messages—and No Surprises, Madness, or Life.” Salon Magazine 29 July-2 August 1996.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Rimmon-Kenan, Shlomith. Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics. London: Routledge, 1989.

Sayles, John. Lone Star. Unpublished screenplay. 2 January 1995.

———, dir. Lone Star. With Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Peña, Kris Kristofferson, and Matthew McConaughey. Castle Rock, 1996.

Schickel, Richard. “Look, Ma, No Space Invaders!: John Sayles Makes the Summer Safe for Grownups.” Time 22 July 1996: 95.

Shulgasser, Barbara. “Lone Star Is Classic Sayles: Full of Commitment, Ethics.” San Francisco Examiner 21 June 1996: D3.

John Sayles, Joan M. West, and Dennis West (interview date 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sayles, John, Joan M. West, and Dennis West. “Not Playing by the Usual Rules: An Interview with John Sayles.” Cineaste 24, no. 4 (1999): 28-31.

[In the following interview, Sayles discusses his use of the threatening landscape of Alaska as the setting for Limbo.]

At a time when most American ‘independent’ films are conceived by their directors as stepping stones to an industry career, as audition pieces for the next available studio job for hire, the career of John Sayles is all the more remarkable. Over the last twenty years, dating from his self-financed debut effort, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1979), Sayles has written and directed a dozen...

(The entire section is 4275 words.)

Philip Kemp (review date February 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Kemp, Philip. Review of Limbo, by John Sayles. Sight and Sound 10, no. 2 (February 2000): 47-8.

[In the following review, Kemp contends that in Limbo, a film about disillusioned outsiders on an island off the coast of Alaska, Sayles has avoided the didacticism that plagued his earlier efforts.]

John Sayles is one of the most politically tuned-in of American independents. But the downside to his social awareness can be a tendency to didacticism, where the narrative moves predictably towards closure. Not this time, though. Limbo is Sayles' most unexpected film to date: not so much in its themes, which connect with his previous work, as in the...

(The entire section is 633 words.)

Shirley Sealy (review date September 2003)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Sealy, Shirley. Review of Casa de los Babys, by John Sayles. Film Journal International 106, no. 9 (September 2003): 42.

[In the following review, Sealy praises the ensemble cast of Casa de los Babys, but notes that the film has “too little momentum to sustain viewer interest.”]

John Sayles' movies invariably have a strong emotional center—one that binds his characters to one another and, if all goes well, puts a lock on audience empathy. Think Sunshine State or Lone Star, which, in our view, rate as Sayles' best.

Casa de Los Babys does not go well. The emotional center here has to do with motherhood,...

(The entire section is 406 words.)

Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


DiMatteo, Robert. “Philadelphia Lawyer.” Film Comment 26, no. 4 (July-August 1990): 2-4.

Provides a review of the television series Shannon's Deal, suggesting that Sayles's talents are better suited to television than to film.

Jones, Kent. “The Lay of the Land: John Sayles Draws a Map of American Discontent for the Era of Disneyfication.” Film Comment 38, no. 3 (May-June 2002): 22-3.

Discusses Sayles's treatment of history in Sunshine State.

Koehler, Robert. Review of Sunshine State, by John Sayles. Variety 387, no. 2 (27 May-2 June 2002): 22.


(The entire section is 290 words.)