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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

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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)

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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 L.A. to negotiate their drug deals. The Brother from Another Planet came to him one night in a dream (already carrying the appealing title Assholes from Outer Space); it was written in one week, shot in four, and soon landed in Cannes to serve as a topic of cocktail conversation with Andrew Sarris. And all for a low, low $350,000, with deferred salaries, credit crunches and the usual financial nightmares of independent production. Best of all, Sayles keeps a sense of humor about the whole hectic process and pokes fun at the megalomaniacs of the industry: early in Brother [The Brother from Another Planet] there's a brief shot of a sign for Harlem's Cotton Club, just to remind film insiders that Francis Coppola's picture of the same name still has not been released.

Smallness of scale and brevity of moment are the most attractive aspects of the four films Sayles has directed. The specific subjects under his consideration hit the high spots of current politics and sociology: Return of the Secaucus Seven was about the evolution of the radical generation of the 1960s; Baby, It's You was about that generation's origins; Lianna dealt with sexual politics; and Brother has to do with racism. But 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. Method and style are crucial to Sayles's purpose. His movies must be accessible, unpretentious, low-tech and narrow-gauge; in other words, cheap and quick. Grandeur, sweep and finesse distance a production from its audience, the way a haute couture show makes clothes into myths or a three-star meal transforms dinner into a dream.

The Brother from Another Planet takes its cue from the science fiction genre, but not its sense or sensibility. The Brother (the marvelous Joe Morton) is a fugitive slave from some distant world who hurtles to Earth on a well-traveled intergalactic railroad. There's a bit of blurred spaceship technology before the titles, but Sayles has no interest in (or budget for) Kubrickian fantasies. His special effects, and the Bro's special talents, are kept to a minimum. The fugitive has a luminous finger which can regenerate limbs, heal wounds, repair video games and open cash registers. He can hear conversations from long ago in empty rooms and leap halfway up tall buildings in a single bound. His alien pièce de résistance is the ability to remove an eye, which can keep watch on its surroundings and transmit all it has seen when replaced in its socket.

But the Brother is no superman. He is almost unendurably sensitive to the suffering of his black brothers and sisters in Harlem, that ghetto of the universe where he naturally finds a home. Like a mute messiah (he never makes a peep), the Brother assumes the pain and oppression of those he walks among: an Oriental grocery clerk calls the police on him for stealing a pear, a white employer treats him like dirt, black punks fall upon him and he shoots up with heroin when he finds a young addict dead with a needle in his arm. He is a gentle and defenseless stranger in a land that must not be so terribly strange to him; a slave's life on the other planet is clearly no piece of cake. Two white bounty hunters (Sayles and David Strathairn) are on his tail, but as bad as conditions may be around 125th Street, the Brother desperately wants to stay on Earth.

The messianism gets maudlin at times, and the movie's good intentions may be hard even for liberal audiences to swallow whole. A long sequence in which the Brother finds the white yuppie who controls the ghetto drug trade is both overblown and simple-minded, and fits uncomfortably with the mood Sayles has created. But Sayles's sense of humor and his wonderful way with words are always available to effect a rescue. There's no danger that he will turn into Stanley Kramer before the final frame. Little theatrical monologues and set pieces dot the narrative like jewels: an endearing young hustler plays card tricks on the subway, then asks the Brother, “Do you want me to make all the white people disappear?” just as the train leaves Columbus Circle for 125th Street; the bounty hunters make their rounds like robot twins, speaking lines out of Dragnet and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre; a Rastafarian takes the Brother on a Faustian walk through Harlem nighttown; and two absurd Midwestern white boys barge into a Harlem bar for several hours of meaningful conversation with a mute black alien.

All this takes place in a cozy community constructed around the bar, where a complement of amusing denizens takes up the slack moments in the plot. They provide diversions, which are not really digressions, for the community is the movie—it is the way Sayles's constituency (more than an audience) can enter his country. Jean Renoir built the same kind of neighborhoods in his mid-1930s movies (typically, in The Crime of Monsieur Lange) and there are glimpses of other landscape signatures in some recent Australian offerings—for example, Gillian Armstrong's working-class corner of Sidney in Starstruck. But most American movies have abandoned their sense of the community for milieus that are either mythic or exotic.

Sayles rushes in where most other filmmakers would not even think to tread. What straight white male, even with the best social conscience in the world, would risk making a film about lesbian relationships in the 1980s? Who wants to tempt the gods of commerce and the gurus of correct politics by tackling black life in Harlem? Sayles seems oblivious to the cultural constraints that limit the rest of us. He gets away with it, too, by keeping his sights low and his eyes clear. He does not claim to offer the last word on any of his subjects, nor does he pretend to produce masterpieces or hope to gross zillions. Each of his films is incomplete, tentative, exploratory. That is a style that Godard and some American filmmakers tried in the 1960s, but they always took themselves and their politics too seriously and in the end foundered when their integrity was unmasked as ego. Sayles should have no such problems. His one-man alternative cinema is a real treat, and if you watch closely, he can make Hollywood disappear.

John Sayles and Pat Aufderheide (interview date autumn 1986)

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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, Joe Kenehan, a union organizer for the United Mine Workers, is a pacifist and a veteran of Industrial Workers of the World (or Wobbly) struggles.

Matewan fulfills a dream Sayles has had to tell the stories he heard when, as a fresh college grad, he hitchhiked through the West Virginia hills and heard stories of that epoch. It also forms a marking point in Sayles' career, as a packed historical canvas on which many of the themes that Sayles has dealt with in earlier, smaller films are raised. The $3 million budget (the film was financed by Cinecom) was stretched to fit $10 million ambitions.

Sayles, a child of middle class babyboom culture, is a kind of popular chronicler of American culture. His early collection of short stories, The Anarchists' Convention, and his novel, Union Dues, both demonstrate a grounding in his concern for what some call “civil religion”—the values that a culture holds in common and that infuse individual choice, social priorities and political action. In films such as Return of the Secaucus Seven (his first independent film, made for a $67,000 pittance). Lianna, Baby It's You, and Brother from Another Planet, Sayles has gone to the heart—the lived experience—of issues that rile the surface of American life: countercultural activism; homosexuality; the cultural conflicts of class in America; and racism. His film style is conventional in a narrative sense, but it typically draws the viewer into an ensemble of characters rather than depending on genre-defined action.

Sayles sits with apparent comfort on the edge between commercial and independent filmmaking, working as a scriptwriter and script doctor for the industry while pursuing his own projects. And his own projects are designed to appeal to the same audience, but with a different product.

As Sayles was entering post production for Matewan in late autumn 1986, he talked about his latest film, his film style, and his objectives as a narrator of the drama called the American way of life.—

[Aufderheide]: You've been fascinated by coal mining history since long before Matewan. What intrigued you originally?

[Sayles]: The first thing that struck me was this dirty, dangerous job that people get hooked on. There's this incredible pride, solidarity and fellow feeling among guys who had done it. You get even these old guys saying, “It's nothing like what it was like for the old-timers.” It got me interested in the history. Also, just because West Virginia is isolated, there are things about people and the way they live and American character or whatever that are clearer there.

So what was it about West Virginia that was so clear about American character?

One of the main things that began to interest me when I got into the period was that you had the bedrock Americans, people so individualistic that they left the wagon train, stayed in those hills, and dug in. They have a history of resisting outsiders, including the American Government, but at the same time, when there's a war, they're the first ones to enlist. A bedrock individualism coupled with a kind of unthinking patriotism. So it's not like they're a bunch of freethinkers who never trusted the country. They're people who get misty-eyed every time someone raises the flag. That's a fascinating combination.

People are individualistic to the point where families can seem like a country. And that's a real strength, at the same time that you can really isolate yourself from other people. In West Virginia it's always been very difficult for people to subjugate their individuality to any cause. There's always this feeling that a strong individual can do it alone, unless there's a family crisis when you all pitch in. You try at all costs to avoid contention. There is a real avoidance of confrontation, and the drawback is that you hold things in until you burst.

What's the conflict in Matewan about?

A lot of what Matewan's about is that new people were coming in, blacks and immigrants from Southern Europe, and, along with new people, new ideas, and one of the new ideas was forming a union. That was a very new idea in southwest West Virginia, where the owners had had feudal kingdoms. West Virginia was a special case. There was a point where companies in other states told the UMW to organize West Virginia, because companies there were underpricing them so badly.

Some of it was company resistance, but there also was a natural resistance to joining. In the film one of the guys says, “I don't need some hunkie in Pittsburgh to tell me what to do.”

The union still has to face that. There wasn't a single authorized strike when Tony Boyle was in but there were a million wildcat strikes. If you watch the end of Harlan County, U.S.A., there were still a lot of people who were unhappy.

And you feel those issues speak to a larger nation as well?

I think this has to do with American character. I can't count the number of conversations I've heard all over the country, where people will say, “The damn government is too much in our lives, they regulate this, they regulate that,” and the last thing they say is, “They have to come in here and regulate prices so a man can make a decent living.” There's also a real patriotism that says when the final crunch comes, you have to be loyal to our President.

So individualism and patriotism go hand in hand.

There is a respect for institution and authority. There are terrible reviewers and writers for The New York Times, but once those writers get the job at the Times, a lot of people in New York respect them even if they wouldn't on the street. Certainly Reagan is an example of that. He's a spokesman for Borax, it's just that he's selling a different product now.

Your movies tend to deal with themes that typically get labelled ‘political’, but they're not explicitly political films.

What interests me is how personal psychology can get into the politics, and how the politics can get into the personal psychology.

I think the real struggle for audiences in Matewan will not be to understand the West Virginians but to understand Joe Kenehan as a pacifist. Usually this movie would end with Joe being discovered as having been in World War I, or having been a great gunslinger, and he'd say. “I've tried it the peaceful way and now I'll go away and blow away all the bad guys.”

That's the American movie scenario, and it's going to be hard to see that, hey, this guy really means it. They're shooting at him and killed his friends, so what's wrong with him? And he's a real American guy, not some foreigner. In West Virginia it wasn't people from Europe who brought these new ideas, it was Wobblies and coal miners and lumberjacks.

Your work is always at the intersection of culture and politics, but these days it seems like the line between pop culture, or media, and politics is fuzzy.

It's very hard to separate pop culture and politics now, because the way people get their information on politics is through media and especially TV. I wrote an article for The New Republic, the point of which was that there were two conventions. One was on TV, in which every speech had to pass through Reagan's committee to tailor it. You didn't hear volatile things like ‘welfare chiseler’ or ‘tax fraud,’ and you could tell the same hand had gone over those speeches. It seemed like this moderate Republican, let's celebrate America convention. On the floor, however, it was a Barry Goldwater convention. When Goldwater gave his speech, it was the most emotional thing I've ever seen. That was not the message sold through TV.

What politicians ask is. What is their media profile? No matter what our true policies are, what is our media profile? So politics is part of pop culture, and vice versa. On the network news there's so much entertainment news on what used to be straight news shows because they're struggling for ratings. And straight news, unless you can spice it up a little bit, just doesn't make it. The entertainment and politics get indistinguishable. It's no big deal that people are confused, given the places they get information from.

When you talk about your work, you rarely discuss the esthetic aspects of it.

I don't regard anything I do as art. That's a foreign world to me. I regard it as a conversation. Very often in a conversation, you tell a story to illustrate something you think or feel. The story has to be well told for people to stay. If you hand them a pamphlet on the street, they'll throw it away, whereas if there's some story about things they care about you can draw them in.

A lot of what I try to do in Matewan, for instance, is to have the audience spend time with people they ordinarily wouldn't spend time with, with history they either forgot or never knew, and make it have some bearing on what's going on today. Sometimes it's very subtle and I think people don't necessarily get it, because there are other things going on.

Let's talk a little about how you tell a story.

Most of my movies have had a guide who makes it easier for an audience to walk into it. In Return of the Secaucus Seven I had one guy who was very straight, and many people told me later that they could identify with him, that they at first didn't like these people who were hippies, very clannish and snobbish, but because those people were nice to him they began to like them. In Lianna there was Lianna's best friend who really likes Lianna but can't deal with her being gay all of a sudden. With Brother from Another Planet, he's from another planet because I wanted people to go to Harlem, but I wanted them to have a guide who would be accepted as black so people wouldn't act different like they do to whites, but because he's not from this planet he knows even less than they do. In Matewan Joe Kenehan starts out as a guide but I think the audience then realizes that they actually have more in common with the people of West Virginia.

You're not making message movies or art movies. What kind of movies do you make?

That's also what distributors have a hard time figuring out. As I suggested, my movies are like a conversation, like storytelling. You choose certain details to illustrate what's going on with this friend of yours, and the point is to convey to the audience what's happening with your friend. I'm not especially interested in what I think about things. What's interesting to me is how other people's minds work.

How does this affect the way you structure your films?

Because I write genre movies for other people, I know what works, and I resist it in movies I write for myself, because, in a way, it's too easy. You raise certain expectations and then you pay off. In the movies I direct and in my fiction. I raise certain expectations and I don't pay off. Then I try to show some of the reasons why the easy way of thinking about this thing won't work.

You know how in a movie scene people are walking along the beach and you can't hear what they're saying. That's one of the reasons why there are lots of people in my movies, so the audience can empathize with someone in them.

But in ninety minutes to two hours, with a lot of characters, it's hard to make you see what makes them tick. In Lianna you meet everybody twice. It's about a community of people and their reaction to somebody's change in their life. In Matewan it's a little different because there are bad guys. You don't want to have them to dinner. They knew they were right, though, because the world told them they were right. You don't like them but they believed in what they were doing.

When I'm working for studios or producers, people are always telling me you have to concentrate, focus, you've got too many characters. And I've got five characters. They say you have to have two people you can care about.

Baby, It's You was the one film you made with a studio. Did you have that problem there?

One of the big problems I had with Baby, It's You was that I had ambiguous feelings about both of the characters. It's like, your friends don't always act well. They fuck up, they don't always treat each other well, but they're still your friends. That was hard for the studio to accept. The preview cards we actually got—because the film didn't get much play—the people who liked it least were kids, especially boys fourteen to twenty-four. They didn't want to hear that stuff, because it was too real.

That's a risk you always run when you don't just tell the satisfying story. You can have different kinds of conversations with people—exactly what they want to hear, or a conversation that may bring up something you think they should think about, maybe if they want to know who you are. When you're working in a movie, you have to get them into a theater, and I prefer not to trick them.

So you don't feel a temptation to ‘sell out’?

When people say, “You've got all this integrity,” I say, “Hey, I'm just doing what I want to do.” I get to write a book or make a movie. I'm very lucky because I also write fiction, which doesn't require money. What I want to do is to tell stories to people and get them across. If I work for a studio and can't do it the way I want to, I just won't do it, because there's no attraction.

Is financing a big problem for you at this point?

I don't need that much money. You get too much for writing crummy exploitation movies anyway, and that's how I make my living. Although as a screenwriter you make a lot of money but pay a lot of it in taxes.

How do you choose your commercial assignments?

I try to pick the ones I'll do a good job at. Recently I've done a Wild Thing rewrite, it's kind of an urban Tarzan story. A kid is orphaned in the inner city, and, in my version anyway, his parents are hippies and they get killed in a drug bust, so he's raised by bag people and becomes a ghetto legend. And A Safe Place, that's about a guy who's a mercenary, he runs into Stone Age people, and they seem pacifistic. He starts rethinking his life, and decides to defend the place, and of course there's a big fight at the end.

How do you really feel about the kind of sheer entertainment that's a staple of the film industry?

Entertainment is not a bad thing. Movies made just for entertainment are not bad. Remember I said there are friends you like even if you don't like some things about them. You can be around warm people who are anti-Semitic or racist. That's something you'll always run up against.

I have that feeling about movies sometimes. A movie can be a nice entertaining roller coaster ride, and then you run up against some value you really don't like. Sometimes you can say, “Hey it's just a movie,” and sometimes it can just be too big.

So what's a ‘good’ entertainment film?

What distinguishes good entertainment movies is not being condescending. I don't know Steven Spielberg or George Lucas well, but I think one reason they have been so successful is that they made movies they would like to see. They haven't been making stuff by thinking. “What's good product, what will those suckers go for?”

They will take time to make a movie better even though they don't have to. Spending the extra $2 million only makes sense if it's gonna make another $10 million, but they'll do it because they want to make a better movie for those people in the audience. That's what I respect about those guys. I have different taste, and maybe different values, but I never feel condescension there. The most successful movies, no matter how schlocky, have that quality. Like Russ Meyer, who said, “Americans like square chins and big tits, and so do I.”

How do you define the difference between what you do and the ‘just good entertainment’ film?

I make movies that I don't think other people are gonna make. I could make genre films I would like to see, but plenty of other people are gonna make them.

How do you keep your focus on what you really want out of a film?

You have to have low expectations to begin with. I want people to go to my movies, but not enough to lie to them. That's the line I walk. I'll write a line in a movie and say to myself, “I just lost a million dollars.” Then I go back to the drawing board and say, “How much is this movie going to cost?” If we do OK with reviews and the distributor does a decent job, enough people will come to see this thing, and then, if I'm lucky, more people will like it and I'll get to make another movie. Basically I can't afford to think in terms of a career. I just have to say, “Once I start making this movie it has its own integrity and I'm working for the movie.” When I work for other people, I'm working for ‘the movies.’

When you're working on your own, you're working for and protecting the people in that movie. The characters become who you're trying to protect. Even if it's a character you don't like, this character has to have his day in court. With Baby, It's You, it's an egotistical thing to say, “I understand these characters and you're trying to cut them off and not give them their day in court.” You're saying, “I'm not working for you any more, I'm working for them.” I have also said at times, as a hired scriptwriter, “You're asking me to do a rewrite that will only make the movie worse. Somebody else can fuck this movie up. I'm not gonna.” It's a hard line to walk.

Matewan's a big budget film by your standards; you've got too many offers of work; and you're a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ grant. Does this add up to a sense of security?

I'll be lucky to do it again is how I feel. Every movie has been a roll of the dice. So far I've never crapped out. I often feel this is the last time, though. They're gonna find out and they'll never let me do this anymore.

Dorothy McGhee (essay date September 1987)

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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 others, are in their twenties and early thirties, and I find myself waiting for the grown-ups to come back to recapture their positions at the helm.

Welcome to the new filmmaking. No tantrums. No hierarchy. No studio honchos in Gucci loafers and starchy designer jeans. There are no limos here. Nor Winnebagos. There's beer instead of champagne, rice cakes instead of caviar. Accommodations for the entire cast and crew are at the Econolodge across the road from the Appalachian Bible College.

Above all, there is a halo of conviction about the Sayles set that more closely resembles the dedication of a political campaign than a movie production. More than fifty percent of the crew are women—many of them department heads. The pay is minimum scale. “My usual salary is four times what I'm making here,” reports Oscar-winner Wexler with a certain satisfaction. “But I'm getting four times more in personal enjoyment. You seldom get to do something with your professional life that has character, dignity, and significance.”

The project is Matewan, a “low-budget epic,” as Sayles describes it, which is shooting entirely on location in West Virginia. With its nearly $4 million budget, Sayles, thirty-six, could leap from his current status as master of the major-minor movie to master of the minor-major movie. “Sayles hasn't had the budget to do work that will go down in film history yet.” Wexler explains. “He's found cheap ways to make his mark instead.”

Matewan touches on a piece of American history that you don't find in the average school book: the West Virginia Coal Mine Wars of 1920 and 1921, the largest armed insurrection in America since the Civil War. During the mine wars, close to nine thousand miners defied an army of some two thousand state constabulary, deputy sheriffs, and civilian volunteers, ignoring a presidential ultimatum to lay down their arms.

The film concentrates on an early chapter of the mine wars known as the Matewan Massacre, a shoot-out in a small town by that name between striking miners and armed agents—called “thugs”—hired by the coal companies from the dreaded Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency. At the beginning of the film, the coal companies are importing blacks from Alabama and Italians from New York to work as strikebreakers. But these scabs, overcoming complex racial and linguistic divisions, leave the mines and join the local miners. The strikers eventually confront the company thugs in a dramatic shoot-out that takes the lives of several detectives, the town's pro-union mayor, and a number of striking miners, including the union's organizer (played by Chris Cooper).

The primary tension in Sayles's dramatic script revolves around the strikers' debate over the use of violence. Matewan is a consideration of armed resistance and the events that trigger it. It is a film about personal choice.

Matewan's producers are Sayles's long-time associates Maggie Renzi and Peggy Rajski, both in their midthirties. Rajski began her film career as a secretary for an industrial film company. “You're either good at producing or not,” she says, stopping briefly to talk as movie equipment is moved off the vans for a morning shoot. Married to Zero Mostel's son Josh (who plays Mayor Cabell Testerman in Matewan), Rajski first worked with Sayles as his production manager on the 1983 film Lianna, which cost just over $300,000 and grossed about $1.5 million. She remembers, “They didn't know what a production manager was, but everyone told them they needed one.”

Coproducer Renzi, who plays an Italian miner's wife in Matewan, credits her facility for producing to her mother. “My mother was a great hostess. She knew how to have enough chairs and plates for everyone and she knew how to make people talk to one another pleasantly. The same skills are essential to producing a film.”

Renzi has lived with Sayles since before the days of Return of the Secaucus Seven, his 1980 portrait of aging baby-boomers in which she plays the laconic and perceptive hostess at whose home the former roommates congregate. However, she bristles at any emphasis on her relationship with Sayles. “People will say I f—ked my way to the middle,” she says, rolling her eyes.

Matewan was ready to go into production in 1984. “We already had the phones installed at the Econolodge,” says Renzi, “but one of the big investors dropped out.” Instead, Sayles, Renzi, and Rajski hastily produced The Brother from Another Planet, the story of a black extraterrestrial who lands in Harlem. Pulled together in about six weeks for a total cost of $400,000, the movie received mixed reviews and subsequently grossed about $4 million.

Cinecom distributed Brother in close collaboration with Sayles, Renzi, and Rajski, who insisted on participating in the film's carefully engineered release. “Once you've worked so hard to make a film,” Rajski says, “you don't want just anyone to distribute. We want an uncommonly full say in distribution strategy: how to position it and where to put it.” The collaboration was successful enough for Cinecom to finance Matewan.

“They are banking on John as director, of course,” continues Renzi, “but they are also banking on Peggy and me as producers, and that we can bring the movie in under budget.” The conviction on the Sayles set is that, for its nearly $4 million, Cinecom is getting a $10 million film. “We hired a bunch of thrift shoppers,” Rajski says proudly of her production staff. James Earl Jones, who plays a militant black miner, says, “You come here because you know the money is going to be spent on the film.”

The ways of the low-budget champs are myriad. Of the forty-seven speaking parts in the movie, twenty-three were cast locally. The wardrobe budget, supervised by twenty-seven-year-old costume designer Cynthia Flynt, is just under $25,000, from which Flynt provided fourteen hundred different costumes for three hundred extras and the principal cast. One day Flynt, who buys clothes by the pound in New York City, had a staff of only three to clothe fifty extras and eleven principals. “Over the years and after many low-budget films,” Flynt says, “you learn how to shop.”

Production designer Nora Chavooshian, thirty-two, had only $97,000 with which to dress thirty-one locations to period specifications that included a $7,000 line item for an antique steam engine rented for two days. Transforming a tiny town called Thurmond into the Matewan of the twenties was a major undertaking that included adding facades to a row of turn-of-the-century buildings, one of which was entirely gutted by fire. The crew also affixed the facade of a hardware store to a railroad building, milling the lumber themselves at local mills.

Chavooshian, Sayles's production designer for Brother from Another Planet (which boasted a whopping $5,000 production-design budget), bought or rented all her props and dressings in the area, bringing nothing with her from New York. “Research is an important element,” Chavooshian says from the threadbare top floor of the turn-of-the-century railway station that serves as her headquarters. “John was very specific, clear, and communicative about what he wanted. He's worked on this project so long; he's done an incredible amount of research.”

The Matewan project has been on Sayles's mind since he wrote Union Dues, his novel about sixties radicals that was nominated for a National Book Award in 1978. That year, he wrote the Matewan screenplay, went to Hollywood, and began writing hip horror films for Roger Corman (Piranha, Alligator, The Howling). Although Matewan circulated among the majors, “it was always something I knew I'd have to make independent of the studios,” Sayles explains. “I knew they weren't going to get any more interested in it than they already weren't interested in it.”

Matewan is different in some respects from Sayles's previous works. With a background rooted primarily in the written word, Sayles is an acknowledged master of character portrayal and dialogue rather than of place and sight; traditionally, he has been praised for his ear rather than his eye. In Matewan, however, Sayles has immersed himself in an environment of rugged, natural beauty that includes steep gorges and rapid rivers, tiny rustic hamlets and shantytowns, and a local population from which to choose extras who have faces that speak of the hard hills from which they come. The images are compelling and powerful and may, in conjunction with Wexler's expertise, give Matewan a cinematic depth that has been missing in Sayles's films.

In contrast to Sayles's previous almost determinedly up-to-the-minute hipness, Matewan is a period piece. And Sayles is dealing with violence on a large scale for the first time. “Technically,” he says, “it's represented problems for me because I've never dealt with all those special-effects things before.”

An even bigger challenge was working with a large crew, one that was totally union. “All along we've worked with union people, but we were basically doing flat deals and they weren't officially union pictures,” Sayles says. “So on this, we have to be much more cognizant of turnaround time for the crew and those kinds of things. It would make sense, for instance, not to have broken for lunch just now, because the sun is going to go behind that mountain at four-thirty. Union rules don't always make sense in relation to what you're doing. That [affects] the moviemaking: Sometimes the movie isn't as good because you don't have as many takes. On the other hand, the people you get to work with are sometimes better and so you can go a lot faster. There are pros and cons.”

For Brother from Another Planet, many crew members were black. “It's nice to have a lot of women on this crew, but we have only one black person on this set. And that's because we're doing a NABET and IA crew, and they have very few black people on their rosters. I mean very, very few. The blacks are not in the union. That's another down-side of doing a union thing.”

Although Sayles is a member of the Writers Guild and the Screen Actors Guild and a former member of the Meatpackers Union, he does not belong to the Directors Guild. “The reason I'm not in the Directors Guild,” he says, “is that I can't afford to be and still make movies. You can pay yourself and rip up your own checks. But once you have a guild director, you have to have a guild production manager, first assistant director, and second AD, and on and on. Not only is that a huge amount of money to pay out, it's difficult to justify to the other people working on the picture why they're getting paid a tenth of what these other three people are getting, when these other three people aren't working any harder than they are.”

Despite such egalitarian leanings, however, the feeling on Sayles's set is not one of a collaboration but of an auteur performance. The story, the dialogue, the sets, the takes, the vision, come directly from Sayles. He might walk quietly and unpretentiously around the set, giving new depth to the notion of “casual,” but he is clearly the font of instructions. He issues them in an unequivocal voice. “This movie is thoroughly his picture,” says Wexler, who has worked with such directors as Milos Forman and Elia Kazan. “I'm thoroughly his servant. I'm not called on for creative input; he has it so completely in mind.”

Sayles says his direction is informed by certain questions. “I always ask—for man, woman, child—‘How does this person see the world? What do they know? What don't they know? When they walk into this particular situation, what do they see, given who they are, given what they want?’” In Matewan, he had a number of factors to keep in mind when determining his characters' reactions to the events around them, including sexual attitudes and class distinctions. “You also have to put the racial thing into perspective,” Sayles says. “I talked to Tom Wright [who plays a black miner] and James Earl Jones. I said, ‘OK, you're coming from Alabama in 1920, the year they set the record for lynchings. Probably coming to West Virginia, you don't expect people up here to be any better than they were down there, so when you push back, you push back like this’”—Sayles makes a cautious, wary motion with the palm of his hand—“‘you don't push back like that,’” and he makes a defiant, aggressive chop with the heel of his hand.

With the release of Secaucus Seven, Sayles became a pioneer of the quality independent film, traveling around the country and giving countless interviews in major cities. In the process, he deliberately built a name recognition for himself. If, like Brother from Another Planet, Matewan fails to get good reviews, Sayles hopes his name will still pull in an audience. “In New York City, Brother really got pretty bad reviews, but it still broke house records,” Sayles claims. “If you're lucky, you've built up enough of a following so you can at least get enough people in during the first two weeks for word of mouth to grow.”

Although best known for his under-$500,000 productions, including three rock videos for Bruce Springsteen (the fees from one of which he sent to Nicaragua), Sayles does have one other multi-million dollar production to his credit: Baby, It's You, a $3.5 million, coming-of-age comedy set in the early sixties that starred Rosanna Arquette. Baby was released in 1983 and distributed by Paramount.

It was not a happy experience. There were disagreements over casting, storyline, editing, and distribution. “All I felt that they were doing was wrecking what it could be,” remembers Sayles.

Asked if he would consider making another studio movie, Sayles responds, “It was a great crew. And it was nice to have three million dollars. But the pitfall is that you don't have control over the movie. It was hard to edit with this constant threat hanging over your head: ‘We can fire you if we want to.’ The politics of it were messy.

“I'd be happy to make a studio movie,” Sayles continues, “if they'd let me cast anybody I wanted to and give me final cut. But I don't think there are that many directors who get that unless they've made the studio people millions and millions of dollars. I have nothing against using studio money, and I have nothing against the studios making a profit. I even like some studio movies. But your track record is determined by how much money your last movie made, and unfortunately, after Baby, It's You, my track record was worse than when I started.”

But all that may be history. Sayles, Renzi, and Rajski hope Matewan will have a broader appeal than any of John's earlier and perhaps more oblique works—which may, perhaps, make him attractive to the studios once again. “Matewan is a little more of a ‘story’ story in that there's a narrator at the beginning, middle, and end,” Sayles says. “And because there is some so-called action in it—people shoot each other—it will be considered more programmable.” Yet like all other John Sayles films, Matewan has an off-Hollywood sensibility. “It's a difficult movie because of its violent ending,” Sayles reflects. “It's a hard pill to swallow. It has a complex morality.”

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

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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 role of some consequence in front of the camera. And he has to face the fact that the accuracy of his impersonation is being watched by the best-qualified living expert on it. For the part in which he has cast himself is that of my father at thirty-four—the age at which my memories of him begin.

Sayles's film, Eight Men Out, is based on Eliot Asinof's book of the same name about the 1919 World Series between Chicago and Cincinnati—the series that was fixed, played according to a script written by corrupt gamblers, and changed the name of the greatest team in baseball from the White Sox to the “Black Sox.”

I am watching the filming in the triple-A ball park of the Indianapolis Indians with Asinof, who's here to play John Heydler, president of the American League. Asinof, an old friend of mine and a former minor-league player himself, observes the action on the diamond with some misgivings. “They're throwing the ball where it's supposed to go, they're catching it fine, and they're swinging the bat pretty well. The trouble is, it's all about 25 percent slower than the big-league pace.” We speculate about whether the proper effect could be achieved by shooting the baseball scenes in fast motion, and agree that it probably couldn't.

Asinof wrote Eight Men Out: The Black Sox and the 1919 World Series twenty-five years ago, and was involved for almost that long in intermittent efforts either to see it converted to film or to prevent the production of an unacceptable version. Soon after his book was published, an apparently firm deal with Twentieth Century-Fox fell through because of a $2 million libel threat from Dutch Ruether, a Cincinnati pitcher who, Asinof had written, my father had seen drinking heavily the night before he was supposed to start against the White Sox. More than a decade later, David Susskind sued Asinof for $1.75 million because the writer had declined to accept a $25,000 payment and authorize the shooting of an adaptation he felt was false to history. (Asinof went on to write Bleeding between the Lines, which chronicles his struggles against these lawsuits.)

Meanwhile, John Sayles had his own problems getting Eight Men Out off the ground. He was so enamored of Asinof's book and its film potential that he wrote a screenplay in the midseventies, when the book's rights were still unavailable, and used it as a sample of his screenwriting talents. When the Midge Sanford-Sarah Pillsbury production team optioned the rights to Asinof's book in 1980, Sayles brought them his screenplay and told them of his interest in directing the film; soon he began the first in a series of script revisions. It was not, however, until 1987, after both he and the producers had established their reputations with other films, that Orion agreed to distribute Eight Men Out and that Sayles, Sanford, and Pillsbury could find independent financial backing for the film.

“Nineteen-nineteen was the beginning of America's loss of innocence,” says Studs Terkel […], “and of a moral decline that led to the sophisticated decadence of the twenties and all the way to Nixonism and Reaganism.” The Chicago chronicler of popular culture is here to play Hugh Fullerton, the sportswriter who was my father's friend and drinking companion. Nineteen-nineteen was also, Terkel reminds Asinof and me as we watch the shoot, the year that the Senate dealt what proved to be a mortal blow to the League of Nations, that the country progressed from theory to practice in what Herbert Hoover called “the noble experiment” of Prohibition, and that the national game was very nearly destroyed by the scandal that shocked, saddened, and made skeptics of its millions of fans.

And it was, I recall, a momentous year for my family. My father left his column in the Chicago Tribune for a nationally syndicated one, and we moved from Chicago to Connecticut by automobile—a trip that was recorded in a book supposedly written by me at the age of four and containing the following exchange: “Are you lost daddy I asked tenderly. Shut up he explained.” It was the year that I began kindergarten and that my father, who found no contradiction between his objectivity as a sportswriter and his personal predilection for gambling on sporting events, struck out on two confident predictions that he backed up with sizable bets—both of which he lost. The first defeat he could accept with good humor, writing the day after Jack Dempsey knocked out Jess Willard in the third round: “Well, gents, it was just a kind of practical joke on my part and to make it all the stronger I went and bet a little money on him, so pretty nearly everyone thought I was really in earnest.”

The second bet was a vastly different matter. My father was always closer to the Chicago White Sox than to any other team. He had traveled with them as a baseball reporter, later attended their games both as a writer and a fan, and in 1915 had used the team and its personnel—including owner Charles Comiskey and manager Kid Gleason (then a coach)—under their real names as characters in his most famous book, You Know Me Al. He continued to write stories for the Saturday Evening Post about Jack Keefe, the fictional narrator of that book. In the very year of the scandal, he wrote a final series of four stories that brought Jack home to the White Sox after service in France. In them, Jack starts the 1919 season with five straight victories and then goes into a steady decline because of his weakness for alcohol and pretty women. In the final story, “The Busher Pulls a Mays,” which takes the season to the end of August and the realization that the team is going to win the pennant, Jack deals himself out of the fateful World Series with a number of goofs that result in his being sold to the lowly “Philadelphia Athaletics.”

Kid Gleason and most of the other eight real-life players whose careers ended when the scandal was exposed—in particular, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Lefty Williams—are sympathetic characters in these stories, the last of which, ironically, hit the newsstands the same week the White Sox fix had become apparent to my father and Fullerton.

It is clear from these final four Jack Keefe stories that my father had a genuine affection for Cicotte, to whom he assigns the best jokes and sagest counsel. In the film of Eight Men Out—as in real life—he invites the veteran pitcher (played by David Strathairn) to his hotel room for a drink after the first game of the series and asks him point-blank if his shoddy performance is on the level. The reassurance he gets lasts only into the next afternoon, when he watches an equally unconvincing display of ineptitude on the mound by Lefty Williams (James Read). By the end of the fourth game, with the score three games to one in favor of the underdog Cincinnati Reds, Lardner walks unsteadily through the White Sox Pullman car singing, “I'm forever blowing ball games,” his own adaptation of a then-popular song. In a variation of the story reported in biographies—and more characteristic of my father—the song was sung in a bar with a group of fellow writers. However, the movie version is not only more dramatic, it is the one reported in Asinof's book.

Sayles's Eight Men Out script is an admirable, objective account of historical events that leaves it up to the moviegoer to assign blame and credit. I think perhaps the only problem with it is that the audience won't have the satisfaction, at the film's end, of knowing exactly why everything worked out the way it did. The guilty and the not-so-guilty ball players won acquittals in court, but were exiled for life from the baseball monopoly—yet we don't see enough of what went on behind the scenes to understand the process.

Sayles's screenplay does not try to simplify the complicated structure of corruption by concentrating on a few characters or choosing one point of view from which to tell the story. Instead, he shows us that greed, the main motivation for the fix, was more or less equally distributed among gamblers, ball players, and baseball magnates, and that the consequences of their surrender to it were divided among wives, innocent players, newspapermen, and fans. The film includes a couple dozen significant characters whose stories are told in a series of brief scenes, and though some of the actors are well known, there are no starring roles.

Sayles cast himself as Lardner and Studs Terkel as Fullerton in part, I assume, because of the physical contrast between them: Sayles, at six feet four, is two inches taller than my father was, and is skillfully made up to further the resemblance. Since Terkel is small—and a bit plumper than when I first knew him forty years ago—the new acting team looks somewhat like a Mutt and Jeff duo.

In selecting the ball players, a paramount question was whether or not they could successfully pass for big-leaguers in the action scenes. Sayles had already worked with Strathairn, and with Gordon Clapp and Jace Alexander (who play catcher Ray Schalk and pitcher Dickie Kerr, respectively), and had confidence in their athletic skill. For three of the more prominent players who were accused of selling out, he chose actors with newly minted box-office names who also had some baseball experience in their backgrounds.

D. B. Sweeney had a professional baseball career in mind when he went to Tulane University, but a motorcycle accident left him with an ineligible knee and diverted his attention to acting (he appeared as Jackie Willow in Gardens of Stone) Cast as “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, the illiterate Southerner who was probably the most skilled player on that whole incomparable team, Sweeney's main problem as a right-hander was to convert himself into one of the great left-hand hitters and throwers of all time. On the day I watched, he looked pretty convincing, although admittedly after a great deal of effort.

Charlie Sheen, just after the release of Platoon in late 1986, ran into Sweeney in a New York saloon, heard about Eight Men Out, and called the producers to say he was available. “It gave me two things that were important to me at that point,” Sheen says, “being part of an acting ensemble and having the chance to play ball.” Sheen, who plays center fielder Hap Felsch, had gone to baseball camp for four years, played on his high school team, and was considered good enough, despite his small size, to be scouted for college teams.

John Cusack (The Sure Thing), who had played a lot of softball but virtually no hardball, is Buck Weaver, the third baseman who found he couldn't go through with the sellout but was punished for it anyway. As for Bill Irwin, the professional mime who plays Eddie Collins—the upright second baseman whom nobody dared to approach on the fix—he had no baseball experience. But in 1987, when Sayles went to see Irwin's show The Regard of Flight, he saw a physical grace and dexterity he knew could be applied to athletic feats.

To refine the actors' ball skills and supervise every play in front of the camera, Sayles hired Ken Berry, who had played pro baseball for a decade in both the minor and major leagues and later served as a coach for the New York Yankees and the Kansas City Royals. Berry worked with each actor separately and then rehearsed the action on the field before every scene.

Reproducing the baseball world of 1919 rests on Asinof's expertise, and that of Sayles, whose first novel, Pride of the Bimbos (1975), was a baseball story, and who is a well-known fan of the game. The Indianapolis ball park was chosen both because it looks more like a 1919 version and because, as a nonunion production, the producers would have faced more protest from organized labor in a major-league city such as Chicago. But the art and production-design people confront such anachronistic obstacles as the light towers, which have to be camouflaged, and the thirteen thousand plastic yellow seats, whose backs have to be individually covered with sheets of adhesive shelf paper to make them look like wood.

The final re-creation of the World Series is authentic enough to satisfy this observer, but it is a flop in Indianapolis: The producers offer free entertainment, Bingo with cash prizes, and as much of a stipend ($20 a day) as the budget permits; still, the city's residents display little inclination to show up at their local ball park, change into period clothing, and behave like Cincinnati and Chicago fans of seventy years ago.

Yet there are probably no surviving spectators of the Black Sox with vivid enough memories to question details of the physical background. And while there may be a few baseball experts who will note that the speed of a pitch or a putout is below professional standards, for the vast majority of moviegoers the illusion will hold up. And that's what it's all about.

Errol Black (review date September 1988)

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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 brutal and inhumane conditions they faced on the job, and, in many situations, recognition of their unions. Their opponents, America's industrial capitalists, were determined to prevent the spread of unionism and to preserve their “right” to exploit workers on their terms. In virtually every situation where it seemed the workers might wrest gains from their employers, the state, often with the tacit endorsation of the American Federation of Labour (even in strikes, such as the steel strike in 1919, which were nominally AFL strikes), intervened to ensure labour's defeat.

While strikes took place everywhere in the United States, the largest, longest and bloodiest confrontations were in the coalfields, and, in particular, the coalfields of Mingo, Logan and McDowell counties in West Virginia. The story of the conflict in the coalfields of West Virginia is told in rich detail in a useful (despite its apologist line) documentary, Even the Heavens Weep: The West Virginia Coal Wars, (produced by Beth Nogay and directed by Danny L. McGuire), televised on PBS about four years ago.

At the end of the First World War, the coal owners in Mingo, Logan and McDowell counties were the last hold outs against unionization in the West Virginia coalfields.

The owners had absolute power over the lives (and deaths) of the miners and their families. They owned the houses the miners lived in. They built the school and the church, and hired the teacher and preacher. They paid the miners in company scrip and compelled them to buy at the company store. They ignored the state safety laws; it was cheaper to simply replace the thousands of miners killed in slides and explosions than it was to adopt safety measures which might prevent their deaths.

Miners who complained about these conditions were summarily dismissed, evicted from company housing and driven away from the mines. Moreover, the mine owners also controlled most of the communities—the local governments and police forces—in the three counties.

In the spring of 1920, the United Mine Workers launched a major campaign to organize the renegade mine owners. In May, a strike broke out in the Matewan district of Mingo County over the firing of miners who had joined the union. The strike spread to other mines. The companies responded by evicting the miners and replacing them with scabs. Professional strikebreakers from the Baldwin Felts detective agency were hired to protect company property, guard the scabs, evict the striking miners and drive them away from company property, and harass and intimidate union organizers and union sympathizers.

The town of Matewan was an unusual community, because the police chief, Sid Hatfield (an ex-miner, and a member of the famous Hatfield clan), and the Mayor refused to cede their authority to the mine owners and the Baldwin Felts detectives. The conflict between Hatfield and the Baldwin Felts culminated in a shoot-out, which left 10 men dead: two miners, the Mayor, and seven Baldwin Felts detectives. This event—the Matewan massacre—had a tremendous impact on the morale of miners, and within a short time 90 percent of the miners in Mingo county had joined the union.

In the fall of 1920, Sid Hatfield and some of the miners who had participated in the shooting were tried for murder. They were acquitted. In 1921, Sid Hatfield and Ed Chambers were charged for “crimes” arising from events in Matewan. When they showed up at the courthouse on August 1 to face the charges, they were gunned down on the courthouse steps by Baldwin Felts detectives.

Frank Keeney, UMW president in West Virginia, called for a protest rally in Charleston, the capital, on August 7. The more than 5,000 miners who heeded the call were told that they had no rights in the state of West Virginia and, therefore, had no recourse except to fight. On August 21, 7,000 armed miners assembled near Charleston. They were given basic training by veterans of the War and outfitted in coveralls and red bandannas which they wore around their necks. On August 24, they started the 70 mile march to Logan county.

The march was halted when President Warren Harding threatened to send in federal troops and charge the union leaders with treason but quickly resumed again when the marchers heard that deputies had killed five miners in one of the camps. On August 28, the miners reached the foot of Blair Mountain, which had to be crossed to reach Logan county. Waiting for them at the top of the mountain was a army of 3,000—deputies, state police, Baldwin Felts detectives—armed with machine guns, submachine guns and other modern equipment.

By September 1 the miner's army had swelled to 10,000. Preparations were made for the taking of the mountain and the subsequent liberation of the miners in Logan and Mingo counties.

Then, on September 3, Harding sent in 2,500 federal troops to put down the insurrection. The miners surrendered. This didn't end the conflict in the coalfields of West Virginia, but it did end the threat to established authority and the power of the mine bosses.

The Matewan massacre was a key incident in this sequence of events, and it is this incident which is the subject of John Sayles' movie [Matewan]. The movie begins with the onset of the strike in response to a cut in wages and ends with the massacre. In between, Sayles attempts to recreate the conditions which left the miners of Matewan—and elsewhere in West Virginia—no choice but to arm themselves and resort to violence in an attempt to improve their lives. The result is at once profound and compelling.

The mine was the dominant factor in the lives of everyone in the region; all else was incidental. Sayles probes the psychology of the different groups involved in the conflict through his main characters: the sadistic creeps who “earned” their keep by terrorizing the miners and anyone and everyone sympathetic to the miner's cause; the union organizer (a former Wobbly), who urged the need for a solidarity which extended across racial and ethnic lines, and counselled against violence; the black and Italian workers, who found themselves in an untenable situation and decided it was better to risk the violence of the bosses and the Baldwin Felts than the violence of their fellow workers; the women, who had lost their husbands to the mine and were now waiting to lose their sons; and Sid Hatfield, who hated the mine bosses and the bully boys who were paid to do their dirty deeds for them.

The one minor flaw in the movie is that Sayles neglects to include the “bloodsuckers” who owned the mines, and who gave the orders to cut wages, recruit scabs and evict and terrorize the miners. They may not have played a conspicuous role in the violence against the miners (as they did in the Cabin and Paint Creek strikes in 1912), but they were giving the orders and were responsible for the violence. Certainly, they have a presence in the movie—everything is done in the name of the owners, but the story would have been strengthened if they had been given a concrete presence.

Sayles also explores the influences which shaped and constrained the actions and interactions of the workers and their families. A major obstacle to the development of solidarity and union consciousness among the miners was their fundamentalist religion, according to which it was God's design for them to submit to the conditions of their wage slavery and look to God for their salvation rather than to the unions and the reds. There was as well the pervasive influence of racism, which meant, among other things, that even in those instances when black workers joined common cause with white workers they were marginalized because of their vulnerability to the violence of the bosses and of the state.

In developing the story and moving it relentlessly toward its conclusion, Sayles highlights incidents which were a commonplace in the coal fields of West Virginia and other parts of the United States during this era: the gratuitous killings of miners by company goons; the indiscriminate firing on the tent villages which the miners retreated to when they were evicted from company houses; the exposure of a company spy and agent provocateur within the union ranks; and the endless discussions among the miners about the objectives of the strike and the ways in which they should respond to the violence inflicted on them by the company.

This is an exceptional movie on all counts. It deals with an important event in American history, and the issues it addresses and the questions it raises are as pertinent now as they were then. Moreover, it is a well-made movie, with superb photography and fine acting. Many critics have proclaimed the movie an artistic success. It should also have been a commercial success. It wasn't. Why? Apparently, because the people who control the distribution of movies in North America decided they didn't want it to be a commercial success and restricted its distribution (it has not been shown in a movie house in Manitoba). To what end? I don't have an answer, but I suspect it's because Matewan reveals aspects of American society that the movie industry would prefer to keep under wraps—especially in the present circumstances, when US workers and unions are once again under attack by the bosses and the state, and are groping for ways to fight back.

Neil D. Isaacs (essay date 1988)

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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 describe his reconception of the Rachel Maddux novella for the screen (for Ingrid Bergman's return to Hollywood from her long exile) and trace its production, Sayles can analyze the whole process, the gestalt, the total (re-)conceiving of a story in cinematic terms. But both would be valuable contributions toward essential considerations in the study of narrative film.

When Silliphant decided not to chronicle his production and urged me to write an analysis to accompany the Maddux text and his screenplay, the project took on a different aspect. (Incidentally, his decision was not made, as has been suggested, because he foresaw the ultimate failure of the picture. Indeed, at the time he still had high hopes for it, and the total cooperation he insisted on for me—from crew, cast, and studio staff—testified to his enthusiasm for our book as well. It was just that other scripts and other productions took precedence over academic effort.)

In any case, the emphasis had been shifted to more literary/critical concerns. Admiring the writer (author of the fantasy classic The Green Kingdom) and the work of Silliphant, dissatisfied with what Bluestone had set up as guidelines for studying “novels into film,” I was interested in the emergence of narrative strategies and tactics to translate the whole texture and structure of a story's world from one medium to another. What was lost was first-hand, hands-on, technical experience with filmmaking which no crash course, despite a faculty of cooperative, cordial instructors, could supply. But, of course, what limited the ultimate usefulness of Fiction into Film: A Walk in the Spring Rain1 was the limited achievement of the movie itself—a disappointment to Maddux, to Silliphant, to me, and perhaps to everyone associated with it (expect Bergman, who loved it and never understood why it wasn't a hit).

My expectations for Sayles's book on the making of Matewan were far from disappointed. Whatever problems or quibbles I had with the movie, Thinking in Pictures2 at least accounted for the choices made, the conscious strategic and tactical choices in the creative process of a certain kind of storyteller. Indeed, Sayles illuminates a number of aspects of that collaborative, political process, especially the ways in which the pieces of the process itself must be “edited” with an integrity of design, a wholeness and cohesiveness of vision, in order to produce an artifact greater than the sum of its parts.

It is when I focus my (admittedly special-interest) attention on the fiction-into-film section of Thinking in Pictures that disillusionment sets in. Sayles acknowledges that in the writing of his second novel, Union Dues (1977), he read much about labor history and became interested in the story of the Matewan Massacre, involving a Hatfield cousin in Mingo County. And that is all he says about Union Dues in Thinking in Pictures.

In a central scene of the novel, a group of young radicals and displaced persons sits passing guitar and bottle around. Each in turn performs a character-appropriate, context-appropriate, age-appropriate number. And when it is Hobie's turn, he tells a tale of his native West Virginia (not Hatfields-and-McCoys country—that's not his “part of the state. They're over by the Kentucky border, Mingo County …”3, just as Pappy Dan Radnor told it to him, about what “happened when he wasn't but thirteen or fourteen years old. And he was a preacher. Around … the coal camps” (209). And behold, the story that he tells is the story of Sayles's Matewan, complete with Joe Kenehan, Hickey and Griggs, Bridey Mae, and Dan's own sermon.

Here […] are the texts, the synoptic gospel from Union Dues [quoted first] and the corresponding verses from the shooting script of Matewan in Thinking in Pictures [quoted in the second passage]:

Friends, I wanna tell you tonight about the blackness in the heart of man. And I want to warn you about the many and devious ways that Satan will hide from us the truth of who our real friends are. … An' I'm gonna do it with a story from the Patriarchs.

Now we all know about Joseph and how out of all Jacob's twelve children he was the smartest and the smoothest, and how his brothers got so jealous. …

So when this feller Potiphar bought him for a servant, he just smiled … and vowed if he was gonna be a slave he was gonna be a good one. Just makin' the best of a bad situation. Well, he put his heart to his work and he was honest and kindly in all his dealins … and before you knew it he was runnin' the household and the fields and just taking care of all of Potiphar's business for him. The only trouble was Potiphar's wife. She was what you'd call a loose woman. … He said, “I been good to Potiphar and he's been good right back to me; how can I go slippin round with his wife? Don't you tempt me, woman.” Also in Potiphar's employ at this time is a couple spies from one of his enemies. They can plainly see the wanton lust of his wife and they also see how it would be good for their purposes to get young Joseph out of the way. So they come to Potiphar's wife. … “Joseph, your servant,” she says, “he come in here and tried to make me lie with him. Only when I called out he fled, leavin this here garment as evidence. And not only that, … he's been … plotting with your enemies, … wants to take over the household and have you killed.”

Potiphar … had no reason to misbelieve his wife, and after all, Joseph was a slave, a foreigner. … He gathered all his slaves and household workers together … and they went and they slew Joseph dead. Cut him from gut to gizzard and left him bleedin in the stream. And lo, they never learned of the lies Potiphar's wife had told, and they all went to their Maker unrepentant, with innercent blood on their hands!


I wanna tell you tonight bout the blackness in the heart of man. Gon warn you bout the many an devious ways in which Satan will hide from you the truth of who your real friends are. Gon do it with a story from the Patriarchs.

Now we all know about Joseph and how out of all Jacob's twelve children he was the smartest and the smoothest, and how his brothers got so jealous—

So when this fella Potiphar bought him for a slave, Joseph just smiled and vowed he was gonna be a good one. Makin the best of a bad situation.

He put his heart to his work and was honest and friendly in his dealins and fore you knew it he was just about runnin' Potiphar's household and fields and all his business for him. The only trouble was Potiphar's wife. Now she was what you might call a loose woman—

an Joseph said, “I been good to Potiphar and he been good right back to me; how can I go slippin round with his wife? Don't you tempt me, woman.” Also in Potiphar's employ at this time was a couple of spies from one of his enemies. They seen the wanton lust of Mrs. Potiphar and seen it would be good for their purposes to get shed of young Joseph. So they come to Potiphar's wife—

“Your servant Joseph,” she says to Potiphar, “he come in here and tried to make me lie with him. Only when I called out, he fled, leavin' this here garment as evidence.

An not only that, he been spyin and plottin against you with your enemies. he means to take over here and have you kilt—”

Potiphar had no reason to misbelieve his wife. Joseph was a slave an a foreigner. So he gathered up all his servants and household workers and they went and slew Joseph dead.

Cut him from gut to gizzard and left him bleedin in a stream. And lo they never learnt of Mrs. Potiphar's lies, and went to their Maker unrepentant, with innercent blood on their hands.


In the movie the sermon is intercut with a scene at the miners' camp, and with reaction shots of the miners in the congregation who are getting the allegorical message, and Hickey and Griggs, drunk and giggling, who are not. But ironically, while the camp scene is absent, even the reactions of the listeners in church are part of Hobie's retelling of Pappy Dan Radnor's story.

Was it Sayles's intention in Thinking in Pictures to exaggerate the distinctions between novelistic and cinematic storytelling? Surely, given an accurate recognition of the screenplay's origins in the book's text, the reader finds that intention subverted, those distinctions blurred, and more questions raised than answered. One of those questions, perhaps, is whether a storyteller can ever be believed about how his own stories get told.


  1. Rachel Maddux, Stirling Silliphant, and Neil D. Isaacs, Fiction into Film: A Walk in the Spring Rain (The University of Tennessee Press: Knoxville, 1969).

  2. John Sayles, Thinking in Pictures (Houghton Mifflin Company: Boston, 1987). Further references will be made with page numbers parenthetically in text.

  3. John Sayles, Union Dues (Little, Brown and Company: Boston, 1977). Further references will be made with page numbers parenthetically in text.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 23 October 1989)

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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.

Once again he has bobbled a good idea. Breaking In (Samuel Goldwyn) is not a particularly novel subject, but it begins promisingly—and then leads to very little. Kenneth Burke says somewhere that form is the arousal and satisfaction of expectation. Sayles once again supplies the first requirement, overlooks the second, and ends up formless.

The setting is Portland, Oregon, looking very fresh in Michael Coulter's camera. A 61-year-old burglar, Burt Reynolds (lying upward about his age), is on a job in someone's home when a young housebreaker surprises Reynolds and himself by coming upon Reynolds at work on a wall safe. The young man, Casey Siemaszko, is not a burglar: he is by profession an auto mechanic. He just likes to break into empty houses, help himself to food, watch TV, and luxuriate. Reynolds, amused and intrigued, takes him on as an apprentice, and they prosper.

This is really all that happens in the course of the film, except that at the end Siemaszko is nabbed on a job while Reynolds gets away. The latter greases the right people so that the young man will be well treated in prison. After visiting him, Reynolds murmurs to himself as he leaves, “Poor kid,” while Siemaszko murmurs, “Poor old guy” as he returns to his cell. Reynolds is on his way and rich, and the young man, after his five-year stay, will be on his way and rich, too. What has happened to either of them in the film in character growth or even in cumulative action? Nothing.

The narrative—chronicle, rather—is padded with inserts, such as a poem about testicles that a prostitute reads to Siemaszko in bed. The story is brusquely shunted around by the author. Reynolds warns his apprentice not to make himself conspicuous, yet after the young man gets some money, he buys a Cadillac, goes around to the garage where he once worked to offer his pals a ride, rents an expensive apartment, and puts down the first payment in cash from a thick wad of bills. The fellow who was bright enough to attract Reynolds would have been too bright to do these things. His actions are string-pullings by Sayles to complicate matters.

The author's quick-fizzling brightness is patent in a sequence about a supermarket robbery. The two burglars come down through a hole they have made in the roof and find a huge dog sitting there observing them curiously. Put aside the question of why a watchdog—which presumably it is—makes no sound: Sayles doesn't really use his comic idea. Any professional comedy writer would have made the dog's friendly presence build to a payoff of some kind. Sayles just has the dog pad around after the pair until they leave. It's amateurish.

The ultimate flatness of this film, modestly entertaining though it is throughout, wouldn't matter much if it had not been directed by Bill Forsyth. This is the first time that Forsyth has directed someone else's script. Up to now the scripts have either been his own—in such endearing films as Gregory's Girl and Comfort and Joy, which were set in his native Scotland—or his own adaptation—his superb film of Marilynne Robinson's superb novel, Housekeeping, set in America.

Forsyth's chief success is with Reynolds. The star is not much different here, but he's himself even more fully, at complete and engaging ease. His toupee is slightly grayed, he walks with a limp that is never explained. (This is a good touch. The film lets us assume it's the result of some misadventure on a job.) Aging becomes Reynolds: it underscores his poise, his nonchalance about stardom.

The young actor is a mistake—Forsyth's or someone's. Siemaszko has the features of an oyster and not much more talent. The best that can be said about him is that he is generic. He validly represents the age and status that are said to be his.

I hope that in the future Forsyth makes films only from his own screenplays. Here or in Scotland.

Thulani Davis (essay date June 1991)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5694

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 re-creates even if he shoots in Cincinnati, and his films are about the kind of working-class people who live in this small immigrant-built town that had its heyday when New York's harbor was teeming with ships. Although Sayles spends less time there now, he has used this “Hoboken” concept of an American landscape to create some distinctively American films, carved out of the gritty, unfulfilled promise of the real places where most of us live.

Now 40, Sayles recently completed City of Hope, which promises to be the most important film in the Sayles repertoire. At the same time, the filmmaker, who started out as a fiction writer, is publishing Los Gusanos, his third novel, a story of Cubans caught up in the 30-year legacy of the Cuban revolution. His career is something like the average writer's idea of a wish fulfilled: He is an accomplished novelist, and he makes his own movies—exercising total control over both kinds of work. And he still has time to develop shows for television and to write the occasional screenplay for someone else. Though he seems a very serious sort of fellow (who would have to be a workaholic), he's even camped it up on screenplays that have the words alligator, piranha or howling in the title.

No longer a young upstart or an emerging director, Sayles is regarded as one of the foremost independents in the country. His work is consistently gutsy, iconoclastic and passionate about ordinary life—in short, everything one might expect from an independent. Like John Cassavetes, he is one of a handful of independent American directors whose work constitutes a singular vision that is bound to be influential for filmmakers coming behind him. City of Hope, his seventh film, is the vision of a mature Sayles: impeccably written in pithy, concise language, well-acted and well-shot. It is grimly tough, yet stubbornly hopeful, complex like its maker. I went to talk to Sayles on several occasions just as he completed City of Hope, a period of weeks roughly spanning the duration of the ground war in Kuwait, when most of America was glued to all-news radio or TV.

On one of those days, I ask him to show me around Hoboken, the quintessential Saylesian town, where he shot scenes for several projects. Hoboken is the kind of city that would have lots of sons called up for the war, and so the streets are liberally festooned with red, white, blue and yellow. Giant ribbons adorn nearly every door, sizable Old Glories maybe every second or third door, along the long, narrow residential streets. Flags are plastered to the plate-glass windows down the town's commercial strip. Not a cool, faceless Northeastern city, Hoboken has a strong emotional side, fickle toward the pasta merchants bringing gentrification and loyal in the observance of rituals.

Maggie Renzi, Sayles' longtime producer and the woman with whom he has lived for 17 years, is rushing off to a store. She tells me that the tall, skinny brownstone houses flush to each other are dressed up year-round with some sort of decoration, most recently twig wreaths with changing baubles. And sure enough, she points out one piece after another that could qualify as installations in a downtown gallery: a crown of thorns with tiny Christmas lights, yellow ribbons and a miniature flag. Sort of a humble salute to God, country, hostages, resurrection, all at once. We leave her at the deli and round the corner to a school, now refurbished and full of kids, in which Sayles shot Lianna at a time when it was boarded up awaiting repair.

Always a working man's town, with very few posh mansions for the wealthy, Hoboken looks as though the city builders tried to accommodate as many of the German and then Italian families as possible by jamming small units close together. Sayles points out that it is nearly impossible to park movie vehicles on these streets, where double-parking is a theoretical concept. He spots the remnant outposts of each of the immigrant groups that came to Hoboken, peppering the history with commentary about the nearby coffee processing plant that is putting more of his neighbors out of work. At a certain point, we can hear the plant humming in the distance and he muses on how intrusive the sound was when he tried to shoot nearby. “And you should smell it on freeze-dry day—the whole town smells of coffee. It's a strong smell; that's why sometimes when cops would find a body that had been dead a while somewhere, they would have somebody go in and pour coffee grounds over the place. It cuts the smell.”

On the John Sayles walking tour of Hoboken, one sees turn-of-the-century “men's” hotels near the old ferry and train depots where workers could crash on weeknights, one hears anecdotes from Sayles' seemingly extensive novel reading and, of course, one gets a view of locations from movies. An insomniac, Sayles says he stays up late reading or writing. I can see that people might have trouble keeping up with his kind of energy; it's a challenge for me to keep up with him walking. Sayles is tall, over six feet, and strides in great steps, up hill or down, without benefit of a coat, hat, gloves or belongings, regardless of the weather. When I've spotted him running into a Spike Lee premiere from the Times Square subway station, the outfit was much the same—a shirt and jeans—and even on a 20-degree day in Manhattan, he appears wearing only jeans, a shirt and a sweatshirt, and he pushes up his sleeves as he walks.

At the crest of the ridge overlooking the Hudson and Lower Manhattan, he shows me where Woody Allen likes to shoot some of his views of the Big Apple, and as we descend toward the old docks, he gives me a thumbnail history of the downfall of the longshoremen's work that thrived there. We pass a playground where he believes Marlon Brando met Eva Marie Saint in On the Waterfront and the site where the docks it was filmed on once stood, and then, passing some expensive new housing going up, we reach the 1907 Lackawanna Line railroad station. Standing on the cobblestone drive at the front door, he peers through an old loading area framed by an ironwork gate and says, “This was a shot in either Zelig or another one of Allen's period movies. I think it's Zelig. The characters stepped out here, supposedly off a boat from Europe.” The copper-roofed station with distinct Art Nouveau styling over the entrance would have been perfect. Inside, the hot dog stands and convenience shops serve another era's commuters. Next on the tour is the weary city hall that Sayles had in mind for City of Hope.

Sayles presents himself as a kind of easy-going, uncomplicated person, but he really is anything but that. Anybody I ask about him very soon uses the word complicated to describe him. Another independent who worked with him years ago tells me that Sayles is “not what he seems to be. He gives you this simple, low-brow man but he's high-brow, low-brow and middle-brow, all mixed up. It's not quite a dishonest picture you get at first but. …” His voice trails off. “He's very tough, but when you read his book on making Matewan, for instance, everything sounds so peachy, and yet, I remember his editors saying it was a tough time.”

Easy-going, yes, but control is something of a compulsion, Sayles reluctantly concedes. This is a man who offered his novel to the publishing world (without an agent) on an “as is—take it or leave it” basis, with no movie clause, and got a deal reported to be around $200,000. His editor at HarperCollins, Terry Karten, who pulled his book out of the pile, read it and loved it, says that when she read his cover letter, she said, “Now, here's a guy who knows what he wants.” And he got it. She says her most important task on the book was to “mobilize the forces” in the publishing house to get the book published and a marketing strategy developed. When I ask her to compare him to other writers, she says he's “political like Don DeLillo” (White Noise) and “in his storytelling, he is similar to Gabriel García Márquez [One Hundred Years of Solitude] in that there is a wealth of individual stories woven around a slim narrative thread.” Not bad. I'm not sure I'd try to compare Los Gusanos to a García Márquez tale, but one could probably throw out the name Robert Stone (A Flag for Sunrise) as a writer with whom Sayles shares the idea that the ordinary individuals, with their dreams and hopes, play their parts but are damaged by the “big picture” of powerful international forces.

Sayles makes a point of letting interviewers know he has worked as a day laborer and talks like what they used to call “a working stiff,” consciously low-brow and just one the guys, and yet, he may talk about history or small-press books. A number of his friends, he tells me, aside from those in the independent film world, are writers. He may talk about conceptualizing a picture by inhabiting the bodies of characters as well as their minds, or distancing effects and authorial points of view, as he does in Thinking in Pictures, his book on making Matewan. He takes an interest in a million subjects, from inner-city politics to basketball, to international issues, to working on plays.

Some people talk about themselves, which he enjoys well enough, but John Sayles will talk about anything. Completely without pretension, he is still proud, I think, to have been dubbed something very special when, at 32, he received a MacArthur Foundation Award, given every year to 20 or so Americans in diverse fields for innovative work. It is also known as the “genius award.”

On my first trip to Hoboken, we walk down to a corner of town sitting near the river. Over pasta and Diet Coke, Sayles says the most frequent comment he got when he started showing his scripts around was, Who's the hero? If that was a question, one can imagine the reaction people may have had to the high moral ground usually taken in his films, or what I call the “ground-level” authorial point of view, and the absence of standard plot dynamics. But then, his films are hard to compare to most of the films made in America, which, after all, are usually linear, and he doesn't write in the common movie conventions. (Sayles' novels are even more complex in structure. He describes Union Dues as “kind of like the Civil War, except you had five sides fighting,” and Los Gusanos has at least four factions of Cubans who have taken distinct positions on politics in a country they haven't lived in for years.) If John Sayles walks to the sound of his own drum, he is at least patient. This is a man who waited eight years to do Eight Men Out and started Los Gusanos 13 years ago. And he is a much sought-after filmmaker who will still show up at a Lower East Side art center where they're showing a film of his and talk to the audience. But then he's the guy who made one movie because he had a dream about a black extraterrestrial who was lost in the subway but understood the graffiti on the trains to have a secret, coded meaning.

Whatever the mysterious mix that is John Sayles, most of it is put to good use in his newest film, City of Hope, which cost less than $5 million and was produced with money from RCA/Columbia in exchange for video rights. The film will be distributed this fall by the Samuel Goldwyn Company. City of Hope was shot on a 30-day, five-week schedule on 40 locations in Cincinnati, where costs were lower and it was easier to move around than in New Jersey. The movie is a harvest of lessons learned over the 12 years Sayles has struggled to make pictures. Among the actors in City of Hope are a few from Sayles' unofficial repertory—Joe Morton, Vincent Spano, David Strathairn, Jace Alexander, Chris Cooper and Sayles himself—and the rest have been known for superb work elsewhere, many of them stage actors: Tony Lo Bianco, Frankie Faison, Gloria Foster, Anthony John Denison, Miriam Colon, Bill Raymond, Ray Aranha and Angela Bassett. The sprawling film, which has 38 featured characters, puts to use all the know-how learned in the days when Sayles used to drive every weekend from New York to Boston to edit a film. The production team put in eight weeks of preproduction, filmed in six-day weeks and shot an average of five pages a day.

I talked to David Strathairn, who has worked in four other Sayles films, about the Sayles method. In City of Hope, Strathairn plays the character Asteroid, a street person who eerily mimics the sounds of voices around him (a character who may remind people of the strange, stuttering man in Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing). Strathairn went to college with Sayles, and he has shared living quarters with Sayles and Renzi from time to time. Sayles is “extremely well-prepared” for a film, says Strathairn, “as far as shots, angles, what he wants from each scene. He does copious research beforehand.” He says that by now, they've worked together so long that he has an intuitive sense of what the director wants. “A lot can be done without the formalities,” he says.

City of Hope was designed with long master shots which demonstrate the driving concept of the work, that all the forces moving this city are interconnected. The camera is almost always in motion, moving, for instance from a deal among pols in the foyer of a City Hall to a conversation between two women headed toward them from the hall. “There are a lot of master shots,” says Sayles, “that follow characters and then pick up a second group of characters. A lot of scenes are played in one without cutting.”

In the film's fictional Hudson City, Sayles brings together the dialects, rhythms and concerns of some of the people seen in their own spheres in his other films: Italian-American, Irish-American, African-American, Latin, Eastern European. As they push and pull each other, every move made by one character affects the story of all the others, or, as the writer-director puts it, “their hands are in each other's pockets.” Sayles describes the film's concept as a kind of knot in which the stories cross each other, and he shot it in such a way that the idea is impossible to miss. It's paced so that you're not allowed to drift from the pressures that pile up as the worlds within collide. Says Sayles, “My word for the movie is relentless.” He laughs, as if he enjoys being relentless.

“I think what I wanted to get at—in the writing and in the style of shooting—is the fact that, like it or not, people depend on each other. We're stuck with each other, and we have to deal with each other one way or the other. And if you don't hurry up and deal with it—well, the war is a good example.”

The film's starting point and sometime center is the story of Nick (Vincent Spano), the downwardly mobile and alienated son of well-connected contractor Joe (Tony Lo Bianco). Nick bails out on a no-show job on one of his father's sites and the same day ends up in the heist of an appliance store owned by a family friend. Entering the picture as well are a black city councilman (Joe Morton) who has been heretofore out of touch with the community, black community leaders, a corrupt mayor from the “old school,” two black kids who are assaulted by cops and, in turn, assault a jogger, and members of the white middle-class and poor Puerto Rican communities.

After seeing the film, I ask what interested him most about these characters he's locked together in a tight fist of city politics. It's a cold day but the waiter brings Sayles a huge Diet Coke brimming with ice. He drinks and leans back, looks attentive, as he almost always does. “One of my ideas,” says Sayles, “which I told all the actors, is that nobody gets to start from scratch in this kind of world. Like Joe Morton's character—he's a guy who came down off the hill, 'cause he was teaching in college. Intellectually, he knows a lot of stuff that he hasn't experienced viscerally.” Sayles slips into his character's place. “He realizes, Wait a minute, I don't get to start from scratch either. There's all these deals that have gone before me and those expectations, and I gotta carry them on my back, too. There's a billion pressures that I just stepped into.” He steps out of the character's shoes and smiles and cracks a joke. “It's like David Dinkins getting to be mayor of New York. It's one of those good news/bad news things: It's good news you got elected but the bad news is you're the mayor of New York! Try and get some sleep.” Sayles laughs.

One of the most interesting aspects of City of Hope is that no matter how ugly the action gets between any two people or groups in the film, there are no villains in this corrupt city. Every character is delineated in such a way that his or her humanity is left intact, along with the pressures that put him or her on whatever corner they occupy—even if they bust kids up against a wall or assault an innocent passerby or burn people out of their homes. The main characters, without solving anything, get the best handle on what the problem is, particularly Nick and Joe.

“Finally, I think the thing that's important between the father and son is the kid is finally getting the father to face the fact that he needs some straightening out, too. He bought into this thing and he bought into that thing and he's not in control of any of it. And not many guys get that chance. You know, they get bitter or they close off their minds. One way or the other, they don't even get to look at the problem, and then they usually don't blame it on the right people when they do get fucked up. Usually, they find somebody below them, and it's all their fault.”

Once again, Sayles steps backs from the particulars to his more global view. “There is this idea that inner cities are just going to be abandoned, that the money's going to be stripped from them, and whoever wants to deal with them can deal with the problems. And that people are going to have their little enclaves and take out of their own pocket to buy a police force or good schools and, in a perverted way, that's the American Dream: I'll take care of my own and fuck the rest of you. Finally, though, I think that leads to bigger crises. Joe Morton's character says, You pay now or you pay later. I think with that kind of polarization and abandonment, you pay later.”

Sayles looks at his characters in this film as having been forced to a point of decision and/or compromise, a moment when they have to figure out what they can give, what they can live with. It's the concern of a grown-up artist. His earlier films in many ways explored the struggle to identify one's self or to find communities of identity. The films chart his own personal growth, but it is a development shared by a generation.

John Sayles was born in Schenectady, New York, “a town,” he says, “where General Electric is year by year withdrawing and the population is dwindling.” In 1968, he went off to Williams College. Over lunch one day in Manhattan, Sayles recalls those early years. I pick him up at the Path station and we walk to the restaurant. I spent some time trying to figure out what kind of food he would like. He doesn't seem like the poached-salmon type, so I make my decision based on the availability of Diet Coke and a choice between pasta-sorta stuff and hamburgers. When we get there, he has no reaction whatsoever to this nice, if unremarkable, place but I discern that he's probably hungry because when I ask him about college, he says, “To me, it was like, I'd never had food that good. Everybody was complaining but I thought, Geez, it's like a country club.

“It was real pretty, and people seemed reasonably tolerant of each other. I was a psych major 'cause that seemed the easiest way not to have to go to too many classes.” He was having bad bouts of insomnia then, so he stayed up all night watching movies. “And then I slept until Jeopardy and lunch was right after that. Morning classes, forget it. I really didn't go to too many classes. I had never read that many books before, so I went into the library and I'd read 12 books a week sometimes. I'd never read Faulkner or Hemingway or any of these American guys, so even though I took almost no English classes, I just started reading everybody—James Baldwin, Mark Twain. I continue to have enormous gaps.”

After college he traveled around, working sometimes as a day laborer, meat packer or hospital orderly and sometimes just living on unemployment. (The hospital experience is fully exploited in his novel Los Gusanos, in which a number of the characters work at the bed-pan level of health care in a nursing home.) Sayles started writing fiction, and in 1975 he won an O. Henry Award for his first published story. That same year he published his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, which became a Book-of-the-Month Club selection. In 1977 he won another O. Henry and published Union Dues, which was nominated for a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. In 1979 he put out a collection of short stories, The Anarchists' Convention. Even if he had done nothing else, this would be impressive.

In the late '70s, Sayles hooked up with Roger Corman's New World Pictures and started writing screenplays. It is fairly well known that the writing of movies like Piranha, The Lady in Red, Battle beyond the Stars and The Howling financed Sayles' leap into filmmaking. (My favorite is Alligator.) He says he got the job with Corman because the woman who hired him happened to be a reader of short stories who knew his work. But there he also got a first-hand look at how scripts are turned into movies and how to watch the budget while writing. More recently, he has done several scripts for other independent filmmakers; Unnatural Causes, a television film on Agent Orange starring John Ritter and Alfre Woodard; and developed the critically acclaimed Shannon's Deal for NBC. When I ask if he's ever written a screenplay he hated doing, Sayles replies, “No. I've done second and third drafts I hated doing because of the politics of collaborating with the people I was doing it for. At some point, I would just say, Guys, this is just getting different, it's not getting better. If you want to go in this direction, I think you should get another writer. Sometimes they're just finger-fucking it to death 'cause a new executive has come on board and he has some ideas.

“There have been movies that I've been disappointed in, but the screenplays, I felt good about when I sent them out into the world. But, you know, that's like starting a bill through Congress: It can come out the other end being exactly against what you were trying to do in the first place.”

In typical child-of-the-'60s fashion, Sayles says of his film training, “Instead of going to film school, I made movies,” followed by, “In the early days, my crews were no more experienced than me.” Sayles' first film, Return of the Secaucus Seven, made from $60,000 in screen-writing money, came out in 1980, was well received by the critics and became an underground favorite, if not quite a hit. The film was one of the first to treat the transformation being visited on the '60s counterculture generation by life in the “accommodate-reality” '70s. Lianna (1983), his second film, deals with a woman coming to terms with being a lesbian as she raises two kids in a working-class town. Then came Baby, It's You (1983), about an upper-middle class girl and her relationship with a working-class Italian boy.

In 1984 Sayles used part of the five years of financial support from his MacArthur award to make the film based on the black-extraterrestrial dream. Wry and ironic, The Brother from Another Planet became a cult classic. Matewan (1987), a beautifully shot, elegiac film that dealt with the 1920 coal miners strike in Matewan, West Virginia, followed three years later. Although selected for the Directors Fortnight at Cannes and well-received abroad, the film suffered here from a critics' backlash after their several years' love affair with Sayles. Critics began to carp about his sentimentality for the downtrodden, and this spilled over on his next film, Eight Men Out (1988), which was based on the 1919 Chicago White Sox baseball scandal. In many ways, though, Eight Men Out was a less successful film than the others, sometimes beautifully done and sometimes too slow. It also proved less successful in getting audiences into the theater.

When Sayles talks about the political changes that occurred during his developing years, he also describes many of the concerns of his films. “To a certain extent, in the '60s, people felt like they had to go to their own corners. The political energy went from the desegregation movement into the counterculture and antiwar movement, into the women's movement. The rhetoric and energy moved from one to another. But that didn't mean that the people who were left behind just disappeared. The black movement became more of an all-black movement, more urban and less about the South. The antiwar movement stayed in some ways, but the women separated themselves to a certain extent, at least the most radical women did. It seemed like a time when everybody needed to define themselves. I think the energy of that separation has kind of diminished. The number of people in that vanguard movement is smaller now, bubbling still, but it's not the front lines anymore. There were a lot of casualties. People got separated from the rank-and-file of their movements. And now those same people are older and they have more to lose.”

Sayles' films have focused on the problems of communities, and they are also concerned with personal ethics. “I think often I've been dealing with people in communities, sometimes people in communities that are surrounded by other communities that are not necessarily friendly toward theirs. Secaucus Seven is about people who, although spread out all over, are a kind of community of ideals. They come together to plug into that. Lianna is definitely about a woman who's been living as a stranger in this mass community and then she finds there might be another subcommunity that at first she is very scared of and then a little more comfortable in. But she has to deal with both because she has kids. Eight Men Out certainly is about ethics. Each of the guys who betrays his teammates has a different button that is pushed for him to say, Yes, I'll do it. Even within that, there's the ethics of the one guy who knows about it and won't throw the series but also won't rat on his friends. Matewan and City of Hope have the big similarity that they are about how people live together. In Matewan, there is a very, very short alliance between these immigrant miners, the black miners and the mountain guys. It's basically there because there is a common enemy who is just as threatening to all of them, and they somehow realize that. In City of Hope, you see that those alliances tend to be personal, not group alliances; some people get beyond the alliances, and some people don't even like to admit they exist. But the system itself thrives on those differences. In a coal camp, they really did put guards between the Italians and the Yugoslavs and the blacks and the hillbilly miners 'cause they didn't want them talking to each other. They said it was because they'd fight, but it was really because they'd talk.”

And what about the working-class focus of Sayles' films while there are so few other films about everyday working people? He doesn't serve up any self-righteous stuff about Hollywood producers not being interested. He says they're apt to say, OK, fine, we're doing a working guy, but then they shift gears immediately and start talking about costs and marketing issues. While he says the film world has “ceded the real-life-problem drama” to TV, there still is an absence of working-class dramas in film and television. “They've had plebeian characters,” Sayles says. “I remember in The Life of Riley, the guy was a riveter or something,” he laughs, “but you never saw him on the job. I think it's partly because it's just difficult to dramatize that stuff. And in terms of money, it's a set. It's easier to use the usual conventions that have been set up by the movies and other things. That's why Hitchcock was always having his characters be architects. Nobody knows exactly what architects do, and they don't have to go in every day and punch a clock, so they can go off and have an adventure, and you don't worry about, oh, is he going to lose his job? He's an architect.”

It goes without saying that John Sayles has arranged things so that we don't have to worry about him losing his job either. He would like to have more time to shoot a film, which means, in essence, more money. He rarely mentions other filmmakers but in this case, he says that if Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro “have something they want try, they can stop and look at it, they have time to rework scenes.”

When I ask him who knows him really well, Sayles says, “Most of my friends do. My friends who're actors who're in my movies probably do, but no people in Hollywood or anything like that.” Many of those people that he has worked with in the old scuffling days are now in Los Angeles, actors like Vincent Spano and Joe Morton. Another person who's been in the Sayles “crew” is Peggy Rajski, who produced Brother, Matewan and three Sayles videos for Bruce Springsteen, and coproduced Eight Men Out. She says, “He has learned that if you work with a lower budget and split up your financing sources, you're able to maintain creative control.” Now producing Little Man Tate, Jodie Foster's directorial debut, Rajski started working with Sayles in the days when the crew was no more experienced than he. “They didn't know any better than to hire me,” she jokes now. “We all grew together.” Of his relationship to Hollywood, she says, “Are they after him to write scripts? Yes, all the time. Are they beating his door down to direct? No.”

Although he is not beating down Hollywood's doors either, Sayles maintains a friendly long-distance relationship with the place. At the moment, he is writing a project for Jonathan Demme about the sinking of the cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis at the end of World War II. While he is no longer working on Shannon's Deal, he maintains consulting ties to the show. He has also been talking with Suzanne de Passe at Motown about a possible television version of Brother from Another Planet. But it looks as though Sayles has been wise enough to figure out what feeds his imagination and what doesn't. I hear it in the details he mentions like hearing a choir of children's voices coming from an elementary school near his Hoboken headquarters. He says they sing the national anthem with a Spanish accent. Or it might come from the East Indian video shop, where he tells me, they can only acquire 20-year-old movies. It is the sights and sounds of a real community where the fancy soap shop is in danger of going out of business but the auto parts store stays for decades.

As I listen to the anecdotes, I think how much like a writer it is to invest places with the mystique of movie shots and little-known lore. The only historical marker in Hoboken observes that the first recorded baseball game took place there. History and baseball buff Sayles says that Hoboken is only one of several sites credited with history's first baseball game, that the word recorded is significant.

When shooting City of Hope in Cincinnati, he tells me, he visited a little place that was supposed to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. He does this everywhere he goes. You can be sure that wherever Sayles lands next, he will use the markers to see where he is. And then his films will tell the tale.

Randall Kenan (review date 24 June 1991)

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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 us in his updated chronicle of dreamers of the impossible dream in his new novel Los Gusanos (The Worms).

Sayles's early work established him as a troubadour of the grotesque. From his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos, he demonstrated a healthy sense of the absurd, featuring a midget former detective who played five-man softball, dressed in drag, and was being hunted by a giant through the Deep South. A novel by turns hilarious and poignant, Sayles showed in it that his was a highly individual vision. This sensibility carried over into his filmmaking, as in Brother from Another Planet, his 1984 film about a horny-toed extraterrestrial aloose in Harlem. Quirky and offbeat, its politics were subtly stated and subservient to a fantastic vision.

Since then, Sayles has become more socially engaged in his work, becoming increasingly a Bard of Lost Causes, as signaled by his second novel, Union Dues, a hard-cored Bildungsroman dealing with a father and son and the proletariat. Here we see Sayles shift to the dreams of the working man. In his last two films, Matewan (which chronicles a defeated coal miners' strike in the 1920s) and Eight Men Out (the sad tale of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal), his concerns begin to solidify the plight of working-class folk into a tragic and Quixotic set piece of Little Men versus Big Men, in which the former are hopelessly outnumbered and are defeated in body if not in spirit.

In Los Gusanos, Sayles pulls the same sled forward and offers us a salacious, insightful and emotionally provocative novel of the Cuban exile community in Miami—the ones Castro called “worms” upon their exodus—and of their lost homeland. The book's dramatis personae (it's chock full of characters) rivals some of the more plentiful novels of memory. To call this work a family saga belies its intricate structure and serious purpose; to call it a novel of espionage and intrigue and terrorism betrays its depth of characterization and occasional prose excellence; to call it a novel of obsession is only to begin to see it whole. For obsession is the poison and the balm at work in Los Gusanos, an obsession with Cuba.

Sayles's Cuba is at once the Land of Nod, Canaan, Mahagony, El Dorado and Troy, a land that is all things to all people, especially the people who can't possess it. To these people Cuba has become La Mancha, equally distorted and Never-Neverish, and for our protagonist, Marta de la Pena, less the isle of her childhood than the emblem of the shadow of what her family once was.

La Familia de la Pena. For decades they had been gran rancheros on their kilometers-big homestead outside the central-island town of Camagüey. In 1981 this clan teeters on the brink of extinction, still dominated by the bullish Scipio, now cataleptic with rage in a geriatric hospital in Miami. In this year Marta, a nurse in the hospital in which her father languishes, remakes herself in the image of Joan of Arc and prepares to embark upon her holy mission: to strike a blow at Castro. When confronted with the seeming lunacy of her mission, she says, “I know. But what we will do will speak louder. If you can only be a small flame, … you have to burn brightly.” Sayles does not contradict such incendiary passion; rather, he attempts to lay bare the heart of this obsessive, patriotic madness.

A woman of disturbing mystery and depth, Marta carefully recruits her troops: Padre Martín, a defrocked priest and political naïf; Tío Felix, the younger brother of Scipio, the man with the boat and the doubts, whose memories of Cuba retain the seeds of shame and defeat; Dewey, an orderly at the hospital, a legend in his own mind, dangerously full of Rambo and Clint Eastwood, a wannabe soldier of fortune without a cause; El Halcón, assassin, pornographer, whoremonger, spy, a man who even in his days as a policeman under Batista relished inflicting cruelty; and, finally, the spirit of Ambrosio de la Pena, the poet of the family, who died in the Bay of Pigs invasion, leaving only his diary of the event to fuel Marta's Holy Crusade.

The diary illuminates this whirligig of a plot, which is a spiral gaining momentum through the shucking off of onion-like layers of memory and action that are wed to an ever-present irony and paradox. “Paradox in history,” as one of the characters, Villas, says late in the novel. Villas is a professor imprisoned for not submitting to the Fidelistas, whose travails bear strong resemblance to those eloquently reported in Armando Valladares's Against All Hope. During a hallucination in solitary confinement, Villas treats us to a history lesson: “Students, we must always be aware of the disharmony between the popular perception of government and its actual practice. The ideals of a political movement and the methods used to obtain those ideals are often at odds.”

This view informs the plot of Sayles's novel, for at its center sit lies, like the worms of its title, big lies and little lies that gnaw away at its core; big lies like the C.I.A.'s involvement in promising to repatriate the Cubanos in 1961. (The lie, of course, which led to the embarrassment of the Kennedy Administration and to scores of deaths in the huge misadventure at Bahia Cochina.) The other lies are the infidelities of Castro, the betrayal of faithful men like Che Guevara and the men and women who wanted change but not what the revolution eventually became. And as lies tend toward confusion in Los Gusanos, we see how these exiled Cubanos are kept in a state of turmoil both hopeful and full of despair. Sayles points an angry finger at the machinations of the F.B.I./C.I.A./Tío Sam, which we are led to believe still persist, a sinister ballet of entrapment that is one of the mainsprings of this novel, as people are deceived, manipulated and eliminated.

With these tensions Sayles constructs a narrative both inevitable and surprising, and along the way he imparts a great deal. In fact, the author seems to know too damn much, from the grungy details of hospital dirty work to esoteric munitions technology to whorehouse specialties in La Habana before the revolution. His background on C.I.A. involvement is frightfully convincing, and in the character of Walt, an operative, we are given a chilling indictment of how a military-industrial complex values people according to how easily they can be manipulated, or pumped for information.

This is not to say that the novel is without problems. Some digressions seem to serve a purpose more political than narrative; the language, though at times lyrical, is uneven; and ultimately, the equation the novel sets up seems to have more variables than can be solved, and the reader works hard for diminishing returns. The role of women seems, despite Marta's action, subsumed by machismo. Marta as a woman is never truly glimpsed; she is overwhelmed by a masculine vision. While Sayles keeps alive the spirit of the Cuban poet/scholar/saint José Martí in allusions throughout the novel, for all intents and purposes Los Gusanos is still a yanquí novel having more in common with Dickens and Fielding than with Borges or Infante—yet this does not obviate its ambitious effort. Of late a number of young U.S. writers have attempted to pierce the “banana veil,” most notable among them Denis Johnson with his Stars at Noon about Nicaragua, Robert Boswell with his The Geography of Desire about El Salvador and Thomas Sanchez with Mile Zero, like Sayles's novel set in Miami. But Sayles ups the ante and raises the stakes by plenty in daring to write approximately a sixth of the novel in Spanish. Not overwhelming, but enough to give some yanquís pause; he also resorts to Spanglish.

Some will no doubt wish to compare Los Gusanos with recent works by writers of Cuban lineage, like Christine Bell's The Perez Family or Oscar Hijuelos's transcendent novels Our House in the Last World and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, or even the works of the late Reinaldo Arenas. Some may be alarmed at the audacity of a white boy from Schenectady daring to presume to write knowingly about such an insular community. But Sayles's portrait of a community in exile and a Cuba decades gone hums with a conviction that cannot be dismissed lightly. In a fierce way, Los Gusanos is convincing and speaks to yanquís and Cubanos both of the power and pathos of those present-day knights-errant who are not so much tilting at windmills as shooting BB guns at the twin-headed chimera of history and power—in the eternal Bay of Pigs.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 14 October 1991)

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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 City of Hope (Samuel Goldwyn), which he edited as well as wrote and directed, the making of the film is so good that it nearly masks the screenplay's shortcomings.

The subject is the American city, its geist in our zeit. (The title is the name of an apartment project.) This city is in New Jersey and is never called Jersey City or Newark. The story is multi-stranded, with elements that are Italian, Irish, Hispanic, Jewish, black, and ethnically nondescript. The point of each story is to examine morality and to show that, like stretch socks, one sleazy morality fits all these days. This is hardly the whole truth about our cities and their people, but neither is it only sour fantasy; and it's the Swiftian charge that Sayles wants to level.

The hazards in urban life for physical survival portrayed in Boyz ’n the Hood are here transmuted into those for moral survival. Not much hope in the city of hope, says Sayles—at least for males. The only staunchly ethical people in the film are female, and this may be a negative compliment: none of these women is on the ethical front lines.

As director and editor, Sayles's first problem was to balance and control the many strands. But instead of viewing this as a problem, he took it as an opportunity. He devised his film as a concourse of cinematic streams, and he made the interweaving of those streams more than a narrative method: it's almost the substance of the film.

Flow is the dominant stylistic idea. Many minutes pass before the first cut is used. We stay with one character or group until we meet others, who take us to a third, then back to the first, and so on. The first fade-to-black—and there aren't many—doesn't occur until the film is well along.

This method replicates, in the picture's very being, the texture of the city as organism, the interdependence of supposedly individual drives. The life of the city is a series of small wars and treaties and tributes, all under the sovereign eyes of a few leaders, white and black, who themselves win, no matter what happens to the small fry (which includes the mayor).

And this method is helped by the way Sayles sees his people. Very much of the film is shot quite close up, not with immense stupid screen-filling heads, but with a sense of accompaniment. We are with this man or that woman at virtually every moment. The cinematographer, Robert Richardson, gives these faces his prime attention. He even finds ways to light Vincent Spano, the chief white male, in ways that take Spano's face from its former flabbiness to some distinction.

Sayles's view of our souls is gloomy. A successful construction boss, Tony Lo Bianco, who has tried to play things generally straight, is forced under political pressure to permit arson in some of his properties. His son, Spano, feeling estranged from his father, drifts into crime. An idealistic black city councilman, Joe Morton, who is fighting corruption as well as those other blacks who think he is Whitey's tool in Whitey's politics, succumbs to the use of demagoguery as a means to success.

What's even gloomier is Sayles's one attempt at a ray of hope. A white jogger is attacked by two black teenagers, and when the jogger tells the police, the youths contend that the jogger approached them homosexually. A ruckus follows in the press. Then the mother of one of the youths (more female staunchness) persuades her son to tell the truth. At the last he and the jogger are jogging together.

This is the most blatant instance, because cheery, of a recurrent flaw. Sayles's conspectus of the city is presented with candor and considerable verve. But when he begins to dramatize, he begins to wobble. (Again like Woody Allen.) Along with many another screenwriter and playwright before him, he is honest in intent but deficient in art. His dramatic devices are as stale and contrived as those used by much less honest writers.

The romance between Spano and a divorcée is tediously predictable. The vengeance of the woman's ex-husband, the results of the arson, Spano's agreement to take part in a robbery with two patent fools—all these are mechanisms that Sayles sets up for his own ends. And he uses a demented man as a motif throughout the story the way Middle European writers once used village idiots, as symbols of latent irrationality amid seemingly rational people.

But the verve is there. I'd guess that Sayles has been studying Scorsese and has learned ways to make his picture seem to be hurtling forward even when two or three people are merely talking—by filling the shot with supplementary action, like walking down a corridor or getting into a car. Occasionally there's a really striking shot, e.g., two cops in a patrol car seen from the back seat, with the world outside fuzzy. It makes the police car a mobile fortress, a refuge, in the midst of turmoil.

Spano is good enough. Lo Bianco strives for a solidity that doesn't come easily. Sayles himself plays a low-level crime boss with acid nastiness. Morton very nearly succeeds in making the councilman likable despite the character's discomfort at his own righteousness. Barbara Williams as Spano's girlfriend and Angela Bassett as Morton's wife fill in the conventions of two conventional roles.

One unheralded return is the appearance of Lawrence Tierney as an Irish capo. Tierney played the lead in Dillinger (1945) and, though he has appeared in a number of films since then, has been chiefly noted for his off-screen escapades, sometimes in saloons. Here he has weight and conviction as a man who has seen a good deal of the seamy side and can now afford to wax philosophical.

David Strathairn, respected in the theater, plays the demented man, who is first glimpsed in prison, then winds through various scenes right to the end. Sayles has contrived a finish that reunites Lo Bianco and Spano, alienated father and son, on a high floor of one of pop's unfinished buildings late at night. Spano needs help, and Lo Bianco calls down for help into the almost deserted street. The only one down there is the madman, who merely mimics the cry for help. The camera holds on him, from above, to finish the picture.

This whole last sequence is another script gimmick, but once more Sayles almost redeems it cinematically. Strathairn is seen only in long shot—possibly the most distant long shot in the film. This contrasts with the closeness of most of the people most of the time. The long shot in itself is the best element in Sayles's irony—a distant madman mimicking cries for help in the middle of this dark, unresponding city.

John Sayles and Claudia Dreifus (interview date November 1991)

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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 warm light on the big American secret—social class. His classic Return of the Secaucus Seven looks at a group of 1960s activists at midlife, still grasping for their ideals. Matewan, his masterpiece, concerns a coal miners' strike in West Virginia.

And this fall, we'll see Sayles's newest offering, City of Hope, a brawny meditation on modern urban politics. Like most of his work, this new one is gritty, tense, and complex, discarding the Hollywood formula of likable characters and happy endings. In many ways, it's a companion piece to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and, as in Lee's films, there are few heroes.

Sayles also writes novels and short stories. HarperCollins recently published Los Gusanos, a broadly drawn epic about Miami Cubans who, like the characters in Return of the Secaucus Seven, are desperately clinging to their ideals. He wrote Los Gusanos over a twelve-year period in between film shoots. It briefly made several regional bestseller lists, and will appear in paperback next summer.

Sayles met me on a sweltering summer afternoon in an Italian restaurant in Poughkeepsie, New York. Long based in Hoboken. New Jersey, he and his companion, Maggie Renzi, had just moved to a farm in upstate New York so he could work in an atmosphere of serenity. He picked a restaurant for the interview because he is an insistent guardian of his privacy and wouldn't meet in his home. Or even near it. Over pasta and Diet Cokes, though, John Sayles was ebullient and open.

[Dreifus]: City of Hope is about the disintegration of a big-city political structure—and about the competing ethnic forces waiting to scavenge the spoils. It's a real 1990s kind of story, the kind of story being acted out in New York City as we speak. After spending so much time on movies rooted in the past, did you finally want to do a story more of this moment?

[Sayles]: No, I don't really think in those terms. Baby, It's You is supposed to be a young girl who goes from high school to college, from the 1950s to the 1960s in one jump. But in a lot of places, the 1950s never died. I go back home to where I grew up in upstate New York and there are people still listening to the current equivalent of Chuck Berry, which is heavy metal, and working on their cars. As to whether City of Hope is about the 1990s or not, I think it's about different cities at a different stage.

This city is in its Tammany Hall period. The main ethnic group is controlling the politics, but their numbers are gone. Their constituency has moved, and patronage has become a very ugly thing because it's a one-way street. There's no delivery anymore. For the Irish, the Italians, and the Jews, patronage worked, moving people into the system at the turn of the century. But then there comes the point where it's not working. They are stealing whatever isn't nailed down, and they know their days are numbered, and they are just stripping the city of whatever is left.

You see this a lot in Detroit and in Jersey. Look at Detroit. What's left of it? The old group is saying, “Now you [blacks] can have the city—what's left of it.” The new group is always faced with the fact that the previous group took the office furniture. City of Hope is not about the 1990s. It's about a kind of system that's been going on since, I'm sure, the 1800s in this country of ethnic groups. What's 1990s about it is that, all of a sudden, black and Hispanic people are getting their shot at power. In City of Hope, the blacks don't have the numbers to take over the city. They will only get to take over their ward.

You are one of the few directors around who's telling these kinds of stories.

Or who's getting to.

How do you feel about being one of the few who gets to make movies about coal miners, 1960s activists, academic lesbians, and now urban politicos?

Well, it's unconscious. I'm not consciously saying, “This is what they are doing, so I will do something different.” I'm a writer. I write stuff and then I realize, “This doesn't really fit into any genre.” Usually, when I have to pitch a script to a potential backer. I have to tell the story. I find I can't say, “This is a cross between Rambo and Missing.” My pieces tend to be in-between genres. They tend to be about characters, about situations, rather than, say, “an action-adventure-police story.” So the stories that I happen to be interested in telling are that way.

How do you manage to be a man with a 1960s consciousness who is directing?

I think I've been very lucky. For one thing, my bread job—writing movies for other people—was a lucrative one. So even when I first started and was getting “scale,” that was $10,000 a movie. Most people's bread job is waiting tables or teaching in some form, where you make a base pay of $10,000 a year. I can write a genre picture and do a bunch of those a year—so even when I was just getting scale, I could make $50,000 in one year. It only took me two years to get up enough money to do Return of the Secaucus Seven. I financed that picture myself. I financed The Brother from Another Planet myself. I was one of the major investors in Matewan. So rather than making that one independent film and having to sit around for another five years till someone gave me the money to do another one, I've been able to put myself back into the game by financing my films myself.

So when there's a story you want to shoot, you'll write a TV movie and then, voila, you've got seed money?

Yeah. Or I'll doctor a script for someone else. And that's fun as a technician. It's not something you're going to put your soul into—because it's somebody else's story. When it's done, at least I have the money to get my own film started. With Lianna, we started out needing to raise a budget of $800,000. We ended up making it for $300,000, of which I put up $30,000. Now most people I know, when they start to make movies, don't have $30,000; $30,000 is as tough to raise as $3 million, if you're talking people into it. So that's one thing: I've had that economic advantage.

About Return of the Secaucus Seven: Were you yourself active during the 1960s?

Certainly. But only as a foot soldier. I was at events with 30,000 other people. On marches and things like that. I went to Williams College.

Williams? I had the impression you came from a grittier background, that your family was more blue-collar.

It's a long story how I went there. I really didn't know if I wanted to go to college, but I ended up there. I knew I really didn't want to be in the Army, whether there was a war or not. When the antiwar stuff happened, I would occasionally participate.

Williams was an elite school, but in a funny way. It wasn't very competitive. I had a guidance counselor say to me, “Here's two places I want you to apply—Williams and Colgate.” I ended up feeling like, if I went to Colgate, they'd want me to play serious football, and I had played much-too-serious football in high school already. So my place of education was accidental. Williams was the kind of place that, when the black kids took over the administration building, the first thing the white college president did was make sure they had enough food.

Were you involved in a march on Washington where a deer got killed en route? “Bambicide,” you call it in Return of the Secaucus Seven.

No, but we did get stopped on a couple of marches by cops, on the general theme of “I know where these guys are going—let's stop them and search for drugs.” The people the film is based on are not so much people I knew in college but people I knew afterwards, when I was living in East Boston. I knew a lot of people who were involved in the little city halls there, a bunch who had known each other in the 1960s.

No doubt you saw The Big Chill, which many critics noted was about a group of ex-1960s types getting together for a long weekend reunion, just like Return of the Secaucus Seven.

It's a different movie. It's called The Big Chill for a reason. It's a film about people who have either lost their ideals or are realizing they never had them in the first place. Secaucus Seven is about people who are desperately, desperately trying to hold onto their ideals. That's a very different group. Chill people are more upper-middle-class. The Secaucus group is more lower-middle-class; some of them are probably the first people in their families who went to a four-year college. And they've chosen to be downwardly mobile. The movie I think Return of the Secaucus Seven most resembles is a French one, For Jonah, Who Will Be Twenty-five in the Year 2000. It was the precursor.

Come on, admit it. Surely you felt a bit … cribbed by The Big Chill. The structure and the idea seem so similar: A group of ex-1960s folks get together for a long weekend and wonder what they did with their lives.

No. I actually didn't have any big problem with it. I thought it was a more-thoughtful-than-usual Hollywood movie. It's very much about people who do exist. It's just that they weren't my friends. It was not a rip-off. There's too much thought, and too much feeling, in that movie. [Director Larry Kasdan] sees the world differently. It was more: “Here's what happens when the people I know get together for a three-day weekend.”

But again, you're about the only bona fide member of the 1960s generation making movies. How come?

I don't think I'm the only one. Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese—they were very much of that moment and then they grew into doing different things. What was one of De Palma's first films—Greetings?—about, the draft? Besides, I keep running into these people who used to be in the Weather Underground who are producers now.

You're often compared to Spike Lee. Is that fair?

Well, he's doing things that nobody else was interested in doing for a long time. But he's been much more successful at getting out to a large audience than I have. He's doing pretty much what he wants to do and still reaching some kind of mass audience. It's not the mass audience that something like Terminator 2 reaches, but he's working on studio budgets now, and that's a real achievement: to be able to do that and still make the movie you want to make.

We've talked about my being the only one making these kinds of movies. I find that in this country there's a real suspicion of content. Sometimes, a real resentment of content. Some of it came out of the auteur theory. There is a whole raft of movie critics who basically feel: Okay, what we treasure a film director, an auteur, for is his ability to put his stamp on any material. The minute you're talking about that, you're automatically talking about style. On the other hand, there's a much smaller group of people who only care about content and whether you're politically correct or not.

I'm sure that Sam Goldwyn Sr. said a lot of intelligent things, but the one that we always quote is, “If you want to send a message, call Western Union.” Haskell Wexler and I were talking about this once. He said, “All films are political.” I agreed. I said, “Beverly Hills Cop II is a political film.” If you look at it, it's about attitudes toward women and violence, and it says a lot. But nobody would look at the director of Beverly Hills Cop II and say, “Hey, that's a political film.” Because those are mainstream values, so no one notices them.

If you're working in the mainstream media, if you're going to story conferences, what almost always gets scarified is content. Because they distrust it. Because it almost always is secondary to making this great arcade ride that the people are going to pay money to get on.

You're still telling stories that no one else is, and you're constantly breaking formulas. In Matewan, the good guys lose and the community is shattered. That's against the Hollywood formula of happy endings for the protagonists.

In Matewan, the hero does not pick up a gun, and that was a problem most mainstream moviegoers had with it. “Now wait a minute,” they'd go. “The hero really is a pacifist. He's not going to turn out be a guy who's a great shot and who takes his gun off the wall.”

In so many Westerns—Shane—that's the tension of the story. This guy has decided he's pacifist and there's this thrill in the audience when he finally straps his gun on one more time. It's a difficult thing to fight. When we were creating the film, it was hard to create a guy who is telling people something that might get them killed. We gave him a speech; he said, “Look, the way things are now, the coal owners are just waiting for a chance to tromp you. Yes. If you pick up the gun, you'll give them that excuse. If you do that, the war is going to start and you're going to lose.”

And they do—and that's what happens in Matewan. But to change the subject, you've just published a novel about Cuban-Americans in Miami, Los Gusanos. How is writing a book different? It must be a place where you have total control; after all, as the writer, you're God.

Well, I don't have to worry about how we can afford extras! In Los Gusanos, I do the Bay of Pigs invasion and I don't have to worry about how we get the tanks and the extras—all those practical things that make a movie difficult. What you don't have in a book is all the fun of a collaboration, and I do think movies are collaborative, auteur theory aside.

You wrote Los Gusanos between movies. How did you keep your concentration?

As far as research went, I never left the novel. Thirteen years ago, I had an outline, which I pretty much kept to. What I did was write the first few chapters and then I couldn't go on without much more research. So I did movies, and research while I did the movies. Whenever I'd run into people who were Cuban-Americans, I'd talk to them and that got filed. There were two long Writers Guild strikes and during them I worked on fiction. And then finally, after I finished Matewan, I took a year off and finished it.

But you know, nothing I've done is a career move. Every project, from the movies to the novel, were things I wanted to do. It's not, “How do I get myself to the point where I am going to be in the Hollywood system?” I never thought, “If I take a year off, I'll lose where I am.” Being a fiction writer is a nice net to have. If I have to spend two years when I can't get a movie off the ground, I can always write novels.

About Los Gusanos, I had this feeling that one of the things that appeals to you about Cuban-Americans is their commitment to a cause.

To me, the important spectrum in Los Gusanos is not right-wing or left-wing, because most of the people are right of center. It's between “believers” and “cynics.” A lot of what I'm dealing with is how do you still act once you know too much to be a true believer.

I'm interested in commitment, in how do we still have commitment. I have a character in the book who was in the Lincoln Brigade, and I have a lot of respect for those guys. In this nursing home in the book, you have this guy who's a veteran of the Lincoln Brigade right next to this guy who was in the Bay of Pigs.

My question is how do you keep commitment once you know? How do you not get cynical?

Were your folks movie buffs?

Readers. They really encouraged us to read. Both of my parents were teachers, and then my father became a school administrator later on. And both of their fathers were cops. The main way my parents were influential is just that they encouraged us to read a lot and they didn't lay on any big trips about. “This is what you are supposed to be or do.” Enough people in my family did things they didn't like, and they didn't want us to do that. I wanted to be a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

When I got out of college, it was a bad time to get a job. I ended up working in nursing homes and factories, because that was something I had done before. If I had gone into anything else that paid a little more, the employers would have said, “You know, you're signing up for the long run. We want people who will be here for fifteen years and be happy about it.” I wasn't interested in that. I worked as an orderly because it definitely was not a career decision.

In the entertainment industry, when I went into it, I was only interested in it for the work. I wasn't interested in getting a big house. All I was interested in was, “I think it would be really great to make movies. This is the kind of storytelling that I really like. How do I get to do that and do that on my terms?”

At first I worked for [B-movie mogul] Roger Corman, and it was really fun. It was the equivalent of working in a hospital. You didn't have to take it home. Nobody took themselves that seriously. They worked hard. Nobody fought about, “What does this movie mean?” What you knew was that every ten pages, or every fifteen pages, you were going to have some kind of animal attack and it's meant to be fun.

You seem so nonchalant about what you do, as if it's as natural as breathing air. Most film directors I've met are religious about their profession.

I'm not nonchalant. I'm interested in the stuff I do being seen as widely as possible—but I'm not interested enough to lie. There comes a time in any story when you say, “I know how to make this more popular.” But then, it's bullshit. I have worked on movies that were basically fantasy movies—where you try not to say things you don't believe in and you can do it because the whole thing is really about the genre. For instance, read the script of Alligator; if it's about anything other than being a kind of monster movie in the almost classic Japanese tradition, it is about how social problems start in the lower classes and nobody is really dealing with them until they start eating the rich people.

Battle beyond the Stars, to me, is about death, but finally it is just The Seven Samurai Go to Space. That's what was handed to me to write and that's why people watch it. That's what Roger gave me to do. Battle beyond the Stars is about how these different creatures feel about death.

Conversation is what I'm ambitious about, being a part of that. To a certain extent, so many mainstream movies are just consumable items. They aren't things people can remember and apply to their lives. I think, in general, consciousness is a really important thing and that's one of the reasons I'm glad I work in the consciousness industry. In a cumulative way, movies do have an effect. If you don't like the effect they are having, maybe you can do something to counteract it. At least you can be part of the conversation.

To me, the important thing is the conversation. The important thing is to get that moment when someone in the audience thinks, “I have never spent time with the people in this movie,” and then they realize that, because of the movie, they have.

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

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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 The Anarchists' Convention (1980). Since the late Seventies, Sayles has also worked as a screenwriter for hire on a variety of films, from genre items such as The Lady in Red (1979), The Howling (1981), and Alligator (1981) to more offbeat productions such as Enormous Changes at the Last Minute (1983), Clan of the Cave Bear (1986), and Breaking In (1989). Sayles directed his own scripts for Lianna (1983), Baby It's You (1983; see interview in Cineaste, Vol. XIII, No. 1), The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1986; see interview in Cineaste, Vol. XV, No. 4), and Eight Men Out (1987). More recently, Sayles was the creator and writer for the critically acclaimed but short-lived NBC TV series, Shannon's Deal, and earlier this year published his third novel, Los Gusanos, on Miami's Cuban refugee community. Cineaste Editors Gary Crowdus and Leonard Quart spoke with Sayles about his latest film, City of Hope, shortly before its New York opening.

[Crowdus and Quart]: City of Hope presents a bleak but realistic view of contemporary urban political corruption. What message would you like the viewer to take away from the film?

[Sayles]: To me, one of the most distressing things happening in the world today is a breaking down into tribalism. You see it in Yugoslavia, you're going to see it in the Soviet Union, and you certainly see it here. It's something that's been encouraged from above, the idea that, “Look, we can't take care of each other, it's everybody for themselves, and may the best man win. If a few of you fall out at the bottom, well, that's tough.” That encourages a kind of tribalism which you see in old alliances and old tolerances breaking down, and so you get very strong movements within tribes. In City of Hope you see the black tribe, the Italian tribe, and the police force who are always their own tribe. I want people to think about those hard decisions of how you consider yourself. What I talked with Joe Morton a lot about in terms of his character was, “OK, am I a man of principle first, a black man second, city councilor third, and husband fourth? Or do those shift around? Is there a point where there are things more important than what's good for my ward? … because I'm also a city councilor who's supposed to be talking about the whole city.”

I've lived in lots of cities with this kind of politics. I've lived in Albany, New York, which had the longest running Democratic machine, even longer than the Daly machine in Chicago. I've lived in East Boston, and I've lived in Atlanta, right when they had their first black mayor. It's a very familiar idea that you can piece together coalitions among tribes and that within their little areas they will all get along and the whole will work. Well, it doesn't always work that way. People have to transcend that family blood, that tribal blood. What I'd like viewers to come away with is a sense of what has to be done, that help doesn't come from above very often—you know, at the end the homeless guy is saying, “Help! Help! Help!” People themselves have to find ways to make those bridges.

By the end of the film, Wynn, the Joe Morton character, seems to realize that he must master the art of politics as compromise. Do you feel that, in trying to deal with often conflicting demands for justice in society today, it's impossible for one to be an effective politician and at the same time remain a decent human being?

It's really hard. That's what some of the Joe Morton characterization is about, that politicians are human beings, too, and the best of them do a balancing act between being a leader and being somebody who just listens to his constituency, including all their prejudices and fears and their reluctance to go forward and be progressive. Franklin Roosevelt, for example, did a lot of good stuff but he was also a machine politician. That's how he got in. If you look at most politicians who have been progressive in any way, you see points in their careers where they really just voted the status quo. Now and then you get a secure politician like Teddy Kennedy whose voting record is excellent, partly because he doesn't have to worry about being reelected. He had it in the bag and he knew it for so many years that he was able to vote his conscience.

Yes, it is a very difficult thing, and you hope that in ten years Wynn won't be the mayor [laughs], or at least won't be like Mayor Baci, whether he's the mayor or not. He's realizing what the former black mayor tells him on the golf course, that “This isn't about testing your personal moral fiber. It will be tested, but that's not all it's about.”

The key incident in the film is a kind of riff on the Tawana Brawley affair. Did you feel that to be an important political point to make?

The point of that—and I didn't actually follow the Tawana Brawley thing too carefully—is that, in today's overheated political climate, whether you're a black politician or a white politician, you have to have an opinion about this kind of thing. It used to be enough to say, “Oh, that's a police matter. I'll let the police take care of that.” Every time something happens now, the media call Dinkins, they call D'Amato, they call Spike Lee, and five other people who have to have an opinion, and they don't know shit about it. They weren't there, they haven't talked to the people in the neighborhood, and half the time they haven't even talked to the cops yet.

For some people that's not necessary.

No, not at all.

They have prefigured judgements.

Yeah, and one of the pressures on any black politician, as Wynn says in the film, is that, “At some point I'm going to be stood up in front of everybody and asked, ‘Do you think those guys are lying?,’ and that's a huge pressure to face, to realize I could lose votes over this.”

Do you see the politics of the black community itself as an obstacle to progress?

It's an obstacle and an opportunity. It's an obstacle to the extent that you have these factions fighting against each other. The film shows you the establishment politician, a guy who's in the middle range, and someone who's very much of a Muslim—a very newfound Muslim, so he's at his most doctrinaire. As I told Tom Wright, the actor who plays Malik, this is a guy who's really struggled in his life and he's just found religion, so he's at his most extreme. When people like that are pulling in different directions, it can be an obstacle to concerted effort or concerted voting, those kinds of things that help a tribe, a group, a minority, to develop some power within a majority structure.

The opportunity, on the other hand, is to take some of the energy and ideology from each of the factions to forge something very good. You say, “OK, we're stuck in this system, we have to learn how to work within it, but we can also use some of the militancy of these guys.” You know, there's that line, “If you can't get respect, you settle for fear.” That's what the Black Panthers were dealing with to a certain extent—“Hey, we're going to settle for fear at first, and maybe we'll get respect later.” What they got was wiped out, but there's an opportunity there as well as a liability.

A more important factor than the fragmentation of the black community is just brute economic factors, and there isn't much chance for me to talk about that in the film. The mayor at one point says, “Look, this city is going down the toilet. Anybody with any brains is going to leave and let the blacks and Hispanics duke it out.” If you look at Detroit and some of the other cities that now have black mayors, like East St. Louis, they're getting to run the city, but what's left?

There's nothing, no tax base.

Yeah, and so the biggest obstacle to advancement of those people in cities is that, when they finally do get power, it's only because everybody else has abandoned the place, including the tax base. Another thing that is posited in this movie is that we can't expect each new group that takes power to reject patronage politics, to say, “We're going to be a meritocracy, we're not going to just hire our relatives and friends and the people who got us into office. We're going to hire some outside experts, even if they're white, you know, even if they're not from our group.” It's just not going to happen and I don't think we can expect it to happen.

You have wedded the film's political mosaic to a family drama. What function do you see the relationships between Nick and Angela and Nick and his father playing in the context of the larger film?

In a small city, and I've lived in lots of them, the tribalism gets to the family level. One of the most difficult things is to expect people to transcend family. When I was living in East Boston, it was “If the mayor doesn't get in, your cousin Louie is going to lose his job as a teacher's aide.” In West Virginia, where we shot Matewan, half of the feuds were about that very thing, so if you got a sheriff in, all of a sudden you win the boundary dispute. Or if you get to be the vice sub-marshall or somesuch, then you get to collect graft from the guys who are moonshining. So it comes down to a family thing.

What's really awful about bureaucracy is that it's inhumane, and, on the other hand, there is this fallibility built into any kind of politics that includes personality, because people are fallible, and this is the reigning drama. What I wanted were these two countercurrents, with Wynn trying to get into something, trying to get more power, to become part of the establishment, in his mind to rise up, and then Vincent Spano's character, Nick, trying to get out of it, but for whom there are these responsibilities. He's like a prince who's been born into this complicated Machiavellian society, and it's not that easy to get out.

In most of your films you usually don't go in for this kind of melodramatic confrontation. Why did you use it here?

Well, it's what we kept calling the Arthur Miller part of the movie, which is that, once it gets down to family, things tend to be unavoidably melodramatic. There's a point where there's so much personal drama going on, which, although it's related to the larger story, is finally family drama, and it seemed artificial not to have some kind of resolution between these people. It's very emotional and very much tied into each other's business. This is more like Lianna in that it's more about the personal drama of power relationships—you know, “This is what he wanted me to be, but I'm not going to be that to punish him for what he did to my brother”—and all those kinds of things where you realize that there are bigger forces that Nick is fighting with. And those forces do eventually come down to two people who are related to each other battling it out.

Do you think that perhaps the character carries a little too much moral weight, that you're demanding too much moral resonance from him?

Well, I don't know, because he's so confused. I see him as representing the third generation, where people work in the factory but they don't believe in the union anymore, or they're in the mob but they don't believe in the mob anymore. They don't have the drive that the generation before them or the original immigrant generation had. The first generation ended up with just enough to feed themselves and the hope that their kids would get educated so they could become more than their parents. The second generation is the one that said, “I'm going to prove that my pop was right,” and they kill themselves to establish a business. With the third generation, you either get these disaffected people or you get somebody like Mario Cuomo or Doug Wilder, these guys who can say, “I had a lot of adversity and my parents had even more than me, but we're still moving forward.” Well, Nick is someone who doesn't feel he's moving forward, this is the decay of that kind of politics. When that kind of politics has been in for a certain amount of time, you get that Tammany Hall period which produces a lot of moral casualties, and that is what I think Nick, and to a certain extent his father, are. His father's still in the game, and he's doing things that he's realizing now are wrong, but his son is the moral casualty. Nick's not articulate enough or active in a sense of what he's going to do, he's just kind of reacting, and all he knows is that he wants out.

The only time he really seems to come alive with a sense of purpose is when he's courting Angela.

Yeah, and the whole thing with that is that he's desperate for somebody who's taking responsibility, to be part of that. The things that she says that usually scare guys away—“I have this awful life, I have this crazy ex-boyfriend, I've got this kid with cerebral palsy”—make her even more attractive to him because she's a serious person. At first, she's just beautiful and then he realizes, “Wow, she's somebody who's taking care of business, which is what I haven't been doing for ten years.”

You have a special gift for capturing the way sensitive but inarticulate people communicate to each other. There are two sequences with Nick and Angela that work wonderfully. Where does you ear for dialog come from?

I think just listening, really, and having been in a lot of places. Somebody was talking to me about Cassavetes recently, and that's the one thing that he always worked for. He'd have a little improvisation, and then write it down, then improvise it some more, and write it down again.

He worked more from theatrical roots.

Yeah, and mine I think comes from my novel writing, so I was doing it on paper when he was working it out theatrically.

What was your conception of Carl, the character you portray?

My basic character thought for playing Carl was Jackie Presser, who was simultaneously working for the mob, the Teamsters, and the FBI. He had to keep juggling those interests, but he survived. And Carl will survive because he'll always be useful to the cops and he'll always be useful to the mob. Unless he pisses off someone like Vinnie, who just shoots him, he's politically put himself in a perfect position as a conduit for information, deals, and other stuff that gets done.

How would you compare your perspective on the police and the white working class to that in other recent urban movies like Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing and Jungle Fever?

I like Spike's movies. I really think they're getting at stuff that needs getting at, but I always feel like I'm making movies out of my own experience and what I know, not reacting to other movies. The neighborhood in Do the Right Thing could be in City of Hope, and if I had chosen to be on just one side of L Street, I could have made something very much like that. From that perspective, the cops do look very much like they do in Do the Right Thing—as invaders who don't live in the community and who don't know anything about it. I'm trying to do a wider thing, so I want to get in the car with those guys and see where they're coming from. Both my grandfathers were cops, and I have lots of relatives who were cops. The police are a tribe but they do have disagreements among themselves.

There'd probably also be a diverse range of responses to the police among various members of the black community. Not everyone would see them as an occupying army.

Sure, there'd be those people who say, “How come it takes so long for them to show up?” You know, the 911 is a joke idea. Why aren't they on our side and when they do come, why do they leave so many dead bodies?

But what we're getting at is that while Lee's is a black perspective, you're operating out of a different notion. The police are not shown as stereotypes, there's always a sense of ambiguity. If they're not fully individuated as characters, you at least get them in the round as nuanced social types.

I have one older cop who says, “My father used to live in this building.” And there are cops who say, “People steal stuff because they're poor, period. Not because they're bad, not because they're genetically predisposed, but because they're poor, and if they weren't poor they wouldn't steal stuff. My job, unfortunately, doesn't have anything to do with curing that, it just has to do with sorting out the survivors and making arrests.”

When I had friends of mine from Jersey politics see the movie, the one thing they didn't believe was the cop in the car who refuses to go along with a coverup.

You mean the Hispanic cop?

More than that he's Hispanic, he's a newcomer. These are new partners and it's an uneasy marriage. But the only thing they said is that, “I don't think that would happen,” and that's a sad commentary.

It's reminiscent of Lumet's Prince of the City, where those codes are broken.

The Italian guys I know say, “That's a bullshit movie. The only guy I had any respect for was the guy who shot himself.” It's the idea that you don't rat on your friends, you take care of your own business. City of Hope also brings to mind On the Waterfront which deals with the same kind of divided loyalties, family vs. the greater good. On the Waterfront basically tries to have it both ways. First he rats, then they have a nice slugout so it looks as if he's not just a rat. He's also somebody who'll go in there and face physical danger and he gets to throw the guy in the water.

He also finds in some vague way a moral alternative to Johnny Friendly.

To pure violence as the only way to do it. The message at the end of New Jack City, where the old guy shoots the drug dealer, is that what we need are better vigilantes. Most urban movies deal only with making it in the business world—the Working Girl type movie—or crime. City of Hope tries to deal with a lot of other things as well. Crime is one part of it but it's not the main part. You can't separate crime from urban life, especially because of what some of these characters are into, but it's not a gangster movie.

The only other American movie that this reminds me of more than On the Waterfront is Force of Evil. That's about numbers running, but it's about that sense of one guy who squeezes another who squeezes another. I think American filmmakers tend to be afraid of politics. I certainly find that in most of the reviews that I read. There's a whole raft of American film criticism that's anti-content, whether it's political or not, because they feel that it's a betrayal of pure film.

To get back to your other point, one thing that we tried to do with the Italian family is that the guys I know in construction do fairly well, if they're working, so we gave him a nice house. You know, everything isn't covered in plastic. The mother and father have a fairly good relationship, so they're not screaming at each other all the time, and waving their hands around and stuff like that. They're really becoming kind of upper middle class in income, and their roots have been sold in some ways, they've made these deals with the devil, and that has to come back to haunt them.

In your scripts for hire—like Alligator or The Howling—you do your best to deliver the genre goods, but in your own films you do your best to subvert or at least go against the grain of genre conventions. The result is a much more politically and emotionally challenging kind of work. City of Hope is not the feel good movie of the year.

Yeah, we were thinking of calling it the feel bad movie of the year.

In this regard, have you resigned yourself to being a more socially conscious version of Woody Allen—with a smaller, more discerning, better educated type of audience—or do you think that Hollywood has sold short the mass moviegoing audience and that they can respond to and appreciate a higher quality film?

What I know from having worked out there in various capacities is that if you want a mass audience for something like City of Hope, you hire stars. There's a selling aspect to all this, it's a product, and you want to get people into the theatre during its theatrical run, rather than insidiously creeping into their lives through video and cable TV, which is kind of the way that Matewan and some of our other movies got seen. The problem with trying to use stars is that there are very few of them who are also right for the part. Once you've started to invite people to the party who shouldn't be there, it changes the movie, and it's no longer what you wanted to make in the first place. There's usually a short list of stars who are right for the part—it may be two deep or only one deep—and we usually go through that list very quickly.

We've been lucky to get actors who don't necessarily sell tickets but who are considered names that people like to see, such as Tony Lo Bianco, James Earl Jones and Gloria Foster. These people could make a lot more money doing something else but they're willing to work with us because they thing it's a good part and a good project.

What prognosis do you think your film makes for the future of the city?

I think that some cities, because of the economic factors I mentioned, are doomed, especially small cities like Chelsea, Massachusetts, or Camden, New Jersey, or East St. Louis. There's just no money there and the federal government, which has taken a very Darwinian attitude toward their survival, is making no effort to help them. What's been happening—just kind of mindlessly in the economy but also with the support of people in power—is that since we need less and less people to run the things we really care about, the attitude toward those kind of body jobs is, “Let 'em go to Haiti, let 'em go to Costa Rica, let 'em leave.” I think you pay for that eventually, because stuff like that just doesn't take care of itself, and in about five to seven years there's going to have to be some kind of conscious effort to find purpose and employment for people.

Do you see a kind of de facto apartheid?

Well, what you're seeing is more and more communities which, out of their own pockets because they have the dough, pave their own streets, send their kids to their own schools, and start their own security forces. It's like the Philippines. If you move there, you're told right away that you have to have servants, a guard, and Dobermans, period. Because everybody else is so poor, and the government doesn't want to know about you, you've got to take care of protecting yourself. And if you don't have servants, people will throw shit at you on the streets, because it's your job to provide some employment.

I do feel that that is happening. If you go around some of those dying cities, you find communities like that. But you can't keep that down forever, and the hope is that the disenfranchised within those communities will have the energy and the talent and the intelligence to say, “OK, they abandoned us, but we'll run the show, we'll do something here. Things are fucked up, but we can take care of this block.” If you go to the South Bronx, there's a couple of blocks where people just said, “Fuck it, we're going to make something out of this.”

Like Kelly Street and community organizations like Banana Kelly that involve sweat equity efforts to restore buildings.

And you wish there were more of these people and that they got more encouragement when they're starting out.

So you wouldn't say that the cities are beyond redemption?

No. There is hope. The title is not only ironic. They're not getting any help from above, but there are those connections that people can make, so there is hope, and the hope is coming from within. Nobody came down from the heavens and tapped them on the shoulder and gave them the idea. It came from themselves, and that's where the hope is.

Andrew Sarris (essay date May-June 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2453

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 Discrète. Emerson's short shrift to the hobgoblins of a foolish consistency notwithstanding, I feel compelled to explain this apparent discrepancy in my aesthetic distinctions even if it involves telling a tale or two out of school.

First, I have to set the scene (or mise-en-scène). It is the middle of December. Movies are pouring out on screens in torrents. The phones are ringing off the hook with the frantic pleas of publicists to catch this screening or that one. Bags and bags full of videocassettes are dumped on one's doorstep, particularly if one happens to be voting in one or more critics' groups. Editors are screaming about deadlines and lead times. My notorious predilection for making up Ten Best lists once prompted Pauline Kael to ask me rhetorically if I were some sort of list queen. What could I say? Lists are my life, even when I haven't seen all the eligible films within a given year. To put a point to it, I hadn't seen Passion Fish when I wrote my Hartley article, but I did see it before I turned in my Ten Best list—in fact, I went directly to the 68th Street Playhouse, where it had just begun a limited year-end release, just after dropping off my piece at Film Comment—and I was frankly embarrassed to discover that Sayles had chosen this inopportune (for me) moment to deliver his masterpiece.

But why did it take such an unprofessionally long time for me to catch up with Passion Fish? Why didn't I rush out to the earliest screenings? For the same reason, I suppose, that I can't get my readers to rush out to see Passion Fish even after I have put it at the top of my Ten Best list. We all lie a little or a lot about what we really want and like in movies. Sayles is simply too serious and dedicated a filmmaker and too socially committed a human being to provide us with any guilty or shameful pleasures. Life in a John Sayles movie proceeds at its own pace with no dramatic or melodramatic foreshortening, no bursts of orgasmic violence, no easy appeals to emotion, no stark contrasts between virtue and villainy, no maudlin self-pity, no devious lechery, no campy condescension.

From the time of his first movie, Return of the Secaucus Seven, in 1980, through Lianna and Baby It's You (both '83), The Brother from Another Planet ('84), Matewan ('87), Eight Men Out ('88), City of Hope ('91), and finally Passion Fish, the critical line on Sayles has almost invariably been that what he says is more impressive than how he says it. He has emerged as that rarest of American filmmakers, one who understood the subtler overtones of class distinctions, social injustices, and economic inequalities in a land flooded with fantasies of equal opportunity and limitless upward mobility. Yet his characters were too well rounded psychologically, and too firmly anchored to a bedrock reality sociologically, to lend themselves to simplistic scenarios of radical reform. Hence, Sayles could be damned as a realist and a humanist, both box-office poison epithets, and anathema to the hedonistic strain in contemporary pop criticism.

Even his versatility as a writer worked against his commercial reputation. He wrote short stories and novels and screenplays, winning an O. Henry award with his first published story, “I-80 Nebraska,” then after publishing his first novel, Pride of the Bimbos ('75), earning a National Book Award nomination for his second, Union Dues ('77). Sayles had already paid his own dues with a proletarian passage across the country in an anachronistically left-wing working-stiff series of jobs as a meat packer, day laborer, and hospital orderly. A very tall man, like the peripatetic Dashiell Hammett and John Huston before him, Sayles evokes the muscular Marxism of earlier journalists like Jim Tully and Studs Terkel, the latter cast as a one-man Greek chorus of Chicago street wisdom in Eight Men Out.

Succumbing to the siren call of the screen, Sayles funneled his literary gifts into Roger Corman's New World Pictures factory, for which he wrote Piranha (dir. Joe Dante, '78), The Lady in Red (Lewis Teague, '79), and Battle beyond the Stars (Jimmy Murakami, '81). By the time of The Howling (Dante, '81) and Alligator (Teague, '81), his scriptwriting lifted the horror genre to a level of wit and humor and irony that startled jaded mainstream reviewers. But instead of making a pitch to direct his own genre scripts for Corman, Sayles sank the $60,000 he had earned as a screenwriter into a non-genre post-Sixties elegy to the idealistic young people of his generation facing the metaphysical malaise of thirty-something middle-class reality. As it turned out, Return of the Secaucus Seven was released by fits and starts until it seemed almost contemporaneous with Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 The Big Chill, with which it was compared very favorably. Indeed, Sayles' movie became a convenient club with which to beat Kasdan for his alleged slickness and glibness in satirizing the silliness of a period many younger reviewers still regarded sentimentally as a Great Awakening and Liberation.

So far, so good. Sayles had passed every test of the integrity thing with flying colors. He had shown he could work within the system with Baby It's You, his high-school-into-college, wrong-side-right-side-of-the-Trenton-tracks mainstream romance with Vincent Spano and Rosanna Arquette, and yet never lose sight of the poignantly conflicting class and gender viewpoints of lower-class boy and middle-class girl. The emotionally charged ballroom scenes of Jezebel and Gone with the Wind do not have all that much of an edge on the moving spectacle of Spano and Arquette dancing their last dance to the sentimentally requested tune of “Strangers in the Night” amid a sea of snickering with-it college couples. A fine romance indeed, impossible but ineffable.

He could handle the awakening of lesbianism in Lianna without degenerating into pathological sensationalism. He could return to the forgotten oppressions of pre-World War II movie coal miners in Matewan without depriving them of their prickly humanity for the sake of labor union propaganda. He was so comfortable with the race thing he could explore it playfully in Harlem with his extraterrestrial whimsies for The Brother from Another Planet.

It was while he was promoting Brother at the 1984 Cannes Film Festival that I first encountered Sayles. He was drinking a Coke at a table in the Majestic Bar with his partner in life and art, Maggie Renzi. I was so wary of his deadpan straightness—which in the paranoid atmosphere of Cannes passed for a perpetual put-on—that I didn't get much of an interview. He had taken a cut-rate route to the Riviera through Barcelona, perhaps shedding a tear along the way for the long-departed Loyalists in that long-ago struggle against fascism. He mentioned in passing that his parents had been teachers. To tell the truth, I had not been overwhelmed by The Brother from Another Planet, and though I accepted the fact that Sayles was a better and brighter man than I could ever hope to be, he was not exactly my cup of tea as an auteur. The deficiencies of his mise-en-scène denoted a lack of the kind of auteurist depth and mystery I could profitably explore. His undeniable virtues were too close to the surface. He was simply too good to be true. Not that I suspected him of hypocrisy and insincerity. Indeed, he stood out in the glossy commercialism and carnality of Cannes as a rugged Diogenes waving the lantern of honesty. He just didn't blend with all the mendacity and opportunism being flaunted every nanosecond on the Croisette.

And so it has gone, until that moment in Passion Fish when I turned to my companion and said this is good, this is really good, as if to say who could have known that Big John had it in him. The other reviewers had virtually dismissed it with familiarly faint praise. There were a few raves, of course, but hyperbole has become so commonplace that the discerning moviegoer has to be reassured that something is not merely great but really good. Sayles, of course, arouses special suspicions inasmuch as his moral and social intentions are invariably honorable, and where is the “fun” in that? Yet something clicked for me in Passion Fish that had never clicked for me in a John Sayles movie before. Actually, it was more of a lightning bolt, a bright shaft of insight and perception, at that moment when a hospitalized Mary McDonnell, a soap opera actress hit by a cab as she was going to have her legs waxed, and now a paraplegic, is looking at her own preshot soap and exclaims, “They've stolen my fucking closeup!” It is a writer's line of Norma Desmond proportions, but it is an auteur's moment of mood modulation as well. From then on, I followed Sayles wherever he wanted to take me at whatever pace he desired.

As is to be expected, many reviewers and moviegoers have complained that Passion Fish is a trifle slow for their tastes. Still, I found something more exciting there than anything I had found in Sayles' previous forays into the gritty, grimy world of losers and underdogs and sufferers generally. As a critic for the yellow-cover Cahiers du Cinéma of the Fifties declared after the opening of George Cukor's A Star Is Born: A DIRECTOR IS BORN! As I noted back in January in The New York Observer, Sayles has directed, written, and edited the most accomplished, the most nuanced, and the most lyrical English-language movie of the year.

And yet, few of my friends and readers flocked to see Passion Fish, and of those who did, few agreed with me that the movie was all that good, certainly not on the level of Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, deservedly the late-in-the-year sensation of 1992. Most people professed to be slightly bored with the basic plot situation of two women, one white (McDonnell), one black (Alfre Woodard), one a paraplegic patient, one an underqualified nurse, one hard to get along with, the other doggedly persistent. The Cajun country of Louisiana provided the backdrop, and even that seemed overfamiliar. Hadn't we seen this movie many times before, usually with an icon of rural vulnerability such as Sissy Spacek or Barbara Hershey or Jessica Lange or Sally Field? The setting may not always have been Louisiana. It might have been Georgia or Mississippi or Alabama, or even Bill and Hillary Clinton's Arkansas. But somewhere between the backwoods and the bayous, the color barrier would be broken in a belated burst of sentimental reconciliation. The publicity blurbs added to the impression of derivativeness by likening Passion Fish to such grossly overrated commercial bonanzas for the old geezer market as Driving Miss Daisy and Fried Green Tomatoes. I tried, largely in vain, to convince my friends and readers that Sayles had made a shambles of all my smug critical preconceptions by creating a dozen fully full-bodied and fully articulated characters of different races, different classes, and different generations with both wit and feeling. In the process he never weakened the thrust and clarity of his narrative. Even more remarkable was the deeply felt past he skillfully fashioned for his protagonists, a past that enriched and enhanced them as they strived to resolve their moral dilemmas in the present.

Discarded was my line on Sayles before Passion Fish that he was a better writer than director, and that he too willingly sacrificed dramatic climaxes for thematic truths. His artful pacing, his total immersion in his milieu, his grace and subtlety in directing his gifted cast made me feel after a little more than two hours that the movie was ending too soon, and that I wanted to stay in the world over which Mr. Sayles had cast his spell for at least another hour.

To confirm the pleasure principle at work in Passion Fish, one need go no further than the film's lyrical dream sequences of fulfillment and frustration. Mary McDonnell's May-Alice, seemingly unsexed by her paraplegia, dreams of her legs being liberated so that she can walk across the dock to where David Strathairn's Rennie, the Cajun swamp guide on whom she had a crush in high school, is fiddling with his nets. As she lowers herself lovingly and smilingly into his lap, her fluttering skirt veiling her impudent embrace, she executes the most sweetly erotic movement of flesh toward flesh in any movie of 1992. After this, let no one say that Sayles is a stranger to the most magical ecstasies of mise-en-scène.

Yet the triumph of Sayles the director is in no small measure the triumph also of Sayles the writer and conceptualizer, and Sayles the editor, who chose to linger on the seeming nonessentials when more “dynamic” editors would have slashed away at the scenery and the silences. The more tangled parallel plot of the involvements of Alfre Woodard's Chantelle with her daughter, father, and lover is allowed to twist and turn slowly enough in the gentle Cajun breeze that when, at a community social, Chantelle's raffish lover Sugar (Vondie Curtis-Hall) recognizes through Chantelle's furtive headshake that she is with her strict father—who has temporary custody of her child after Chantelle's treatment for drugs—Sugar asks Chantelle's shy, bespectacled little girl for a dance instead, thus taking this musical tableau into the emotional stratosphere.

Some of my friends have complained that there is not enough conflict and tension in Passion Fish. I like conflict and tension as much as anyone, but I must confess I have grown weary of the excessive malignancy of today's movies. Igor Stravinsky once remarked that it is easier to be interesting with dissonance than with consonance, and Dwight Macdonald praised James Agee's A Death in the Family as one of the rare novels of literary worth to celebrate the goodness of people and their lives. In an age of cynicism and derision, John Sayles emerges in Passion Fish as a cinematic poet of consonance and goodwill, and heaven knows we need him.

John Sayles and Trevor Johnston (interview date September 1993)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2791

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 Return of the Secaucus Seven proved it was possible to finance your own movie, get it released and capture the attention of the Hollywood majors into the bargain. The $60,000 price tag gained as much notice as anything else, but in its ensemble structure, broadly liberal sympathies, tart dialogue and willingness to focus on the concerns of the over 30s, the film now stands as a fair record of the forms and questions its maker would continue to address. His subsequent output remains poised in both creative and budgetary terms between the mainstream's dollar-intensive factory product and the indie sector's modestly resourced pioneer activity.

Sayles' latest offering, Passion Fish, marks an effective honing down of his concerns to date. The film is founded on a wry, clearly delineated script and close attention to the performance of Mary McDonnell as an injured television soap star coming to terms with her new-found physical handicap under the care of Alfre Woodard's equally troubled nurse.

Where Sayles' earlier union conflict chronicle Matewan, baseball corruption story Eight Men Out and contemporary urban survey City of Hope pored over wider social and historical frescoes to pick away at the land of the free's obfuscatory ideological myth-making, the new film is scaled down in approach. Yet, as a wise spin on the problem pic, it still cloaks itself, like many of its predecessors, in approachable generic garb. From his earliest commissioned screenplays, Sayles has been nothing if not resourceful in his mastery of sundry genre formulae. His own films have injected familiar stylistic routines with a greater sense of thematic commitment—as in the science-fiction The Brother from Another Planet and the sports picture Eight Men Out.

In this light, it is easy to read Sayles' films as issue-led, each presenting the particular challenge of finding the right package in which to box a relevant social ill or question. While Return of the Secaucus Seven mines the insecurity of the 60s angry generation, The Brother from Another Planet tackles racial problems. Even Sayles' horror scripts for Piranha and Alligator are imbued with a whiff of eco-conscience, while the films where the genre element is less pronounced (Lianna's lesbian coming out, City of Hope's state-of-the-nation address) tend to leave the mechanisms of their ideological apparatus more vulnerably exposed.

To his detractors, Sayles' too-perfect liberal conscience can feel like over-earnest PC point-scoring, yet with Passion Fish, his human and societal insights are earned by the progress of the drama rather than willed into it from above. What's more, Sayles' unpredictability from project to project—who'd have guessed his next movie might be an Irish-set kids ‘n’ animals adventure—while still managing to retain an identifiable signature stands firmly in his favour.

[Johnston]: After Eight Men Out and City of Hope, were you intentionally looking to do a more intimate piece like Passion Fish?

[Sayles]: I never make the movies in the order that I write them or think of them, and Passion Fish harks back to when I worked in hospitals 20 years ago. People had seen Persona by that time and would go on about the symbolism. I thought it was about a nurse and a patient, and I always reckoned it would be a good idea to do a comedy American version. What influenced me more was not going from the social to the personal, but the fact that I'd done three ‘guy’ movies in a row, which is basically what politics still consists of. Maggie Renzi, my producer, asked me if I had any stories for women, so I thought we'd do the hospital one next. A lot of things clicked together: we were travelling down South and hooked up with a friend who plays in a zydeco band, we stayed in his parents' house and both the band and house ended up in the movie.

As in previous films you seem to be dealing with an area of American experience—the Cajun culture—that could be seen as peripheral.

There are specific reasons why I chose that place. I wanted it to be very much somewhere that wasn't New York, so that it was evident that May-Alice, the Mary McDonnell character, had to change herself to make it in the city. And there aren't that many places left in the US that are different from McDonald's shopping mall America. In that part of the South people still speak French on the radio, they have their own food, their own music. I also needed a place where if you came back as an unmarried woman of 30 people would know about it and you would know they knew. I needed a place that was sensual in nature: here are two women denying their senses or closing them down—Alfre Woodard's Chantelle has decided to become a nun and keep herself away from temptation, May-Alice is drowning her senses in alcohol and soap operas. It needed to be fleshy and sensuous, so there are more dissolves in that movie than I've ever had before.

Your films seem to run counter to McDonald's shopping mall America in their examination of social, cultural or political specifics.

A lot of my movies are about community. Their culture is an attempt at community culture rather than mass culture. May-Alice is an exile from the mass culture of the soaps, but it's still coming at her through her TV. It's only when she turns that off that she's able to appreciate what's around her.

I'm aware of mass culture, and I'm aware that I'm part of it. The stuff I do goes into theatres, it's advertised, I do interviews. But I want my work to be about it, but not necessarily of it. What I do in film is not just another meal at McDonald's, it's more a case of opening a funky little restaurant that becomes a cool hang-out. One week you do Cajun food and the next you do something else, on the understanding that most people aren't going to eat there. The bottom line is that they don't like that kind of food: it's too spicy, it's too foreign, they can't find the address. Most people don't see our movies in a theatre because they can't get to them. We don't get played in the chains.

The film could be summed up in a soap opera way—alcoholic wheelchair-bound ex-soap star recovers with the help of ex-junkie nurse—but one of its aims seems to be to bring out the difference between the clichéd soap opera treatment of these issues and your own more sensitive approach.

One of the things the movie is trying to be aware of is people's desire to have an easy answer and not slug through things. To be able to place someone right away, to resolve a conflict that's not resolvable in a half-hour television slot. Even though they have the time, soap operas don't have the patience to have characters who develop in an organic way—instead, it's forget about the fact that you're only 16, the ratings are dropping so you've got to have a long-lost son.

So much American culture is market-driven. Demographics and research are getting everywhere. I can make my movie and sell it to Miramax, telling them that this is the final cut and if you don't like it, don't buy it. But they still bring in their marketing people, who say this is what people have said and this is why we want to cut this, and this, and this. What I'm hoping is to use that system to carry what I want to carry, but not to get eaten up by it. It's like surfing—the wave could kill you, but it could also give you a great ride.

Do you find it frustrating that people don't see your movies in cinemas?

I wish they could. Usually the cinema is a fuller experience, though the television screen is an experience too—it may not be like going to a rock concert, but I still like records. It's certainly much better than there being no video, the movie playing in 15 cities for two weeks and then hardly existing. Most of the places I've lived, like Jersey City, have never played one of my movies. People there have seen them because of video, and both City of Hope and Passion Fish were financed by home video pre-sales. That money has been vital for the independent American film movement.

Has that situation given you a greater feeling of security for the continuance of your film-making career?

I would say that the continuance of my movie-making career rests on whether I can write enough screenplays and make enough money to finance or be a major investor in my next film—which will still have to be made for very little money. Right now I'm broke—the last couple of movies haven't done very well. Who knows whether I'll make back the money I put into The Secret of Roan Inish, the one I just shot? I've made eight or nine movies, but none of them has gone platinum. What I have is a track record that's very good in some ways, in that I attract good technicians and actors because they think my stuff is good and interesting to do. And then I shoot fast, so it's only five or six weeks out of their lucrative schedules, which means that sometimes their agents will even allow them to work with me.

But as far as financiers are concerned, it's problematic; they see me as a guy who's had nine chances at bat and lightning still hasn't struck. I've kept being a director because I always had money to put back on the table. Right now I don't have any money left, so I'm looking for work as a screenwriter. Maybe my next picture will be shot on 16mm for $500,000. When we finish one movie, we almost never know if we'll be able to do another.

Do you rule out writing the kind of pieces that might require studio backing?

I write things because they're fun to write, because I want to tell the story. Then I look at them and think, “How the fuck am I ever going to get to make this?” So rather than writing studio movies, I do movies of a certain ambition. It's a mutual thing: they're not all too interested in what I want to do and I'm not too interested in what they want to do. Every once in a while there's something close, I run it by them and the answer is “Gee, I wish we could make movies like this! I really wanna see this movie!—but I'm not gonna give you the money to do it.” That's fine, that's a legitimate answer. As far as being a director-for-hire, I don't get many offers. I usually get asked to do things I'm writing, television movies or cable movies mainly. After Secaucus Seven Roger Corman offered me Mutiny on the Bounty in Space … I sometimes wish I'd written that one!

In terms of writing, what gives you the confidence to connect with individuals whose experience is completely alien to your own? That's a common thread in many of your screenplays.

First of all, I'm not afraid of failure. I don't get upset if people don't like it: I'm doing it because I'm interested. Second, you build up your confidence by doing your legwork. You spend time with people, you read more than one source and you always remain suspicious about anything anyone else, has written. When I wrote Los Gusanos I had to learn Spanish to get to the books I needed that weren't translated and to get to the people I needed to talk to. It's like being a reporter in some ways: I'm a conduit for people's voices. Like the disclaimers the networks put on some of their documentary programming, the views expressed in the movies may not necessarily be mine. Often some of my wackiest dialogue is verbatim—for instance, most of the dialogue in the car shop in City of Hope is just the flavour of the garage in Jersey City where I go to get my car not fixed—including my favourite line: “Benny, you fat fucken haemorrhoid, get in here!”

For me Passion Fish is successful because of a combination of that kind of authenticity and the fact that it is extremely well constructed. Do you think the early part of your career—whether it was writing novels, theatre or exploitation pictures—was a good school for learning your craft?

It all contributes. Certainly acting helps, in that it forces you to think about point of view, so when you write different characters they don't talk in the same way or want the same things. Novel-writing helps in a lot of ways too, because it makes you think about rhythm, though instead of it being a matter of words on the page, in film you establish rhythm in lots of different ways: there's camera movement, the way characters speak, cutting, music, the variation in framing and so on.

I learned a lot from the directors who made the Roger Corman movies, because they'd be straight on the phone to me, screaming for help: “I've got $800,000 to shoot this epic you've written. It's set in 1933, we've got 68 speaking parts and we start filming in two weeks. Do you know anything about the movie business? You're killing me!” Then I'd do a freebie rewrite so the movie could be better, rather than them just tearing out pages of the script at will. That way you learned what was capital intensive and what was labour intensive: what you had to throw money at and what you could overcome by ingenuity.

Do you have work that you're more proud of as a director than as a writer?

It's not that interesting to me. You just try to tell the story as best you can, using all the weapons you have at your disposal. For each movie you have a different team, different demands, different logistical problems. At every point I try to zero in on the most important thing in the scene—sometimes it's the camera, sometimes it's the actors. When it's the acting I tend to keep things simple and I don't cut very much. I don't make movies because of some technique I want to try; I try a technique because there's a story I want to tell and that seems the way to do it.

When you started out as a novelist, what kinds of movies led you to want to write screenplays and eventually direct?

I have wide taste. I like everything from Cries and Whispers to Enter the Dragon. I like different things in those movies, obviously—the acting in Enter the Dragon isn't my favourite thing about it, and the karate in Cries and Whispers is like nothing, whereas the storytelling grabbed me. Whenever a movie could get me into the story so I'd stop thinking about how it was made, that interested me.

Has your career turned out the way you imagined?

I didn't know anyone in the movie business and I didn't know anyone who was a writer, so I had no role models. When I first went to Hollywood, I did think it through: I want to write movies and I want to direct the movies I write. How do I get to do this? They're not hiring theatre directors, they're hiring producers' sons, stars, people who work their way up through TV, and writers. Hey, I'm a writer, I can write my way to it. I'll do original scripts and assignments and if any of them make any money maybe I can suggest that I direct the next one. It was clear after writing three movies for Roger Corman that those were not the kind of movies that got any attention, so I went the Stanley Kubrick route and made my own fucking movie with Secaucus Seven. That was the start, because even if I hadn't got it released, at least I'd made a movie I wanted to make.

David Sterritt (review date 3 February 1995)

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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; Lianna, about changing views of women and gay people; and his best movie, The Brother from Another Planet, which views American race relations through the eyes of a man fleeing similar problems in a galaxy far, far away.

Fill out this list with pictures like Return of the Secaucus Seven and City of Hope, and it's clear Sayles likes to fix his attention on pressing contemporary issues—which makes his new picture quite a surprise, since it trafficks in magic and myth from beginning to end. Its main characters are ordinary folks, to be sure, and Sayles takes care to detail the hard realities of their working-class lives. Still, the point of his story is that legends have a truth all their own, full of relevance and comfort to the people who believe in them.

The tale begins on Ireland's western coast, in a village where many residents have bittersweet memories of former homes they had to abandon because of changes in the local economy. Two such folks are Hugh and Tess, an aging couple who once lived on Roan Inish, an island that seems sadly distant even though it's visible from their seaside windows on a clear day.

Their lives undergo another change when they become the guardians of Fiona, their 10-year-old granddaughter. Much of the story is seen through her eyes, as she explores her new environment, hears lore and legends from the people who live there, and dreams of the day when she'll visit the offshore island that casts such a nostalgic spell over her family.

There's special power in two of the tales Fiona is told by new acquaintances—how her own baby brother was lost at sea in a floating cradle, and how her clan is descended from a “selkie,” a mermaidlike creature that's part woman, part seal. We see these legends as the little girl envisions them, and we discover that they're not merely legends when we accompany her to Roan Inish, where the climax of the movie takes place.

In outline, The Secret of Roan Inish has all the ingredients for a sure-fire family entertainment, complete with magical fairy tales, wide-eyed adventures involving little violence or sexuality, and likable on-screen kinfolk to keep us company along the way.

As things turn out, the movie is less irresistible than it would like to be, mainly because Sayles is not a very graceful filmmaker. His heavy style is more suited to social realism than to the fanciful flights that Roan Inish inspires. He seems most involved with his Irish material when he's documenting the wishes, regrets, and day-to-day experiences of the most ordinary characters; the more-mythical aspects of the picture certainly interest him, but he doesn't manage to find the subtle resonances that would have made the story seem real as well as charming.

Still, there's much to enjoy in The Secret of Roan Inish, including the spunky acting of Jeni Courtney as the young heroine and Eileen Colgan and Mick Lally as her grandparents. The vivid photography of northwestern Ireland is by Haskell Wexler, whose long credit list includes Matewan, one of Sayles's best pictures. Mason Daring, a regular Sayles collaborator composed the effective music.

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

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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 quotation marks, I think, is the game. “You know the boundaries of fiction,” Sayles seemed to say. “Now see how I break them down, to let in life itself.”

In other films, too, Sayles has announced his triumph over narrative conventions: the self-dramatizing lore of one-time radicals in Return of the Secaucus Seven, the myths of sportswriters in Eight Men Out, the fables of Irish patriarchs in The Secret of Roan Inish. To this list we may add the local legends and received histories of Texas, which Sayles now attempts to overcome in his new film, Lone Star.

In the border town of Frontera, in Rio County, everyone can tell a few stories about the late sheriff, tough-but-honest Buddy Deeds. One person in particular has heard all the yarns, at least a thousand times: Buddy's son Sam (Chris Cooper), who has returned to Frontera after a long absence and has been elected sheriff in his turn. One legend above all has come to obsess Sam: the tale of the night in 1957 when a young Buddy ran the previous sheriff out of town.

That man—Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson)—was an openly corrupt, racist killer. After Buddy faced him down, Wade simply disappeared. But now, as Lone Star begins, a couple of officers from the local Army base stumble across a ring, a badge and a set of bones, which no doubt belong to Wade. It falls to Sam (“Sheriff Junior”) to decide whether to follow Frontera custom and ignore the evidence, or to investigate and perhaps determine that his father's shining career began with murder.

While Sam busies himself debunking Frontera's rich oral tradition, a teacher named Pilar (Elizabeth Peña) is engaged in a similar struggle, this one against official history. With her support, her high school has instituted a new curriculum, to the distress of that half of the faculty for whom Sam Houston and Davy Crockett are still heroes of the white race, rather than agents of the cotton- and slave-traders. For a brief moment, Pilar's revisionism intersects with Sam's, after the town elders vote to put up a monument to Frontera's Korean War veterans, as exemplified by a sculpture of Buddy Deeds. Pilar's faction at the high school would rather see a sculpture of a Latino soldier—and so, it appears, would Sam.

But Pilar's main intersection with Sam takes place on personal grounds: their memories of having been high school sweethearts; their rancor and bafflement at having been separated back then; their present-day resumption of a relationship, carried out at a pace so glacial that it's more of a slide than a flirtation.

Once again, Sayles has set up narrative convention on one side and real life on the other, with Sam and Pilar carrying in their flesh all the truths that have been excluded from accepted history. That's the theme of Lone Star, and the structure, too. Pilar's perfunctory engagement in the debate over curriculum, and Sam's pursuit of the McGuffin-like killer, function almost entirely for the sake of exposition, providing excuses to introduce the information that Sayles feels the audience needs. (Like Springtime for Hitler, Lone Star is just crammed with historical goodies. Did you know that Texas used to be part of Mexico?) As for the climax of the film—the proof that the exposition matters—everything depends on the coming together of Sam and Pilar.

It's a well-conceived scheme, and ambitious, too (so ambitious that I haven't even mentioned a third major strand of the plot). And that, in a way, is the most damning thing I can say about Lone Star—because I've been able to get this far in my account without needing to discuss the movie.

How do characters hold themselves when they talk to one another? Are they proud of the clothes they wear, or would they dress differently if they could? When Pilar walks down the street, does Sam follow her with his eyes, or does he make himself look away? What is the camera looking at, while Sam stares at Pilar or his boots? How close does the camera stay to the characters? Does it plunge the audience into their eyes? Or does it hang back, allowing us to see people caught in the web of personal and local and national history? The life of a movie, from second to second, depends on the answers to these and a thousand other questions, none of which, unfortunately, requires comment in a description of Lone Star.

I'm not saying that Sayles is indifferent to these concerns, only that his direction is so slack it feels indifferent. Witness the scene in which Sam and Pilar finally find themselves alone. It's late at night in a deserted cafe. Here's Pilar, so lonely she's in danger of drying up; and here's Sam, a lean, handsome, serious man, in a town where such types are as rare as a geyser of lemonade. “You asked why I came back,” the geyser says with appropriate steam. “I came back because you were here.”

What does Pilar do? Does she bite off his lips? Does she perform an impromptu for percussion, using whatever beer bottles come to hand, to suggest that she won't allow Sam to screw her up again? No—although those responses might perk up the audience, they would be too soap opera-like for Sayles. Reasonably, veristically, he prefers to make Pilar hesitate in the face of temptation; he just can't figure out how she would do it. Sayles has her cross the room, walking as if she were balancing a book on her head, till she comes to the jukebox, where she pauses to comment on the antiquity of the selections; then, task accomplished, she drifts into Sam's arms and begins to dance with him. None of this action feels as if it comes from within Pilar—which is to say, it doesn't arise from any emotional exchange between Elizabeth Peña and Chris Cooper, or from any momentum generated by editing, camera placement or camera movement. It's just a bit of business, which Sayles has imposed upon the character.

It would be easy to multiply examples, but pointlessly cruel. Everywhere in Lone Star, Sayles's version of “real life”—let us reinstate the quotation marks—turns out to be as factitious as the conventions of soap opera, only blander. And that is often the case in his movies. When his actors are exceptional—Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn and Joe Morton come to mind—the screen comes alive, however fitfully. When the actors can't pull off the trick, we're left with an abstract world, populated by characters who are little more than moral categories: Sayles's notions of how people ought to behave and what they ought to believe.

In past years, Pauline Kael used to amuse herself (and a few million readers) by railing against moral improvement. I would suggest she was slightly off the mark. Moral improvement has been a goal of the arts for millennia; anyone who looks forward to seeing it end had better take her vitamins. The problem, rather, lies with those moralists who are so concerned with their own virtue that they don't feel the need to perform an artist's labor, or don't know what such labor might mean. Do they define virtue in civic and political terms? All the worse; they make politics dull.

Sayles is intelligent and prolific, low in budget and high of mind. For those reasons, I have passed over his films in discreet silence till now, preferring to turn my aggressive tendencies against products such as Twister. If I break the silence now, perhaps it's because Bill Clinton and Bob Dole will be broadcasting their own homilies nonstop from now through November. If movies are to provide us with public space during these wan times, then let it be a space where people bite off each other's lips and smash beer bottles, where political debate entertains and romance comes complete with secretions. Better to be of the devil's party, I say, than to stand with Sayles and the angels.

Philip Kemp (review date August 1996)

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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 great-grandfather, Sean Michael, was shipwrecked but saved by a seal, who bore him to the island. That night Fiona sees a light on Roan Inish.

Hugh reminds Fiona how, on the day of the evacuation, her baby brother Jamie was washed out to sea in his wooden cradle and lost, and warns her not to mention it to Tess. Fiona's young cousin Eamon, who intends to move back to Roan Inish when he grows up, tells her there are rumours of Jamie being sighted. Fiona persuades Hugh and Eamon to take her to the island when they go fishing. She finds warm ashes in a cottage, and small bare footprints on the beach. Later she meets another cousin, Tadhg, said to be “touched”, who tells her that generations ago Liam Coneelly took as his bride a beautiful selkie (half-woman, half-seal) and had many children with her; but one day she found her seal-skin that he had hidden, resumed seal-form and returned for ever to the sea.

Fiona talks Eamon into taking her to Roan Inish again. She catches sight of Jamie, but he runs away and escapes to sea in his cradle-boat. Returning home, she finds Hugh and Tess in despair; their landlord has given them notice to quit. On a foggy day Fiona finds herself mysteriously carried to Roan Inish in an oarless rowing-boat, seemingly propelled by the seals. Once again she sees Jamie and he flees, but she guesses that the seals want her family to move back to the island. Rescued by Hugh and Eamon, she broaches the idea; Hugh is tempted, but Tess remains scornful.

Secretly, Fiona and Eamon set about refurbishing the cottages on Roan Inish. One evening, with a storm brewing, Fiona blurts out to her grandparents that she has seen Jamie. To everyone's surprise, Tess believes her and calmly prepares for the whole family to sail to the island. Once there, they settle in and as the storm clears Jamie appears in his cradle. He tries to flee again, but three seals gently drive him up the beach to his family, and he is reunited with them.

At first sight, John Sayles' first non-American film looks like an odd choice for such a fiercely political film-maker: a gentle piece of Celtic myth-making whose message is the essentially conservative doctrine of getting back to your roots. But Sayles has never been doctrinaire, and running through much of his work has been a parallel but not necessarily contradictory strain, a concern with people trying to gain (or regain) control of their lives, often by coming to terms with who they are and where they started out from. Seen in this light, The Secret of Roan Inish takes up elements of Return of the Secaucus Seven, Baby It's You and Matewan and follows on from Passion Fish, whose paraplegic heroine finds strength in returning to her native Louisiana bayous.

Sayles' films also display an acute sense of place and the Donegal coast is a gift to any visual artist. Haskell Wexler's photography captures the moist, shimmering light of the region, but we also get the texture of it: the drag of oars through seaweed clogged shallows, the fudgy chunkiness of dug peat. Sayles may be creating myth, but he's intent on rooting it in the fabric of actuality. Thus he avoids the windy portentousness of Mike Newell's exploration of mythical Irishry, Into the West.

The myth, too, works both on its own level—as an emanation of natural forces, of wind and water, seals and seagulls—and as a metaphor for social reality. The mixed ancestry of the Coneellys, half-human and half sea-creature, reflects their uneasy status on the western shoreline, in sight of their old home yet sundered from it. They may claim hopefully that, “The East is our future, the West is our past,” but neither seems to offer refuge. To Tess, the city is, “Nothing but noise and dirt and people that's lost their senses,” yet the island is, “nothing for us but sad memories.” The dilemma's side-stepped rather than resolved by the film's ending: the cosy image of the family back in their old home, reunited around the recovered child, leaves out of account the pressures that drove them to quit the island in the first place. (To say nothing of the marginalised father, drunken and isolated in the big city.)

If The Secret of Roan Inish fails to come to grips with its own social implications, against that can be set an abundance of unforced charm and a sheer delight in story-telling. The film is a pleasure to look at and listen to, graced with a lilting, folk-based music score from Mason Daring. Sayles, always known as an actors' director, draws strong, sinewy performances from his cast—not least from the young discovery, Jeni Courtney, as the serious-eyed, unwinsome Fiona—and provides them with dialogue that's idiomatic without resorting to stage Irishry. There are quiet touches of sly humour: Tess, having heard Hugh recounting ancient legends, mutters, “Superstitious old man,” before invoking the nocturnal protection of assorted saints and angels. In an age of overweening special effects, it's also refreshing to see a seal turn into a woman by nothing more intricate than slipping off an artificial sealskin.

Richard Alleva (review date 16 August 1996)

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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 even tentative. And, like the best novelists, he aspires to extend the reach of his understanding by trying to get under the skin of those different from himself: Latinos, blacks, homosexuals, the very young, the very old, the poor, the rich, all kinds of women. With Sayles, this is never PC dutifulness but Shakespearean curiosity. If America had such a Japanese institution as National Living Treasure, Sayles would be the only current filmmaker deserving of the title.

But the defects of his virtues are nearly always as vividly on display as the virtues themselves, and I often steal away from a Sayles film feeling crushed by a sense of my own ingratitude. I certainly wasn't bored by Lone Star, for most of it is both good entertainment and insightful social commentary, but the old defects are still there in force. It is the best of Sayles; it is the worst of Sayles.

The plot of Lone Star is the stuff of melodrama, but Sayles, of course, uses it only to explore the life of a Texas border town. A decades-old skeleton is found in the middle of scrub flats. Sheriff Sam Deeds soon determines that the remains are of a vicious predecessor of his, Wade, a lawman of the fifties, merciless to Mexicans and blacks, a taker of bribes, a master of extortion. (Wade's depredations are extensively portrayed in flashbacks, so the dead man is one of the more important characters in the movie.) On the night of his disappearance, Wade had been denounced and faced down in public by his own deputy, Sam's father, Buddy. Did Buddy Deeds, fearing Wade's retribution and coveting his job, murder his boss? Whether he did or not, Buddy went on to become a decent sheriff: tough, not above political manipulations but basically honest, well respected by Anglo, Hispanic, and black members of the community. Now his son and successor, Sam, must pursue an investigation that might destroy the dead father's reputation. Further complicating his feelings is the grudge he has long harbored against Deeds senior for terminating the teenaged Sam's courtship of a Mexican-American girl. While pursuing his investigation, our hero resumes that love affair after a twenty-year hiatus, and the solution of the mystery casts that affair, and Buddy's old opposition to it, in a radically different light.

The real substance of this movie is neither the detective work nor Sam's psychological turmoil but the reactions and reflections of the people he has to interview. It is these exchanges that reveal the racial and class tensions of the Southwest and the barriers and bonds built up in a border town by more than two centuries of troubled Texas history.

As usual, Sayles makes his cast of characters as inclusive as possible. There is the Mexican-American community of teachers, merchants, deputies, a reporter with an axe to grind. Anglos are represented by politicians, businessmen, concerned parents, a frazzled divorcee, soldiers from a nearby army base, Sam himself. There are black housewives, a bar owner, the army post's commander and his family. And there is one lone Indian—a wry seller of novelties at a roadside stand. This makes the canvas of Lone Star very full and rich.

But also exasperatingly crowded. As in Sayles's City of Hope, there are more dramatis personae here than the story can cope with. In the case of the black characters, the role of the saloon owner, Big O, is very securely placed within the plot: his peculiar situation, a covert alliance with whites he wouldn't normally conspire with, was brought on by his youthful defiance of the monstrous Sheriff Wade. But the estranged son and grandson of Big O are laboriously shoehorned into the story so that Sayles can explore the tensions within black middle-class families, a subject that needs a movie unto itself. (Of course, the strains between the black fathers and sons parallel Sam's troubles with his father, but why is such a parallel needed in this already complicated scenario?) Though Sam's interview with the Native American vendor is flavorsomely written and acted, the only vital piece of information it adds to the story should have come from one of Buddy's fellow cops or from one of the Mexican-American townspeople, since it concerns Buddy's romantic involvement with a Hispanic. Apparently Sayles decided that any story of the Southwest must have an Indian in it and proceeded to stuff in just one more character. But good sociology doesn't necessarily make for good storytelling.

However, Sayles goes beyond sociology in his dialogue and casting and directing of actors. Time and again, he finds the right phrase to either skewer or enliven a character. When a Mexican-American history teacher, confronting a school board exasperated by her efforts to present the Mexican side of Texas history, pleads, “We're presenting a more complete picture,” an Anglo mother snaps,” And that's what's got to stop!” At the unveiling of a tribute to Buddy Deeds, a corny sculpture showing the late sheriff placing a paternal hand on the shoulder of a pathetic Chicano waif, a couple of geezers remark, “It does look like old Buddy.” “Yeah, I think he's gonna run that Mexican kid in for loitering.”

Sayles has always had a problem with pacing. Every scene tends to be andante, rarely largo, never presto. I sometimes get the feeling that Sayles watches his characters with the maddening patience of a cud-chewing cow. And though I'm glad that he dares to let his plots ramify in a novelistic fashion, continuing to do so in the final half-hour is a strategy fatal to the most generous of attention-spans. A reader can put a novel down long enough to renew patience and digest new subject matter. But movies shorter than Spartacus don't have intermissions. (Sayles's movies probably benefit from being viewed in video format.)

The same problem mars Lone Star. But to see how the excellence of an individual scene can mitigate defective overall pacing, witness the visit of Sam to his ex-wife Bunny, whose garage holds certain documents that will solve the mystery. This scene is in Lone Star's final twenty minutes, just when the filmmaker should be homing in on his conclusion and the explanation of the murder. Instead, Sayles stops the story so that we can get acquainted with Bunny and her quirks (drugs, sports mania, Oedipal fixation) and realize how wise Sam was to leave her and get on with his life. This should have sunk Lone Star, but so shrewd are dialogue and direction and so captivating is Frances McDormand's toothy, giggle-eyed rendering of Bunny that we stay with the scene even as an exasperated voice in the back of one's skull may be whining, “Hey, when are we going to find out who shot the sheriff?”

In fact, there has never been a better acted John Sayles movie, and that's saying a lot since he has long worked deftly with players. Here, only Elizabeth Peña, as Deed's former and future lover, fails to deliver; she seems to stand outside her role instead of inhabiting it. But Miriam Colon is perfect as her mother, all fury and flounce but capable of compassion. Clifton James achieves exactly the right ambiguity as the mayor, keeping us guessing as to whether his canniness is rooted in greed or wisdom. Ron Canada might have elected to play Big O as a more flamboyant character in the manner of James Earl Jones, but Canada's silkier approach gives us a man weathered, not broken by years of struggle. His girlfriend is played by one of the few true living legends of dance, Carmen de Lavallade, and she is now as eloquent with words and glances as she once was with her body. Joe Morton gives Big O's officer son just proportions of resentment, vulnerability, and military spruceness, all underpinned by irreducible decency. The big casting surprise is that of Kris Kristofferson, Mr. Laid-Back Dude himself, as the monstrous Sheriff Wade. Kristofferson taunts, glowers, and stomps with the requisite repellent gusto.

All would be for nought if the lead actor fizzled. The pitfall of the role is that Sam Deeds is mainly a fact-gatherer and a sounding board rather than a truly interesting protagonist. But Chris Cooper is a master minimalist who can keep your attention just by the way he leans against a car or cocks his head at a suspicious remark. Like an earlier Cooper of the silver screen, this actor makes taciturnity both formidable and reassuring.

The superb cameraman, Stuart Dryburgh, gives Lone Star a memorably sun-baked look, and all the details of art direction seem right—the handles on beer taps are shaped like six-shooters—but the real visual triumph is in Sayles's choreography of camera and players. Just one example: during that school board meeting, everyone at first argues without listening and the camera whips back and forth from one vituperating face to another. Then the history teacher speaks cogently and, with reason getting a momentary hearing, the frenzied camera movement is replaced by calm, conventional editing. But the shouting resumes and so does the jerky back-and-forth panning of the camera. Thus, the filmmaking mimics the rise and fall of civility.

I doubt that Sayles's moviemaking will either improve or deteriorate in subsequent films. The patience that seems an inextricable part of what is commendable in his work would probably be destroyed by a shot of adrenaline. His admirers will have to abide his defects to savor his virtues, which have never been brighter than in Lone Star.

Richard Combs (review date 18 October 1996)

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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 historical divide between the white and Hispanic communities. The latter has remained the larger, it is pointed out, even after Texas separated from Mexico; it is also suggested that one reason Texas fought to become a state was so that it could join the slave-owning economy of the American South. Pilar's line is, nicely, the last in the film, spoken as she and town sheriff Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) sit on the bonnet of a car in front of a dilapidated drive-in movie screen, a place where their own lives have intertwined troublesomely in the past. The screen is also a reminder of how much the movies have done to keep these myths of division alive, and it recalls the way Peter Bogdanovich marked their passing—rather more nostalgically—in his Texan elegy, The Last Picture Show.

There are other Alamo jokes in Lone Star, which serve to keep the history lessons to the fore, riding side-saddle with the mystery plot. In the desert, outside town, the remains of a body are found, buried forty years ago. Sheriff Deeds comes to suspect that the mystery involves his own father (Matthew McConaughey), a lawman whose legendary honesty and effectiveness still haunt his son, and an altogether nastier piece of law enforcement, Sheriff Charley Wade (Kris Kristofferson). The body turns out to be Wade's, but not before some wag asks if it might be that of Davy Crockett or Jim Bowie.

While the mix of mystery and history keeps Lone Star busy enough, the question remains whether one can help the other to go much beneath the surface. They often seem to frustrate each other—as if the story-teller and the history teacher hadn't quite got together on this project, and keep interrupting each other. Sayles, an independent film writer, director and editor, is more interested in social and political issues (City of Hope, Matewan) than Hollywood conventions of story-telling. But here, he's landed himself with more story than he can handle, and in order to get his political points across, he contrives dramatic situations that are more or less textbook Hollywood.

There's an odd thematic thinness to Lone Star, despite the fact that it is bursting with characters who embody and discuss racial persecution, civic responsibility and political corruption. Apart from the Mexican-American issue, we encounter a mini-series-worth of familial and inter-racial tangles. A nearby army base is commanded by a black colonel with a chip on his shoulder about his father, who runs the town's only black bar; the colonel's disaffected son eventually runs off to find his grandfather. The latter then gives the boy a lecture about the Black Seminoles—slaves who assimilated with the Seminole tribe—that is fascinating as history, but remains a lecture, because the figures in it never seem to have more than an illustrative function.

The desert town itself is called Frontera, and Chris Cooper's sheriff is named after the hero of Frank Capra's political fable, Mr Deeds Goes to Town. When the colonel finally discovers that his father, far from ignoring his army career, has created a little shrine of newspaper clippings and framed photos, the scene is worthy of an old John Ford cavalry movie. And Lone Star's epic quantity of material keeps leading it to simplified epic conclusions, like those of the Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor film Giant, which also ended on an Alamo-forgetting note of Tex-Mex harmony.

Sayles is a sophisticated film-maker, but the technical expertise here—the elegantly mobile use of the Panavision camera, particularly as a way of shifting between the past and the present—is continually undermined by a naivety of effect. Sayles is either unable or unwilling to give his story its due as a tale of psychological and historical mystery—an uncovering of identity through the investigation and recovery of the past, the most complex example of which is still Citizen Kane. Just to remind us, Orson Welles's own dark tale of the Mexican border, Touch of Evil (1958), is currently being re-released. Sayles's heart is in the right place, but Welles's pictures stand up to a lot more investigation.

Cliff Thompson (essay date December 1996)

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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 characters, who are largely either walking history lessons (Glory or Malcolm X), second-banana types whose jobs are to marvel at the daring of the white heroes (Die Hard with a Vengeance or the Lethal Weapon series), or nameless, small-time criminals (you name it), blacks in John Sayles's movies are what real blacks know themselves to be: flesh-and-blood people. That Sayles is a white writer-director constitutes nothing less, in my mind, than a ray of hope not only for the future of American films but also for black-white relations in that Hollywood suburb called Real Life.

Sayles has shown a progression in this regard. The first of his movies to feature a major black character—and the only one to date in which a black heads the cast—was The Brother from Another Planet (1984), starring the woefully under-appreciated Joe Morton. The Brother, a fugitive slave who crash-lands on Earth, is not a fully realized human being, in part for the very good reason that he really does come from another planet, but also because Sayles has idealized him. Morally, the silent Brother can do no wrong, and, given his situation, he is extraordinarily good-natured. Even the frustration he experiences while trying to fit in on Earth is not interpreted by Sayles as being simply the outgrowth of a cultural gap or as a sign of limited patience on the Brother's part. When the Brother tries to enter a nightclub, for example, and is told by the sympathetic doorman that the money he has put down is not enough, he walks away in disgust. His gesture is a comment on human materialism, his anger that of Jesus chasing the money-changers from the temple.

Subtler elements are also at work in the film. In Harlem, the community where the central character finds acceptance, if not exactly understanding, much of the action takes place in a bar, where the black owner, his wife, and their customers present a wonderful mix of humor, foibles, and essential decency—the stuff, in other words, of humanity. (The bar owner, on being asked by his wife what he wants for dinner: “You mean what do I want, or what do I want that you can cook?” The wife, after her husband has suggested that they go out to dinner and asked her where she wants to go: “You mean where do I want to go, or where do I want to go that you can afford?”)

In terms of his development of African-American characters, Sayles took a step up with his sprawling, multiplotted urban tale, City of Hope (1991). His point man again is Joe Morton, in the role of a city councilman seen as too liberal by his colleagues and as too ineffectual and too tied to the ‘system’ by his mostly black constituency. Morton's councilman learns that leadership involves more than good intentions and moral correctness. Just as importantly, he proves to be more than a type, a political opinion wearing a suit; he is instead a complex man whose troubles stem in part from his ability to see more than one side of an issue. “Half of everything you say is true,” he tells a committed, Afrocentric community activist who has just spouted a line of propaganda. “The other half is shit!

Sayles topped himself again with Passion Fish. In that movie, Mary McDonnell's soap-opera actress suffers a car accident that leaves her unable to walk. She subsequently retires to her large southern home, where she wallows in bitterness and drives away one home-care person after another. Enter the latest applicant for the job, a black woman played by Alfre Woodard. It is easy to imagine this story in the hands of another writer-director: instead of Woodard, Whoopi Goldberg shows up, to do another version of the insufferably all-knowing figure she has perfected in other movies and TV shows, and by film's end she has led the self-pitying McDonnell to accept—nay, to be grateful for the personal growth that has resulted from—her disability. But Sayles knew better. A single parent struggling to overcome a drug habit, Woodard's character is at least as screwed up as her employer, and these two wounded women work slowly, together and separately, to overcome some of their difficulties.

The movie runs counter to our worst fears in other ways, too. When Woodard's father shows up at McDonnell's house, we find that he is not the hard-drinking, unemployed child molester who all along was The Cause of this poor black woman's problems (are you watching, Alice Walker? Sapphire?). Instead, he is a dignified, even stuffy, physician disappointed in his daughter's low station. Woodard's own daughter turns out to be not one of those preternaturally cute, sassy miniadults with one eye on the camera, à la The Cosby Show, but a plain, bespectacled, touchingly shy little girl, one you would never expect to see in a movie precisely because she reminds you of someone you know. ‘There are twenty million African-American stories,’ Sayles as much as says. ‘This has been one of them.’

The most amazing sequence in Passion Fish, for my money, is the one in which McDonnell is visited by a group of her successful actor friends, one of them a black woman played by Angela Bassett (Joe Morton's wife in City of Hope). During one scene, Woodard is working alone in the kitchen when Bassett wanders in. Again, one cannot help but envision their exchange as written by some Hollywood hack. (Woodard: “I don't care how many limos you done rode in. You might think you just like them, but you a black woman, just like me!” A chastened Bassett: “I guess no matter where we go, this”—pointing to some area of her skin—“never changes.”) But with the firm support of Sayles's writing and direction, these two great actresses convey through the hesitancy in their faces and gestures what words could not convincingly get across: the oddness of their relation to each other, the fact that they are separated by social standing but made similar by skin color and, if you like, heritage. We wait with them to see which of these factors will set the tone of their discourse; we share their (unspoken) relief when they hit on a topic of conversation that reflects neither their class difference nor their racial solidarity but their common humanity.

To point to Sayles's uniqueness is to take nothing away from gifted black filmmakers like Charles Burnett or Julie Dash. Burnett and Dash have provided the invaluable service of showing black people among themselves, at home in their culture, in situations that do not call for them to react—at least directly—to the actions of whites. But the truth is that black Americans are not by themselves, and the trick is to show them within the larger society without having the contrast reduce them to one of a number of stereotypes. Sayles has done this repeatedly in the past, and he does so again with his most recent movie, Lone Star. Chris Cooper, as the sheriff of a small Texas town, investigates the death, forty years earlier, of one of his predecessors—an equal-opportunity shakedown artist and killer played by Kris Kristofferson. One of those on whom Kristofferson preys is a black barman, Otis Payne, portrayed in his youth by Gabriel Casseus. In a testament to the power of both Casseus's acting and Sayles's writing, the barman manages to acknowledge that he is up against a force greater than himself while still maintaining his dignity. (Also on hand is Old Faithful himself, Joe Morton, as the barman's son, an army colonel with a compassionate heart beneath his spit and polish.)

For a black writer-director to have pulled all this off would be a cause for celebration; that a white one—Sayles—has done it is something of a miracle. He has shown, through his films, that it is not necessary to actually become a person of another race in order to sympathize with him or her, to understand something of their situation. In these racially troubled times, for even one person to display such sympathy and insight is a justification for hope; and hope, nothing less, is what John Sayles has offered us.

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

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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 strong ensemble cast in dozens of speaking roles. The result is a realistic portrait of a Texas border town, Frontera (i.e., ‘border’), where in the 1990s workaday people of different ethnicities face difficult social problems as they grapple with questions of history, identity, economic and political power, education, and the future of the town. Indeed, this may represent Lone Star's greatest achievement, because seldom in recent U.S. cinema have the social issues of small-town America been so thoroughly explored via the conflicting perspectives of different sociocultural groups. And all the while Sayles, always the engaging storyteller, spins and crisscrosses interlocking stories and personal histories in a resourceful and entertaining manner, including two surprise endings.

History looms large in Lone Star, and the search for historical truth in Frontera propels the master plot and shapes the subplots, as characters from the middle and younger generations of three ethnic communities uncover and confront the surprising truth about their elders' past. Anglo Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper), the current sheriff of Rio County, initiates a criminal investigation that leads him to evidence that his deceased father, the respected and legendary Sheriff Buddy Deeds (Matthew McConaughey), was not only a corrupt cog in the county political machine, but very likely a murderer. Even more crucial to Sam is the discovery that Buddy was a philanderer who secretly fathered a daughter, Pilar (Elizabeth Peña), who is not only Sam's former high-school sweetheart and now his current lover, but also, García Márquez-like, his half-sister. Chicana-Angla Pilar—perhaps too pointedly a high school history teacher—discovers her real parentage at the end of the film and is likewise forced to reexamine her relationship with her lover and newly discovered half-sibling. In a subplot, a teenage African-American boy, the son of a colonel (Joe Morton) at a nearby military base, finally meets his long-estranged grandfather and learns that the family is, in fact, part Native American.

Sayles visually reinforces the weight of history and the past in Frontera with seamless chronological transitions smoothly effected by means of panning or other camera movement during uninterrupted takes. The film begins in the 1990s, when Wade's skeletal remains—along with his sheriff's badge and Masonic ring—surface in a deserted area near the Army base. At critical moments in the narrative, however, camera movement leads the audience into the 1950s, when the unsolved disappearance/murder of “bribes and bullets” lawman Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson) occurred; or into the 1970s, when Pilar and Sam were teenagers in love and unaware of her lineage.

Boundaries and lines constitute Lone Star's central theme and the very core of the complex, diverse society that Sayles creates. The international border between Texas and Mexico offers an appropriate setting for exploring the dynamics among peoples who inhabit a multicultural community and the problems that arise when the distinguishing lines (whether physical barriers or symbolic constructions) of sociopolitical groups or individuals fail to coincide.

The Rio Grande, which separates Texar Frontera from its Mexican counterpart, Ciudad León, affords the filmmaker a natural entry into his exploration. The river marks a physical, geographical delineation of national territories, and also, because this is Mexico and not Canada, serves to divide peoples of mostly dissimilar ethnic origins and economic opportunities. Its presence as a motif in the film immediately raises the true-to-life problem of illegal immigration that currently shapes so much of the U.S. attitude towards its borders. This polemic, however, contributes only one facet to the film's intricate examination of borderlines.

Interactions among groups in Frontera are very much matters of staking out and occupying, of setting limits and containing. The dominant Anglo minority has traditionally utilized the border (both metaphorically and physically) as a political tool to establish barriers that protect its own privileges and propagate its particular values. Conversely, these same borders limit, contain, and control the presence and participation of the other ethnic groups, most notably the Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. One of the Mexican characters, a tire salesman who has lived in the U.S., neatly skewers the presumption of such practices. He illustrates a little object lesson about lines and power by inviting Sheriff Sam to step over a line drawn in the dirt with a Coke bottle. This action recalls William Travis's legendary challenge to his troops at the Battle of the Alamo, which Anglo-Texans have historically regarded as emblematic of their heroism. The updated gesture—now accomplished by a Mexican on Mexican soil using a symbol of American economic and cultural might—ironically lampoons yanqui pretensions and provides a pointed reminder that gringo laws prevail only on the U.S. side of the line.

A physical barrier may help to limit foreigners' access to Frontera, but the lines that contain the town's resident subcultures are essentially political and psychological. The parameters of the African-American community's participation in Frontera's sociopolitical life derive from the institutionalized racism of Texas' slave-holding past. As Sheriff Wade in a flashback so forcibly reminds the young Otis Payne, recently returned in 1957 from supposedly liberal Houston, black people are expected to know their place and to stay in it. Times have changed by the 1990s, but the sense of such segregation nonetheless remains with Otis (Ron Canada). He refers to the bar he owns, for instance, as the one club in the county where “our people” can feel comfortable. Uttered in a tone of solidarity and pride, his choice of words nevertheless offers evidence that the spirit of the old, differentiating boundary still survives. This attitude, more than any visible difference in skin color, suggests that Frontera's “Darktown,” of which Otis is “Mayor,” exists most significantly as a state of-mind.

Sayles's Rio County offers passing glimpses of two other groups whose presence contributes to the rich mixture of peoples in the area. Not surprisingly in a western setting, there is the long controversial institution of containment, the Indian reservation, represented by a sole individual who significantly has chosen not to live there because the politics had driven him crazy. Secondly, there is the army base, which contains a social group in the making—the new recruits who, like one young female African-American, increasingly join up because the army offers protective barriers against the joblessness and chaos in the streets outside. Sayles uncomfortably stretches his story here to comment on a contemporary social phenomenon which, for as much as it offers a variant example of his thematic concern of barriers, nonetheless remains outside his central focus on the border society itself.

Lone Star strikingly depicts the personal psychological boundaries that confront many citizens of Frontera as a result of living in such close proximity to the border. ‘The Other Side,’ an oft-repeated phrase in Frontera parlance, has assumed metaphorical dimensions, variable according to the group using it. To the ‘WASPish’ Anglo population, ‘The Other Side’ suggests an experience that is foreign, different, perhaps threatening or even dangerous. To many Mexican-Americans it represents a past history. Mercedes Cruz (Miriam Colon), for example, is all too eager (until her last scene) to conceal, ignore, and deny at all costs anything connecting her to her country of birth. She has even restyled herself as “Spanish”—presumably a more socially acceptable designation the community allows her because of her work ethic and business success. A first-generation immigrant, Mercedes remains prickly and evasive on the matter of her origins and shows no sympathy for her third-generation grandson, who would like to trace his roots on the other side.

Sam's deputy Ray (Tony Plana) represents an established Mexican-American family. He has long since ceased to look backwards; he keeps his gaze resolutely directed toward further political and social advancement as a ground-floor member of the soon to be legitimized, power-brokering Mexican-American majority. A single line of dialog humorously summarizes where the deputy stands when, in response to Sam's remark about having to go over to the “other side,” Ray blurts out in a puzzled and disbelieving tone, “The Republicans?”

In Frontera barriers are constantly subject to challenge and revision, to tradeoffs and accommodations that allow certain lines and their inherent codes of behavior, to be bent, blurred, and at times purposefully ignored altogether. Changing lines and malleable, leaky barriers are endemic. Illegal immigrants permeate the labor force, and Spanish locutions pepper the redneck barman's vocabulary. “Se habla American here, goddamnit,” he grouses as he fulminates against the onslaught of Mexican culture.

The politically dominant Anglos may have struck an accommodation with many superficial aspects of Mexican/Mexican-American culture—the food for one—but, as the defensive tirade by the Anglo woman from the textbook committee (undoubtedly a concerned citizen and not a teacher) illustrates, they still fiercely resist relinquishing ground on more fundamental issues, such as how state history should be taught.

Accommodation is the key ingredient that holds individual lives together and preserves the social fabric in this border society, allowing a peaceful if not always balanced existence. The principal characters must all confront some manner of symbolic barrier. Except for Sheriff Charlie Wade, who refused to accommodate challenges to his strong-arm procedures and who blatantly overstepped the line of his authority, the other characters do possess the essential qualities—flexibility and willingness to negotiate—that permit them to resolve their particular predicament successfully and to get on with their lives.

Sam and Pilar face the most provocative dilemma of the film. If they refuse to honor the prohibition implicit in the kinship they have discovered between them, their refusal will take them across the line of accepted behavior and rend the social fabric. Since they have already crossed over without realizing it, however, a tantalizing question now confronts them: whether the love they have experienced in innocence and sincerity will prove strong enough to maintain them on the ‘other side.’ This, however, is their private border; as Otis Payne observes to his grandson in an earlier scene, there is no absolute good or bad, and blood is what you make of it.

A strong subtheme emerging from Sayles's exploration of borders is generational conflict—the lines drawn between parents and children that separate as well as bind them. As Lone Star reveals the sometimes surprisingly coincidental twists and turns of its characters' lives, Sam Deeds and Del Payne make discoveries in their professional activities which eventually allow them to come to terms with the hostility each has long felt towards his father.

Sam's conflict with his father inextricably combines both personal and official facets of his life. Sam manages to come to terms with the romantic quandary created for him by his father's philandering; but, in the political sphere, the weight of tradition makes any clear reconciliation with Buddy's memory impossible. By the end of the film, the son can absolve his father of murder but refuses to do so officially, ambiguously leaving Buddy's legend to fend for itself. Thrust, like his father, into the ethically dubious position of covering up a murder, Sam ultimately makes the same choice Buddy did and acts in a manner that abuses the power of his office. His motivation remains enigmatic. Is Sam purposefully jeopardizing his father's esteemed reputation or is he generously protecting the true culprit, now a respected senior citizen? Is this an indirect revenge or a compassionate accommodation? As with the matter of incest, Sayles is content to raise the issue of honesty and justice and then leave it for the viewer to debate.

Although Sayles's portrayal of Colonel Delmar Payne's disaffection with his father is neither as vivid nor as clear as that of Sam Deeds, the resolution reached in the Payne family when the colonel decides to finally establish a relationship with his estranged father suggests an emotional growth. Because Delmar seems close to understanding (or at least accommodating) his father's limitations, the three generations together will apparently have the opportunity to rechart the course of their family history in a more positive direction by not allowing friction with an older generation to stigmatize the lives of its children. This is a stage of maturity in human relationships that Sam Deeds never quite reaches.

In marked contrast to Sam and the Paynes, Sayles has included the pitiful figure of Sam's ex-wife Bunny (Frances McDormand), who cannot alleviate her father's influence. Designated by her father as his “lifeline,” she shows no sign of the flexibility needed to achieve emotional growth and every indication that years later she will still be trapped in her claustrophobic world of pills, TV sports replays, and Daddy's private box at the football stadium.

The parent-child conflict that dominates the families of Lone Star even finds an echo in the interactions between Rio County's ‘patriarchal’ sheriffs and their community. First-generation Charlie Wade attempts to intimidate into compliance his deputies and other young men by addressing them as “son.” His brutal authoritarianism runs in the Hispanic cacique/caudillo tradition of the strongman who personally metes out justice and punishment and demands unquestioning loyalty from his subordinates. Although this strongman tradition progressively weakens from the 1950s to the 1990s, as each of the three generations of sheriffs becomes less authoritarian and more ‘accommodating,’ the basic conflict remains because of the sheriff's continuing ability to wield power independently and even unjustly.

A quest for realism has guided chef Sayles in selecting the appropriate artistic ingredients to concoct and season his rich multicultural stew. The second-tier stars in the prominent roles do not bring to the screen burdensome star personas that could detract from a general sense of small-town everydayness. Their acting is low-key and understated; they really do seem to be ordinary citizens making their way in a real-life community. The exception to this understated acting style are the one-dimensional performances by McConaughey and Kristofferson as the two legendary former sheriffs, who act grandly in the mythic time of the flashbacks.

The writer John Sayles has excelled in the creation of dialog and in capturing realistically the linguistic universe of his characters. Pilar's teenage son, described by his sister as a wannabe pachuco, expresses himself with a linguistic menudo that freely shifts back and forth between English and Spanish, with the distinctive intonation inflecting both languages in the borderlands. A snappy commercial blared out in Spanish introduces the Mexican businessman known as ‘El Rey de las Llantas’ (The Tire King) as Sheriff Sam Deeds drives across the international bridge to conduct an interview with him. The audience is offered no translation, a reminder that in the borderlands many are bilingual; those who are not, simply miss out.

Because the director is relating several personal stories within the framework of community dynamics, the very serviceable art direction centers on public or social spaces: the international bridge, a public school, the jail, the town square, parking lots and sidewalks, and especially bars and restaurants—each with its own African-American, Mexican/Chicano, or Anglo ambiance. The most memorable setting is a drive-in theatre, the site of Sam and Pilar's teenage trysts in a 1970s flashback sequence but abandoned to the weeds in the 1990s—a powerful filmic icon of changing times à la The Last Picture Show and the scene of the climactic final sequence. It is at this deserted drive-in theatre in daylight that Sam and Pilar meet and talk, facing the looming dilapidated blankness of the movie screen—their life likewise a worn tabula rasa as they decide to start over from scratch elsewhere, beyond the incest taboo that would keep them from living together in Frontera.

Editor Sayles has creatively and complexly structured his murder mystery and love story to force audiences to periodically reassess their understanding of the characters as more and more relevant details unravel. Though the chronological transitions effected within the shot represent the film's most striking structural-stylistic feature, other successful techniques and devices guide the audience through the geographical and chronological leaps in the story. The scene may shift with a traditional dissolve suggesting the passage of time, or with a key line of dialog that points toward a transition, or Sayles may simply cut within the same setting but across different time periods.

Sayles uses music traditionally: to comment on themes and characters, to reinforce setting, and to advance the story line. But as a creator of menudo, Sayles outdoes himself with this soundtrack, which mines the musical traditions of the three principal cultures depicted—Spanish and English-language rock, traditional Mexican folk styles, country and western, and rhythm and blues, for example.

Lone Star does have its flaws. A scene of illegals crossing the Rio Grande at night is awkwardly staged and filmed. A slip in the dialog allows a forensics expert to complete his work in an impossibly short time span. The script occasionally depends too heavily on convenient coincidences in order to link plot, characterization, and themes. Such problems, however, are greatly outweighed by Sayles's powerfully realistic and richly nuanced portrayal of the multicultural ingredients currently simmering in what used to be called America's ‘melting pot.’

George Packer (essay date summer 1997)

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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 Saturday Night Live before he became the best-selling author of Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot. Spike Lee is a more complicated example, because with him the distinction between ideology and careerism completely disappears (for example, his demand that black high school students get the day off to see Malcolm X). In general, though, it's rare for a hero of popular culture to reach that status through work in which left-wing views are intrinsic. Almost always they're pinned to celebrity like red ribbons on tuxedo lapels and gown bodices at televised awards ceremonies.

But at least two exceptions come to mind—the filmmakers Oliver Stone and John Sayles. Since the eighties they have been turning out movies that attempt to portray and interpret America with some consistent degree of sympathy for the downtrodden and suspicion of the powerful. Stone and Sayles put the individual stamp of writer-director on all the movies they make, and they have high ambitions for movies that encompass the large moral and social questions of our day—that try to fill the role that novels played in the nineteenth century. Both directors started out with literary dreams. Sayles has published three novels and a collection of stories; the rejected manuscript of Stone's youthful and only novel ended up in the East River. Both were products of the sixties (Stone was born in 1946, Sayles in 1950). Both are lovers of history.

Yet Stone and Sayles make a study in contrasts. On the most obvious level, it's a contrast in styles and personalities. Stone is notorious, an icon of op-ed pages, every movie leaving behind its own wake of controversy (most recently The People vs. Larry Flynt, which he produced but didn't direct). An awed yet ultimately devastating New Yorker profile several years ago showed Stone bullying employees, goading cast and crew, going through women like cans of film stock—all the while murmuring about his “darkness” and complaining that the press has been unfair to him. He's also neck-deep in Hollywood culture, his movies backed by major studios. Sayles, by all accounts, keeps a low, Hoboken, N.J. profile with his girlfriend-producer of two decades, Maggie Renzi. There's an atmosphere of good spirits and mutual regard among the cast in all his films. Some of them come and go so noiselessly that you have to track them down on video.

But the contrast is deeper and more interesting, and in a way it goes back to the sixties. It's the difference between reasonableness and paranoia, collective hope and individual excess, the Port Huron Statement and Mark Rudd. Sayles says, “Basically I'm for whatever makes people's lives better and against what doesn't.” Stone says, “You have to recreate the climate of madness in the culture. The world is violent, and we're swamped in it in this century. So I mirror that—I'm a distorting mirror, like in the circus.”

Sayles's first picture, Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), was an ensemble piece about the loves and ennuis of a group of ex-radicals reunited for a thirtieth birthday party. It doesn't hold up well—the camera work looks amateurish, and the dialogue, which must have resonated with Sayles's peers at the end of the seventies, for the movie became a cult hit, seems to drag on aimlessly. But this first movie became the prototype for Sayles's mature work, Matewan, Eight Men Out, City of Hope, and last year's Lone Star—all detailing the relationships, personal and social, among a range of characters, all concerned with justice. They feel like the work of a man who came of age reading Nelson Algren novels and living in group houses. The style is understated, the pace often slow, the cinematography simple. Three or four plots are woven together, suggesting a theme of mutual responsibility—between white, black, and Italian coal miners (Matewan), or whites and blacks in a decaying East Coast city (City of Hope), or Anglos and Mexicans in a Texas border town (Lone Star). The dialogue is earnest, the humor without irony and often symbolic, like the fragmentary slogans rattled off by a homeless man who walks through City of Hope as a deranged Greek chorus: “Help. We need help. We got deals. Under one roof. Why settle for less when you can have it all.” Few of Sayles's scenes remain vividly in mind; what you remember are the speeches. From Matewan you remember the union organizer Joe Kenehan, played by Chris Cooper, telling a roomful of miners who have just rebuffed a black scab named Few Clothes: “You think this man is your enemy? This is a worker. Any union keeps this man out ain't a union. It's a goddam club. They've got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreigner, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides to this world—them that work and them that don't.”

For a moviemaker who is at heart a writer, working in a visual form without narrative depth, there's a serious risk of didacticism and sentimentality that Sayles doesn't always escape. His characters have to state baldly what a novel's narrator could explore suggestively and with less finality. There is too much thematic talk in Sayles's films, and in his latest and perhaps best, Lone Star, there are at least two too many sub-plots, included strictly for topical value—sexual harassment in the military and illegal immigration. One can see these same tendencies in Sayles's novel Union Dues (1977), about Third Way radicals in Boston at the end of the sixties and the West Virginia boy who stumbles into them—the huge cast of characters, the crosscutting between plots, the clamor of diverse opinions, the love of working-class speech, the temptation to cram a whole city and a dozen issues into one book.

A child of the sixties, Sayles belongs temperamentally to an earlier period of radicalism. His main characters aren't alienated rebels, but working people ensnared in mundane obligations to family, job, town. His vision of community isn't a dropout's utopia held together by love but a town divided by social class in which individuals are faced with old-fashioned moral choices. Will the chief of police stand up to the coal company's thugs? Will a building contractor cut a corrupt deal with the mayor to keep his son out of jail? Will the sheriff of a Texas border town pursue the truth about a racial incident that might discredit his long-dead and lionized father? Will an illiterate baseball player take a bribe to fix the World Series?

Ordinary people in all-American settings struggling for courage, justice, tolerance: it's reminiscent of the Popular Front era, and of films by directors like Capra and Ford. The ghosts of Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and James Stewart hover around the sets of these movies. To Sayles, most people are basically decent, or at least try to be. Few of his characters are out-and-out villains—more often they go wrong when pushed or cornered, and the consequences haunt them, and in the end they always find that they are their brothers' keepers.

It's a hopeful, goodhearted view of human beings. And, needless to say, it isn't a view attuned to either the tastes of the consuming public or the spirit of the age. The budgets of Sayles's movies preclude wide distribution, and before he decided to stop seeking studio backing his story ideas made for extremely brief meetings with Hollywood executives. But beyond the circumstances of the market, what keeps him out of the mainstream is his seriousness, his cinematic plainness, his sense of political responsibility and moral decency. From a commercial point of view, the worst that can be said of Sayles is that he is sincere.

The first thing that needs to be said about Oliver Stone is what most of his critics won't admit: he is an extremely talented filmmaker, far more visually inventive than Sayles and even—at his best—a better screenwriter. Stone's first important film, Salvador (1985), is proof that he once had a strong gift for story and characterization. Salvador manages to create all at once an authentic atmosphere of menace building into terror, a sharp sense of the turn in American policy from Carter to Reagan, and—in James Woods' performance as a fast-talking small-time journalist on the trail of a big story as El Salvador slides into civil war—a distastefully riveting central character, a figure from the sleazy, irresponsible seventies as the decade burns out at the dawn of Reagan-era American boosterism.

In the twelve years since Salvador Stone has made nine movies—none of them as good. The way in which he has squandered his talents displays both the benefits and the high costs of making yourself a “distorting mirror” in a “climate of madness.” In fact, the story of Oliver Stone's career seems natural material for a film by Oliver Stone: set in the Philippines and the Arizona desert and Hollywood, with two ex-wives in supporting parts, a large cast of attractive female extras, huge quantities of drugs, an unrelenting work pace, black-and-white flashbacks to his parents' divorce when he was fifteen, Oscar nights, media hysteria, and at the center of everything an attractive, cruel man of outsized ambition and ego who starts off with a desire to be the Joseph Conrad of cinema and ends up riding horseback for the cameras with Subcommander Marcos in Chiapas—who over the course of the film becomes harder and harder to distinguish from the cheap, glamorous, violent culture that his films portray. The early part of the film would have the grainy realism of Salvador, but the camerawork would grow increasingly distorted, with rapid-fire cuts and long bacchanals on and off the set, and by the end Stone's character would appear literally as a cartoon grotesque in the manner of Natural Born Killers. Stone would be a mirror of a mirror, perfectly suited to its director-subject's hyperkinetic style. Watching it, moviegoers would get to see a fine artistic and political consciousness lose its bearings before their eyes.

Except for Heaven and Earth, which almost no one saw, I've caught every one of Stone's films when it first came out. Platoon (1986), which followed Salvador, moved and terrified me and I left the theater feeling that I had been to hell. The familiar streets home seemed an illusion; the truth lurked underneath and it was dark and extreme. At twenty-five I accepted the implication that Vietnam was more real than Somerville, Massachusetts, and that I had to have the courage to face the demon of violence.

Nothing afterward matched Platoon's power, but I kept going to see Stone's films, for two reasons—his subjects, which are always interesting, and his cinematic style, which has grown increasingly riveting. The furor in the press over JFK (1991) seemed unnecessary, because the movie's politics were so ludicrous; in the movie theater its techniques—slow motion, extreme close-ups, multiple angles, off-camera voices, blended film stocks, newsreel footage, fast tracking shots—were tremendously exciting. And for its first hour Natural Born Killers (1994), Stone's most viscerally violent and reviled film, felt like a wild ride through the most startling cinematic imagery I'd ever seen. It evoked the mental world of its homicidal young lovers—a pulsing blend of music, television, psychedelic mysticism, adolescent syrup, and casual viciousness—more convincingly than straightforward realism in the John Sayles vein could have done.

Excitement is not the easiest emotion to produce and sustain, as anyone who's sat through a big-budget action picture knows. Evoking feverish interest takes a crude narrative intelligence together with technical skill. I began to recognize this emotion as the characteristic experience of a Stone movie, the experience that kept me coming back even when the movie was bound to be as silly as The Doors: feeling grabbed and jostled, crowded, rushed, dazzled, unable to think. Each film depended more and more on the editing room—on confusion—for its effect. When I sat down recently to watch some of them again on video, it became clear how much that effect requires the large screen of a movie theater. Even Platoon, with its good-and-evil sergeants and mythic structure and swelling music of Barber's “Adagio for Strings,” comes off badly diminished. The shrunken visual scope magnifies the text, especially the painfully obvious voiceover of its young hero Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen), a character who starts off convincingly high-minded and frightened but makes less and less sense as his creator plunges him into moral conflict. In the theater this didn't matter—the movie had me by the throat.

For most of Stone's movies, emphasizing the text turns out to be fatal. In JFK Kevin Costner/Jim Garrison's case against a supposed assassination conspirator goes to pieces before your eyes; never was a movie trial's verdict less surprising and more deserved. Parts of JFK have the inadvertently hilarious quality of a movie-of-the-week. “There's nothing wrong with feeling a little scared, Jasper,” Garrison says, sitting between his children on the front porch. “Telling the truth is a scary thing sometimes. It scared President Kennedy and he was a brave man. But if you let yourself be too scared, then you let the bad guys take over the country, don't you?” Kids: “Yeah.” Costner/Garrison: “Then everybody gets scared.” Which is JFK's central insight.

What the video screen gives you is room to think, and thought is what a Stone film can least afford and tries most to avoid. It's like turning out the light in a shadow-puppet play. For the premise of his films is false. Not just historically false—JFK's sanctification of Kennedy, Nixon's cabal of right-wing Texas millionaires—but false in their worldview. Violence is not realer than civilization, and what lies beneath the surface is both more complicated and more truly exciting than Chris Taylor's destructive urges in Platoon, or the grand web of conspiracy in JFK, or the prophecy sung by Leonard Cohen as the credits roll at the end of Natural Born Killers: “Get ready for the future / It is murder.” The James Woods character in Salvador—mendacious, shifty, self-serving, sympathetic, morally outraged, sometimes within a single scene, almost a single line—is, in an exaggerated way, uncomfortably reminiscent of you and me. And there's no place for him in Stone's other films. He would be turned into a truth-teller or made to stand for the corruption of American journalism or simply lost in the blur of rapid cuts and hand-held camera jostling.

“No one's innocent,” Stone told his New Yorker profiler, by way of comment on the week-old Simpson case. “The line between thinking murder and doing murder isn't that major. Isn't that the point of Natural Born Killers, in a way?” It's at least the point of a director who knows that muck—a firefight in the jungle or a Wall Street wheeler-dealer or the last seconds of the Zapruder film or Jim Morrison's peyote quests or young bloodlust—sells more tickets than the ordinary struggle to be good, and that the image will always overpower the word. Amid the technical wizardry and visions of excess, goodness comes to seem ridiculous. Stone sets out to immerse us in the destructive element, then leaves us down there so long that by the time we resurface to hear Martin Sheen, as the hard-working union man in Wall Street, say, “The rich have been doing it to the poor since the beginning of time. The only difference between the pyramids and the Empire State Building is the Egyptians didn't allow unions,” all we can do is laugh in his face. Natural Born Killers never lets you back up at all. Because there's no moral framework to invoke (“No one's innocent,”), what the movie purports to criticize it ends up glamorizing, which may help explain why a teenage couple from Mississippi went out and shot two people after watching it over and over.

In fact, the line between thinking murder and doing murder is everything—and a more interesting subject than homicidal rampage. But it's also the kind of subject that's beyond Stone's reach. As he's come to depend so heavily on visual effect, the moral and emotional shadings of a John Sayles film—disappointment, restraint, compromise, redemption—are impossible for Stone. This is why a news report several years ago that he had bought the rights to Homage to Catalonia seemed so disastrous. One pictured Orwell/Charlie Sheen on a train leaving strife-torn Barcelona, where an evil Communist (Tom Berenger) and a good anarchist (Willem Dafoe) have just blown each other away on the Ramblas, and saying in voice over. “I think now looking back that we did not fight the enemy. We fought ourselves and the enemy was in us.” Or Orwell/Kevin Costner exhorting a group of P.O.U.M. militiamen in a trench on the Aragon front: “You all gotta start thinking on a different level, like the CP does. Now we're through the looking glass here, people. White is black and black is white.” And back in London, sharing a Hyde Park bench with a carefully disguised Trotsky/Donald Sutherland. Orwell: “I never knew you were such a threat to the establishment. I can't believe they'd kill you because you want to change things.” Trotsky: “Remember, fundamentally people are suckers for the truth, and the truth is on your side, Bubba. I just hope you get a break.”

(Homage to Catalonia, or Militia, never appeared. Recently, though, the family of Martin Luther King and Time Warner entered a joint venture to commercialize King's life and work. Warner Bros. is Stone's studio. The King family's weakness for conspiracy theories might suggest to the conspiracy-minded a synergistic tie-in with the as-yet-unmade Oliver Stone film MLK.)

In Stone's climate of madness there's no room for human relationships—they are always static, and his women have no life on the screen except in the case of a strong performance, such as Joan Allen's as Pat Nixon. Nor is there room for real politics, which is to say, moral and historical complexity. Nixon (1995) tried and maybe for that reason suffered from longueurs. This famously political filmmaker has little to say about the really important political matters. On inequality we get Wall Street, on bigotry Talk Radio. Stone brings the shallowest instincts from the sixties—paranoia, grandiosity, romantic primitivism—to the skillful manipulation of images and celebrity culture of our own decade. His audience is at once seduced by technical dazzle, served tempting portions of corruption, and flattered by getting to identify with a moral hero at the center of an historic drama. “They” go about their dirty work while “we” seek the truth—unless, as in Natural Born Killers, “they” and “we” are equally guilty.

In either case, nothing much is asked of us. As the celluloid spell wears off and thought resumes and the op-ed pages turn to other topics, it's hard to remember what the commotion was about. A year or two later Stone releases another film, and the lines are long, and I'm standing in one of them. That his career has been so loud, and John Sayles's so comparatively quiet, shows the power of the electronic image, the attraction of glamorous muck over common decency, and the difficulty of saying something serious about politics through the vehicle of mass culture, which seems the only way left to be heard.

José E. Limόn (essay date autumn 1997)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7480

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 were first fully articulated in nineteenth-century dime novels of the West, many of which were, like Lone Star, set in Texas. A now very distant discursive cousin of the Sayles film called, in fact, Little Lone Star (1886) and written by one Sam Hall features Anita, “a physically precocious” young Mexican woman living on a Texas hacienda, “whose passions and complexion are compared to the red-hot volcanoes of her native Mexico” (Pettit 39). She is being threatened with rape by Caldelas the Coyote, a vicious, degenerate Mexican bandit, until she is rescued by a strong, clean-cut, fair-haired Anglo-Texan cowboy named William Waldron. Anita reciprocates the sexual interest of the “fair-haired hero” (Pettit 39). Such identities were to be on display again and again in fiction, film, song, and even television advertising. Who can forget the Frito-Bandito, cartoon cousin of Caldelas the Coyote? We thus have inherited a potent and perduring American cultural iconography of Anglo-American/Mexican relations that has a special intensity in Texas.

In this essay, I take up the intertwined theoretical spheres of post-colonialism, race, and sexuality to re-examine this iconography in the conflicted social history of these two peoples. I suggest that this iconographic relationship goes beyond simple mutual stereotyping; it has politically critical ambivalence. Sayles's Lone Star offers a radical revision of this iconography and its inherent ambivalence, a revision consistent with a major shift in the social relations between Anglos and Mexicans, at least in Texas, at the present moment.


The male Anglo icon is a tough, swaggering, boastful—sometimes taciturn—hard-drinking, hard-riding, straight-shooting cowboy. We also usually visualize a tall, strong, lean, handsome, and of course white figure—John Wayne in any of his Westerns. These bodily attributes contrast with a fat, slovenly, dark, mustachioed, and often drunken, deceitful, and treacherous Mexican male with whom our Anglo cowboy is usually at personal and political odds—for example, the Mexicans in Little Lone Star and in Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch (1969). The figure of a Mexican woman brought into close sexual conjunction with the cowboy mediates these two. She is usually an upper-class, very attractive, light-complected, often “Spanish” senorita, such as Alejandra in Cormac McCarthy's otherwise subtle, “modernist” All the Pretty Horses (1992). Those of us who came of age in the late 1950s may recall Marty Robbins's popular song “El Paso” (1959), beginning, “Out in the west Texas town of El Paso, I fell in love with a Mexican girl.” While attractive like the Spanish senorita, this “girl,” Selena, has a distinctively “darker” sexual semiosis. She is, characteristically, a “bar-girl,” or prostitute, and sometime lover to the song's cowboy hero, like Little Lone Star’s Anita. This figure of “darker” and lower-class, illicit sexuality—usually positioned on the real and figurative border—is more common in the popular imagery than the senorita. Robbins's cowboy-narrator, Gary Cooper's Will Kane and McCarthy's John Grady Cole may be attracted to, have sex with, and even fall in love with such a figure, but usually these relationships are not culturally meant to last, as we see in a nineteenth-century cowboy song:

Me and Juana talkin' low
So the “madre” couldn't hear—
How those hours would go a-flyin',
And too soon I'd hear her sighin',
In her little sorry tone—
“Adios, mi corazon”
.....Never seen her since that night;
I kain't cross the Line, you know.
She was Mex and I was white;
Like as not it's better so.

(Lomax 67-68)

More often than not, our cowboy must take up romantic permanency with his own racial-cultural kind:

I'm free to think of Susie—
Fairer than the stars above,—
She's the waitress at the station
And she is my turtle dove.
.....I take my saddle, Sundays,—
The one with inlaid flaps,—
And on my new sombrero
And my white angora chaps;
Then I take a bronc for Susie
And she leaves her pots and pans
And we figure out our future
And talk o'er our homestead plans.

(Lomax 65-66)

Yet another song fills out the spiritual dimensions of this female figure:

You wonders why I slicks up so
On Sundays, when I gits to go
To see her—well, I'm free to say
She's like religion that-a-way.
Jes sort o' like some holy thing,
As clean as young grass in the spring;

(Lomax 72)

Anglo women are represented, on one hand, as religious, virtuous, faithful, hard-working housewives or potential housewives—pretty, if sometimes a bit homey. According to Pettit, in High Noon the “prim and proper” Amy, just such an Anglo woman, does not forsake Will Kane on his wedding day, for example (205). On the other hand, we have the image of the tough-talking, somewhat sexually available, take-charge, Anglo woman who can drink—Miss Kitty of the old television series Gunsmoke (1955-75). A related version is the older-woman-in-charge, such as Jordan Benedict's feisty unmarried sister, Luz, in Edna Ferber's Giant, as both novel (1952) and film (1956; produced by George Stevens and Henry Ginsburg). Susie in the cowboy song has a bit of this type, and more recently we have the ex-prostitute Anglo character Lorena, in Larry McMurtry's Streets of Laredo, as both novel and television mini-series.

This cultural complex attracted significant analytical attention in the 1960s, even as early as 1958, with Américo Paredes's “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. In the 1960s Chicano and Chicana cultural critics offered a critical reading of its iconography, although Anglo scholars generally share the view as well.1 They unequivocally implicated these recurrent images in the history of Anglo conquest and the quasi-colonialism of Mexican communities, not only in what later became the Southwest, but in Mexico as well. Casting Mexican women, in particular, as sexually promiscuous made them morally available within a code of racism ratifying and extending the right of Anglo conquest to the realm of the sexual. By taking “his” woman, the Anglo colonizer further diminished the already desexualized Mexican male even as the Anglo male body was sexually affirmed. Anglo males thus extracted not only economic surplus value from Mexicans but also what Chicano Marxist critic Guillermo Flores calls “racial-cultural surplus value” (194). In their extensive review of American literature treating this subject, Alfredo Mirandé and Evangelina Enríquez conclude: “The progressively bleak picture we have presented … reveals a pathetic series of depictions of the Chicana in American literature. From the coquettish señorita to the lusty whore … a series of portrayals unfolds that pays little tribute to Mexican femininity. Underscoring this series, which recedes into negativity, is the theme of an encounter between two very different cultures which produces a pattern of initial attraction that quickly gives way to rejection, seduction, and finally, relegation to inferior status of one by the other” (158). Otherwise highly critical of such representations, Mirandé and Enríquez offer one ambivalent passage that, as early as 1979, began to lead me away from my own former view that this iconography simply reproduces colonialist dominance: “Although their [Mexican women's] deficiencies are cited as frequently as their attractions, it is noteworthy that their exotic qualities often triumph when they are compared with their American sisters” (143).

The very persistence and predictability of the iconography, together with the advent of certain strains of postcolonial theory and the passage of time and change of circumstance, now lead me in a direction that lends full valence to the exotic and erotic character of these figurations, even as it restores a part of the iconography often left out of such analyses: hard-working, faithful, religious, sort of pretty Anglo Susie and the somewhat later “Latin Lover.” An intriguing passage focused on Texas in Arnoldo De Leon's 1983 They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900 further encouraged this new direction: “The image of Mexicans as irresponsible and promiscuous laid the foundation for another important theme in nineteenth-century Texas—the sexual desire of white men for Mexican women. White men took Mexican senoritas to bed, perhaps more often than can ever be known. But the sexual relations were not just something that naturally came to be: on the contrary, they occurred only after the physical drive of white men wrestled with the discriminating psyche that resisted such relations” (39). Charles Ramirez-Berg has also taken something of this anticipatory perspective to my own work but in Lacanian theoretical terms; in such images, he says: “the Other is (temporarily) idealized as the path back to wholeness, until what always happens does happen—the subject realizes that the Other is lacking. In terms of Hispanic stereotypes, it might be speculated that the stereotypes have persisted in cinema—since the earliest years of this century—because they fulfilled a need of the Anglos” (291).

The alternative reading I would offer of this iconography conceptually departs from De Leon's perhaps unintended double-entendre on the Anglo “discriminating psyche.”2 The Anglo male's struggle is not so much between his psyche and something distinct called the physical; rather, it is deeply intrapsychic even as it is social. The problem of “discrimination” is not confined to external social relationships; it is a struggle to discriminate between deeply internalized political relationships and allegiances. Needed also relative to Ramirez-Berg's Lacanian thesis is a historicization of an otherwise quite persuasive psychoanalytic insight that informs my own account as well. One must account for these complexities of desire with greater historical specificity as to social change and conditions that might be loosely termed colonialist.3


I am swayed in this direction by Homi Bhabha's recent theoretical work on race, sexuality, and colonialism. Robert Young explains how Bhabha exploits a somewhat repressed distinction that Edward Said made in his now famous formulation of Orientalism as the discursive project through which the West came to fashion its inherently denigrating view of the colonized cultural Other. Employing a psychoanalytic perspective, Bhabha pursues Said's brief notice of a latent as well as a manifest Orientalism, or what Young terms “an unconscious positivity of fantasmatic desire” (161). By emphasizing the extent to which the two levels fused, Young explains, Bhabha shows us “how colonial discourse of whatever kind operated not only as an instrumental construction of knowledge but also according to the ambivalent protocols of fantasy and desire” (161). Bhabha would move us away from a rigid, univocal understanding of such cultural constructions toward ambivalence: “To recognize the stereotype as an ambivalent mode of knowledge and power demands a theoretical and political response that challenges deterministic or functionalist modes of conceiving of the relationship between discourse and politics. The analytic of ambivalence questions dogmatic and moralistic positions on the meaning of oppression and discrimination” (66-67). He would have us shift from “the ready recognition of images as positive or negative, to an understanding of the processes of subjectification made possible (and plausible) through stereotypical discourse” (67). Rather than simply judge such a construction as the sexy senorita “bad” image, he would have us “displace” it, by engaging with its “effectivity; with the repertoire of positions of power and resistance, domination and dependence that constructs colonial identification subject (both colonizer and colonized)” in forms of difference that are racial and sexual. “[S]uch a reading reveals … the boundaries of colonial discourse,” Bhabha believes, “and it enables a transgression of these limits from the space of that otherness” (67). “In making ambivalence the constitutive heart of his analyses,” Young explains, “Bhabha has in effect performed a political reversal at a conceptual level in which the periphery—the borderline, the marginal, the unclassifiable, the doubtful—has become the equivocal, indefinite, indeterminate ambivalence that characterizes the centre” (161).

How can ambivalence help us understand the cultural iconography in which, against a degenerate Mexican male, the Anglo cowboy seeks a Mexican woman, even as Susie waits ready to homestead with her pots, pans, and religion? How can we now rethink the relationship of this expressive complex to quasi-colonialism in the Southwest, especially Texas—a quasi-colonialism that included land usurpation and physical violence, but, more significantly, the daily extraction of labor power and racial-cultural gratification and status within a code of racial segregation often enforced through the power of the state, which prevailed well into my own lifetime? In the summer of 1962, I drove back to south Texas with other angry, disappointed, working-class Mexican guys, on a senior trip to anglo-dominated central Texas, after we were refused admission to the wonderful swimming areas in a town named San Marcos, fed by three rivers—named in the seventeenth century as the San Antonio, the Guadalupe, and the Medina. We listened to Robbins's “El Paso” on the car radio. What did it mean to not only listen to such a song with some pleasure but actually to sing along in chorus about a heroic but lonesome Anglo cowboy longing for an attractive Mexican bar-girl? What pleasure could segregated Mexican boys, or those who segregated them, take in a musical performance seemingly reproducing their social relationship, a relationship still more viciously dominant in the nineteenth-century Texas setting of this song? Is this not a case of what Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialist nostalgia,” which “uses a pose of ‘innocent yearning’ both to capture people's imagination and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination” (70)? For such instances from the Mexican border, I want to suggest a more complicated signification.

Frederick Pike reminds us of the way nineteenth-century middle-class Anglo-America conflated sexual repression and control with capitalist expansion. “For the businessmen intent upon building America's economic foundations,” he tells us, “thrift seemed a cardinal virtue; and thrift meant establishing strict control over spending—both dollars and sperm. … Nineteenth-century defenders of American middle-class respectability assumed that excess spending of male sperm was bad both for the nation's economy and its morality” (53). The lack of this capitalist virtue was then projected onto what later came to be called the Third World, which, for such Americans, meant Latin America and, according to Pike, the American South. Challenges to such a capitalism—the 1960s, for example—have always carried with them a sexual practice critiquing repression, along with more instrumentalist political-economic analyses and actions.

I want to suggest that the American cowboy, the Mexican female figure of illicit sexuality, and the “prim and proper” Anglo female figure represent a scenario of ambivalence played out in partial and unconscious challenge to the ruling cultural order. Significantly, this scenario's central figure of ambivalence is a cowboy, a figure on the lower rungs of American capitalism at its most expansive moment, working in the West and in Texas, a periphery of the American capitalist culture centered in the East and Midwest well into the twentieth century (Montejano 309-20). A complicated ambivalent resistance to this expansive culture has always been sited on the cowboy. While many such figures represent societal law and order—Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke, for instance—loner figures like Clint Eastwood are already at the critical margins of society. When either enter the realm of the sexual Other, however, the critical possibilities are enhanced if we give full valence to the rhetorically sexualized Mexican woman for what this figure might say about the subject who so persistently desires her. In the figure of the desiring cowboy we can, indeed, see the colonizing agent—white, tall, strong gunfighter—but we can also detect a fissure in the colonial enterprise, a break with the sexual repression concomitant with the ruling order that desire for the racial Other accentuates. At its most extreme, the agent of colonialism may actually die in his quest for the Other. In the song “El Paso,” the Anglo cowboy finally dies in Selena's arms. We also need to recall her desire for him. Critics often read such a woman's active pursuit as yet another example of colonial dominance—she longs for his domination. However, as bell hooks notes of such racialized Otherness, “within this fantasy … the longing for pleasure is projected as a force that can disrupt and subvert the will to dominate. It acts to both mediate and challenge” (27)—although I would add, never wholly undo. We may imagine such mutual longing as always ambivalent guerrillalike activity destabilizing the unitary, repressed colonialist capitalist culture at its most primal site of value.

Such a sexualized destabilization without clear victory is, I think, the critical value of High Noon's appearance in the early 1950s, when the segregation and labor exploitation of Mexican-Americans was everywhere evident in Texas and the rest of the nation. As a Mexican boy growing up in the aforementioned San Marcos, Texas, in the mid '50s, Tino Villanueva, now a well-known poet, drew deep racial instruction from Giant (see his Scene from the Movie “Giant” [1993]), while I, in southern Texas, watched Stanley Kramer's High Noon in utter fascination. Perhaps more boy than Mexican, I, like many other Americans, was wholly taken by Gary Cooper as town marshall Will Kane awaiting, in his small nineteenth-century Western town of Hadleyville, gunfighters from Texas sworn to kill him at high noon. But one now sees the significance of Helen Ramirez, the town madam and Will Kane's former lover, played by Katy Jurado. At first, wholly within the tradition of the eroticized Mexican woman, she is inevitably contrasted with Amy, Kane's new bride. A Quaker, Amy will not abide her husband's impending violence and decides to leave him, though later she abruptly changes her mind. Out of her very sexual marginality, however, Helen has forged a distinctive subversive identity within the town's repressive moral and political economy. Her professional sexual practice has led to a “primitive” accumulation of capital which she has used to convert herself into a “legitimate” and competent businesswoman, owner of a saloon and a store. Her combined sexual and economic power allows her to hold sway over the town's white male community as they make ritual, obsequious visits to her queenly apartment above the bar to curry favor while their repressed white wives wait at home.

In a long and telling middle scene, she and Kane confront each other at the height of Kane's crisis, and it is abundantly clear that Kane has fully experienced her evident passion and still cares deeply for her as does she for him. Imbedded in their dialogue is a brief but fulsome exchange of deeply romantic words uttered in Spanish, probably lost on the predominantly Anglo audience since they are inserted without any translation and are therefore already subversive. These words speak massive cultural volumes to any native member of the Spanish-speaking world: “Un año sin verte” (A year without seeing you), she says to him as she gazes deeply into his eyes; “lo se” (I know), he answers. He answers in such an informed Spanish that it is clear that he has been interpellated by the language just as he has by her entire sexual-cultural being. Indeed, he knows a great deal, more than he will be willing to admit, but she knows that in their mano a mano he has capitulated to the other side. She decides to leave town with their love never permanently fulfilled.

They see each other only once more. Helen is riding to the train station in a buggy with Amy, who is also leaving town; they pass Kane standing in the street awaiting his assailants. Amy looks away from him, but Helen's eyes lock onto Kane's, and through her eyes the camera holds him for a full five seconds as he returns her steady parting gaze. So how could this passionate romance have failed? Why does Kane leave Helen for Amy and the life of a small shopkeeper? The implication is quite clear: he has been unable to escape the racism and the sexual/economic repression of the town's capitalist moral economy. Helen comments on this economy as she gets ready to leave: “I hate this town. I've always hated it, to be a Mexican woman in a town like this.” Kane leaves Helen for Amy even though Helen is the superior figure; she even rhetorically forces Amy to assist in his final moment of crisis as the gunfight begins. At the end of the film, he and Amy emerge triumphant heroes over some part of this economy, but it is also clear that they have both derived great strength from the racial-sexual Other—Helen Ramirez—even as Kane denies her claim on his sexual and moral sensibility. She will, of course, lose Kane to Amy and leave town. In her final scene, however, Helen is on the train and as the camera focuses on her strong, beautiful, Mexican face, we clearly sense that she has achieved some large measure of victory in this contest even as the film at the end too quickly erases her strong, sexualized, Mexican female presence to make narrative way for the white reunited couple, triumphant heroes of the rising yet repressed bourgeois social order in the later nineteenth century.

One conventional, circumscribed reading of High Noon is that the town has morally failed the heroic Will Kane, taking this as a critical commentary on the McCarthyite 1950s, when society failed to act against the “bad men” until it was almost too late. But as a perhaps unintended critical commentary on the Anglo-Mexican racial politics of this period, the film is a local intervention often ignored in efforts to nationalize and universalize the film. While heroic in one way, Kane fails in another. I submit that after their climactic meeting Kane labors with his own racially motivated moral failure to fully respond to Helen's plenitude and to thereby transcend the racialized political-economic moral order. Even as he survives the gunfight and restores his marriage with Amy, it is clear that his petit bourgeois world has been forever destabilized by his prior knowledge of the Mexican sexual Other. Helen's parting gaze is on him forever and “un año sin verte” plus many more may never be enough to undo her ambivalent yet powerful incursion into Will Kane's life.


If the Mexican woman in her full sexuality has critical possibilities, what of the clearly despised Mexican male? With none of the exoticism, the eroticism, or freer play given that of the Mexican woman, he is a rhetorical construction for which the term stereotype is in unforgivingly full force. In this discursive encounter men read other men in a discursive mano a mano. Denigration of the Mexican male is conventionally understood as the articulation of colonialism directed specifically at the male body that traditionally offered the greatest opposition, namely the heroic male figures of the Texas-Mexican border ballads, or corridos. In the context of the Anglo male's politically and psychologically necessary desire for Mexican women, however, we begin to see here a psychoanalytic relationship of identity and difference, narcissism and aggressivity. The Mexican and Anglo males narcissistically identify with each other as equally available sexual partners for Mexican women. Indeed, Américo Paredes suggests that the ideal Mexican cowboy or vaquero, quite contrary to the stereotypic image, was more likely to be tall, lean, and dark with green or tawny eyes, more like his Anglo counterpart than not. (“With His Pistol in His Hand” 111). However, such a Mexican man would still have a cultural advantage over his Anglo mirror image relative to Mexican women, if only by his Spanish fluency. In response, the Anglo, who controls this discursive site, produces a maximum form of difference and aggressivity so as to wholly deny the identity of the Mexican man, which, if it were acknowledged, puts him at a disadvantage in his quest. When it comes to the construction of Mexican males by Anglo males, there can be no rhetorical quarter given, no ambivalence.

Ambivalent toward Mexican women as he is, the Anglo male nevertheless recognizes the limits of his transgression and returns to Susie. And what else is Susie—pots, pans, hard work, religion and all (likely including a timid sexuality)—but the figure of the dominant culture that compels this resolution. In the white “settlement” of the West, such women represented the most effective form of colonialism, bringing with them the daily habitus of households, social etiquette, religion, and schools for the reproduction of fundamental colonial values (Deutsch 63). The schoolmarm emerges as the ultimate pairing for our cowboy once he is done with his transgressive experimentation at the border. As mothers, such women were also obligated to reproduce Anglo culture, literally, in its numbers, but also through socialization. J. Frank Dobie, an archetypal cowboy, grew up on a Texas ranch in the late nineteenth century and told of his very religious mother, who was a schoolteacher in south Texas before marrying his rancher father, bore six children, and eventually persuaded him to move the family into town (71-82). Giving up his range life for the sake of such civilizing women is another vector of cowboy ambivalence, as “A Cowboy's Son” also suggests:

Whar y'u from, little stranger, little boy?
Y'u was ridin' a cloud on that star-strewn plain,
But y'u fell from the skies like a drop of rain
To this world of sorrow and long, long pain.
Will y'u care fo' yo' mothah, little boy?
When y'u grows, little varmint, little boy,
Y'u'll be ridin' a hoss by yo' fathah's side
With yo' gun and yo' spurs and yo' howstrong pride.
Will y'u think of yo' home when the world rolls wide?
Will y'u wish for yo' mothah, little boy?
When y'u love in yo' manhood, little boy,—
When y'u dream of a girl who is angel fair,—
When the stars are her eyes and the wind is her hair,—
When the sun is her smile and yo' heaven's there,—
Will y'u care for yo' mothah, little boy?

(Lomax 88)

In this cowboy world, the mother, conflated with the “angel fair” girl, exerts civilizing power along with domesticity. Though “fathah” appears as cowboy mentor with horse, gun, and pride, the song never asks the question: “Will y'u care for yo' fathah?”

The Anglo male's ambivalent transgression with the Other as sexualized Mexican woman is usually resolved in the direction of this hegemonic Anglo woman-centered culture, from where such a woman might also recognize her greatest enemy. For we learn again from J. Frank Dobie's autobiography that his mother had specifically instructed her sons never to “debase themselves by living with Mexican women” (89). As I have suggested about Will Kane in High Noon, this resolution of ambivalence often occurred with nostalgia:

Her eyes were brown—a deep, deep brown:
Her hair was darker than her eyes;
And something in her smile and frown,
Curled crimson lip and instep high,
Showed that there ran in each blue vein,
Mixed with the milder Aztec strain,
The vigorous vintage of Old Spain.
.....The air was heavy, the night was hot,
I sat by her side and forgot, forgot;
Forgot the herd that were taking rest,
Forgot that the air was close oppressed.
.....And I wonder why I do not care
For the things that are, like the things that were.
Does half my heart lie buried there
In Texas, down by the Rio Grande?

(Lomax 24-26)

Thus far I have been dealing with a cultural iconography born out of the nineteenth century with a specific siting in the West and, to some considerable degree, in Texas. The twentieth century brings another image, broadly Latin American; it might be said to begin in the early 1920s with the film career of the Italian Rudolph Valentino and his portrayal of the “Latin Lover” and to have developed up through our own time in a lineage that includes, most prominently, Gilbert Roland, Desi Arnaz (before he loved Lucy), Fernando Lamas, Ricardo Montalban, Zorro, Julio Iglesias, and—in contemporary, funkier versions—Jimmy Smits and Antonio Banderas. How does this strong, slender, suave, sophisticated, slightly accented, slightly dark, simmering, sultry—is it necessary to say sexy?—figure work into this iconography? It seems not unreasonable to view this image in relation to two factors emerging out of the period between the two World Wars and gaining potency after the second: first, the greater cultural tolerance at the national level for Latin America, especially Mexico, as a result, in significant part, of the latter's enlistment on the Allied side in World War II—what Helen Delpar has called “the enormous vogue of things Mexican”—second, the increasing structural and cultural freedom of Anglo-American women—the presumed desiring audience for this icon. Recall how often in films and TV shows she meets the “Latin Lover” while she is on vacation somewhere in Latin America either by herself or with a girlfriend. Ricky came to love Lucy while she was vacationing in Havana with Ethel sometime before 1959, for example.4 In the relationship of these latter-day Anglo women—now at some considerable distance from Susie and J. Frank Dobie's mother—to this figure of Latin male sexuality, do we not have a relationship similar to the traditional Anglo male—Mexican woman conjunction? Does this relationship not also make a momentary ambivalent claim to greater though transgressive fulfillment, although the Anglo woman also usually finds permanence elsewhere?5

In the preceding, I have tried to shift us from a directly correlated, univocal relationship between such iconography and quasi-colonialism to one of ambivalence. The colonized thus become a site for witnessing a fissure or decentering within the colonizer, remaining unequal. A larger realm of freedom for colonized and colonizer would require termination of even this ambivalence and a revision of the social relations that have sustained it. John Sayles's recent film Lone Star suggests such a termination by radically revising the history of this iconography.


A murder mystery, Lone Star is set in contemporary small-town southern Texas along the US-Mexico border. Through flashbacks it spans the years from the 1930s to the present. In the 1990s Sam Deeds—the young, tough, lean, soft-spoken Anglo county sheriff—is trying to solve the murder of Charlie Wade—the former corrupt, tyrannical, and racist sheriff, whose remains were accidently found in the desert after his mysterious disappearance some 40 years previous. Between these two sheriffs' tenure, the office was filled by Sam's father, Buddy Deeds, said to be the living definition of the epic Texas male. Although Buddy too is now dead, he becomes a prime suspect in Wade's murder. Buddy served as Wade's deputy before becoming sheriff and they clashed over Wade's corruption. Led by Hollis, the mayor and a former deputy to both Wade and Buddy, the town—Anglo, Mexican, and African-American—remains loyal both to Buddy's epic quality and his patronage politics. Revered almost as much as Buddy, his now dead Anglo wife, Muriel, is said to have been “an angel of a woman.” In the course of his investigation, Sam comes upon repressed information that revisits the traditional iconography.

Sam eventually discovers the identity of Wade's killer, but this other knowledge of past and present racialized sexualities gives the story greater significance. It sketches the evolution of Anglo-Mexican relations in Texas and radically revises the traditional iconography. Buddy presided as sheriff in the period roughly from the late 1950s to the early 1970s. Though not Charlie Wade, he still participated in maintaining a colonialist social order in which the local Mexicans knew their place; he did not, for example, permit his teenaged son, Sam, to date Pilar, a Mexican-American, and was livid when he caught them necking at a local drive-in theater. The reason for these strictures turns out to be more complex than simple racism: Pilar is the attractive daughter of Mercedes Cruz, the owner of a successful local Mexican restaurant and herself a beautiful woman in her youth. Mercedes's husband, Eladio Cruz, had died some years previous. While Sam has become sheriff, Pilar has become an activist high school history teacher. As the murder investigation proceeds, Sam and Pilar rekindle their romantic relationship, culminating in a slow romantic dance to juke box music after-hours in her mother's restaurant. Befitting the social forces they come to represent, they dance to the 1960s tune by Ivory Joe Hunter with the refrain, “Since I met you baby, my whole life has changed,” sung, however, in Spanish by Freddy Fender.

As late as the mid 1960s, colonial order still prevailed in many parts of Texas, of which the administrations of both Charlie Wade and Buddy Deeds are very accurate representations. Buddy changes the style of administration, however, from one of violent coercion to one in which, in Gramscian terms, the state justifies and maintains its dominance by winning the active consent of the dominated (see Adamson 165). Buddy, our archtypal Texas male, played out the sexualized cultural politics of ambivalence. While married to an Anglo woman with an appropriately angelic name, Muriel, he completes the traditional constellation of images through a love affair with the beautiful Mercedes. As with Kane and Ramirez, this is an affair that questions the cultural totality of the ruling order, especially since the erstwhile “Mexican” Pilar is his daughter and therefore Sam's half-sister. It remains for his son Sam and his daughter Pilar to move beyond this dialectic of rule and ambivalence into a greater realm of freedom.

As the film ends Sam and Pilar are sitting on the hood of a car parked at the now abandoned drive-in theater as Sam tells her all that he has discovered about their mixed parentage. Sam and Pilar, like Will Kane and Helen Ramirez, must make a critical decision. They can go their separate ways, or they can continue and make permanent through marriage their relationship despite, or perhaps through, this knowledge. The film ends without an absolutely clear resolution. For me, there is nothing now in the social order to prevent the legal and moral consummation of their love. They are free to do what Kane, in his shallow heroism, could not. I am not persuaded that Pilar and Sam will forsake each other on their wedding day about-to-be. It is entirely appropriate that this final scene and decision take place in the now decaying drive-in theater where they once made illicit teenage love: the theater and the love making symbolize another era when the colonial order was still in full force (when Mexicans were not allowed to swim in the swimming areas of San Marcos fed by the San Antonio, Medina, and Guadalupe rivers).

“Forget the Alamo,” says Pilar, as she and Sam appear to decide to forge a relationship based not on sexually transgressive ambivalence but rather on a clear recognition of their relative equality and the public continuation of their love. A college-educated intellectual, she has social status equalizing whatever cultural capital still accrues to him as an Anglo in the 1990s. As a public school teacher—indeed a teacher of history, the “queen” of the sciences—she revises the image of the Mexican woman at the sexual and social margins of society, often as a prostitute. In effect, Pilar appropriates the traditional image of the civilizing Anglo schoolmarm with a critical difference: she is a civilized and civilizing individual while maintaining a full and healthy display of her sexuality. Her initiation in a Mexican restaurant of the sex she will enjoy with Sam revises the iconographic sexual encounter between Anglo cowboy and Mexican woman in a cantina. Not a cantina, this is a socially sanctioned space; the fact that it is not only a Mexican but also a Mexican-owned restaurant testifies to the full emergence of a Mexican-American social class that would now effectively demand an equal place in society. Other well-educated Mexican-American figures appear who are on the verge of taking over civil and state society, replacing the Hollises and Sams or at least sharing power with them. Represented by clean-cut, earnest young Mexican-American males—a journalist and a mayoral candidate who will replace Hollis and Sam—they are garbed in the coats and ties of civil society. These Mexican-American male figures have no discernible sexual valence in the film, negative or positive; they are a considerable distance from both the rapacious Mexican bandit and the “Latin Lover.”

This implied ending of the colonial order has much to do with the sexualized kinship twist that Sayles has given his story. The fact that Pilar and Sam are simultaneously lovers and blood brother and sister reinforces their sexually constituted love with the enduring bonds of consanguineous affiliation. Their half-blood relations suggest that these two social sectors are now also united in brother-sisterhood, though still with some, perhaps minimal, social distance. Public equals and in unambivalent love, in semi-brother-sisterhood, still aware of their ethnicities, Pilar and Sam are willing, in her words, (and it is critical that she say them) to “forget the Alamo.”7 She is a teacher of history, and one senses that she means negate history in the present by moving beyond the colonial, if ambivalent, sexual and social worlds of her parents. Is this a utopian vision? Perhaps, but the foremost social historian of these matters in Texas, with great sociological supporting data, wrote in 1986: “From the long view of a century and a half, Mexican-Anglo relations have traversed a difficult path, from the hatred and suspicion engendered by war to a form of reconciliation” (Montejano 297); “[T]his does not mean that ethnic solidarity has become a matter of the past; it means rather that it has become subordinated to the voices of moderation from both communities. The politics of negotiation and compromise have replaced the politics of conflict and control” (Montejano 306). Negotiation and compromise characterize a good marriage, one beyond domination, inequality, stereotypic iconographies, and ambivalence.8 Seen in the context of a correlation of social forces now underway in Texas, New Mexico, and perhaps other parts of Mexican America, Lone Star is a film that seems to end the legacy of Little Lone Star; it invites us to review this iconographic and social history even as it seems to propose productive forgetfulness in the name of a larger vision long overdue. Relative to this conflicted history, is Sayles an obscurantist, or in Alan Stone's words, “a prophet of hope”?


  1. See my review of this Chicano critique. The principal Anglo-American scholarship is that of Pettit, preceded by Cecil Robinson's With the Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature (1963).

  2. I was also motivated in this direction by Americo Paredes' brief and general yet intriguing assessment of this iconography in his 1978 essay “The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture” (43).

  3. I do not wish to adhere to any rigid definition of colonialism, internal or otherwise, relative to this Mexican-American community that represents a mixture of landed conquered people dating back to the sixteenth century and third and fourth generation children of immigrants, as well as more recent ones. My loose sense of such a colonial order between Anglos and Mexicans in the US would suggest that in some respects, especially in the realm of culture, the Anglos and Mexicans have interacted in a manner that bears some similarities to classic examples of world colonialism. This seems to me to be especially the case in the realm of sexuality. For a fine discussion of the history of the concept of “colonialism” relative to Anglos and Mexicans in the Southwest, see Almaguer.

  4. My discussion here is indebted to Gustavo Pérez Firmat on Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball (chs. 1 and 2).

  5. There is also the more complicated case where an Anglo male such as D. H. Lawrence imagines Anglo women desiring Mexican men, combining the “Latin Lover” with something of the degenerate Mexican bandit. As Marianna Torgovnick tells us, for Kate in Lawrence's Plumed Serpent, “Mexico can also offer Mexican men, especially ‘silent, semi-barbarous men’ in whom she finds ‘humility, and the pathos of grace … something very beautiful and truly male, and very hard to find in a civilised white man. It was not of the spirit. It was of the dark, strong, unbroken blood, the flowering of the soul’” (163).

  6. My heading is a phrase uttered by Otis Payne, the central African-American character in Lone Star. Except for a rather forced implication of Otis in the murder plot at the very end, the Mexican and African-American stories rarely come together. I think Sayles was imagining the film's appeal to a larger national audience too likely to see Lone Star as just another border “Western.”

  7. Sayles has to foreclose the possibility of biosocial reproduction, however; so Pilar, for past medical reasons, can no longer get pregnant. Yet Sam and Pilar have nothing to prove on this score; already products of such racialized sexuality, they foretell the shape of the new social order. Admittedly, this is an ambiguous ending, although it is clear that Sayles expected his audience to understand that Pilar and Sam would stay together. See Stone.

  8. We must note that this “marriage” does not seem to include recent undocumented Mexican immigrants such as those working in the kitchen of Mercedes's restaurant. In her movement from hostility to some sympathy for this population, Mercedes represents Mexican-American ambivalence toward Mexican immigrants. See de la Garza et al. 10-102; and Gutiérrez 207-16.

Works Cited

Adamson, Walter L. Hegemony and Revolution: A Study of Antonio Gramsci's Political and Cultural Theory. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980.

Almaguer, Tomas. “Ideological Distortions and Recent Chicano Historiography: The Internal Colonial Model and Chicano Historical Interpretation.” Aztlan: A Journal of Chicano Research 18 (1987): 7-28.

Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

de la Garza, Rodolfo O., et al. Latino Voices: Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban Perspectives on American Politics. Boulder: Westview, 1992.

De Leon, Arnoldo. They Called Them Greasers: Anglo Attitudes toward Mexicans in Texas, 1821-1900. Austin: U of Texas P, 1983.

Deutsch, Sarah. No Separate Refuge: Culture, Class, and Gender on an Anglo-Hispanic Frontier in the American Southwest, 1880-1940. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.

Dobie, J. Frank. Some Part of Myself. 1967. Austin: U of Texas P, 1980.

Firmat, Gustavo Pérez. Life on the Hyphen: The Cuban-American Way. Austin: U of Texas P, 1994.

Flores, Guillermo. “Race and Culture in the Internal Colony: Keeping the Chicano in His Place.” Structures of Dependency. Ed. Frank Bonilla and Robert Girling. Oakland: Sembradora, 1973. 189-223.

Gunsmoke. CBS. 1955-1975.

Gutiérrez, David G. Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the Politics of Ethnicity. Berkeley: U of California P, 1995.

Hall, Sam. Little Lone Star, or, The Belle of the Cibolo. 1886.

High Noon. Dir. Fred Zinneman. Prod. Stanley Kramer. With Gary Cooper and Katy Jurado. United Artists, 1952.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Boston: South End, 1992.

Limón, José E. “Stereotyping and Chicano Resistance: An Historical Dimension.” Aztlan: Chicano Journal of the Social Sciences and the Arts 4 (1973): 257-70. Rptd. in Chicanos and Film: Representation and Resistance. Ed. Chon A. Noriega. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1992. 3-17.

Lomax, John A., comp. Songs of the Cattle Trail and Cow Camp. New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Lone Star. Dir. John Sayles. Prod. R. Paul Miller and Maggie Renzi. With Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey, Chris Cooper, and Elizabeth Peña. Columbia, 1996.

McCarthy, Cormac. All the Pretty Horses. New York: Vintage, 1992.

McMurtry, Larry. Streets of Laredo. New York: Simon, 1993.

Mirandé, Alfredo, and Evangelina Enríquez. La Chicana: The Mexican-American Woman. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1979.

Montejano, Anglos and Mexicans in the Making of Texas, 1836-1986. Austin: University of Texas P, 1987.

Paredes, Americo. “The Problem of Identity in a Changing Culture: Popular Expressions of Culture Conflict along the Lower Rio Grande Border.” Views across the Border: The United States and Mexico. Ed. Stanley Ross. Albuquerque: U of New Mexico, 1978. 68-94. Rptd. in Folklore and Culture on the Texas-Mexican Border. Ed. Richard Bauman. Austin: Center for Mexican-American Studies, University of Texas, 1993. 19-47.

———. “With His Pistol in His Hand”: A Border Ballad and Its Hero. Austin: U of Texas P, 1958.

Pettit, Arthur G. Images of the Mexican American in Fiction and Film. Ed. Dennis E. Showalter. College Station: Texas A&M UP, 1980.

Pike, Frederick B. The United States and Latin American: Myths and Stereotypes of Civilization and Nature. Austin: U of Texas P, 1992.

Ramirez-Berg, Charles. “Stereotyping in Films in General and of the Hispanic in Particular.” The Howard Journal of Communications 2 (1990).

Robinson, Cecil. With the Ears of Strangers: The Mexican in American Literature. Tucson: U of Arizona P, 1963.

Rosaldo, Renato. Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis. Boston: Beacon, 1989.

Stone, Alan A. “The Prophet of Hope.” Boston Review Oct.-Nov. 1996: 20-22.

Torgovnick, Marianna. Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1990.

Young, Robert J. C. Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge, 1995.

Rose Marie Berger (review date July-August 1998)

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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 evening blessing over our meal. “Our Creator in heaven,” they pray in Nahuat, one of the indigenous languages of El Salvador. As a poet in a time when languages are being lost at a rate equivalent to the rain forest, I clung to the edges of the words, the narrowness of their sound, their rhythm like wind in high trees, never expecting to hear them again.

John Sayles' newest film, Men with Guns, not only includes dialogue in Nahuat, but in Tzotzil, Maya, and Kuna, as well as Spanish and English. “Language is one of the main gaps between people,” Sayles says about his characters. “If everyone was speaking English, the story wouldn't make as much sense.” (The subtitles, by the way, are clear and excellent.)

In his understated way, Sayles' movie mission is about making sense. He does so not in a rational, superficial, or always socially recognizable way, but on a very human and spiritual level, digging at the question of how to shore up faith and uncover meaning in daily life.

Sayles characteristically uses a guide, an outsider, someone who leads the viewer through self-discovery in the story. In The Brother from Another Planet (1984), the guide is a black mute extraterrestrial who beams down in Harlem; in Matewan (1987), a union organizer; in The Secret of Roan Inish (1994), a young girl. In Men with Guns, our “escort” is Humberto Fuentes (Argentinean actor Federico Luppi), a wealthy doctor approaching retirement who has never paid any attention to the political realities of his unspecified country. He considers his greatest achievement to be his participation in an international health program in which he trained students to work as doctors in the poorest villages.

When Fuentes announces his intention to visit his former students in the mountains, his children and his most prominent patient, an army general, try very hard to dissuade him because of the “unrest.” Still, the doctor begins his quest.

In the village of Rio Seco, Dr. Fuentes finds the Sugar People who harvest cane. In the desert, he finds the Salt People. In Tierra Quemada, he meets the Coffee People who work the plantation, and then the Banana People. However, he does not find any of his students who are supposed to work in these areas. He is only told that they were killed, “graduated,” or disappeared by “the men with guns.” Fuentes' journey becomes a Latin American Canterbury Tale with odd characters joining the doctor, each with their own bit of wisdom and their own unique ignorance.

The idea for Men with Guns came from a story told to Sayles by novelist Francisco Goldman (Long Night of White Chickens), and the character of Dr. Fuentes is based loosely on Goldman's uncle, an educated man unaware of the abuses happening in his own country. Sayles deftly raises the question of our responsibility for knowing what our governments, police, armed forces, and companies are doing.

Fuentes wrestles with how much he did not know because he was lied to and how much he did not know because he had a comfortable life and really didn't want to know. “One of the reasons that people avoid knowing things,” says Sayles, “is that they can't, in any conscience, continue their lives as usual if they admit that knowledge.”

While most of the physical violence in this movie is implied rather than actual, the violence of the poverty, as well as the moral and spiritual desperation, is exhausting. We realize that none of us are off the hook with regard to our responsibility for knowing what is going on. If you are unfamiliar with the Helms-Gonzalez amendment and its affect on equitable property settlements in Nicaragua, find out. If you don't know about the anti-gang legislation going before the Supreme Court, find out.

In that tract house in suburban Washington, D.C., Margarito and Maria Esquino told me a story of rapes and beatings that took place in front of their children, of land stolen, of dreams destroyed, and of contracts broken. They were Weavers, and Fish People running a small shrimp cooperative, and Farmers with several sites owned by their Nahuat, Maya, and Lenca community (Asociacion Nacional Indigena Salvadorena).

Was it right-wing paramilitary squads? Was it leftist guerrilla troops? The political answer was complicated, but the immediate answer was simple. They were men with guns.

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

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7293

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)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4275

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 theatrical feature films, including such memorable works as The Brother from Another Planet (1984), Matewan (1987), City of Hope (1990), Passion Fish (1992), Lone Star (1996), and Men with Guns (1997).

The award-winning novelist and short-story writer got his first filmmaking experience by writing genre scripts for Roger Corman productions such as Piranha (1978), The Lady in Red (1979), and Battle beyond the Stars (1980), and has since become one of the most sought-after screenwriters and script doctors in Hollywood. He has often plowed the earnings from that work back into his own productions and, apart from one unpleasant studio experience involving a dispute over the editing of Baby, It's You (1983), and with the collaboration of his producer and longtime partner Maggie Renzi, Sayles has always been able to retain the right of final cut and casting control.

Like many of his earlier films, Sayles's twelfth and latest production, Limbo, is distinguished by its richly detailed sociopolitical setting, nuanced character portraits, naturalistic dialog, impressive cinematography (by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler), and, in this case, a narrative which not only resists but also undermines genre conventions and stereotypes. It is set in contemporary Alaska, where the gold prospectors, oil drillers, fur trappers, and commercial fishermen who once exploited the natural resources of this rugged frontier landscape are being supplanted by the tourist industry and real-estate developers. The story focuses on the developing romantic relationship between Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), a former fisherman with a troubled past now living as a handyman, and Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a singer at a local bar, as well as a single mother involved in a difficult emotional relationship with her teenage daughter, Noelle (Vanessa Martinez). The second half of the film, arrived at through an unexpected melodramatic twist, could be said to involve more actively the film's fourth principal character—Nature. The ensuing, life-threatening ordeal becomes a crucible for their yearning but troubled emotional relationships with one another, especially that between mother and daughter. At a recent Independent Feature Project screening in New York, Sayles described Limbo as “a Robert Altman movie which midway turns into an Ingmar Bergman film by way of about two to three minutes of Quentin Tarantino.”

It is in a way a testament to Sayles's storytelling skills that he so thoroughly engrosses us in the emotional lives of his characters, and makes us so concerned for their fate, that the film's surprising ending will upset as many viewers as will be emotionally stirred by it. Indeed, for every viewer willing to appreciate the film's focus on the characters' complicated human relationships in lieu of a neat resolution of their suspenseful plight, there will be those who will be shocked and disappointed at the film's failure to fulfill generic expectations.

In the following interview, conducted by Cineaste Contributing Editor Dennis West and Joan M. West at the 25th Annual Seattle International Film Festival, Sayles discusses the thematic concerns and the controversial ending of his new film. Reader discretion, for those who have yet to see Limbo, is advised.

[West and West]: A strong sense of place characterizes many of your previous films, such as Matewan, Passion Fish and Lone Star. What attracted you to explore Alaska as a setting?

[Sayles]: I had traveled in Alaska about eleven years before I made the movie and two things in particular struck me. One was just how close you are to wilderness there. You're in civilization, but you take a fifteen-minute walk and there are wild bears, you can fall into a glacier, you can roll over in your kayak—nature is very big there. Alaska is our biggest state and there are less than a million people there.

The other thing that struck me was how many people have gone there to transform themselves, to become something they couldn't be elsewhere, and in that way it still is a frontier. If you think of America in 1492, what was the New World to Europe? You could start as a foot soldier in the army and end up as Emperor of Mexico. You could be an indentured servant who eventually owns a plantation. You could change your religion, your name, what you did for a living, your social status. Alaska, over the years, has been that kind of place, but because nature is so big there, because of the harsh weather, and the things that you do to make a living up there, you were usually risking your life. Gold prospecting, working on the oil pipeline, and logging are dangerous, and commercial fishing is still the most dangerous job in America in terms of fatalities. Alaska was traditionally a place where men went to risk their lives, to get a job, or to make a fortune. That frontier aspect interested me, especially in that I was about to tell a story about risk, and about the difference between true risk and the illusion of risk.

One of Limbo's themes is that of nature and ecology vs. economic development in a frontier setting. One character sees the future of Alaska as a giant theme park, while others think of the state as a place to eternally harvest natural bounty, such as halibut, salmon, and lumber.

It's an interesting dynamic because this stuff is always in flux. When Joe Gastineau's half-brother comes to town and says, “I hear they closed down the pulp mill,” he replies, “Well, the town smells better.” It's tough on the local people that these original industries died off because they took pride in the fact that they took risks to make a living. In the last ten to fifteen years, more and more of those jobs have been economically phased out or have been regulated so that the risk has been taken out of them, and therefore the way people see themselves has suffered. There's a scene in the beginning of the film, where all those people in the bar are telling stories about plane crashes or ship wrecks or bear attacks, and then you see the woman who works for the cruise ship, and her stories are a little bit more like tales. Those stories that used to be about yourself have become commodities.

While in human terms there's something sad about that, in raw, ecological, ‘don't-cut-it-down’ terms, tourism might end up being a cleaner, less destructive industry. In Juneau, during the Gold Rush days, for example, they weren't finding veins of gold that you could chip out with a pickax. They were taking huge rocks and stamping them in machines that ran twenty-four hours a day, year after year after year, and the noise was deafening. That mountain is honeycombed with holes and is lucky it's still standing. In terms of fishing, the Tlingit Indians would put their traps halfway across the river, so half the fish would get through, they'd go upstream to breed, and there'd be another run the following year. When white people came up there to fish, they wanted to make a fortune, and they'd put their traps all the way across the river, and they almost wiped the salmon out. But the Indians went to court very early, the Tlingit really had their act together legally, and sued enough people to have some regulations enacted. The funny thing is that although these changes have been tough on some people, it may be better ecologically for the state. If you're a tree, you might be in better shape now.

Does the title Limbo refer not just to the principal characters but also to your view of Alaska's current socioeconomic situation?

Not in any conscious way. I was raised Catholic and a Catholic concept of limbo is the place where the souls of unbaptized people go, those who haven't officially been able to be good or bad. The thing that sets it apart from purgatory, which is sort of a waiting room where you do your time and eventually go to heaven, is that limbo is infinite.

For me, limbo is a state that people get trapped in. For example, I'm in this terrible marriage, but, you know what, it's just bearable, but it's bearable. If I get divorced, it's going to be awfully messy, and I'll be alone, and that scares me more than staying in the marriage. You're in a job you hate, but, you know what, I have to feed my kids, and if I quit today, and tell them to take this job and shove it, I don't know if I can get another job, so I'm going to stay in this job. I'm an Indian in Chiapas and I'm in a bad situation, the government is really fucking me over, but, you know, they're not killing me, so do I put on a ski mask and join Subcomandante Marcos, where I could get killed and lose my family and everything? Naaah, I'm going to stay here. So many people live in those limbos, where it's not quite hell, but it's sure not making them happy. For me, the sort of key to the film is that the only way to get out of those kinds of situations is risk, and risk involves not knowing what's going to happen next, or how it's going to work.

Why is Joe, at this point in his life, ready to take chances and risks again, both in work and in love?

Basically, I think, because somebody came along and rooted him out of the cave that he was in. Both he and Donna are people who have had big failures, but they respond differently. I really don't know why people have different reactions—sometimes it's sociology, or maybe it's chemistry. Joe's reaction to failure, to the pain of being burnt, is to not take another risk again, physically or emotionally, for twenty-five years. When Donna gets hammered, her reaction is to have like a two-day period of mourning, and then to get up and say, OK, new day, and lead with her chin again. And she's the one who pulls him out.

He's like a Conrad character—he's got this terrible past, he wishes there were some way he could redeem himself, in his own eyes, for what he feels responsible about, but not enough to risk being responsible for another human being ever again. If something falls in his lap, though, he might grab at it. These two women have to say, “Hey, we'd like you to work this boat for us,” and you see his reaction, “Ooh, wow, a boat.” He would never have gone and said, “Hey, Harmon's boat is available. Maybe I could get enough together to buy it.” Then this woman comes along and he doesn't want to give out any information. She asks, “So how come you're not married?” He is dragged, not quite kicking and screaming, into an emotional situation where he says, “OK, here I am, do you want to take a shot at this?”

Does Donna's outlook on life represent a genuine optimism or a kind of self-protective delusion?

I think it is a courage bordering on recklessness but, once again, I don't know where it comes from. I had an interesting experience in Guatemala, when I was doing research for Men with Guns. I was in a very small village, way up in the mountains, where I met a really nice woman. She had a baby boy in her arms and I asked her her son's name. She told me and I said, “Do you have other kids?” She said, “Well, I have two now, but I had five.” “What happened to the other three?,” I asked, and she said, “The first three died. Children here die because we don't have a clinic nearby, there are no doctors, so if children get sick, you can't get down the mountain in time to save them.” She was not broken up emotionally. You know that it hurt her, but she went and had two more kids.

I thought of the mothers that I know in upstate New York. They have one or two kids and if they don't get into the right pre-school, it's a huge disaster. I can't imagine any of them having lost one child and not going into five years of mourning. Their reaction to that failure, to that pain, would be to say I'm not coming out again. Certainly none of them would have had three children die and then try to have another one. That comes from your experience, your world-view, and all that. Sometimes it's just personality, though. You can see three kids in the same family, and one of them is fearless, and the other two—same parents, same situation—really don't want to take a chance.

It's unusual in American cinema to feature forty-something protagonists in a love story. Why did you?

Referring once again to risk and failure, I'm interested in the way that, as you get older, and you're still looking for relationships, you're a more formed person. It's harder to find a good fit. You know what you don't like, what you don't want to do, what you don't want to be, plus you have standards. When you're twenty, you don't have that many standards. You've got a lot of time to try things, and you're not that formed yet. As you get older, it's kind of like late in the chess game, and there aren't that many moves left. Add to that having a child, and you're not just looking for a partner in life, you're looking for someone who can deal with your kid. That makes it even harder to find a fit.

I don't think you can do that with thirty-year-olds. By the time you're forty, you've had a couple of relationships that didn't work. Donna is reckless, she gets involved in all these relationships, but she also gets out of them quickly when she realizes they are going nowhere. She probably used to stay with guys—and this is something I spoke with Mary Elizabeth about—for three months or three years, not three weeks, by telling herself, “He's just acting this way, he's really a good guy, and this is going to work out.” Well, now she's learned, so while she still has this openness, she also has a quicker trigger finger than she used to. She hits the eject button when she realizes it's not working out, because she knows she's got better standards.

Would you comment on your use of the diary to characterize Noelle, the troubled daughter?

One of the things the movie deals with is how people use stories. The scene in the beginning of the film, where all these Alaskans are telling stories about plane wrecks and so on, they're using stories to define themselves, to tell the world and to tell themselves, “We're Alaskans, we're the people who live with danger.” Donna uses the stories in the songs that she sings. She talks about connecting emotionally with them and she picks the song for the moment emotionally—she even breaks up with her boyfriend through the lyrics of a song.

This young girl probably couldn't sit down and analyze those stories for you or say why everything was there. They're very creative, but they're also very emotional. This is how she gets her emotions out, and they are confused and angry and hurt. All that kind of raw teenage emotion is coming out of these stories, and she's starting to realize that they have something to do with her mother and this guy, so she picks her spots. Sometimes the storytelling just takes her and sometimes she looks at her mother and just lays it out, especially the angry parts. She could not have those literal conversations with her mother, but she can tell those stories to them.

And she's pushed. Her mother says, “Are you gonna read some more?” She could have said, “No, the diary is blank, I'm not going to ready any more,” and just sulk. But something clicks and she says, “You wanna hear some more? OK, I'll read some more,” and she just starts to free associate. What she's free associating on, however, is not something intellectual, it's absolutely raw emotion, and that's how she uses stories.

Limbo is an unusual film in terms of genre expectations—it's part romance, part crime story, part troubled teen biography, and part Jack Londonesque survival tale.

I think our movies have always been in-between genres. Matewan is not quite a Western. Lone Star is not quite a detective story. Sometimes you warn people very early on that's not what they're getting into. In Brother from Another Planet, for example, we have the cheapest special effect in the world for the crash. That's done on purpose, as if to say, “This is not Star Wars, folks. This is about these people, and not about the hardware they rode in on.”

In some of our other movies, we don't use those big action-adventure musical scores. At the beginning of Limbo we even have a kind of John Williamsy, big overblown fanfare type of score for the travelogue that introduces the film, but once you've made fun of that, you can't use it seriously. You've told the audience that this is not a movie that's going to have the Hallelujah Chorus in it. But it's a subtle thing, not something that they're going to be told overtly, but that they're going to feel.

One of the things that I think is odd about this movie, or different than a lot of movies, is that we are asking the audience to really take the same trip that the characters are, and that trip entails surprise and risk. I think the most important phrase in the movie is when the developer says, “What do you get when you get on a roller coaster? You get the illusion of risk, not real risk.” Most genre movies—and I write them for other people—are the illusion of risk. You've got your seat belt on, so, at the end of it, you know you're not going to be hurtled into space. You know that the hero won't be killed and that the nice young couple is going to get together, no matter how many twists and turns you go through with them. You know what ride you're getting on. You're told very early, “OK, this is the space mountain ride, or this is Mad Max, or this is When Harry Met Sally.” In Limbo, you get on one ride, and, all of a sudden, you're thrown into another. The only other movie like it that I can think of offhand is Jonathan Demme's Something Wild, which starts out as a screwball comedy and ends up as a thriller.

I want the audience to say, just as the characters are saying, “Wait a minute, how did these guys get on board? Who are they, where did they come from, and now we're in cold water,” without a whole lot of warning. The only warning you have is one short scene of a guy with a gun. I don't have anyone watching them through binoculars, you don't see them shooting on deck, you're just suddenly in the water with these people, wondering, along with the Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio character, “What is going on here?” In the same regard, at the end of the film, these people have come together as a family. They have taken an emotional risk, and now they're facing a very uncertain future, and I'm asking the audience to face that future with them.

As far as genres go, you don't want to stay on a genre too long, or else people are going to be very disappointed when they get out of it. The movie that Limbo starts out as is not your average generic movie, either. There are these parallel plots, you're meeting all these people, and I could have continued that movie, like City of Hope or Lone Star, and kept going with the parallel stories, and eventually some of them would resolve and some of them wouldn't. Instead I chose to have them run into a truck and their life is never the same.

If you think of most disaster movies, the first ten to fifteen minutes are very boring. You're just meeting people—they're mowing their lawns, they're not going anywhere. I felt that if I was going to yank people out of a movie into something else, I want them to think, “Well, I see where we're going,” and then, “Oops, we're not going there,” instead of, “Oh, we're just meeting these people, what time is it, when is the meteor going to hit, or when are the bad guys going to show up?” That's asking a lot of a mainstream audience, especially because they are so trained, and you almost can't help but surprise or sometimes disappoint people when you don't play by the usual rules.

What were your visual goals for the film? Much of the lighting and many of the colors seemed limbo-esque.

It rains twelve to fourteen feet a year in that part of Alaska, and, knowing that, you write it into the script. Those conditions create a misty look to the air and serve as a kind of natural filter to the light. That's also what's dangerous about the area—you're often wet and, if you're cold, you stay wet and cold and it's hard to find good shelter.

There were a couple of visual through lines that I worked on with Haskell Wexler. One was that, in general, when the characters are moving toward each other, even if it's angrily, the scenes are a little bit warmer. When they're moving away from each other, when they're isolated or alone, the scenes are a little bit colder, the tone in general is just a little bit more brittle.

The other through line was how nature was treated, but this is fairly subtle in the film and I hope that the audience feels it more than they notice it. This involves how you stage the action, compose the images, what filters or lenses you use, and how you use the camera. In the first part of the movie, generally speaking, nature is seen as more controllable, more packageable, more of a backdrop, like a picture postcard. The people in front are in control and there's all this beautiful scenery behind them, like at the wedding with these beautiful snowcapped mountains in the background. Or you go on this beautiful cruise that's almost like that little documentary you saw at the beginning, then, once they are yanked out of that world, where you think you can control nature, it is suddenly seen as looming over you. It is three dimensional, often dark and dangerous, and you are very small in it. Nature gets bigger and less controllable and people get smaller.

The thesis of that treatment is that human beings are romantic about nature but nature is not romantic about human beings. It does what it does and, if you can survive, terrific. If not, forget about it. And they don't survive if they're not prepared for it. That is something I talked to Haskell about, sometimes scene to scene, but also in terms of the general arc of the picture. By the end I wanted the viewer to realize that there's no way to control nature, it's going to do what it wants to do. Winter is coming, these people really can't stay here because they're not equipped. This is not the Swiss Family Robinson—he makes this puny little fish trap and they eat for a while but then the fish stop running.

Does the Kris Kristofferson character represent a type of shady adventurer who thrives in a frontier setting like Alaska?

The important line about him is what Joe Gastineau says—“I'm not saying that people don't like him. I'm saying that I don't trust him.” Certainly in Alaskan folklore the most famous figure is “Soapy” Smith, who was this famous con man/entrepreneur during the Klondike Gold Rush. Robert Altman's McCabe and Mrs. Miller was kind of extrapolated from his legend. So, yes, he is based on a historical figure from Alaska, a guy who's willing to take a chance.

There was a time in Alaska when something like one out of every seven citizens was a Vietnam veteran. There was room to go up there and forget about the war, to grow your beard long, to have a gun, and go out hunting and fishing, and not have to deal with people very much. When you're in the wilderness there and you see a stranger, you're not quite sure—it's not like Deliverance or anything—but you're not quite sure if they want you there. They may want their privacy. So the further you get away from civilization, the more danger there is, not just with nature, but also with people.

Philip Kemp (review date February 2000)

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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 shape of the story and the way it's resolved—or rather, in the way it isn't resolved. Limbo, as Sayles defines it, is “a condition of unknowable outcome”, and this is exactly the point he leads us to.

Locations are crucial to Sayles' work, and he has always explored cultural territory far from his own New Jersey roots. With Limbo he veers northwards to Alaska, which he presents as frontier territory. Not a frontier in the adventurous, uncharted sense of the Old West, but a last-resort frontier for washed-up characters who have wearily arrived here with their disillusionments in tow. Most of them take a perverse pride in living in such a God-awful place. A running gag involves the regulars of the local saloon swapping ghoulish tales of drownings and fatal freezings.

For the first half of the film we're in familiar Sayles terrain. As in City of Hope or Lone Star he evokes a community with its feuds and social cross-currents, often via his signature shot: a long unbroken take meandering from group to group, picking up phrases and showing how all these people connect up. But midway Sayles works a switch on us, lifting his three main characters out of this busy environment and dropping them into isolated jeopardy to play out a tight psychological drama.

Each of the trio carries weighty emotional baggage. Ex-fisherman Joe Gastineau is haunted by an accident where he caused the death of two friends; torch singer Donna De Angelo is the survivor of a string of transient relationships; her teenage daughter Noelle has taken to self-mutilation in response to her insecure lifestyle. Trapped on an island, and with the Alaskan winter closing in, the three are forced into close interdependence, exacerbating the fears and tensions between them. It's still a community, but shrunk down, distilled and intensified, all its edges sharpened.

They're joined by a ghost: the diary of a young girl who once lived on the island with her parents. Noelle finds the diary, reads aloud from it and starts using it as a weapon, rewriting it as she goes to mirror her own situation and get back at her mother. This set-up recalls Sayles' 1994 film The Secret of Roan Inish, where a family also wind up on an offshore island haunted by past presences. But that was far lighter in tone; Limbo introduces a harsh, unsettling note that's new in his work. Though the three confront their demons, we're left with no assurance that they'll find redemption.

As ever, Sayles gives his actors plenty to chew on. David Strathairn hits the exact note of wary gentleness, and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio's taut, ravaged beauty has never been better used. Haskell Wexler makes the Alaskan wilderness look at once alluring and forbidding; a shot of icy mist drifting over wooded hills has a Japanese delicacy. Over two hours long, the pace occasionally drags. Certain characters and elements—such as Noelle's crush on Joe—feel underdeveloped, almost as if the film had been boiled down from a longish novel. But when, as here, a filmmaker strikes out on a daring new track, the odd minor imperfection goes with the territory.

Shirley Sealy (review date September 2003)

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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, specifically the need some women have to become mothers, no matter the cost. Six such women—Americans of varying ages, backgrounds and maternal motivations—are each seeking to adopt a child from an orphanage in an unnamed South American country, where they are required to take up residence (in a rather seedy hotel) until their applications are processed and a suitable child is found.

Nan (Marcia Gay Harden) is loud and abrasive and, at first, unsympathetic. Leslie (Lili Taylor) is flip and funny; Eileen (Susan Lynch) has an aching need to be maternal; Skipper (Daryl Hannah) seems aloof and self-possessed, yet has suffered more heart-break than the others; Gayle (Mary Steenburgen) is secretly addicted to alcohol; Leslie (Lili Taylor) is the most direct and all-knowing, and Jennifer (Maggie Gyllenhaal), the youngest and most naïve of the lot, is also the most sympathetic.

The top-notch all-female ensemble cast in Casa de los Babys is rounded out by the Mexican actress Vanessa Martinez as Asuncion, a worker in the orphanage, and the Broadway star Rita Moreno as Senora Munoz, owner of the hotel where the would-be mothers are billeted.

The interaction among all these distinctly different women does provide some truly memorable sequences. One example is the scene in which a cool Skipper gives the innocent Jennifer a relaxing massage while slowly revealing the terrible traumas she has suffered in her quest for motherhood. And then there's the moment when Eileen spills out her worst fears in an emotional monologue directed to the hotel's Spanish-speaking maid, who doesn't understand a word she's saying but somehow empathizes with the foreign woman's obvious pain.

Casa de los Babys has too few compelling moments, however, and too little momentum to sustain viewer interest. It's a noble effort, but this time around the emotional center does not hold.

Further Reading

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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.

Maintains that Sayles is primarily a writer rather than a director and that Sunshine State represents another “novel-on-film”—one of several Sayles has created.

Levy, Emanuel. Review of Men with Guns, by John Sayles. Variety 368, no. 5 (8-14 September 1997): 79-80.

Suggests that Men with Guns will have difficulty finding an audience since part of the dialogue is in Spanish and the film's cast consists of actors unknown to the general viewing public.

Sayles, John, and Gavin Smith. Sayles on Sayles. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 277 p.

Provides a book-length interview with Sayles commenting on the way he produces films, the themes in his works, and his political sensibilities.

Scobey, David. Review of Eight Men Out, by John Sayles. American Historical Review 95, no. 4 (October 1990): 1143-45.

Commends Sayles for his handling of cultural history in a baseball film markedly different from the typical Hollywood version of the genre.

Swartley, Ariel. “John Sayles: Hoboken, Hollywood, and Harlem.” Mother Jones 9, no. 10 (December 1984): 39-41, 52.

Discusses Sayles's use of the neighborhoods of Hoboken and Harlem as locations for his films.

Additional coverage of Sayles' life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 57-60; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 41, 84; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 10, 14; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 44; and Literature Resource Center.


Sayles, John (Vol. 14)


Sayles, John (Vol. 7)