[I had planned to feature this week a pre-Memorial Day series on blockbuster films. But with the ongoing and very necessary WGA strike, I’ve decided to share instead a handful of older posts which have focused on films with particularly perfect screenplays. I’d love your thoughts on these as well as your nominees for other great screenplays and writing—in any medium—for a crowd-sourced weekend post of solidarity!]
[FYI: Spoilers for Lone Star (1996) in what follows, especially the last paragraph!]
On two exchanges in my favorite film that capture the complexities of collective memory.
I believe I’ve written more about my favorite filmmaker, John Sayles, in this space than any other single artist, including an entire October 2013 series AmericanStudying different Sayles films. Yet despite that consistent presence on the blog, I believe I’ve only focused on my favorite Sayles film, and favorite American film period, Lone Star (1996) for about half of one post (if one of my very first on this blog, natch). That’s pretty ironic, as I could easily spend an entire week’s series (an entire month? All of 2019???) focusing on different individual moments from Lone Star and the many histories and themes to which they connect. I’ll spare you all that for the moment, though, and focus instead on the film’s most consistent theme: the fraught and contested border between the U.S. and Mexico. Lone Star’s fictional South Texas town is named Frontera (a clear nod to Gloria Anzaldúa), located directly on the border within fictional Rio county; and as usual when Sayles journeys to a particular place to create a story and film about that setting, he delves deeply and potently into the histories and contexts that inform that world.
Two specific dialogue exchanges/scenes focused on the Alamo illustrate a couple of the many lenses that Sayles and his film provide on the particular theme of collective memories of the battle and the border. Very early in the film we see one of the film’s principal protagonists, high school history teacher Pilar Cruz (the wonderful, tragically lost Elizabeth Peña), debating her school’s new, multi-cultural curriculum with a multi-ethnic, angry group of parents. Pilar is defending her goal of presenting different perspectives on history, and an enraged Anglo father responds, “I’m sure they’ve got their own version of the Alamo on the other side, but we’re not on the other side!” But Pilar responds calmly that “there’s no reason to get so upset,” noting that their ultimate goal has simply been to highlight a key aspect of life for all those kids growing up in a town like Frontera, past and present: “Cultures coming together, in positive and negative ways.” For the Anglo father, Frontera and Texas are “American,” by which he clearly means Anglo/English-speaking like himself; the Mexican perspective is “the other side.” But what Pilar knows well, from personal experience as well as historical knowledge, is that Frontera’s America (and, by extension, all of America) is both Mexican and Anglo American, English- and Spanish-speaking, and thus that multiple versions of the Alamo are part of this one place and its heritage, legacy, and community.
In the film’s final scene (again, SPOILERS in this paragraph, although I won’t spoil all the details as the film is a mystery on multiple levels), Pilar communicates a different perspective in conversation with one of the film’s other main protagonists, Chris Cooper’s Sheriff Sam Deeds. Pilar and Sam are former high school sweethearts pulled apart by complex family and cultural dynamics and now just beginning to reconnect, and in this scene are debating whether and how they can truly start once more. Pilar makes the case to a doubting Sam that they can indeed “start fresh,” and in the film’s amazing final lines, argues, “All that other stuff? All that history? To hell with it, right? Forget the Alamo.” That might seem like a striking reversal from both her earlier perspective and her job as a history teacher, and indeed from the film’s overall emphasis on the importance (if certainly also the difficulty) of better remembering histories both personal/familial and communal/cultural. But I would argue—and I know Sayles would too, as I had the chance to talk about this scene with him when I met him briefly in Philadelphia at an independent film festival—that what Pilar wants to forget is not the actual past but the mythic one constructed too often in collective memories and symbolized so succinctly by the phrase “Remember the Alamo.” Forgetting the Alamo, that is, might just help us remember better, a complex and crucial final message fitting for this wonderful film.
Next great screenplay tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other great screenwriting you’d nominate?