Even for those readers of this blog who know me only through the things I’ve written here, the two qualities that combine to produce my favorite filmmaker are probably not going to come as a huge surprise: he’s deeply novelistic, tending to create multi-character and –thread narratives; and he’s centrally concerned with imagining American settings in which both multiple communities and the past and present intersect and interweave in rich and impossible to simplify ways. Not every John Sayles film fits those descriptions perfectly: he can create more intimate portraits of a couple characters, as in Leanna and Passion Fish; even his multi-character and –story films can focus very specifically on the unique qualities of their particular setting (like Limbo and Sunshine State) and/or historical moment (such as Matewan, Eight Men Out, and Honeydripper); and some of those similarly delve more into these issues in other countries and cultures (the Ireland of The Secret of Roan Inish, the Mexico of Men With Guns). But for this AmericanStudier, both personally and in my role as curator—which makes it sound a bit too museum-like, so let’s go with ringleader—of this here blog, Sayles’ two best films are a pair of complementary 1990s portraits of profoundly American, multi-generational and -layered communities: City of Hope (1991) and Lone Star (1996).
I’m not going to say too much about either film, both because there’s way too much in each to try to summarize in a paragraph or two and because I’d much rather you check them out and then add your thoughts about them to, say, the comments on this post! (Or if you have already seen ‘em, feel free to do so now.) But it’s worth noting some interesting overlaps, despite hugely distinct worlds and styles and even genres: City focuses on an unidentified New Jersey urban center, connects to genres such as the police story and exposés of political corruption, and tells the stories most centrally (among about twenty-seven plot threads) of an Italian-American father and son (the former a builder, the latter failing as a construction worker and trying to figure out who and what he is), the single mother with whom the son falls in love, and a passionate but frustrated young African-American city councilman; Star focuses on a fictional city on the Texas-Mexico border, connects to genres such as the western and detective mysteries, and tells the stories most centrally (ditto) of a father and son (the former a prior sheriff and the latter the current one, struggling with his memories of his dad and his sense of his own life), the Mexican-American single mother with whom the son rekindles an old relationship, and a disciplined but conflicted young African-American military officer. Both are full of funny and romantic and exciting moments, both move across their full landscapes (literal and story-wise) with ease, and both are structured perfectly, building to amazingly interconnected (if definitely different in tone) conclusions.
But what really elevates the two films, and the reason why I’m writing about them here (since I did say that this wasn’t going to become just celebrations of Willow, metaphorically speaking), is an incredibly complicated three-part process at the heart of both: taking as their settings the two most controversial and volatile and in-crisis settings in late 20th century America, a decaying Eastern city and the US-Mexico border; refusing to romanticize or over-simplify or ignore the most messy and difficult and divisive and painful and potentially destructive elements of those worlds, and what they force us to recognize and engage with in our nation and culture more broadly; and yet ultimately portraying, especially in cross-community and cross-cultural and cross-racial conversations and relationships, not only the possibilities for hope and optimism and progress in these places, but how much those possibilities are in fact linked directly to a fuller narration of the histories and identities that have always comprised them, to telling the stories of the American lives and communities at their core. I wrote in my first full post here about Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition, which has my vote as the greatest American novel, and ultimately it’s for undertaking precisely that same three-part process; Chesnutt’s historical centerpiece is all too real, while those in Sayles’ films are representative and emblematic but fictional, but as portraits of divided and endangered and yet crucial American communities, they’re profoundly similar texts.
I had the great fortune of meeting John Sayles at an event after a film festival screening of his first movie (The Return of the Secaucus Seven) in Philadelphia about a decade ago, and of talking to him briefly about history in Lone Star. Mostly I listened as he expounded a bit in his larger than life voice, with its pitch-perfect combination of down to earth Jersey guy and seriously smart scholar of most everything, ending (I had told him I was a grad student) with a smiled “The seminars are free, kid.” His movies aren’t, but they’re also guaranteed to be among the most entertaining and powerful seminars you’ll ever attend. More tomorrow, the first of three Thanksgiving-themed posts; this one will feature the unbelievably important work being done by a colleague of mine with some of America’s most easily ignored citizens.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The first 15 minutes of City of Hope (the whole thing is apparently on You Tube, but Sayles could really use your financial support if you want to check it out; he finances his movies entirely outside of the studio system or any company): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mv5LpCsOhro
2) Sayles talking about what he looks for in actors (he has worked many times, including in these two films, with two of the absolute best American actors, Chris Cooper and Joe Morton): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jg4pTzqQDoI&feature=related
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