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Thursday, October 17, 2013

October 17, 2013: John Sayles’ America: Passion and Home

[I’ve already blogged quite a lot about John Sayles. A whole lot, in fact. But when it comes to the filmmaker who to my mind has most consistently engaged with AmericanStudies questions, there’s plenty more to say. So this week, I’ll AmericanStudy five more Sayles films. I’d love to hear your thoughts, on these films and others that say AmericanStudies to you!]
On whether you can go home again, and why it makes for a great story in any case.
I haven’t studied the statistics, so I can’t say for sure that this isn’t one of those overstated narratives of historical change (such as those about divorce as an entirely new concept), but it seems clear to me that one of the biggest shifts in American society and life over the last century or so has been the dramatically increased number of people who move away from the place where they’re born in the course of their own lives. The possibility has of course always been there, as evidenced by figures as diverse as Ben Franklin, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Robin Molineux, and Theodore Dreiser’s Carrie Meeber. But while those figures were portrayed in their respective eras and texts as at least somewhat of an aberration, here in the 21st century I’d say (again, without having stats in front of me) that a majority of Americans leave their hometown, and at least that such movement is now a widely shared, if not indeed defining, national experience.
There would be lots of ways to analyze that experience, to consider what it might mean for our identities (individual and communal). But one particularly interesting question that jumps out for me is what such movement would mean for our visions of “home”—whether, for example, home becomes something in our past, a place we come from but out of which we have to move as we make our own way; and, concurrently, whether it is indeed the case that, within such a vision of home, “You can’t go home again” (Thomas Wolfe was one of our most astute literary chroniclers of such questions, in the era when this experience of movement was first becoming widely possible). Given that we now live in a moment when significant numbers of young people are moving back into their childhood homes—nearly a quarter of adults between 18 and 34 have done so, according to the 2010 census—it’s of course not at all literally the case that you can’t go home again. But in an era when such moves away had (I’m arguing) been the norm, perhaps even the expectation, returning home becomes at least a complex and fraught endeavor.
Passion Fish (1992) is one of John Sayles’ quieter films, a character study of a woman who is forced to go home again (Mary McDonnell as a soap opera star who is permanently paralyzed by an accident and returns to her Louisiana home to recover and/or drink herself to death) and how her second life in that place unfolds (in complex conjuction with the unfolding life of her nurse [Alfre Woodard], who is on the run from her own home and identity). Since this is the opposite of one of Sayles’ political films, we get no definitive statements about his themes here, nor even any particular climax or resolution; instead, the film is an extended, often funny, and ultimately deeply moving meditation on these questions of identity and community, home and escape, past and future. And since those questions have no definitive answers or resolutions—not for any of the individuals dealing with them in their own lives, and certainly not for a nation and society for which they are now a prominent part of who we are—that makes Sayles’ film a pitch-perfect representation of and engagement with late 20th and early 21st century America.
Next film tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other films you’d especially AmericanStudy?

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