Sayles, John: Artistic Decline

My main interest is making films about people.
I’m not interested in cinematic art.

John Sayles

John Sayles has many gifts, but not a film sense.
He doesn’t gain anything as an artist by using film.

Pauline Kael

Thematically speaking, going to a John Sayles movie these days is like reading yesterday’s newspapers. His movies deal with socio-political issues that the audience is familiar with from other sources. And since his films lack visual distinction, they don’t offer many artistic rewards either. Indeed, Sayles’ work lags so much behind the social and cinematic zeitgeist, than even his loyal followers are beginning to lose interest. The last five Sayles pictures, “Men With Guns,” “Limbo,” “Sunshine State,” “Casa de los Babys,” and now “Silver City,” have been artistic and commercial disappointments.

Sayles’ career is in such decline that it’s hard to believe that 25 years ago he was the director who kicked off the New American Independent Cinema with “The Return of the Secaucus Seven,” a modest movie about a group of disenchanted idealists. Though “Secaucus” was commonplace and devoid of excitement, its subject matter was new and its characters engaging (“Secaucus” preceded the similarly themed “The Big Chill” by four years). In the 1980s, Sayles’ thematic unpredictability, the small budgets and modest scales of his productions, and his control over his work (through writing, directing, and editing) became a model for many independents.

From the beginning, Sayles cut a path for himself apart from both the mainstream and independent world. Unlike Jim Jarmusch and Soderbergh in the 1980s, or Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson in the 1990s, Sayles has never become a “hot” director, not even during his peak, around “Lone Star,” in 1996. But now he seems to be in Limbo, to use the title of one of his worst pictures, making films that don’t connect in meaningful way with any segment of the movie-going public.

It’s too bad, for Sayles was one of the few American directors to deal with contemporary issues, such as the racial strife and class conflict that polarize American society. Sayles’ early oeuvre is unified by a distinctly American dilemma: the meanings of personal versus social responsibility. His best work concerns the mundane life, the dreams and hopes of ordinary individuals who are compromised and damaged by big and impersonal forces.

A left-wing director, Sayles was the prime proponent of the work ethic in American movies, championing blue-collar causes with an acute social conscience. Remarkably, he conducted his counter-cultural crusades into the world of losers and underdogs during the height of the Reagan-Bush years. His films were rooted in character studies of outsiders, with each film paying tribute to an underrepresented or disenfranchised group in American society.

But Sayles’ recent films suffer from schematic construction, perhaps a result of the way he works, conceiving the structure first and writing a tight outline. “Once you have the structure, you’re really filling things in,” Sayles explained. “Each character has a progression. They start with something they need or want at the beginning of the movie, and by the end, they’ve either gotten it or not, or learned something that they didn’t know before.”

Unlike Spike Lee or Soderbergh, Sayles is not a natural or spontaneous filmmaker. From the start, the lack of dramatic energy and visual thrill gave he feeling that his films were no more than executed scripts, hence Pauline Kael’s critical quote above. The lack of visual signature gave the impression that he was uninterested in the properties of film as a unique medium. Sayles has refused to employ a more personal style, claiming, “I’m not going to go out of my way to be shocking to get people’s attention.” He told Premiere magazine: “I’m not that much of a yellow journalist. Style gets in the way of the complexity of what’s going on.” As a result, Sayles’ evenhanded and restrained mode, his refusal to be a provocateur, and his avoidance of stylishness has kept his films from breaking out to a wider audience. But for good dialogue and interesting issues, the critics and public were willing to forgive his pedestrian visual sense.

The only consistent element in Sayles’ work is an authentic sense of place, which was crucial to the success of “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out,” “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Passion Fish,” and “Lone Star.” However, his recent work underlines the need for other elements than colorful locale and new landscapesdrama, conflict, characters.

Sayles has tackled big issues (a labor strike, the Chicago Black Sox, the tangled life of an American city), but, as David Denby observed, Sayles has done better when he has worked on a smaller scale, as in “Passion Fish.” When Sayles works on a large scale, he avoids the dramatic conventions of suspense and conflict and winds up undramatizing, taking the raw life out of his subjects. But when he works small, he discovers, deepens, and enlarges. In the more personal films, Sayles’ sharp characterization and vivid dialogue compensate for his flawed sense of dramatic narrative, unpolished craft, and technically stilted pictures.

“Matewan” explores the personal and political dimensions of union-making and union-breaking in the West Virginia coal mines of the l920s. People admired Sayles’ unabashed homage to the heroic martyr years of American labor, but the film failed to engage dramatically. An account of the l9l9 Black Sox scandal that rocked the baseball world, “Eight Men Out” examines the controversy through the eyes of the individual players. Unfortunately, the players seemed bland compared to the intricate drama around them. As David Thomson noted, the targets of “Matewan” and “Eight Men Out” were so predictable that their drama seemed pre-determined. “City of Hope,” a chronicle of a decaying town in need of physical and spiritual transformation, confronts a modern urban America beset by racial and class tensions. Sayles’ canvas is admirably wide but his treatment schematic and most of the dialogue stiff.

In the mid-1990s, Sayles reached its peak with three back-to-back successes: “Passion Fish,” “The Secret of Roan Inish,” and “Lone Star,” his best and most commercial film to date. “Lone Star” deals with the strained relations between Mexican-Americans and the white residents of a small Texas town, each fighting for their version of history. For Sayles, this antagonistic relationship served as “a good metaphor for all of America.” “Lone Star” begins with a skeleton discovered in a cactus, then follows the expedition of a rookie sheriff trying to figure out whether his dead father was a hero or a murderer. The criminal investigation turns into a multi-layered epic about generational wars in which both text and subtext are interesting: “Lone Star” is haunted by a sense of America as a bloody place to live where uprootedness and lack of memory are common fate.

“Men With Guns” began Sayles’ artistic decline. Though centering on an intriguing issue–the discrepancy between the official story as constructed by power elites in totalitarian regimes and the personal responsibility of individual citizens to search for the truththe movie is less complex, less multi-layered and less technically accomplished than Sayles’ previous work. Humberto Fuentes is a proud professional who considers his greatest achievement–his “legacy”–his participation in an international health program that trained doctors to serve impoverished villages. Fuentes decides to visit his students, thus beginning a physical journey that becomes an intensely political and moral odyssey.

With this film, Sayles began to repeat himself. Like “The Secret of Roan Inish,” “Men With Guns” is framed as a mythic tale in which an old woman tells her daughter the story of an idealistic doctor from the Big City. And like “Lone Star,” the film’s format is that of a personal investigation, here conducted by an aging doctor searching for his former students. Unfortunately, the yarn lacked the visual magic of “Secret” and the narrative momentum of “Lone Star.” Audiences stayed home, refusing to see a Spanish-language film that was static and garrulous.

Like “City of Hope,” “Limbo” starts by tracing the connections between various inhabitants of an Alaskan coastal town on the verge of becoming a tourist trap. The protags are a country singer (Mary Mastrantonio) and an ex-fisherman (David Strathairn), who need to put their painful pasts behind as they embark on a new relationship. Donna is a well-traveled singer with bad relationships with men and with her drug-addict daughter. Her partner Joe has only been as far as Seattle, and his long absence from fishing is a mystery never explained. Then the unexpected happens, forcing all three to question their priorities and to take risks in what becomes a Robinson Crusoe story. Sayles’ customary ear for vivid banter and telling details fail him, and the film also lacks the intensity or rigor to serve as an allegorical fable.

Sayles remains consistent in his pattern to set each new film in a different region of the country, but he doesn’t really explore the region’s culture and people within the film’s context. The juxtaposition of Alaska’s traditional and new industry dominant is simplistic: The old is restricted to logging and fishing, while a cruise ship symbolizes the new. Sayles’ storytelling is perplexing, to say the least, and “Limbo” takes a turn to the worse, with segues like the reappearance of Joe’s half-brother and a pilot with whom Joe has “unfinished business”. The open-ended resolution, instead of making viewers think about what they saw, left a bad taste, which might explain why the first press screening at the Cannes festival was booed.

“Casa de los Babys,” like “Men With Guns,” suffers from an abstract treatmentthe locale is never specified. An ensemble drama about six American women in a South American hotel, waiting to adopt babies from a local orphanage while fighting bureaucratic hurdles, the film leaves a lot to be desired. This time, critics complained about Sayles’ earnest, schematic treatise on maternity and conflicting cultures, his didactic mode, and the fact that he wasted the talents of the best actresses working today: Marcia Gay Harden, Daryl Hannah, Lili Taylor. “Casa de los Babys” doesn’t reveal any new insights or emotional truths about motherhood, or conception versus adoption, that the public didn’t already know. Questions of First World exploitation of Third World countries are explained in an obvious way, and the background stories are superficially sketched, making the women representations of types rather than three-dimensional individuals.

A sprawling and novelistic in form in the manner of “City of Hope,” “Sunshine State” is set in Florida in the fictional towns of Delrona Beach and Lincoln Beach, communities subject to radical commercial changes to the old ways. Once again, women headed the ensemble. Marly (Edie Falco) operates a motel owned by her cantankerous blind father. Desiree (Angela Bassett) returns to her hometown for the first time in 25 years to visit her mom, who had sent her away due to pregnancy. The villains are developers from an adjacent resort community, aiming to expand into the sleepy town. Marly befriends Jack (Timothy Hutton), the developers’ architect, a decent man who knows he had sold out.

The film deals with recurring themes in Sayles’ oeuvre: Preserving human history and nature; individuals forced to come to terms with their pasts; lonely souls trying to make human connections; tensions between personal and public lives. The older good characters are contrasted with young and bad ones. Dr. Lloyd is a lone decent voice, trying to organize his fellow Lincoln citizens to stop the county commission from caving in to the developers.

Delia, Marly’s mom (Jane Alexander) is interested in theater and ecology, whereas Marly’s ex-husband is looking for a scheme to get rich quickly. The corrupt commissioner and his wife are compared to a hard-working Native American who works for the developers. Again critics complained about the slow, deliberate pace, the prosaic style, the cartoonish characters.

Sayles has become lazy or uninterested in cinema for his movies lack ambition beyond the depiction of regional geographical texture. Consider his latest effort, “Silver City,” a shallow, overly familiar saga straining to pass as a relevant political drama about pressing issues. Chris Cooper plays Richard Pilager, aka as Dim Dickie, the son of a powerful senator who leads the race for Colorado’s next governor. Dickie’s language deficiencies and his reputation as being “not a fine-print kind of guy” echo another political son, Bush. Dickie is an ex-alcoholic son of a venerable father, running for his first public office while using his father’s shrewd campaign team.

The film opens on one of Colorado’s picturesque rivers where the candidate and ace campaign manager Raven are about to shoot a TV spot, “the bucolic fishing thing”. What Dickie hooks is not a big trout but the tattered corpse of a migrant Latino laborer. Suspecting that the body didn’t just accidentally wander into his candidate’s vicinity, Raven hires Danny OBrien to investigate. Danny is a quintessential Sayles’ character: a one-time crusading journalist and lapsed idealist (he got fired for a muckraking story), who turned into a lethargic private detective, a clich character out of old detective fiction.

We encounter in this vortex of corruption the usual Sayles’ suspects: media magnates, greedy developers who plan a new community around the old mine, shady political reporters. Despite honorable intentions, “Silver City” doesn’t work as a relevant social portrait of Colorado, or as a mystery either. There’s nothing new or controversial about the depiction of a corrupt political dynasty that bears resemblance to the Bush family. Not at present, when Michael Moore’s incendiary portrait of Bush in “Fahrenheit 9/11” is far more scathing and entertaining than any fictional saga.

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