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I came into the world of John Sayles late in the game -- the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival with Casa de los babys. I was intrigued by the story, but it wasn't until Silver City the next year that I became a fan. Danny Huston digging through the layers of a murder mystery with that wry style and nonchalance -- I was hooked. With each film that I saw, I became more impressed and more in love with Sayles' structure and aesthetic. He knows how to pull the depth out of each story, making it interesting no matter what your interests. I'm not a big fan of baseball, coal mining stories or many of the other facets of life he dips into, but you don't need to relate to the theme to enjoy and value his films.
As a pioneer of North American indie cinema, Sayles' technique is simple, and it allows strong, diverse characters to thrive. For the most part, his films play like an intricate spiderweb. You start at the outside, spinning around many points that seem disconnected. However, as you are introduced to the myriad of characters, layers of the plot are revealed and the web weaves, trailing inward until each step leads to the inevitable center and crescendo. You have to be patient and willing to take the journey, because he doesn't lay it all out in the first few blinks; you have to watch it unfold bit by bit. He comments on this in Men with Guns: "When people start into a story, they have to see the end, or they aren't happy."
Out of Sayles' 15 films (the upcoming Honeydripper will be his 16th) I've attempted to put together a chronological list that will help you explore the main branches of the writer/director/editor's work. They span themes, locales, technique and age -- and serve as a great springboard to the films that remain. Dip into the films of Sayles and see not only the worlds he skillfully brings to the screen, but the collection of strange characters he steps in front of the camera to play -- a minister, filmmaker, criminal, alien, journalist, blue collar dad and soap opera actor. Return of the Secaucus 7 (1980)
Released in 1980, Return of the Secaucus 7 is John Sayles' first film, made with only the $30,000 he had saved writing scripts for Roger Corman. It was also the first film that David Strathairn, a fellow Williams College grad, had ever acted in. Secaucus is an intimate, bare-bones account of a group of seven friends who are reuniting ten years after getting arrested together while on the way to a political demonstration, and it details the changes that befall youthful friends once the years pack on -- some are still together, some are falling apart, some have been successful and some are living hand-to-mouth. The film is intimate and dialog-driven due to its budget, which actually works well for its presentation. Many think that the movie is the inspiration for The Big Chill, which follows a similar premise, but Lawrence Kasdan denies having ever seen it. Nevertheless, the movie is a great portrayal of the changes that happen to late twenties, early thirty-somethings, and has even been deemed "culturally significant" by The US Library of Congress.
Whenever we think something is ground-breaking, it's almost certainly been done before. If you take out all of Lianna's early-80s time stamps, it would seem like a modern and progressive movie -- yet it was made almost 25 years ago. The film follows a woman named Lianna who finally takes steps toward her own life after seeing her husband with another woman. She finally entertains her long-ignored interest in women, and starts to regain the life she gave up to get married. The film is an inspiring account of a woman who doesn't let fear keep her from happiness, and it's wonderfully free from the cliched pitfalls of a perfect romance. This isn't the tale of a woman swept off her feet by her female soulmate, to live a happy, fairy tale life. Instead, Lianna tells it like it is, and the ramifications of her actions have both highs and lows. What's truly special is how nonchalant Sayles is with the topic. He's not careless, but he doesn't make it a big deal either. This is something that is reflected in his own character, Jerry, a man who has had his eye on Lianna, but is not bothered by the revelation of her sexuality.
The Brother from Another Planet (1984)
It is easy to see Sayles as a portrayer of real American life, but just sometimes, he breaks through the reality barrier a little -- whether to further examine the topic at hand, or get a little fantastical (The Secret of Roan Inish). In The Brother from Another Planet, Sayles follows Joe Morton's The Brother -- a mute, three-toed alien who crashes in New York City and is transplanted into Harlem, assumed to be a homeless man. It's one of Sayles' best uses of humor and drama. The film focuses on themes of immigration and race, but without being obvious and heavy-handed. For example, two aliens are sent to find Brother, and they are oblivious to skin color, which is telling, considering the fact that they are white -- instead, they describe him as "Three Toe." This team, wonderfully played by Strathairn and Sayles, bring the film much levity, making the most of strange mannerisms and plays on quotes. The combination of themes and techniques makes for a wonderful character study that is both thought-provoking and enjoyable.
Eight Men Out (1988)
Following Matewan, in which Sayles brought the true story of an old coal mining strike to the screen, the director decided to play some baseball. While not an award-winner, Eight Men Out is one of Sayles' most recognized works, and a pretty huge feat for indie filmmaking. The director proved that lots of money isn't always necessary to put together a quality, realistic period piece. The film deals with the infamous Chicago Black Sox scandal, where underpaid White Sox players accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series. Between baseball and a cast boasting the likes of John Cusack, Charlie Sheen and Christopher Lloyd, it was hard to do wrong, but Sayles still hit the film out of the ballpark. Eight Men Out is thoughtful, level-headed, and it pulls viewers into the characters like only Sayles can. It took well over a decade to come together, but it didn't leave anyone saying "Say it ain't so, John!"
Lone Star (1996)
Before Chris Cooper portrayed the Dubya-esque, skirting-the-law Dickie Pilager in Silver City, he played the law itself in Lone Star. Nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar (losing to Fargo), the film is the best example of Sayles' web. Lone Star takes a few handfuls of seemingly disparate characters and weaves them together, step by step, into an incredibly engaging film. Taking place on the Texas/Mexico border, the film follows Cooper's Sam Deeds, a sheriff who is trying to piece together the mystery of a recently-discovered 40-year-old skeleton. Each step leads him closer to solving the mystery, while interconnecting the lives of everyone involved -- from the love of his youth to his long-dead hero father.
Men with Guns (1997)
Before Clint Eastwood trekked beyond his native language, John Sayles did it in Men with Guns and received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Set in South America, the film follows a blind-with-ideals doctor named Humberto Fuentes. His wife has recently died, and he decides to use his vacation to visit what he feels is his legacy -- a group of medical students he had sent out years ago to poor villages in the mountains. Step by step, his legacy seems to crumble before his eyes, as he realizes things are much different than they appear -- yet not completely doomed. Most of the dialog is in Spanish, save some quirky interludes with an American couple played by Kathryn Grody and Mandy Patinkin, but it never hurts the film, which is powerful and moving.
This is the Sayles film people either love or hate. It's truly hard to talk about this film, as its path and surprises are what make it so special, but i will do what I can, while being as vague as possible. Limbo is, at its simplest, about various people in a small Alaskan town. It dips into the marketability of Alaska as a gimmick, the struggles of Alaskan fisherman and how a remote town can lure in wanderers. The main players are Donna (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), a traveling singer with a dysfunctional love life that bleeds down into her troubled daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), and 'Jumpin' Joe Gastineau (David Strathairn), Donna's latest love interest. The film is, truly, limbo with its calm ambiguity, and it shines through its main performances, especially Martinez, who is a true, unrecognized talent. It won't give you everything wrapped in a neat and finished bow, but that's the beauty of it.