Film: Pictures of Words

On paper, John Sayles would seem to be the quintessence of a critics’ darling. He writes, directs, and edits serious-minded independent films shot on skintight budgets. What’s more, these films are politically conscious (to use his own olive-drab phrase), and the politics are both explicitly presented and impeccably liberal-populist, with a pinch of curdled Sixties radicalism stirred in for extra sourness. Is it any wonder that he’s among the handful of filmmakers to have won a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation? He might have been genetically engineered to be suitable for so politically correct an honor. Yet Sayles is by no means the Woody Allen of the Big Chill generation. Indeed, the grudgingly respectful reviews of Sunshine State, his latest movie, left me wondering whether there are all that many critics who really like his work—which I, unlikely as it may sound, happen to love.

Why this lack of enthusiasm? What is it about Sayles that inspires a normally sharp-eyed moviegoer like David Denby to declare that the creator of such wonderfully varied works of cinematic art as Baby, It’s You; Eight Men Out; Passion Fish; and Lone Star is not “a natural filmmaker, or much of a dramatist”? Part of the problem is that most people who write about film are either modernists or postmodernists. Modernists hold, with Clement Greenberg, that artists should “eliminate from the specific effects of each art any and every effect that might conceivably be borrowed from or by the medium of any other art.” For this reason, they like films about film—that is, movies whose primary impetus is visual, not verbal. Alfred Hitchcock and Buster Keaton are their gods, and they’re always ready to go into rhapsodies over any film that contains a scene without dialogue. (Don’t get a modernist critic started on the first reel of Rio Bravo—he’ll talk about it all the way through dessert.) The worst thing they can say about a movie is that it’s “talky.” Postmodernists, on the other hand, like films about films, and so they favor directors like Francois Truffaut, Joel Coen, and Steven Soderbergh whose subject matter is other movies. As kids, they preferred going to the movies to playing outside; as grownups, they’d rather watch a remake of Citizen Kane than the real thing.

John Sayles doesn’t fit into either of these pigeonholes. His films aren’t devoid of action, or of visual interest, but they do consist mainly of actors and actresses talking—pictures of words, so to speak. And while he does sometimes make genre-like movies (Lone Star, for example, is a noirish whodunit), you never get the feeling that he’s particularly interested in commenting on the history of the medium. His subject matter is not film, or other films, but people, usually unglamorously ordinary people, trying to make the best of the moderately bad situations that life presents them. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a Sayles movie in which anything explodes or whose principal character is a head-turning beauty.

Sayles’s method can be seen at its purest in Sunshine State, the unabashedly rambling story of what happens when a group of unscrupulous real-estate developers tries to take over Delrona Beach, a shabby Florida town famous for nothing, and bulldoze it into a gorgeously landscaped beach-front community full of rich golfers. (Among the bad guys is Alan King, a superannuated stand-up comedian whom old age has miraculously transformed into one of the craftiest character actors around.) While their shady machinations are central to the complicated plot, Sunshine State is not a Chinatown-like study of moral corruption, and it doesn’t even matter all that much that the bad guys lose—sort of—in the end. Sayles’s real interest is in the citizens, past and present, of Delrona Beach, in particular Marly Temple (Edie Falco), a sun-dried motel manager who hates her unadventurous life but lacks the nerve to change it, and Desiree Stokes (Angela Bassett)—who left town at 15 black, pregnant, and unmarried—and has now come back home as an adult to try to make peace with her genteel, censorious mother (Mary Alice).

If you’re thinking that all this sounds like a cross between a soap opera and an eat-your-spinach editorial in Mother Jones, I can see why. Many of Sayles’s films sound painfully stilted—on paper. It’s only when you see them, or hear him talk about them, that you realize how essentially unideological he is. This has nothing to do with politics, at least as that term used to be construed. I’m sure he’s never voted for a Republican in his life, but as a filmmaker, he doesn’t go in for political caricature, or any other kind of caricature. (Significantly, he is one of the very few filmmakers whose black characters invariably act like real people, not secular saints.)

Asked by an admiring interviewer why so few American directors make politically conscious movies, Sayles gave this typical reply:

It’s easier not to, and sometimes it’s really not the point of a movie. Sometimes it would really get in the way. I think more than being political or not political, it’s often the problem of being complex: The characters aren’t heroic. Sometimes they do things you don’t like, even if you may like them, and it’s hard to know exactly who the good guys and bad guys are, because everybody is a little bit compromised. And if you put that into your average adventure movie, it makes it complicated in ways that slow the movie down and really aren’t appropriate for that particular movie.

That’s John Sayles in a nutshell: political but never doctrinaire, not even about the nature of filmmaking. You get the feeling that unlike most critics, he believes there are any number of ways to make a movie, including but by no means limited to his own.

The only American writer-director I can think of whose work is at all like Sayles’s is Whit Stillman, and the comparison says a lot about both men, since their films don’t seem at first glance to have much in common. It’s a long way from the Sea-Vue Motel of Delrona Beach, Florida, to the Upper East Side of New York City, just as it is hard to imagine Edie Falco (whose deceptively unflashy performance in Sunshine State is the work of a first-class actress) having anything to say to Chris Eigeman, the archer-than-arch super-WASP who is Stillman’s on-camera alter ego. But Sayles, like Stillman, is unafraid to plant his camera firmly in one spot, point it at his characters, and let them talk. He knows that two people talking can be every bit as dramatic—and as visually rich—as two people trying to kill one another with digitally enhanced light sabers.

Back in the days when Barbara Pym couldn’t get her novels published, Philip Larkin wrote to an editor he knew in order to try to persuade him of her virtues. “I like,” he said, “to read about people who have done nothing spectacular, who aren’t beautiful or lucky, who try to behave well in the limited field of activity they command, but who can see, in little autumnal moments of vision, that the so-called `big’ experiences of life are going to miss them; and I like to read about such things presented not with self-pity or despair or romanticism, but with realistic firmness and even humour, that is in fact what the critics would call the moral tone of the book.” That’s just what most Hollywood movies don’t do—and what makes Sunshine State one of the finest American films of the past decade.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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