For Sayles

The 'Sunshine State' politician remains worthy of running on the independent ticket

At least Sayles lured Angela Bassett (who wisely declined the absurd Halle Berry role in Monster's Ball) back onscreen to play Desiree, an infotainment actor returned home to reconcile with her prim and disapproving mother, played by Mary Alice. (The note-perfect Alice offers this response to Desiree's trophy husband, an anesthesiologist: "You knock people out with gas.") Mom is a "pillar of the community" whose own ocean-view property is in demand. Hence the parallel daughter dramas crisscross against the backdrop of an entirely believable, two-year-old "local tradition" known as Buccaneer Days--the official historical narrative (with attendant beauty contests and treasure hunts) supervised by a fragile Chamber of Commerce booster (Mary Steenburgen).

When asked how he keeps track of all these personages (and many more besides), the filmmaker reports that he weaves stories like baskets, lifting his technique for tangling from a trick used by director Allan Dwan on the right-wing John Wayne vehicle Sands of Iwo Jima. "Take all your characters, put 'em in a circle," Sayles says. "You say, 'Well, who's tied to whom?' Anybody who has only one line drawn to him, you say, 'Well, is there anything this guy could have to do with these people?'

"You want to leave some questions all the way through--and maybe some at the end, too. Because once you have that many strands, unless you have a miniseries, you're not going to close every one off. Unless it's The Godfather, and you can have all those people killed."

Director from another planet: John Sayles with Edie Falco on the set of 'Sunshine State'
Sony Pictures Classics
Director from another planet: John Sayles with Edie Falco on the set of 'Sunshine State'

The Sayles approach is the screen equivalent of social history: Each of his movies is grounded in many and sundry stories, rather than one heroic arc, and meticulously researched at swamp level. As he did when scouting for extras among the Alaskan fishermen of 1999's Limbo and the Chiapas residents of 1998's Men With Guns, Sayles bounced his script for Sunshine State off locals on Amelia Island, his real-life location. He scoured the local newspaper for anecdotes, and he devoured several books. He consulted his brother, who currently labors to convert closed-down landfills into golf courses.

None of which makes the movie critic-proof--excepting the usual requirement of reviewers to waste hundreds of words explaining Sayles's plot (see above). But it's lazy logic to assume that his virtues beget his flaws--to say, for instance, that the filmmaker's thoroughness with historical detail is a mask for his lack of insight into the characters' inner lives. (Pauline Kael called him "the thinking man's shallow writer-director.") In The Nation, a liberal periodical that the director himself might read, Stuart Klawans once wrote that if Sayles's actors aren't up to the material, "we're left with an abstract world, populated by characters who are little more than moral categories: Sayles's notions of how people ought to behave and what they ought to believe." But given the director's choice of actors, that's a big if.

I'll concede that Sayles movies reward repeat viewing in part because they appear less than indelible the first time. Yet, in any case, I'm eagerly anticipating another look at every one of his recently restored early films, which will be making the rep-house rounds later in the year: Secaucus Seven, 1983's Lianna (a lesbian drama), 1984's The Brother From Another Planet (a sci-fi take on race and caste), and 1987's Matewan (a historical strike opera). All of these wear well, like thin and comfortable clothes. And so does Sayles himself, who tells me he's flattered to discover that the Onion even remembers who he is, and laughs off any suggestion that he's a hero.

"It's not so much that people want to make movies like [my] movies," he says. "They say, 'Well, somebody got away with it. Why couldn't I?'"

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