For Sayles

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

Let me come right out and say it: I love John Sayles movies. I love their crackling dialogue, their for-the-bleachers irony. I love the fact that, to Sayles, integrity once meant inserting a pile of reptile shit into the horror flick Alligator, which he wrote in 1980. And that integrity to him now means cutting a scene of an alligator set loose on a shopping mall in his latest near-comedy, Sunshine State.

I love that both of these choices were grounded in something like a credo. When scripting the aforementioned Jaws knockoff, the nation's preeminent independent filmmaker (who continues to wear a second hat as uncredited story doctor on studio crap) decided to step into something that most monster movies had avoided up to that point: self-conscious commentary (on the horror genre, on animal rights, on the intrusive whiff of "real life"). Forty-plus scripts later, Sayles the director snips from his talky new ensemble piece the one thing that most summer movies take pains to include: a superfluous action sequence.

"I try to write stories that I don't think a million other people are [writing]," he says, explaining himself during a recent interview at Minneapolis's Marquette Hotel. "A lot of what interests me about telling a movie story is, Here's something I see in the world around me, and I haven't seen it in the movies yet."

When he began directing, for instance, Sayles saw smart and humane Sixties radicals. He put them onscreen for $40,000 in The Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), a tale of reunited domestic Peace Corps-like vets grappling with their ideals in a leaner era. (The premise was duly jacked by Lawrence Kasdan for The Big Chill, with the depressing twist that his Motown-lovin' lame-o's had no ideals left to worry about.)

I love the fact that Sayles still grapples: that his movies expend rich dialogue on Disneyfication, racist anomie, and golf-course landscaping--all of it in his latest picture, incidentally. His detractors are right to say that his films don't quite take within the mind's eye. Sayles might well regard dramatic catharsis and purely visual storytelling as things that a million other people do. (His most intoxicated cinema remains a rock video--for Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.") Yet I left Sunshine State elated, buzzing over the characters and issues (in that order) as if the movie's northern Florida island were my own hometown.

There's an empathetic stoicism to Sayles's fiction. There's also an unmistakable touch of Ralph Nader (speaking of Florida) in his gentle frankness--and in the unmistakable iconography of a graying, hirsute ex-jock whose singular reputation for integrity begs parody. The Onion once ran a fake-news item under the headline "Joe Eszterhas Brought in to Punch Up Senate Bill" with the following caveat:

"When John Sayles worked on the bill for increased health benefits for Alaskan fishermen, it was a beautiful, poignant bill," said Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-SC). "It only got 11 votes in the House, but those congressmen who supported it were deeply moved. Not at all like that $220 billion asteroid-defense-system bill Jerry Bruckheimer put out a few years ago. It was a soulless piece of crap, but everyone showed up for that vote."

Reading these sentences for the first time, Sayles lets loose a growling, nasal chuckle. "This is interesting because I've often used this metaphor," he says. "Getting a script through the Hollywood system is like getting a bill through Congress. By the time it comes out the other end, it's kind of like your lunch. It's not going to look like what came in."

Sayles should know. During post-production of the melancholy sleeper Baby, It's You (1983), he was kicked out of the editing room for a month by the suits at Paramount. Luckily, the studio's version of the film tested one point lower with audiences than Sayles's, and the director won back final cut.

You might say that Sayles is the Ian MacKaye of movies. Still, you can also see in this author-turned-auteur a pinch of the mercenary craftsman played by Burt Reynolds in 1989's Breaking In (another Sayles script-for-hire). Indeed, all 13 of the Sayles-driven pictures--the ones he wrote, directed, and edited--were funded by his "bread job" in Hollywood. (His rewrites include Apollo 13, Mimic, and The Sixth Day.) The man is either the shrewdest idealist in the biz, or its most principled hack.


I find evidence of both in the workmanlike pleasures of Sayles's latest ensemble piece, in which his craft feels almost visceral. It's a kick to watch the variegated perspectives and plot strands weave together in Sunshine State, much as they did in 1991's City of Hope and 1996's Lone Star. The imagined locality this time is Delrona Beach, where white and black enclaves are the target of developers so keen on conquest that they describe their plan in almost military terms. (Sayles pointedly neglected to invite Gov. Jeb Bush to the set.)

Sopranos matron Edie Falco stars as Marly, a tequila-comforted "motelier" under pressure to sell her beachfront establishment. Ralph Waite (the patriarch on The Waltons) is her craggy father, who holds the deed and won't let go. In a welcome change of pace, Waite's besieged representative of the white ruling class is given a long, hilarious, Archie Bunker-esque monologue ("You smoke a damn cigarette, they make you feel like a baby strangler!"). But Sayles is so slack as a director that he flubs the visual punch line. (He's Nader-like in more ways than one.) Elsewhere he can't be bothered to scribble in a little romantic chemistry between Marly and a passively flirtatious landscape architect played by Timothy Hutton (who does little more than appear happy to be in a movie).

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."

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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