Virtue's Hack

John Sayles makes movies with all the right messages -- and no surprises, madness or life

Published July 29, 1996 7:14PM (EDT)

The independent filmmaker John Sayles reminds me of Gertrude Stein's description of Ezra Pound: "He is a village explainer. All very well if you happen to be a village. If not, not."

That may be why Sayles chose a small town as the setting for his latest movie, "Lone Star," a Texas border drama; a 1930's coal mining town for his union movie, "Matewan"; a baseball team for "Eight Men Out," and a passel of former '60s radicals for his first feature, "The Return of the Secaucus Seven." Every John Sayles movie seems to be speaking for and to groups of people, a cautiously constructed missive ever-mindful of its effect on "the community." Not being a village myself, I find them both annoying and dull.

I want to like Sayles' work. He's patently sincere and decent, and I tend to favor his politics. Admirably, he uses the money he makes as a Hollywood re-write man ("Apollo 13") to finance his own projects -- and has done so since before independent filmmaking was fashionable. People I like and respect will say "It's so good," with a satisfied sigh, when describing his latest effort. So why, when I hear such endorsements, is my first thought: Yeah, but is it good, or is it a John Sayles movie?

Because five minutes into the average, well-intentioned Sayles opus, I'm seized by an excruciating panic. The action proceeds at a molasses pace and with the deliberation of a Japanese tea ceremony -- everything is so completely expected. A peculiar species of claustrophobia sets in as I realize that here there will be no inspired surprises, no eccentricity, no gleeful madness or inconsolable sorrow -- none of the felicities of art. Sayles is not a bad filmmaker (he writes and directs), exactly; he's just entirely mediocre, and for two hours, you're trapped with that. His movies wash their audience in swell after swell of lukewarm, oceanic OK-ness.

Part of the problem is simply Sayles' lack of imagination, coupled with bad habits acquired from his years of doctoring mainstream screenplays. Although the politics of his films may be refreshingly left of center, any given scene or shot remains crushingly conventional cinematically. "Lone Star," for example, is a sort of Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from dozens of garden-variety movie clichis and ordered by its creator to deliver a moral of bland multiculturalism. And it's the dutiful quality that Sayles imparts to his work that proves most deadly. He is virtue's hack, a pedant with a camera -- and far too nice for me to despise without a tinge of guilt.

Like virtually all of Sayles' work, "Lone Star" is a quintessential "message" picture. Even when the characters are asserting that Texas' racial dilemmas "aren't that simple," they do it in a simple-minded way. Nothing matters more to him than that we come away from the theater with the correct understanding of the issues at hand. He is less a director than an instructor, an operative from that class of social critics obsessed with "positive role models" and the control of media images. Every lesson -- from "Illegal immigrants should not be scapegoated as bums" to "We must forgive our parents for their failings" -- gets carefully stated, then re-stated, then re-stated again.

Sayles is so alarmed at the prospect of an audience thinking for itself that he drums his interpretation into our heads like a kindergarten teacher reciting the alphabet. Long stretches of story seem to make him nervous, and his characters regularly interrupt the action to make long, informative speeches about, say, the number of Mexican casualties at the Alamo or the history of the Black Seminoles. Although Sayles sometimes tries to disguise these expository passages by having the characters rushing down a street and arguing as they talk, they inevitably sound like they're speaking before a City Council meeting. Other times, he succumbs and puts his lecturer behind a real podium, complete with an eager listener to supply helpfully leading questions. He relishes classroom scenes the way some directors love car chases.

Ostensibly, Sayles cares about "real people" because he makes ensemble movies set in working-class milieus. In fact, his characters bear the same relationship to actual people that the stuffed exhibits in natural history museums bear to live animals. Each frozen individual is arranged in its most "typical" pose and situated in a simulacrum of its natural habitat. Every element is present but the most crucial and unpredictable -- life itself. Here is the Committed Latina Teacher; and here is the Sheriff Conflicted About Authority. Over there, you'll see fine specimens of a Good Ol' Boy, a Bootstrap Entrepreneur In Denial About Her Past and a Noble Interracial Couple.

Sayles speaks the language of cinematic formula so automatically -- his reunited lovers slow dance to a jukebox in a dark, deserted cafe and wait unannounced outside each other's workplaces when they want to talk -- that he's forgotten that real people don't do this stuff. When the hero of "Lone Star" romantically tells his lost love that he returned to their hometown in hopes of finding her, she doesn't ask why, then, he has spent the past two years there working at a job he hates and never bothering to look her up. Wouldn't you? These are movie scenes and movie lines, not the behavior of the common folk that Sayles supposedly champions. A pervasive sense of the bogus haunts his pictures; they point at authenticity but never actually connect to it. Instead of making a film about real lives, he simply tells us -- over and over again -- that that's what he's doing.

Part of my aversion to Sayles comes from a basic compassion for his casts. The actors in his films usually have a pitiable, strained look around the eyes as they wrestle with his stilted dialogue and listless direction; the better the performer, the more evident the distress. Watching the talented Frances McDermond attempt to transform a collection of three traits -- Daddy's girl, football fanatic, "high-strung" -- into a flesh and blood woman in "Lone Star" is like watching Tom Dolan drown. "Matewan" veteran Chris Cooper -- with his ragged face and lovely air of beleagered integrity -- seems to have hit upon the only survival strategy: Lie low and pretend you're in another movie.

And yet, Sayles continues to receive praise for his commitment to serious, "character-based" drama and his uncompromising pursuit of his own vision. That's not entirely unjustified; the man is no sell-out. He's just truly incapable of making a movie with any style, vitality or genius. How can you fault a guy for doing the best he can? Perhaps that's the worst thing about Sayles, when you get right down to it: He isn't even fun to hate.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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