Virtue's Hack

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

Published July 29, 1996 5:39PM (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

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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