Director in Focus: John Sayles – Matewan


Matewan (1987, dir. John Sayles)

Starring Chris Cooper, Mary McDonnell, James Earl Jones, David Strathairn, Kevin Tighe, Will Oldham

Continuing my look at the work of John Sayles, we move to this historical drama set amidst the conflict between miners and the coal company in 1920. The miners of the Stone Mountain Coal Company in West Virginia walked out of the mines and off the job after the company cuts their pay when rumors of a union begin. The miners call in Joe Kenehan (Cooper), a well-known union organizer who encourages non-violent resistance. Kenehan is in fact a fictional creation of Sayles, first appearing in his 1977 novel Union Dues. The character has been held up as a cherished symbol and even has a union devoted to health care workers in Washington state named for him. Kenehan lodges in the home of Elma (McDonnell), a miner’s widow and mother to a young preacher (Oldham). Kenehan is forced to try and temper the striking workers as the company brings in Italian immigrant and African-American replacements.
The concept of “union” is deeply emphasized throughout the film. The native striking miners attack the replacements when they are brought in and it takes Kenehan’s convincing for them to realize that workers are all united against the management. As a foil to Kenehan, we have Sheriff Sid Hatfield (Strathairn) who at first appears to be an antagonist but is later revealed to truly be working for the citizens. When the Company sends men to repossess the mattress and furniture of striking miners’ families, Hatfield steps in and unflinchingly threatens the thugs.
The film serves as a prelude to the larger war between workers and the coal companies that followed in the 1920s. While not widely reported or truly documented in most history books, thousands of workers took up arms against the legalized slavery being forced on them by companies across the Southeast. One incredibly telling scene comes early on, as the African-American miners are introduced to the company story and informed that from their pay they will have all equipment or clothing used in the mine deducted, their room and board deducted, their trip in a cattle car by rail deducted, and will be paid in company scrip, not cash. For most people working above minimum wage it’s hard to imagine being held in such a tight choke hold by an employer.
Sayles is a strong filmmaker, he’s no Kubrick, overly stylistic visual flourishes are not his forte. Instead, he is comfortable letting characters slowly reveal themselves and to allow quiet moments to linger in his work. It’s a style of filmmaking that doesn’t explode out at the viewer, but feels more long-lasting than a flash in the pan special effects picture.
Next up in Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns
Advertisements

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Lone Star

For the next six months or so, I have decided to take a look at a director whose entire filmography will be new for me. The first director up will be John Sayles. Sayles’ name has come across my radar many times but I’ve never sought out his pictures until now. What I know about him is that he typically prefers large casts and very complex narratives, sort of like Robert Altman but with less improvisation. Sayles has done a tremendous amount of screenwriting work on films as diverse as The Howling, Apollo 13, and The Fugitive. It was an unproduced screenplay, titled Night Skies, that Sayles wrote which inspired Spielberg’s E.T. I hope that you learn as much as I do about a new major director in the American cinema with me as we go.

Lone Star (1996, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey

My feelings after seeing Lone Star was that Sayles made a perfect concept for the first season a television drama. There are so many characters and so many myriad plot strands that the two hours the film takes does not feel like enough to do them justice. Don’t get me wrong, this is a very good film, it just feels like so much for such a small portion of time.

The film is set in Rio County, Texas where two off-duty soldiers discover a partially buried skeleton wearing a sheriff’s badge. Current sheriff, Sam Deeds (Chris Cooper) is called in and an investigation begins revealing the skeleton to be that of Charlie Wade (Kris Kristofferson), who mysteriously disappeared forty years earlier. Sam starts asking questions of the older members of Rio County and is met with many warnings to leave the past alone. Simultaneously, we follow Pilar Cruz (Elizabeth Pena), Sam’s high school sweetheart and current social studies teacher. The circumstances of how their relationship ended becomes entangled in some of the same events that brought about the death of Sheriff Wade.

Much like Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg, Lone Star is very much about things that happen below the surface level. There is the core mystery of the film, but there is just as much time devoted to the racial history of Texas. One scene involves a meeting of parents upset about the way Pilar teaches the history of Texas, giving a sympathetic view of the Mexicans’ role. A new courthouse is being dedicated during the film and an ongoing argument in the film revolves around whether to name it after Sam’s father, Buddy (also a sheriff) or to name it after a notable Mexican-American in the community. Pilar’s mother clings to her Spanish heritage over her Mexican roots and yells at her cantina’s staff if they do not speak in English.

The only flaw with the film is as I said before, so much for such a small amount of time. There are so many subplots, and they weave and connect together flawlessly, but I think they would have grown and matured better if allowed 12 to 13 hour long episodes to develop. As a series this would have combined the smalltown politics of Friday Night Lights with an investigation concept. The picture left me thinking that in the current climate of series like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, there would definitely be a home for Sayles if he ever wished to developed a series.