Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City



Silver City (2004, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfus, Danny Huston, Mary Kay Place, Tim Roth, Thora Birch, Maria Bello, Miguel Ferrer, Billy Zane, Michael Murphy, Kris Kristofferson, Daryl Hannah

John Sayles is not shy about his politics, and this film is definitely the work of a bleeding heart liberal. I myself am a fellow bleeding heart so I sympathize with the sentiments of the picture. However, it is a piece of cinema made out of anger and frustration and, while those elements have helped make great art, they cause Silver City to feel overly bitter and despondent, and way too didactic.

The movie opens on the filming a campaign commercial for gubernatorial hopeful Dickie Pilager (Cooper), the dim-witted son of a former governor of Colorado now believing he can win the seat. Sound familiar? Cooper’s performance, obviously modeled on President George W. Bush was very well done and, as much as I like Josh Brolin, made me wish we could have seen Cooper in Oliver Stone’s W.  During the filming of this commercial, as Pilager casts a rod into the crystalline lake in the frame, he pulls up a hand belonging to a body left in the water. Immediately, Pilager’s campaign manager (Dreyfus) thinks someone is setting Pilager up and hires a detective agency to investigate. The investigator is Danny O’Brien (Huston), a former news reporter who is less than enthusiastic at first. As he journeys deeper he becomes obsessed with Pilager’s connection to a multi-corporate mogul Wes Benteen (Kristoffersen).

On paper, this sounds like a great concept. But it fails, and it fails badly. Huston is completely unnatural in the leading role, proving to me he needs to keep to the supporting ones. I can’t figure out if it was the dialogue or actor, but he comes incredibly stiff and forced in his performance. And with Danny O’Brien as the character we are following, it makes the film that much more painful to get through. Cooper and Dreyfus deliver great performances, but aren’t in enough of the movie to make it work. I would have preferred that it had focused on the Pilager character’s campaign more and been a satire of President Bush. Instead, we get a poorly made activist film where metaphors are incredibly shallow.

The film made me feel very conflicted, as every political note it touches I am right there in support of. But it proves that when views are expressed too overtly they bog a film down. The film takes it self too seriously for the majority of the time, and when it does attempt to go light, such as when Daryl Hannah’s tough hippie character is introduced, the humor feels hollow and tainted by Sayles bitterness. Not the best work of this director; he CAN make great films about his political views (Matewan for example).

Next up: Sunshine State and my final thoughts on John Sayles.

Director in Focus – New Director Poll

This month will be my last covering the films of director John Sayles. For my next director, I’d like the readers to choose. The poll will be open till the end of the month. Below are the choices and brief description of them:

Francois Ozon – French director specializing in films focused on female characters, sexuality plays a key role as well as the surreal. I have seen Swimming Pool and Ricky.

Pier Paolo Pasoloni – Italian poet and author whose films adapted great works of literature such as The Canterbury Tales and Oedipus Rex. I have never seen any of his films.

Claire Denis – French director who positions her actors in carefully intricate poses and shots, focus on sexuality in her work. I have seen Trouble Every Day.

Brian DePalma – American director who makes slightly surreal and highly stylized noir and thriller films. I have seen Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, Mission: Impossible, and Mission to Mars.

Vote in the poll on the left side of the page. Excited to see who everyone picks.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Men With Guns


Men With Guns (1997)

Starring Federico Luppi
Throughout history it is apparent that the people who get to make the rules are the ones with the bigger weapons. The entire continents of Africa, South and North America were conquered simply because Western civilization developed guns and gunpowder before the aboriginal peoples of the New World. And even now, with an annual budget of $708 billion for defense, the United States rules because it has the “guns”. Its this situation and state of humanity that director John Sayles starts out from in this film. Instead of sticking to the grittiness of reality, Sayles opts for a more magic realist mode which is appropriate for the picture’s setting in an unnamed Central American country.
Doctor Humberto Fuentes is an aging man, physician to members of his country’s military echelons and father to adult children who seem to grate on his last nerve. Dr. Fuentes holds a group of med students he mentored up as his true children, proud that they helped him form a program to administer medicine to the native people living in the jungles and hills of his country. This dream is shattered when he witnesses one doctor in the city, working as a fence for illegal goods. He questions the man who tells him to visit another student doctor in a rural village to understand why it has come to this. Dr. Fuentes embarks on journey that takes him from remote outpost to remote outpost and introduces him to a cast of characters who represent ideas and icons much larger than themselves.
The film is a spiritual successor to many great myths, the Wizard of Oz, and the writing of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The people that make up Fuentes traveling band by the end of the film are all slightly larger than life. As the term “magic realism” implies they exhibit that larger nature yet are still individual characters with very distinctive personalities. One of the most interesting characters is Padre Portillo, a priest who has a death warrant from the military on his head for the suspicion of collaborating with rebel guerrillas. Portillo refers to himself a “a ghost”, believing that the moment he had to abandon the village where he was stationed, and in effect abandon the Church, he was no longer alive or dead.
Much like Lone Star and Matewan, Men With Guns allows John Sayles to examine the concept of hierarchies. In all these films, the authority only retains their power through harsh, absurd violence. The victims of this violence often have no understanding of the method behind, and they frankly don’t care. All they know is that a gun barrel is pointed at them and they simply don’t want to die. Sayles is asking us if we follow the strictures of society because we truly believe in them or because we fear the guns. Dr. Fuentes is representative of the upper class, he practices philanthropy and simply assumes his good works filter down to the people at the bottom of the social ladder. Instead, his journey reveals to him that the very power structure he has had unblinking faith in burns villages down to “protect” the very people who live in them.
Next: Casa de los babys

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

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.