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

Film 2010 #36 – The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner


The Loneliness of the Long Distance (1962, dir. Tony Richardson)

Starring Tom Courtenay, Michael Redgrave
Film across the world was undergoing a transformation in the early 1960s. It began with the French New Wave movement of directors like Godard and Truffat and spread across Europe. Eventually, it hit England and corresponded with the coming of age of the first group of post-war children. The films produced in this period are referred to as the Angry Young Men, as they focused on teenagers and men in their 20s for whom the drudgery of blue collar life, that their parents so readily accepted, was considered a living death sentence.
This particular film focuses on the life of a Nottingham youth named Colin Smith (Courtenay). The picture opens with Colin being transported with a group of other juvenile delinquents to Ruxton Towers Reformatory. At the same time, the administration of the facility learns a nearby public school (in the States it would be a private school) wants to have their boys compete against Ruxton’s in a track and field event. The governor of the school (Redgrave) eyes Colin with the potential to win the long distance race after a tryout and begins loosening the restraints on the boy to ensure he will feel dedicated to Ruxton when the day of the race arrives.
Throughout the film we’re given glimpses of what led Colin down this path. At Ruxton, he is a humorless and dour young man, but in his life before he possesses a yearning to escape the factory life of Nottingham that kills his father. It becomes apparent that all Colin has been given in life are a series of expectations to live up to. His father’s former employer expects Colin will come work for them. Colin’s mother expects him to get a job once his father dies. The authorities figures in his town expect him to fall into a life of crime. The pressure of these expectations slowly grows inside Colin in both the flashbacks and during his time training for the race.
The most wonderful moments of the film come when the Governor allows Colin to run outside the gates of Ruxton. As soon as Colin is past the gates a soundtrack of period jazz music kicks in and the camera becomes very loose and documentarian in how it captures the runner. These moments of joy when Colin is by himself, simply running till he can’t breathe are played against his confrontations with fellow boys at the reformatory and regular sessions with the nervous and ineffective counselor. The loneliness mentioned in the title ends up playing both a joyous and bittersweet role. The film has two endings in effect, the one where Colin is “victorious” and then a sort of epilogue which causes us to question the cost of that victory.

Film 2010 #28 – King of New York


King of New York (1990, dir. Abel Ferrara)

Starring Christopher Walken, Laurence Fishburne, Victor Argo, David Caruso, Wesley Snipes, Giancarlo Esposito, Steve Buscemi
When I was a child, I noticed a bleak tone in many films and the music of the era. I think of Nirvana and other grunge artists and films like Terminator 2. It felt like there was a darkness over all these things. Now, many years older I look back and realize that it was in part a response to the downturn of the self-indulgent 70s and greedy 80s. This is why Abel Ferrara’s King of New York is such a excellent culmination of this sense of burning out after decades of success.
The story opens with the release of Frank White (Walken), a crime boss who has finished serving his term in prison (We’re told he’s been gone for years, but never given an exact number). Frank’s lieutenants on the outside begin a systematic execution of rival bosses as a signal that Frank has returned. Frank’s new outlook on life has him redirecting his criminal enterprise into helping keep a hospital for low income families open, an admirable goal indeed. However, Roy Bishop (Argo), the cop who took him down originally is keeping an eye on Frank. Both men, Frank and Roy, have metaphorical children, young soldiers who were raised in their service and owe everything to their “fathers”. And both sets of children are the victims of their fathers’ legacies in the end.
Walken plays things in his trademark bizarre way. Frank never approaches anything remotely human, he is forever emotionally distanced from everyone around him. His devotion to saving the failing hospital is admirable but he has no strong reaction when he own men are gunned down around him. On the flip-side, Roy is shattered when his “boys” are gunned down. It’s regret that separates these two men, Frank stance summed up nicely in the line, “I never killed anyone that didn’t deserve it.” Frank is able to justify his actions because he is so distanced from them, he assuages any guilt by taking up a cause in the community like the local hospital.
The film is much more about style than substance though. The soundtrack and visuals are all meticulously crafted to generate a very specific tone. The picture never feels like it could take place in reality until the final sequence. For the majority of the pic, Frank and his crew’s actions are incredibly over the top, specifically a shoot out in Chinatown where every single person on the street seems to have access to an automatic assault rifle. What this picture does best is create palpable tone, from the opening frames you have no doubt about the type of world you are entering and get a feeling for the bleak, hopeless finale its heading toward.

Film 2010 #21 – A Face in the Crowd


A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)

Starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau
Sheriff Andy Taylor this ain’t. If you familiarity with the acting of Andy Griffith doesn’t expand much further than The Andy Griffith Show then prepare to be shocked by this picture. Released three years prior to the television series, the role Griffith plays is that of a scoundrel, liar, womanizer, emotionally abusive drunk. The character’s profession as a television personality delivering blues-based country music and humorous monologues about his upbringing in North Carolina is remarkably similar to how Griffith made his start in show business. However, the darker aspects of the character are believed to be inspired by television and radio personalities Arthur Godfrey (who fired an employee on air in 1953, revealing his controlling personality) and Uncle Don, a child TV personality who was caught calling his audience “little bastards” on air.
The story begins with Marcia Jeffries, the niece of a radio station owner in North Arkansas who hosts a series called “A Face in the Crowd”, whose focus is finding everyman figures with dynamic personalities. She comes across Larry Rhodes, a drifter picked up for public drunkenness. Larry is a very charismatic person who pulls people in and Marcia decided to make him a regular on the station, nicknaming him Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome rises up through a local television station in Memphis and is eventually picked by a national network in New York City. All the while, he reveals his true nature to Marcia as someone not truly as “salt of the earth” as he claims.
The film feels prophetic, but when its based on personalities and hosts of the past it reveals how cyclical the fame and media machine truly is. It is inevitable that parallels would be drawn between this film and Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and countless other politically driven svegalis who emphasize their simple roots and connection to the common man. Lonesome Rhodes is a sympathetic character at points in the film, but never an admirable one. The theatrical audience could easily be pulled in by Lonesome’s grin and “fuck you” to the Man take on his earlier career.
The film is a pretty standard cautionary tale and director Kazan knows how to use his camera to accentuate the madness that begins to overtake Lonesome. I absolutely loved a montage that shows how Lonesome’s national television series becomes a hit. It was the perfect example of how to use montage in an effective way that isn’t simply cheating on the part of a screenwriter. I also loved a sequence near the end where Lonesome is taking an elevator down to the limo waiting for him. The camera cuts between the elevator buttons lighting as he descends and simultaneous descent of his approval in the eyes of the public and his sponsors. Brilliant, classic piece of cinema.

Film 2010 #16 – Goodbye Solo


Goodbye Solo (2008, dir. Ramin Bahrani)

It begins in the middle of a conversation between two men, Solo and William. William wants a ride to national park in Eastern North Carolina two weeks from now and is offering Solo, the cab driver, a $200 down payment to ensure this. At first, Solo can’t quite understand why William wants a one way ride to the middle of nowhere, but soon he begins to figure out William’s motives and decides to do whatever he can to stop him.
I first became of aware of Ramin Bahrani with his 2007 film Chop Shop. Bahrani has found his niche in taking unfamiliar faces and non-actors and placing them in very human and very compelling stories. Goodbye Solo is no exception, and it owes the majority of its grounding in honest humanity to the acting of Souleymane Sy Savane who plays Solo. Solo is so incredibly genuine in his caring for William, that you cannot help but be pulled into this deceptively simple story.
Director Bahrani presents a very complex view of suicide in this film. We are never given explicit reasons as to why William wants to end his life, but there are hints dropped and Solo does some investigating of his own and learns some things about the elderly man’s past. The two characters are excellent foils for each other: both very connected to their role as fathers and both determined in their own ways. Solo is just as bullheaded as William, except Solo has the charisma and smile to get people on his side.
The film’s resolution will probably frustrate people more accustomed with mainstream cinema. There is a lot of ambiguity and Solo reveals the complexity he hides to most people. Bahrani is one of the most powerful new voices in American cinema. His landscape encompasses both the urban and rural masterfully and the faces in his films are a true representation of the diversity present in our nation. Bahrani also chooses to focus on the working class in all his films and really taps into the zeitgeist of daily life and the state of the economy today. His films are in no one overtly political and seem only to yearn to find commonalities between diverse groups in America today. Goodbye Solo is a film that, if you allow it, will stay with you for a long time to come.