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The Prophet of Hope
Star, John Sayles has given compelling artistic life to
his moral sensibility.
Alan A. Stone
John Sayles is virtually unique
among American filmmakers: He believes that making a film should
be a serious moral undertaking. Sayles' own moral sensibilities
were formed in the 1960's, and reflect the best aspirations
of that generation: social activism, political commitment, human
solidarity, and a willingness to swim against the current of
political opinion and popular taste.
Indeed, Sayles' cinematic ambition
is guided so much by his conscience and his impulse to fill
a moral void in our cultural and social-political discourse
that, after ten films, he still lacks a well-defined directorial
signature. City of Hope, Sayles' 1990 rejoinder to Spike Lee's
brilliant Do the Right Thing, perfectly illustrates this distinctive
ambition and its aesthetic consequences. Popular culture had
become the battlefield of race relations, and when Lee dropped
a bomb of "Black Rage"-a rap-opera of racial and ethnic
hatred that ended in a riot and presented interracial solidarity,
even friendship, as yet another lost cause-Sayles needed to
respond. His film showed Black officials and activists making
a difference, thwarting radical separatists, and holding out
the promise of hope and community in the face of White corruption.
Critics applauded City of Hope and its message, but audiences
stayed away. Unlike Do the Right Thing-which was unmistakably
Spike Lee's-City of Hope was not identifiably the work of Sayles.
Caught up in responding to Lee's argument, Sayles' best artistic
moments were obviously derivative-borrowed, in fact, from Do
the Right Thing.
By the time City of Hope was
released, Sayles was rebelling against a different orthodoxy.
As the cultural politics of diversity had supplanted a more
traditional paradigm of creative intuition, many filmmakers
had begun to bow to restrictive conventions on artistic discourse
that privilege the "different voice": Only an African
American, only a woman, only a Hispanic, can speak authentically
to the different experience. Not Sayles: He continued to explore,
speak for, and address our common humanity. In his 1992 Passion
Fish, a paraplegic white actress and a drug-ruined black woman
find their way across the barriers of difference to discover
the possibility of a saving friendship. John Sayles seems to
have kept the faith, even as he fulfilled the American intellectual's
Fifty years ago that dream was
to write a great novel; today it is to be a filmmaker. Born
in 1950, Sayles has straddled the generations and fulfilled
both dreams. After graduating from Williams, he supported himself
doing menial jobs while he wrote fiction. One of his short stories
won the O'Henry prize, and his second novel, Union Dues, was
nominated for a National Book Award. He moved on to Hollywood
under the aegis of the fabled Roger Corman who also fostered
the talents of Bogdanovich, Coppola, and Scorsese. For Corman
he wrote schlock screenplays: Piranha, The Lady in Red, and
Alligator. His first independent film was Return of the Secaucus
Seven, a story of college friends coming together for a reunion,
confiding in each other, and trying to reconcile their conventional
'70s lives with radical '60s values. Sayles' screenplay won
him an Oscar nomination, and subsequently he earned Hollywood's
ultimate compliment: imitation. Return of the Secaucus Seven
became The Big Chill, a big-budget success, and stages-in-the-life-cycle
became a standard Hollywood genre.
Not that Sayles has trouble communicating
with a mass audience. He made Bruce Springsteen's Born in the
U.S.A. video, and created a TV series, Shannon's Deal; when
Apollo Thirteen ran into trouble, Sayles was brought in to doctor
the screenplay. But he stubbornly refuses to apply market sensibilities
to his own independent films. He will not condescend to his
audience or adjust to the short attention span of the lowest
common denominator. He is avowedly uninterested in form or style
for its own sake, does not use the magic of the medium to "blow
something past the audience," and refuses to bait his films
with sex or violence. Though not all his films have been successful,
none is compromised or cynical. Each makes a social-political
statement and he tries to appeal to minds, not glands.
The power of that appeal cannot
be understood through conventional distinctions between mass-market
and artistic films. Indeed, two of this summer's well-received
art films-Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty and Coen's Fargo-demonstrate
the more prevalent cinematic aesthetic of style over substance.
Bertolucci, the old master, needed only two ideas to inspire
Stealing Beauty: A young American woman goes to the beautiful
hills of Tuscany to lose her virginity and find her biological
father. The only question is whether she will fulfill both objectives
with the same man. Bertolucci's invocation of lush sensual images
together with Liv Tyler's child-woman vulnerability provides
edgy erotic entertainment. Stealing Beauty is recognizably Bertolucci:
Behind the facade of his beautiful visual style lurk his own
Joel Coen found the story line
for Fargo in a newspaper account of a botched attempt at extortion
that led to several unintended deaths. In the judgment of most
critics he made this tragedy of errors into a cinematic jewel
of black humor. Coen's mannered style juxtaposes the banal and
the violent to extract humor from the passage of a corpse through
a wood-chipper. It is a comic nightmare from which you awaken
amazed by Coen's wicked genius. It will add to Coen's growing
Bertolucci and Coen begin with
general concept and uses a sense of style and visual imagination
to carry the idea through. They add emotional hooks of sex,
violence, and fear to hold the audience's attention, and after
the roller coaster of emotion, present a contemporary version
of a happy ending. Though they aim much higher than Twister
or Independence Day, like almost all contemporary filmmakers,
they make essentially apolitical films, in the service of escapism:
The vaunted free market of creative ideas has collapsed under
the weight of the bottom line money giants. Sayles will have
none of this.
His most recent film, Lone Star,
struggles to corset a novel of almost Dickensian proportions
into a screenplay. Two-and-a-half hours long, packed with ideas
about identity, roots, and the uses of history, layered with
meaning, Lone Star is the rare film that (while marvelous the
first time) is worth seeing a second time for its challenging
"ideas." Although less visually memorable than Stealing
Beauty or Fargo, it towers over them in ambition and achievement.
Lone Star is also far and away
Sayles' best film-and no less morally purposeful than his earlier
efforts. While both political parties in our nation of immigrants
speculate about using military might to defend our borders against
illegal aliens, Sayles takes his stand with the "party
of humanity." Looking into the heart of the alien other,
he finds all the virtues America is in danger of losing. Moreover,
he embeds his argument in a compelling and well-told story.
Lone Star is Sayles' film-novel about America and its political
future, presented through a story about a man's search for the
truth about his father.
The film is set in Frontera,
an imaginary border town of today's Texas. From the Texas side,
drunken Americans drive into Mexico looking for "cheap
pussy." From the Mexican side, illegal aliens wade across
the Rio Grande looking for work. Focusing on this frontier traffic,
Sayles means not only to challenge our conscience, but to question
the very idea of national boundaries that protect haves from
Those boundaries are permeable:
Mexican Americans now constitute the majority of Frontera's
registered voters and are on the verge of wresting political
power from the Anglo power structure. They are the largest ethnic
group in the schools, and no longer want their children taught
to "remember the Alamo" or believe that God gave Texas
to the Anglos.
Sayles also gives Frontera a
Black population and (on the outskirts of town) an Army military
post where Colonel Payne, a spit-and-polish African-American
officer, has just assumed command. In Sayles' peacetime army,
Black Americans can find a haven from the chaos of the inner
city and the possibility of interracial respect.
Frontera's political and demographic
dynamic allows Sayles to show us his hopeful vision of a changing
American identity and social hierarchy. Three of his characters-an
earnest high school history teacher, fearless investigative
reporter, and aspiring deputy sheriff-are all Mexican Americans
and unmistakably decent folks. As they move to the front of
the bus and the back of the limousine, they push but do not
shove the Anglos they once worked for. Similarly, Colonel Payne,
the Black post commander, gives orders to White non-commissioned
officers and they dutifully obey the better soldier. In contrast,
Sayles' Texas Anglos are locked into the prisons of the past;
they are neurotics who lack purpose or, like Sheriff Sam Deeds
(Chris Cooper), defeated men playing out their last cards before
they lose their place at the table.
All this social and political
background would surely have been discarded if Sayles' screenplay
had found its way into the hands of a major studio. But even
if most of his ideas about the uses of history and the arbitrariness
of boundaries had been eliminated, enough would have been left
over for a first rate film. And that combination of soul and
mind may explain why Lone Star is Sayles' best effort. Sayles'
screenplay reinvents for our time the classic theatrical experience.
The story opens on the desert
landscape of an abandoned Army firing range. A human skeleton
is discovered, and near it, a rusted, star-shaped badge. The
camera focuses on that star image: It is the traditional badge
of authority of the law man; the familiar five-pointed Lone
Star of the Texas state flag; and the familiar icon of all the
Western movies of law and order that have gone before. These
first images recur and reverberate throughout the film.
This discovery of human remains
brings Sam Deeds to the scene and he sets in motion the investigation
of a murder that took place 40 years earlier. The rusted badge
indicates that these are the remains of Sheriff Charlie Wade
(Kris Kristofferson) who supposedly disappeared back then under
Sayles attempts, not always successfully,
to base his filming technique on the ideas of his screenplay.
In Lone Star the idea is to portray the past at work in the
present. Though his story moves back and forth between present
and past, he disdains the familiar time-shifting techniques
of fade-outs or dissolves. When Sam Deeds first interrogates
Frontera's mayor (Wade's deputy at the time he disappeared),
the camera moves along the wall away from the table in the cafe
where the mayor is sitting with his friends. When the camera
returns to the table we are back 40 years in time. Sam's father,
Deputy Buddy Deeds, is standing up to the much despised Sheriff
Charlie Wade. It is one of those classic Western, macho, draw-if-you-dare
confrontations between good guy and bad guy.
Sam Deeds has his own reasons
to believe that his father-the legendary good sheriff of Frontera-killed
Charlie Wade the night of that confrontation. It turns out that
Charlie Wade was corrupt and hated by almost everyone in Frontera-he
killed any Black or Mexican who didn't pay him off-so if Buddy
Deeds did kill him, a lot of people would have been grateful
for Deeds' rough justice.
Sayles' visual technique of weaving
together past and present works perfectly with his ideas about
the uses of history and about generational conflict. Though
the past is crucial to the meaning of the present, people-particularly
children and their parents-can have drastically different memories.
Those differences in individual memory are the equivalent of
differences in group history; there are real consequences for
all of us in how we "Remember the Alamo." With the
camera "swiping" between the present and the past,
Sayles uses Sam Deeds' investigation to make the
burdens of history immanent.
Sayles' broad Lone Star canvas
is filled with characters, who do not appear to be there for
themselves but to illuminate the film's basic themes. Lone Star's
theme of generational conflict is elaborated in several variations:
Sam Deeds and his father; Pilar (the Mexican-American high school
teacher) and her mother; Colonel Payne and his father, Big O.
But while Sayles cares very much about each character (he wrote
a back story for each of the more than 20 speaking roles in
the film), his psychological portraits are not very deep.
Those portraits, like Sayles'
conscience, bear a '60s stamp. That was the era of identity,
identity crisis, stages in the life cycle, and the politics
of the family: Relations between self and society, and conflicts
between the generations became important in ways that psychoanalysts
had neglected. "Who am I?" and "What is happening
to me?" replaced "What am I?" and "How did
it happen?" Sayles may never have read Erik Erikson and
R.D. Laing, but identity psychology informs The Return of the
Secaucus Seven, and the politics of the family is the subtext
of Sayles' recent films. For Sayles the psychological rubber
hits the road when people take a moral stand. Repeatedly in
his films, characters step outside their stereotypes through
an act of grace that redefines their humanity.
The Sam Deeds we first meet has
been defeated by his father and by life. Newly energized by
the chance to destroy his father's legend, he undertakes the
murder investigation. For all the wrong reasons, and despite
ominous warnings, he takes a stand for truth. Lone Star offers
no exploration of Sam Deeds' unconscious, and no descent into
his subjectivity. Sayles does not want to be drawn into the
depths of his character's psyche where identity and moral courage
are no longer visible. Less interested in Oedipus's complex
than in Antigone's conflicting attachments to family and polity,
he thinks that our identity and moral commitments in life depend
not on our unconscious, but on the stories we consciously tell
about ourselves, our family, group, and nation. Lone Star is
about the levels of storytelling we use to build and defend
our own identities and attack others'-"Remember the Alamo."
Sam has never forgiven his father
for breaking up the one great passion of his life, a star-crossed
Romeo and Juliet relationship with his high school sweetheart,
Pilar Cruz. The memory is recreated in a scene set in a drive-in
movie where Sheriff Buddy Deeds cruelly rousts the humiliated
teenage lovers from their back seat embrace. They believe they
were brought together by love and separated by the enforced
boundary of blind ethnic prejudice. Pilar eventually accepted
the ethnic boundary and married a Mexican American but he, a
mechanic, was not good enough for her assimilating mother. Now
a widowed high school history teacher with teenaged children,
Pilar has the courage to return to her first love, Sam.
The last variation on Sayles'
theme of generational conflict and social identity involves
Colonel Payne and his family. It turns out that Colonel Payne
originally came from Frontera, where his father, Big O, runs
the Black folks' night spot. The self-righteous and disapproving
Colonel wants nothing to do with his high-living father, who
abandoned his family long ago.
Sam Deeds and the Colonel tell
themselves stories of paternal failure. Their oppositional identities
isolate them both from their own fathers and from their roots
in the community. In Sam Deeds, this takes the form of detached
objectivity. He may have failed in life, but he unforgivingly
sees through his father's legend and the corruption of the Frontera
political establishment. He refuses either to be a part of it
or to try to change it. Having been wronged by his father's
self-indulgent vices, the Colonel is a man of exacting self-discipline
who sits in judgment on the Black community and will tolerate
no weakness: "You get what you're born with and you have
no excuses." As it turns out, all three characters are
wrong about their parents and therefore wrong about themselves.
Colonel Payne's father was a
womanizer but he loved his son; the Colonel's mother kept father
and son apart because of her own disappointment. In an act of
grace, the Colonel steps out of his stereotype to forgive and
learn forgiveness. To some critics the Payne family seems quite
disconnected from the soul of the story, which rekindles the
teenage love affair between Sam and Pilar. But in both of these
threads of the film's narrative, Sayles uses history for his
own healing purposes. He puts Seminole blood into the veins
of Big O Payne and makes him the proud proprietor of a museum
of Seminole memorabilia.
The Seminoles are a part of the
American past that the high-minded Sayles would like us to imagine
as part of our future. Unlike other Indian tribes, the Seminoles
of Florida welcomed runaway slaves into their midst and intermarried
with them. Many of the great Seminole Warriors who later held
out against Andrew Jackson in the Okeefenokie Swamp were of
mixed ancestry, as were those who later fought in Mexico and
became the best trackers in the great American West. Sayles
has Big O relate this tale of roots to his grandson, conveying
a sense of positive interracial identity.
This use of Seminole history
is both wonderful and troubling. It is wonderful because it
celebrates interracialism, whereas history has been condemning
the half-breeds ever since Abraham sent the outcast Ishmael
into the desert. But it is troubling to ask African Americans,
who were deprived of their history, to find the glory of their
past among American Indians, however noble they may be.
Sayles, of course, is not offering
us a definitive Black history: His Seminoles are a parable of
interracial pride meant to challenge popular prejudices that
prevent recognition of our common humanity. But the interracial
story of the Paynes is a critical design in the triptych of
Lone Star, illuminating its more tragic dimensions.
In a series of episodes, each
brilliantly acted by witnesses to the past-a Mexican, an Indian,
Big O, a Texas Ranger, and Sam's ex-wife-we hear a Greek chorus
that exposes the skeletons of history. Sam learns what he did
not want to know: that his father was admired with good reason
by everyone including the mayor, who killed Sheriff Charlie
Wade rather than watch him murder another innocent victim. And
he encounters another, even more unwanted truth: His father
had a mistress, Mercedes Cruz-Pilar's mother. Why had these
lovers with so much vehemence protested the love affair of their
children? Not because Sam was Anglo and Pilar Chicana, but because
both had the same father, Buddy Deeds. Pilar and Sam had felt
like kindred spirits transcending the boundary of ethnic difference,
and instead they had crossed the boundary of blood. Many find
this ending troubling, and it is a puzzle. Sayles brings Pilar
and Sam together in the ruins of the drive-in movie theater
where they had traumatically separated for Sam to tell her the
truth. Because it is made clear that there is no risk of their
producing offspring, in a sense the couple's only constraint
is what this historical truth means to each of them. The history
teacher Pilar's last words on the subject are, "Forget
the Alamo." At one time, Sayles has said, he thought of
making those words the title of his film.
Fortunately he thought better
of it. The words are undeniably critical to him but they are
as ambiguous as Sam's response. He tells Pilar: "If I met
you today I would want to be with you." The ambiguity here,
as one urges that history be forgotten and the other wants to
evade it, baffles the audience.
Unfortunately, Sayles indicated
in a interview that he expected the audience to understand that
Pilar and Sam would "forget the Alamo" and stay together.
For him it is almost a logical conclusion, the quod erat demonstrandum
of the arbitrariness of boundaries constructed by human beings.
But the ambiguity of the ending thwarts his intention. Moreover,
Sam and Pilar are not alone in their historical predicament.
Mercedes knows the true story, and it is implied that other
people in Frontera know that Pilar's supposed father had been
murdered by Charlie Wade long before she was conceived. Sam
and Pilar may try to forget their history, but what about Mercedes
and Pilar's teenage children, and the older generation? Will
they allow the couple to forget the boundary they have crossed?
John Sayles' movie raises far
too many questions for there to be a straightforward conclusion,
even if it is his own. Texans and all Americans have been crossing
interracial boundaries for centuries: Europeans disdainfully
think of us as a nation of mongrels. And if we mongrels search
out our roots, we may-like Sam and Pilar-find baffling entanglements.
But as Lone Star shows us, interracialism can be the glory of
America's future, not the shameful burden of its past. Sayles
is a serious, almost humorless, filmmaker, but he is one of
those rare prophets of hope.
Originally published in the October/
November 1996 issue of Boston Review