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The Prophet of Hope

With Lone 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 personal dream.

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 sexual obsessions.

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 reputation.

Bertolucci and Coen begin with a
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 have-nots.

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 mysterious circumstances.

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

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