Dear John: For the Love of Movies

A recent completist's appreciation of the films of John Sayles

The first time I saw a John Sayles movie I was 16 or 17 years old and sitting in the back room of a communist bookstore on Main street. It was a Friday night, and this was an instalment of the weekly Militant Labour Forum, during which members, supporters, and those merely intrigued by the Communist League and their youth auxiliary, the Young Socialists, would gather to hear presentations on, say, the Cuban Revolution, Québec independence, the Gustafsen Lake standoff, or the Teamsters strike against UPS. Occasionally, a film deemed amenable to the advancement of the struggles against capitalism and imperialism would be shown in place of a presentation, which is how I got to see treasures like Barbara Kopple’s strike documentaries American Dream (1990) and Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976) And it’s how I came to see John Sayles’s Matewan (1987).

Matewan was, as some, I think, have already pointed out, a war movie, with all of the genre’s first act introductions of the troops, uneasy building of esprit de corps, and ultimate, last act swelling to battlefield heroism — only rather than the regularly Hollywoodized battlefields of WWII or even the trenches of WWI, this was the class war, the same one my punk rock heroes sang vaguely if passionately about, brought to very particular life in the hills of West Virginia between the coal miners and the coal bosses. Released the same year as Predator and Full Metal Jacket, this was a war movie where half the troops were women; where many of the soldiers fighting on the same side didn’t speak the same language. When the bosses try to break the union by replacing the white Anglo strikers with Italian immigrants and African-Americans, the miners are faced with a choice: they can have their nativism and their racism, or they can have their union, but not both. The sectarian left is famous for its narcissism of insignificant differences, but denizens of the Militant Labour Forum (who on any other Friday could offer a pedantic taxonomy of why somebody who thought the Russian Revolution went sour in 1922 rather than 1927 could never be trusted for all eternity) had nothing but praise for Matewan. Which is not to say that the movie is an exercise in boring, didactic political box-checking, but just the opposite — that it was such barn-burning visual storytelling that even people who watched movies thinking that’s what they wanted would soon forget, and just become filmgoers.

In 2021, Hollywood — the international centre of English-language commercial filmmaking, the independence from which has been the single defining feature of John Sayles’s career in movies — is exerting a great deal of energy to create the impression that it is now, and has always been, excited about being more like John Sayles. Aside from his first self-financed picture Return of the Seacaucus Seven (1979), in which she co-starred and on which she acted as production manager, Sayles’s romantic and creative partner Maggie Renzi has produced all of his films. For decades, Sayles’s pictures have featured substantial roles for women and actors from racialized communities, and the white affluence taken as a cultural given in American moviemaking of the 80s and 90s has always been seen, his pictures, as the historically contingent sociological abnormality that it is (was?). The year of Scarface and The Right Stuff Sayles was doing lesbian campus romance (Lianna, 1983); the year of Hook and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves he was doing urban lamentation through the eyes of the Italian-American addict son of a slumlord, the waitress mother of a son with special needs, and an African-American city councillor navigating the private demands of his conscience with the ambiguous but unrelenting world of a deeply racialized politics (City of Hope, 1991); the year of Independence Day and The Rock he was doing a whodunnit about undocumented Mexican labourers, Black-Indigenous bartenders, and white sheriffs in a racially segregated Texas town where beneath the surface everyone is more intimately connected than they let on (Lone Star, 1996).

If Sayles’s interests, themes, and methods were always at least a few, and usually more, years ahead of Hollywood (as was his eye for talent; his audience came to know actors like Angela Bassett, David Strathairn, Chris Cooper, and others well before they became known to a much wider one), there is one way in which the filmmaker’s sensibilities are mostly contrapuntal to the 2021 conventional wisdom: the injunction to stay in one’s lane. Sayles’s films have told stories rooted in the battle for Filipino independence from Spain and the United States (Amigo, 2010), the African-American origins of rock and roll (Honeydripper, 2007), and commercial real estate development (Sunshine State, 2002). The catholicity and breadth of Sayles’s curiosity and sensitivity is at odds with at least the broader outlines of today’s preferred epistemology, which encourages creators to work from within their own (sometimes even autobiographical) experience.

I say that Sayles’s sensibility is mostly contrapuntal, though, because there is one respect in which it is amenable to the newer sensitivity, and this seems to me to make all the difference in the world: there is nothing proprietary or instrumental in the way Sayles tells stories. His characters, and their narratives, are stably grounded in a deep and insatiable knowledge of and curiosity for history, and a profound, abiding love both of people and of persons. Ultimately, that love of history and love of humanity are the same thing.

Whichever disparate genre he may be working in — and Sayles’s pictures range from science-fiction (The Brother from Another Planet, 1984) to mystery (Silver City, 2004) to thriller (Limbo, 1999) to family-friendly legend (The Secret of Roan Inish, 1994) to period piece sports epic (Eight Men Out, 1988) — there are a few rules which hold across all of the films. They are that life is deeply complex, and that every human being is an utterly unique individual who is also part and parcel of one, or multiple, social-historical collectivities, or communities. The I-Thou relationship is always encased in the Us. As a consequence, the two moral outs that have historically been the preferred offerings of liberal filmmaking — either a) it’s always so easy to tell the good from the bad that you’ll never have any trouble doing so or b) the good and the bad are so hopelessly intermixed that it’s better not to try to change anything at all — are foreclosed.

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Sayles is a very fine prose writer (I’ve read one of several collections of his short stories, Dillinger in Hollywood (2004) as well as his novel Los Gusanos (1991) — and I’ve read, so far, one-third of his epic A Moment in the Sun (2011), which, in my defence, would be equivalent to another book in its entirety in a normal case). If you haven’t yet heard Jerry Stiller performing his short story At the Anarchists’ Convention — which was shared with me by my friend, Bakunin biographer and IWW historian Mark Leier — I’d advise that you drop what you’re doing. He has written screenplays for other people’s movies, created now-almost-impossible-to-find TV, and directed music videos for Bruce Springsteen. But the work for which he will most likely be remembered are the feature films on which he has acted as writer, director, and, almost always, editor.

At the beginning of 2020, listening to a podcast interview between Sayles and director Michael Moore, I realized that there were still a handful of these features which I hadn't yet seen. Sayles is widely recognized, along with figures like Melvin Van Peebles, as one of the first major independent filmmakers in the United States. That independence from the commercial-industrial machinery of moviemaking has made his films a whole lot better, more interesting, and infinitely richer — but it’s done nothing for their availability. Slowly, over a period of more than a year’s worth of streaming and online ordering and email requests, I managed to complete the list.

This past week, having finally laid my hands on a DVD copy of the appropriately elusive Men With Guns (1997) — I say appropriately because it is a story of epic and then desperate searching, as an aging Latin American doctor living comfortably in his capital city heads up into the mountains to try and find the medical students he somewhat blithely, paternalistically, and ultimately cluelessly sent out in order to ‘serve’ remote Indigenous communities, only to find that they have been brutalized by government death squads — I can proudly say that I am all caught up. I was a 16-year-old Trotskyist when I first encountered John Sayles; I was a 24-year-old quasi-anarchist when I got to interview him, nervously, over the phone, for a little left-wing website that I’d started with my friends three years before social media came along and might have made such a venture viable; I was a 40-year-old democratic socialist of an Anglican Franciscan bent when I finally became a completist. Some things change, but the important stuff stays the same. I still love movies and hate capitalism. I see from IMDB that Sayles is working on a screenplay. Good. I’m up for it, always, Friday nights or otherwise.