Friday, June 16, 2023

John Sayles: A Man for All Genres

My good friend Frances Doel (hi, Frances!) was the one who brought John Sayles into movieland. Having read Sayles’ lively stories in classy magazines like The Atlantic, she suggested him to Roger Corman as a potential screenwriter. Sayles took to low-budget filmmaking immediately, crafting the hilariously lethal Piranha and the space opera Battle Beyond the Stars. (The latter, a sort of cheapie Star Wars clone,  was also the launching pad for another future director, James Cameron.) Everyone knew from the start that the multi-talented Sayles aimed to direct: he spent much time on the set, soaking up everything he could about how movies were made.

 When I spoke to Sayles for my Roger Corman: Blood-Sucking Vampires, Flesh-Eating Cockroaches, and Driller Killers, he told me how much his New World Pictures years had taught him about Filmmaking 101: “When do you need suspense rather than action? When do you need comedy to give people a break from the suspense? That’s what I found that Roger and Frances were very good at.” He also discovered how to write for a Corman budget, and how to approach a script in terms of its marketable elements (“How could you advertise this film?”) He put all this to use in 1980 when he had accumulated $40,000 to invest in his directorial debut, Return of the Secaucus 7. This was, in Sayles’ words, a film in which “I started with very little money, and said, ‘What can I do well?’ ”

 Secaucus 7, a college reunion story often seen as a precursor to The Big Chill, revealed Sayles’ longstanding interest in social groupings. When I think of Sayles’ career, I tend to remember Matewan (1987), City of Hope (1991), and Lone Star (1996), tough dramas focusing on complex interactions in periods of political and economic stress. But Sayles can also be darkly satirical, as in The Brother from Another Planet (1984), wherein a dark-skinned alien (Joe Morton) lands on earth and tries to fit in.  

 I recently visited two Sayles films from the 1990s which may seem out of character, but reveal his skill with actors and exotic landscapes. Passion Fish (1992) is very much a female film, influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. It features longtime Sayles favorite Mary McDonnell as a soap opera star who, after a serious accident, has been left a paraplegic. Returning to her family home in rural Louisiana, she wallows in self-pity until a no-nonsense Black caregiver with problems of her own (Alfre Woodward) enters her life. The story is by no means saccharine: McDonnell’s character can be bitchy, and Hollywood comes in for some well-deserved satirical licks. But it’s a down-to-earth tale of resilience and acceptance, beautifully acted and filmed.

 The big surprise is 1994’s The Secret of Roan Inish, adapted by Sayles from an Irish novel full of mythological creatures. Sayles’ Ireland is not the cheerful domain of Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People. Nor is it nearly as black as The Banshees of Inisherin. Roan Inish is a family film, with a young girl as its central character, in which terrible things have happened in the past but the ultimate ending is upbeat. Set largely on a mysterious island, it’s surely the most gorgeous film that Sayles has ever made, full of water, sand, gulls, and the seals who share a magical inheritance. I love the fact that it was shot by a late-in-life Haskell Wexler,  another deeply political filmmaker who set all that aside to revel in the beauty and the folklore  of the Irish coast.


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