Academic journal article Style

Forget the Alamo: Reading the Ethics of Style in John Sayles's 'Lone Star.'

Academic journal article Style

Forget the Alamo: Reading the Ethics of Style in John Sayles's 'Lone Star.'

Article excerpt

Blood only means what you let it.

- John Sayles, Lone Star

In an editorial of 26 March 1997, Linda Chavez, the President of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a nationally syndicated columnist, laments Hollywood's subtle "chipping away at the incest taboo," arguing that John Sayles's 1996 film,Lone Star, advocates incest as "just another alternative life style choice." While Chavez derides the film as a "boring, politically correct saga about prejudice and murder in a small Texas town," her critique of Sayles's narrative neglects the tremendous import of incest as a metaphor for the history of ethnic struggle in Frontera, Texas,Lone Star's fictive cultural battleground ("Kiss" 25).(1) Similarly, Laura Miller of Salon Magazine ridicules Lone Star as "a sort of Frankenstein's monster cobbled together from dozens of garden-variety movie cliches and ordered by its creator to deliver a moral of bland multiculturalism" (3).(2) As with Chavez, Miller seems loathe to recognize Sayles's deliberate narrative design and his express interest in commenting upon the fractious cultural dilemmas of our past and their often silent impact upon the present. In Lone Star, Sayles skillfully exploits the incest taboo as the vehicle for his analysis of the interconnected ethnic threads that constitute contemporary American life and the often uneasy relationships that continue to exist between the races. Sayles's incest metaphor also provides the writer and filmmaker with a prescient means for exploring the ways in which our shared history impinges upon the ethical choices that confront us in the present.

Sayles constructs his ethical examination of Frontera's historical and present-day cultural dilemmas by virtue of an arresting and carefully plotted visual style. As Martha C. Nussbaum notes, an artist's sense of style - whether visual, literary, or otherwise - often functions as a means for rendering ethical judgments. In Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature (1990), Nussbaum argues that"form and style are not incidental features. A view of life is told. The telling itself - the selection of genre, formal structures, sentences, vocabulary, of the whole manner of addressing the reader's sense of life - all of this expresses a sense of life and of value, a sense of what matters and what does not, of what learning and communicating are, of life's relations and connections," she writes; "life is never simply presented by a text; it is always represented as something" (5). In Lone Star, Sayles employs the film's cinematography as a dramatic means for commenting upon the nature of Frontera's shared sense of culture and community. By using a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards, Sayles highlights the sociological disjunctions between Frontera's segregated past and its relationship to the ethnic tensions that plague the border town's historical present.

Sayles produces Lone Star's striking visual style through his careful manipulation of the audience's sense of time and place. By altering our traditional understandings of temporality and setting, Sayles succeeds in demonstrating the ethical interconnections between the past and the present. In Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method (1981), the French rhetorician Gerard Genette offers a useful mechanism for exploring the particular narratological elements that establish style and tempo within a literary work, in Genette's case, Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu. These narrative movements - specifically, summary, ellipsis, descriptive pause, and scene - reveal the stylistic foundations that produce the overall impression that a given narrative evokes. Such movements establish a tempo within a text, and their efficacy can be measured by the effects they create within that narrative. With Lone Star, the application of Genette's narrative principles usefully demonstrates the moral impact of Sayles's visual style, as well as of his strategic, ethically motivated tampering with traditional conceptions of time and place. …

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