Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Sayles Pitch

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

A Sayles Pitch

Article excerpt

In an era when the content of many Hollywood films has been stripped to the bone, writer and director John Sayles stands as a bulwark for thick plots and intricate characters. A maverick filmmaker, Sayles prides himself on novelistic movies, not special effects, because a picture isn't always worth a thousand words.

Smiling Jack Valenti was on the Today show this morning, telling about the wondrous new television rating system--the one that's going to let concerned parents know if a program is suitable for the toddlers, preteens or adolescents under their roof. It's a nice idea, letting folks know about the age-appropriateness of a program, though it's hard to have a lot of confidence in an industry that thought those dark sexual fantasies in Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" were okay for kids.

Still, if Hollywood really wants to help us screen out bad shows (unlikely, since that would cut our viewing and consumption of advertising way down), perhaps the warning labels could let us know if the program has a plot; any kind of a story line worth remembering; witty, realistic or clever dialogue; characters who haven't been pressed from a cookie sheet; or an ending we couldn't see coming from the opening credits. After all, the biggest reason there's so much senseless violence, graphic sex, and rough language on television and at the local cineplex is because most of the time there isn't any writing. So I suggest using two letters: V for vapid, or W for writer, and let folks choose what they want.

One place you might go if you're shopping for a couple of videos with a well-deserved W-rating would be an outlet renting any of John Sayles' ten films. A prize-winning author and novelist, Sayles is an independent filmmaker who for the last two decades has been crafting the sort of critically acclaimed and thoughtful pieces that usually only come with subtitles. Along with people like David Mamet, Woody Allen, Nora Ephron, and Sam Shepard, Sayles is one of a small cluster of American directors who are accomplished writers--and that sensibility shows up in his work. From 1980's "The Return of the Secaucus Seven" to last year's "Lone Star" Sayles has consistently produced the sort of stories and characters that are still pinging around inside us long after the lights have come back up.

In an age when most American movies are two-hour theme park rides engineered for a global market of 14-year-olds, stumbling into one of Sayles' films is like being promoted to the grown-ups' table at Thanksgiving dinner. Our food hasn't been precut, and the conversation has gotten much more interesting.

And one of the best reasons for savoring a Sayles' film is that the experience is like relaxing around a crowded dinner table as a lengthy but fascinating conversation unfolds. Seated there in the dark, we listen as a patchwork of intriguing and occasionally mismatched characters manage somehow to fashion a riveting narrative quilt out of their differing stories and points of view. It is as if the art of conversation were being put on film. Or, as Richard Corliss said of Sayles in a 1993 Time review, "his movies look as if they were made by a fly on the wall that had an advanced degree in psychology." Nor is this conversational style limited to his talkative films like "The Return of the Secaucus Seven," a film about the weekend reunion of a group of '60s radicals struggling with the trials and tribulations of the 30-something crowd. Even in "Matewan," a brooding piece about a violent West Virginia coal miners' strike, or "Lone Star," Sayles' 1996 murder mystery set in a Tex-Mex border town, the action of the plot advances primarily through the voices of the various characters, with each one telling their small, interlocking, piece of the story.

Sayles has occasionally explained the conversational tone of his films by noting that dialogue is cheaper than special effects, and that an independent filmmaker needs to paint as many of his pictures with words as possible. …

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