Feature by: Leo Goldsmith
Posted on: 30 September 2004
Few résumés are as peculiar as John Sayles’. You will find his screenwriting credit on films as varied as Piranha, Clan of the Cave Bear, a Dolph Lundgren vehicle, a Sharon Stone Western, 2004’s The Alamo, and the forthcoming Jurassic Park IV. His experience as an actor makes for an equally strange list of films: Malcolm X, Alligator, Something Wild, Gridlock’d, Girlfight.
But for all of the surface variety of his career, Sayles’ directorial work has remained remarkably consistent. This is partly due to the amount of control that he exercises over his films. Beginning in 1980 with Return of the Secaucus Seven, Sayles has written, directed, and edited (and occasionally appeared in or written music for) fourteen films, with a fifteenth, Silver City, currently in limited release. This coherence is also attributable to the consistent approach Sayles takes to his varied subjects. Throughout his career, he has continually blended the personal with political, illuminating large social issues with character studies in order to show the effect of these situations on individual lives.
As a result of Sayles’ dual concern, critical response to his films is invariably mixed. His films exist in a unique realm between satire and saga, and at their best they are equal parts exposé documentary and expansive drama. But his strange, sometimes awkward mixture of comedy, tragedy, and dialectic yields films that some critics find excessively didactic in their socio-political agendas. But if Sayles’ films are often unsubtle, they seldom demand a specific reaction or viewpoint from the audience. Usually they reveal the many strata and implications of a particular political situation and ask the viewer to reach his or her own conclusions about it. Even if the politics of his films lean rather plainly to the left, they rarely offer clear resolutions, opting instead to leave the story, the characters, and the viewer in a state of limbo.
In keeping with John Sayles’ canon, The Brother From Another Planet possesses a distinctive, if sublime, political agenda. Because its principle character is an embellished creation, he serves to exaggerate peoples’ intolerance — fundamentally, he is the most removed of Sayles’ characters.
For all of the binary simplicity of the film’s moral structure, the question of violence, its utility or even necessity, is the great ambiguity at the film’s center.
Lone Star is intrinsically an aggregate of John Sayles’ prior films, politically and racially. It presents an ensemble of characters that span these facets evenly, each, in some manner, componential to the film’s central schemes of murder and the obscurity of truth.
Like so much of his work, Limbo feels like two films — one agitprop, the other melodrama — but these two strains are unified in the film’s title and (as always) setting.
The film portrays the interaction of the two cultures as deeply problematic. None of the American characters speak more than very broken Spanish, and most have naïve attitudes toward their Latin American hosts. And for their part, the maids and lawyers and waiters that cater to their needs are unsympathetic to the apparently shallow concerns of the Americans, having far more desperate situations of their own.