Posted by: markfender | October 21, 2015

John Sayles

John Sayles is the independent director you don’t know anything about.

lone_star_ver1_xlgOr, at least, it seems that way. He doesn’t seem to be nominated for awards, doesn’t make Hollywood films, and doesn’t seem interested. He makes beautiful films about times and places that you might not be familiar with, and pulls you into those times and places. To me, he’s always seemed like the James Michner of filmmaking – because you will understand the history and culture of a place unfamiliar to you after the movie’s over, similar to how a Michner book does.

Watch The Secret of Roan Inish (No, seriously. Do it. It’s on Netflix and the kids will like it) and you’ll know a little bit more about Ireland than you did before. Watch Lone Star and you’ll understand the mixed cultures that arise in border towns. Watch Limbo and you’ll understand the mentality of the type of person who would move to the Alaskan frontier. Watch Amigo and you’ll have a greater insight into the relationship between the Philippines and the US. Watch any of his movies and you’ll get insight into a historical time, a place you’ve never been, and the intersections of cultures that occur there.

Probably the biggest reason, Sayles doesn’t get the recognition is that his movies don’t typically deal with white culture. Sayles has the singular gift of penetrating to the heart of cultures he’s not even a member of. Lone Star spends as much time with its white characters as it does with its Mexican or African-American characters. Hell, Men with Guns isn’t even in English (and Amigo barely has any). He writes movies about the intersection of cultures with an eye that is rarely seen.

Personally, it’s hard to go wrong with any Sayles film. If there’s any disappointment I feel towards his work, it’s that I don’t like Silver City all that much. This is especially sad because I actually live in the area that movie’s about. And I think Brother From Another Planet’s cultural beats are a bit dated (and the weird humor of Sayles and David Strathairn playing bizarre aliens doesn’t hold up either). But, besides those exceptions, you can pick any one of his movies and be transported to a place you probably don’t know anything about. I would personally recommend Roan Inish for the kids, Lone Star for the adults, and Go For Sisters if you want to see Edward James Olmos play someone who isn’t an asshole. But, my favorite movie of his is Limbo. David Strathairn and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (two Sayles veterans) are great as lost and damaged remnants in Alaska and Vanessa Martinez is absolutely mesmerizing (She was doing Jennifer Lawrence back when Jennifer Lawrence was 9 years old, but somehow didn’t get the recognition that Lawrence has gotten).

Sayles writes, directs, edits, and often produces his own films. He’s always quietly working at the fringes of movies. And, to be completely honest, I’m almost never intrigued by the descriptions of his films. However, I still make a point of watching them because, no matter what subject he approaches, I know it will turn out to be great.


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