The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star, by Mark Bould

The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star, by Mark Bould

A long overdue study of a rare exampe of a radical film director who is also unashamedly populist.

Appreciating the Anarchists’ Convention. Book review – Tom Jennings
This survey of the most consistently progressive figure in American cinema rectifies a glaring gap in the literature. John Sayles’ sixteen features over three decades span Return of the Secaucus Seven’s (1980) frank exploration of the midlife residue of youthful sixties radicalism to Honeydripper’s (2007) empathetic excavation of Southern Black life during Jim Crow conditioning present circumstances. Intervening work oscillates among epic historical ensembles – Matewan (1987), Eight Men Out (1988), City of Hope (1991) – and intimate portrayals of the ravages and possibilities of lives hedged around by intricately interwoven class, race and gender domination – Lianna (1983), Baby It’s You (1983), Brother From Another Planet (1985), Passion Fish (1992) – resolving into more thorough integrations of superstructural and interpersonal concerns – Lone Star (1996), Men With Guns (1997), Sunshine State (2002), Casa de los Babys (2003), Silver City (2004). Always emphasising full spectra of social conflict and the collective texture of individual frustration and fulfilment, Sayles’ unique output harshly but hopefully critiques both US society and its cinema.
Mark Bould shows how this doggedly and genuinely independent filmmaker, helped by producer/partner Maggie Renzi and the loyal goodwill of accomplished actors and crew, funds projects by screenwriting and scriptdoctoring for big-budget Hollywood fare – starting with exploitation maestro Roger Corman in the 1970s – and while published novels and short stories make the libertarian-socialist affiliations more explicit, his journeyman writing gives routine theatrical fodder far more bite than usual (literally so in Piranha and Alligator!) and wit and intelligence aplenty. Whether commemorating labour struggle or exploring vicissitudes of identity, Sayles’ promiscuous genre-bending concentrates on convincing detail to illuminate the wriggle-room wrested from otherwise rigidly overdetermined fixities afforded by oppressive systems. Thus the author quite sensibly approaches the material through the prism of the pitfalls of naturalism and melodrama familiar from both European social-realism and American literature. Though following a rather clunkily linear chronology, he succeeds in showing the depth and range of the writer/director’s achievements, and readers will be encouraged to contrast their artfully impassioned sophistication with the mystifying sentimentality of tinseltown’s hypnotic spectacles.
This excellent book also serves as a useful primer on 20th century Marxist cultural theory, with somewhat forced digressions to maintain the theoretical primacy of classical dialectical analysis. Its subject, however, transcends such simplistic reductivism, foregrounding the complexity and persistence of power relations and cultural patterns despite as well as because of prevailing logics of capital – with the conflictual results, furthermore, often representing vital resources sustaining and prefiguring resistance. To be fair, Bould grudgingly accepts greater eclecticism, deploying various interpretive perspectives when vulgar materialism founders – like anthropologist James C. Scott’s concept of hidden transcipts as subaltern strategies, or Bruno Latour’s provocative poststructuralist philosophy of history as inherently cyclical, underpinning the central human resonance of myth and fantasy. What the author cannot admit (or even mention), though, are the wider political implications of the necessity for richer worldviews – expressed elegantly enough by Sayles himself in naming his production company The Anarchists’ Convention.
The Cinema of John Sayles (2009) is published by Wallflower Press, priced £16.99.
Review first published in Freedom, Vol. 70, No. 24, December 2009.
For other reviews and essays by Tom Jennings, see:

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Tom Jennings
Dec 30 2009 07:25


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