A tale of two movies

I like films that are cinematic, that show me images I wouldn’t see otherwise. I like directors who are audacious about their use of the camera and of editing. I like my movies not to look like TV fare. (I don’t like my TV fare to look like TV fare, for that matter.)

In spite of this, I very much like John Sayles’ movies. None of the ones I’ve seen so far are visually spectacular, although they’re definitely not drab. It’s more that Sayles clearly isn’t interested in David Lean-type filmmaking. As a matter of fact, his films don’t look like he’s trying to impress their audience. They seem, at first, unassuming little movies.

But, once you get into them, they pack a surprising punch. Much of this is down to the fact that they’re immensely political films, something not seen very often in American filmmaking. Certainly politics is often used as a backdrop for movies – how many thrillers or action movies get a kick out of putting the president in jeopardy? – but they’re not interested in politics, not really.

John Sayles

John Sayles’ films are, but they’re not of the finger-wagging, lecturing type. Clearly they’re mostly left-leaning in their politics – almost all of them are concerned with small communities being fundamentally changed by big business – but more than that, they don’t tell you what to think. They provide you with Sayles’ interpretation of facts, but you’re still the one who has to make up his or her mind.

Limbo, which we watched on Sunday, is a strange film. It starts very much like Sunshine State or Lone Star, depicting a small community undergoing changes, focusing on a small ensemble of characters… but about halfway into the movie, it turns into something else. There is a thriller element, just as there was to Lone Star, but what the second half of Limbo reminded me of more than anything else was Into the Wild (also see Roger Ebert’s comment on the movie). Sayles, whose focus on ensemble casts usually is almost as strong as Altman’s was, zooms in on the fate of three individuals in an exceptional situation. Yes, it ties in with earlier lines in the film about how Alaska is about to be turned into a themepark and how people want the illusion of danger – they want to feel at risk without actually being at risk -, turning these lines on their head, but in effect it feels like Sayles started making one film and decided half-way through that he’d rather make a very different film.

The net effect is strange but compelling. Ten minutes into the film, I thought I knew what to expect; one hour into the film I no longer knew where Sayles would take me, which was exciting and quite frightening. Anything, literally anything, could happen to these characters.


And then came the ending. Absolutely fitting. And it felt like a punch in the stomach. Not because it was horrible or tragic or nasty. Because it was consistent to what had been set up. But, again, not the kind of thing you do if you want to impress or please your audience. I read that there’d been catcalls when the film was shown at festivals, and I understand why. But, the more I think about it, the more I feel that the “lady-or-the-tiger” ending was the only proper way to end the film.

But if I ever meet John Sayles, I’ll kick him in the shin.


P.S.: John Sayles is one of the consistently best writers for women, especially for middle-aged women, in American filmmaking. He should write for the stage…