In the 35 year period in which he has made 17 films (among which are Matewan, Eight Men Out, Return of the Secaucus 7, Men With Guns) MacArthur grant-winning director John Sayles has also published seven books, including the National Book Award-nominated Union Dues and two full-bodied novels, Los Gusanos and, most recently, A Moment in the Sun. And yet, as he mentions in the conversation that follows, he has never received one note or letter from anyone who has read any of his books — a correction the cross-country reading tour (in a rented Prius) Sayles and his partner Maggie Renzi embarked on, will no doubt make.
A Moment in the Sun, in nearly 1,000 pages, delves into a sketchily acknowledged period of American history — the rise of Jim Crow, effectively thwarting Reconstruction in the South, the road to the Cuban Spanish-American War, American imperialism running rampant in the Philippines, and the greed-fed Yukon gold rush. As it happens, the American involvement in the misnamed Philippine insurrection also serves as the setting for Sayles latest film, Amigo.
This, my second chat with John Sayles (we last met in 1995 for his Cuban exile novel, Los Gusanos), turned out to be a lengthy conversation touching on his new opus, his new film, the perils of independent film making, and any number of asides and anecdotes from a full and storied creative life.
Robert Birnbaum: Its International Free Press Day — in case things like that matter to you. I haven’t seen any reviews of your new opus. Maybe because it is too long for reviewers?
John Sayles: There have only been the publishing trade magazines, Kirkus and those. One of them called it a cat-squasher of a book.
RB: How imaginative. I saw an article on the fact that you are visiting every state including Alaska.
JS: Just about, yeah.
RB: Is that fun?
JS: Yeah, I like reading. The book is long enough so I am reading a different chapter every night so I don’t get bored with it. One thing that is nice is that it is almost all independent bookstores.
RB: The chains seem to be going out of business (laughs). Who would have thought it?
JS: Also the chain stores don’t do readings in the mall that often. I have written three novels before this and a couple of short story collections and to this day I have never gotten a letter from someone who has read one of my books. I run into people who have seen my movies all the time. Most people don’t know I write books.
RB: Didn’t you win a National Book Award or something?
JS: That didn’t change anything. I was nominated.
JS: A short story collection, Dillinger in Hollywood. But that was about five years ago or so. Nation Books published it — they hadn’t done fiction before so it was pretty new to them. Doing readings is kind of like theater, where you are looking at your audience. Which is nice for a book, to actually see somebody who is going to read the book or at least buy it.
RB: Unlike most book tours, which is one sealed tube after another — you are out among the people.
JS: We like driving across the country.
RB: Are you rejiggering your budget now that gas prices are soaring?
JS: No, but we are renting a Prius. I am almost too big for a Prius but it’s OK. Mexico is just about out of oil — which will be good for the pollution in Mexico City.
RB: The week I was there it must have been really unusual because it was not bad at all.
JS: They have a few good days, but the rest of the time it’s like breathing bus exhaust.
RB: I’ve lost track of Mexican politics — did they just have an election?
JS: They are about to have a big one. What’s happening is that the narcos have a bigger army than the government.
RB: That stuff is ripe for fiction — lots of books are coming out of the borderland. My favorite is
In Sunday’s New York Times, inspired, I suspect, by Black History Month, movie critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis had a long piece on the glaring absence of black writers, directors, and actors in this year’s Oscar nominated movies. They refer to this phenomenon as a “whiteout.” Some might say that Scott answered his own question—why there are no major movies this year by or about black characters (never mind the rest of America’s non-white racial panoply; Scott never mentions them)—with his rather insightful piece of a few weeks back, “Hollywood’s Class Warfare,” which argued that in the wake of the financial crisis, in the midst of mass unemployment, mortgage defaults, and forecloses, many American filmmakers became preoccupied by class, and that some of the best of this year’s movies (The Fighter, Winter’s Bone, The Town) were about working-class and underclass lives, the kinds of lives that the dominant American class mentality—we’re-all-middle-class-here—doesn’t acknowledge or examine all that often.
Yes, I know: there are still a great many statistics that demonstrate that race and poverty’s fault-lines still mirror each other, still have a causal rather than accidental relationship, and thus that class is not the new race: that race is the new race and the old race. But, it’s Hollywood we’re talking about, and we can’t ask them to attend to too many weighty aspects of American life at once. So, at least for this year in American movies, the answer to the rhetorical question in “Hollywood and the Year of the Whiteout,” “Is class the new race?,” is yes: For Hollywood this year class was the new race.
That doesn’t mean that this year’s “whiteout” isn’t a problem. But neither the problem nor the answer to the problem are quite what the authors here take them to be, though they touch on the real answer fleetingly.
The problems with the argument? First, and most obviously, when there’s a whiteout year in Hollywood, black isn’t the only color that’s missing. And, second, the solution to the whiteout is not, as is suggested, a new black indie cinema movement—a few new Spike Lee/Lee Daniels-style black moviemakers. Or, at least, that’s not the full answer.
My sense is that the way out of the whiteout requires something more subtle, something unprecedented. The answer isn’t just a new coterie of black directors making movies in the line of Do The Right Thing or Precious. More serious films about black American life in our yearly cinematic output would be great, don’t get me wrong. But there’s something else American cinema needs more now—something we’ve only had accidental and fleeting glimpses of thus far.
What we need are more serious movies with multiracial characters/casts that aren’t SCARE QUOTES MOVIES ABOUT RACE END SCARE QUOTES. We need more movies that simultaneously are and aren’t about race: movies that are dramas and comedies, about love, death, the usual human plots—and also happen to be about race. We don’t need only highly self-conscious, politicized movies about race, but movies that look at race the way Ben Affleck’s The Town look at class: askance—Affleck uses a popular genre, a crime-thriller, to smuggle a story that’s really about class onto the big screen. This is also how Lisa Cholodenko asks us to think about sexual orientation in The Kids Are Alright: The movie’s lesbianism is sort of incidental. The movie is about a marriage undergoing a crisis brought about by a daughter’s departure for college–oh, and the couple happens to be gay. Cholodenko does not tell us that gay love, marriage, or family exist in a special category of experience unfelt and un-feel-able by heterosexuals: She tells us that the struggles marriage and children involve are a basic human experience, whatever the sexes of those involved.
I’m not saying that we as a nation have arrived at an idyllic, post-racial (or post-sexual orientation, or post-class) age in which we do not need MOVIES ABOUT RACE, but we could also use a less melodramatic, less strident cinema of race in the vein of The Kids Are Alright that’s just about sort of normal human plots inflected by the post-racial-ish reality that has come to define more and more of our lives. Because in some American communities, in some American homes and workplaces—more and more, I think—a version of the post-racial age has arrived and it’s not because we have a biracial president. We’re married to and related by marriage to and work with and hang out with people of other races and nationalities, and at the end of the day our relationships with these people aren’t really all that different from our relationships with those of our own races. It’s sort of mundane, actually. Bi-racial marriages and friendships are actually pretty much like any other marriages and friendships most of the time.
Are there moments of fracture sometimes—a sense that your partner of another race is experiencing or feeling something you can’t? Yes, certainly. And are there strange moments in bi-racial relationships in which you suddenly feel as if your marriage/friendship is some sort of radical political choice—that you’re poster-children for something (usually caused by other people’s delighting in/awkwardness about your biracial-ness)? Again, yes. And I hope that this new cinema I imagine would capture and explain such moments with the subtlety they deserve. But most of the time in interracial relationships, it’s all the same laundry-on-the-floor, bills, celebrations, in-laws, dishes, fights, compromises that the same-race couple next door are dealing with. And I hope my new cinema would capture this too—how normal and humdrum inter-racial relationships can be.
This American experience has yet to make its way onto the screen, but we catch glimpses of it: A.O. Scott sort of touches on this idea of naturalizing race when he talks about 2009’s The Hurt Locker and its focus on “the volatile friendship between two soldiers, a hot-headed white bomb-disposal specialist played by Jeremy Renner and his cautious black sergeant played by Anthony Mackie. Race in that movie was not a theme or a problem to be solved, but rather a subtle, complex fact of life.” This is what I’m talking about. In an ever-increasing number of American lives it’s probably this kind of representation—race as “subtle, complex fact of life”—that feels most resonant. This understated mode (friends and coworkers first; incidentally, black and white) is a norm for more and more Americans and it should become a stronger presence in our movies. Race, for some of us now, isn’t a be-all-and-end-all melodramatically determinative fact of life, but a fact nonetheless—one that inflects our lives in increasingly subtle, nuanced ways—ways that have only just begun to be reflected in our movies.
What we need now are not white movies with Benetton tokenism (think Harry Potter: Cho Chang and the Patel twins), nor movies that ghettoize racial experience. What we need now, if our movies are to reflect American life as it is lived by more and more of us, is not white or black, but multiracial, biracial—movies whose plots and characters show how people of all races, not just white and black, combine and intersect in more mundane ways (marriage, friendship, work) and how these intersections have their particular, subtle racially-inflected nuances but are also just that—friendships, work, marriages.
“You may say what you want to, but in my opinion she had more sand in her than any girl I ever see; in my opinion she was just full of sand. It sounds like flattery, but it ain’t no flattery.”
Appraising this cinematic year, it’s these words, Huckleberry Finn’s description of the resourceful and feisty Mary Jane Watson, that offer the best summing up. It was, to be sure, a year of great film roles for women—Natalie Portman and Barbara Hershey in Black Swan; Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, and Mia Wasikowska in Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are Alright; Greta Gerwig in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg, the eternally mesmerizing Tilda Swinton in the operatic I Am Love, an all too brief glimpse of the effortless Sissy Spacek in Get Low. If there was a reigning ethos in the films (and cinematic novels: think The Hunger Games) of 2010, it was girls on fire, girls doing men’s work. A.O. Scott contends that this movie year was all about class, and it certainly was, but it was also about gritty girls. 2010 gave us the first best director Oscar for a female director, Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker (a film about the very masculine world of war), Angelina Jolie as Evelyn Salt (a role originally written for a male lead, Tom Cruise), and Helen Mirren resplendent as Prospera, a transgendered version of Shakespeare’s Prospero, in Julie Taymor’s exuberant and impressive (if, as usual, somewhat chaotic) adaption of The Tempest.
But perhaps more noteworthy than these great performances, blockbusterings, and transgenderings was this year’s critical mass of girls on fire: self-possessed, irrepressible young female characters played by self-possessed, irrepressible young female actors—girls, as Huck Finn would say, “just full of sand”:
Jennifer Lawrence as Ree Dolly in Debra Granik’s Winter’s Bone. Set and filmed in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri, Winter’s Bone offers a vision of another America, somewhat evocative of that depicted in James Agee and Walker Evans’ Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. It is a world of stoic, rural poverty, crank cooking, and intense, absolute clannishness. “Bred and buttered” in this world, 17-year-old Ree Dolly, played by the quietly luminous and quietly assertive Jennifer Lawrence, finds herself suddenly the head of her household, caretaker to a virtually catatonic mother and two much younger siblings, and in desperate need of answers that violate her community’s strict code of silence and hierarchy. “Ain’t you got no men to do this?” a hard-bitten, suspicious meth matriarch asks Ree when she comes seeking answers about her father’s whereabouts. Ree doesn’t. In the absence of parents and guardians, she must make her own way among the brutal, hostile adults who hold the means to her family’s salvation. Lawrence hits just the right balance playing Ree: as capable of a square-chinned, fend-for-myself, (even) fuck-you attitude—while splitting logs, shooting and skinning squirrels, standing her ground with belligerent police, drug kingpins, and bail-bondsmen—and of the vulnerable, frightened fragility of a child out of her depth. It is this balance that makes Ree’s courage (and Lawrence’s performance) more impressive—because we know her ability to challenge the rules of her world isn’t reflexive: it’s an act she wills herself to out of love for her family and her certainty that justice is on her side.
Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire. Feel as you will about sexual politics, prose, or plotting of Steig Larsson’s Millenium Trilogy, I dare you not to be impressed by Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film versions of Larsson’s novels. Among recent filmic evocations of androgyny, Rapace’s Salander stands on par—perhaps above?—Lina Leandersson’s Eli (Let The Right One In), Jonathan Rhys-Meyers’ Brian Slade in Velvet Goldmine, Ally Sheedy in High Art, even Tilda Swinton’s masculine/feminine gold standard (Orlando, Constantine). Rapace embodies Salander, Larsson’s dark recasting of Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking (she who outwits and overpowers men many times her size and age). The most obvious vehicle of Rapace’s masculine femininity is her body, which she trained meticulously before filming began: the squarely set, muscled shoulders, the corded sinews and veins in her arms, neck, and hands; her somehow simultaneously masculine and feminine breast/pectorals. More impressive still is Rapace’s total and absolutely convincing masculine affect: how she sets her mouth, how she takes off her jacket, smokes, eats, drinks, stands, walks. (Nota Bene: You can’t fully appreciate the quality and extent of Rapace’s morph without seeing her out of character, say being interviewed on Charlie Rose). In one of the movie’s best scenes, Lisbeth, in half-fastened combat boots, smokes outside the cabin she’s sharing with the middle-aged journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist). It’s a morning after: the night before, Salander has rather unceremoniously had her way with Blomkvist. She walks in brusquely and sits down; Blomkvist looks solicitously at her as she, avoiding his eyes, squirts ketchup on the plate of eggs he’s cooked for her. While Lisbeth shovels down her food with the gusto and unselfconsciousness of a teenage boy, licking her strong, nail-bitten fingers, gulping her coffee, Blomkvist eats small bites delicately, watching her intently, curiously. Nyqvist’s evocations of Leopold Bloom’s “new womanly man” are good, but Rapace’s indomitable, inscrutable Salander is breathtaking.
Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, in True Grit. Strange to say that among the gritty cast of the Coen brothers’ latest, the straight-backed, apple-cheeked Hailee Steinfeld is grittiest of them all. Steinfeld plays Mattie Ross, a hard-bargain-driving, Bible-quoting, law-minded 14-year-old determined to bring her father’s killer to justice with her own hands—and a little help from crusty US Marshall Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) and the be-fringed Texas Ranger LeBeef (Matt Damon). The crux of Mattie’s character is her unwavering faith in the righteousness of her cause and her absolute determination to “see the thing done” herself. Mattie is also preternaturally articulate and unnervingly, delightfully at home in the world of men, a sort of puritan Calamity Jane. She attempts to engage Cogburn in business negotiations through the door of a barroom jakes and when this doesn’t work invites herself into his bedroom, unfazed by his filth and undress; when LeBeef shows up in her boardinghouse bedroom with his rifle, Mattie’s verbal sparring and continued poise leave LeBeef visibly disconcerted. But, as in Winter’s Bone, the beauty is in the balance: For all her crackshot repartee, Latin, and Scripture, Mattie’s still very much a tenderfoot (flinching reflexively at gunshots and severed fingers, weeping at the death of her pony). The clear-eyed Steinfeld delivers Mattie’s steel and fragility with a light touch—a perfectly natural, steady frankness that is as charming as it is convincing.
Kristen Stewart as young Joan Jett in The Runaways. Kristen Stewart and Dakota Fanning starring together in a movie that doesn’t, in a word, suck. Fanning is as good as Stewart in this biopic about the original all-girl rock band, The Runaways (often better known as Joan Jett’s launching pad), but her character, the Runaways’ lead singer, Cherie Curry, is that all too common creature: a thin-skinned, compulsively seductive young woman and she doesn’t, in the end, have the hunger or stamina for fame or rock and roll. Sultry and lipstick-feisty but ultimately tediously fragile and difficult, Fanning’s Curry just isn’t as interesting a specimen as Stewart’s Jett—a little feral, sure and not sure of herself at the same time, aggressive and shy by turns. Gruff, hunched, and twitchy—almost stuttering at times, almost pre-verbal—Stewart’s Jett is portrait of the artist as a young woman on the verge of finding her voice.
And, perhaps a rogue choice: Hayley Atwell as Lady Aliena of Shiring in The Pillars of The Earth (an adaption of Ken Follet’s historical novel of the same name). Yes, gothic ridiculousness abounds in this tale of the building of a medieval cathedral and its attendant machinations: poisoned cups, self-flagellating monks with unholy ambitions, bloody dreams and rhyming prophecies, the Michael Bay/Ridley Scott-style galloping-high-drama-at-every-turn theme music. But if you can stomach the melodrama, this production also has a ripping rise-and-fall plot and about as fine a cast as you’re likely to see anywhere, including Donald Sutherland, Matthew McFaddyen, Rufus Sewell, Eddie Redmayne, Allison Pill, and Ian McShane (as the unholy priest, Bishop Waleran—seeing the man who played Deadwood‘s Al Swerengin tonsured and in episcopal robes is a meta-delight of its own). Foremost among the female cast is the young, English actress Hayley Atwell. Atwell’s still waiting for a great role (she was Julia Flyte in the recent, ill-concieved Brideshead Revisited and Bess Foster in the equally ill-conceived The Duchess) but even in flawed productions Atwell distinguishes herself. In Pillars, she plays the spirited Lady Aliena, whose family loses their land and title in the political upheavals of the 12th-century English succession crisis known as “The Anarchy.” Determined to regain her family’s name and prominence, Aliena turns wool merchant and builds the family’s prospects again, one fleece at a time. Atwell plays the fall from the charmed life and the determined climb out of poverty with a passion, almost a rage, that’s sometimes electrifying—made the more striking by her diction and delivery (classical training highly apparent).
And finally, in brief: Chloe Moretz who played the c-bomb dropping, infant assassin Hit Girl in Kick-Ass and Abby the infant vampire in Let Me In (the unsubtle American remake of the Swedish Let The Right One In). While some (me among them) found Kick-Ass disturbing and not as clever as it thought it was, Moretz did manage to project an actorly verve superior to her surroundings, as she did in the redundant Let Me In. And perhaps meatier roles lie ahead: Moretz has her eye on the role of Katniss Everdeen in the inevitable film versions of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. And really finally, last but not least: Elle Fanning in Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere. Coppola’s film is quieter than the others here: Fanning II’s character, Cleo, isn’t toting guns (she packs an iPhone and the most expressive pair of eyes since Pruitt Taylor Vince) or going toe-to-toe with outlaws (just a jaded moviestar dad in crisis) but she radiates the poise, the same woman-girlishness, the same knowingness beyond her years (as well as a child’s fears, loves, needs), that animates so many of these fine roles.
This is Huck Finn, signing off: “She was the best girl I ever see, and had the most sand.” And may girls, on screen and off, grow ever sandier in 2011.