Walker Art Center

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Filmmakers John Sayles: From Alligators to Agitators

Dialogue: John Sayles with Jay Carr

  • Retrospective: July 8–30, 1991
  • Regional Premiere: City of Hope

Much talk is devoted to the qualities that go into the making of an artist. Vision is always mentioned—and rightly so. But not enough credit is given to stubbornness. John Sayles’ career reminds us of this. Eight Men Out (1988), about the 1919 Chicago Black Sox scandal, was the sixth film he directed—but the first one whose screenplay he wrote. It took him eight years to get it made. Los Gusanos, his just-published novel about Cuban exiles in Miami, took him 13 years to write. You perhaps sense a pattern here. Sayles typically develops a view of what he wants to do and stays with it until it’s done. What this means is that he has necessarily become something of a guerrilla strategist, an expert at using the system just a little more than he lets it use him. This is called being an independent filmmaker.

Sayles has a larger purpose than the usual careerism. Beginning with his first feature, the now-legendary Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), he has written about people trying to preserve ideals. The communal ideal eroded alarmingly in the 1980s but not in the work of John Sayles. With a cherishable consistency, he continues writing about people’s need to connect with groups in which they can feel whole—a challenging theme in a society we agree is growing ever more fragmented. His Matewan (1987), for instance, probes the bonds that united normally antagonistic miners and mountain people against company goons during the Appalachian coalfield wars of the 1920s. And only Sayles could have portrayed the young Chicago White Sox in Eight Men Out as underdogs in a labor-management conflict that crushed them.

Sayles comes by his working-class idealism naturally. He grew up in Schenectady, New York, a company town in the shadow of General Electric. One job he held in Boston (where I live) was at the Genoa Packing Company, a fact of which I am reminded whenever I drive by it. He raised the $60,000 he needed to finance Return of the Secaucus Seven by writing screenplays for such films as Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), and Alligator (1980)—hence the title of this retrospective. Sayles’ new film, City of Hope, evokes Hoboken, New Jersey, where he lives, though it was filmed in Cincinnati. (There weren’t enough parking places for the equipment trucks in Hoboken.) This movie, like nearly all his others, is about people trying to figure out how to live together. You don’t need a lantern to realize how urgently we need such inquiry. Meanwhile, let’s be grateful Sayles continues to figure out ways to stay on the job and keep his blue-collar humanism intact.

Carr is a film critic for the Boston Globe.

John Sayles