Friday, February 3, 2017

John Sayles

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

MOVIE DIRECTORS, AS I'VE SAID BEFORE, WERE TO MY '90s what rock musicians were to my '80s. Back when independent film was viable and people could still pronounce "auteur" I shot a lot of movie directors for NOW magazine, mostly because movie studios and distributors had the budgets to fly them to town for a day of interviews.

John Sayles was probably the epitome of American independent cinema, having taken the classic career path, starting with a brief stint in Roger Corman's exploitation stable before making his first art house hit, The Return of the Secaucus Seven, a film that would later be known as the Baby Boomer pre-midlife crisis weekend story that wasn't The Big Chill. He was at the film festival with his latest film, The Secret of Roan Inish, a story about selkies set in rural Ireland, made between his women's picture (Passion Fish) and his western murder mystery (Lone Star.)

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

Sayles' reputation was based on his talent with scripts, bolstered by his involvement on an early version of what would become E.T. and uncredited work on movies like Apollo 13. I was personally a big fan of Baby It's You, his 1983 film starring Vincent Spano (remember him?) and a young Rosanna Arquette, about young love doomed by class differences in the '60s. Americans tend not to be able to deal with the complex machinery of class very well, mostly for lack of a vocabulary to discuss it with candor, so Sayles' film felt exceptional, at least when I saw it in college.

Sayles is what the British refer to as a Man of the Left, but his take on class in Baby It's You was refreshingly free of Marxist tropes. The best thing about the film, though, wasn't how it dealt with class as much as its very moving portrayal of that frightening moment, just after high school, when life suddenly isn't so full of promise and opportunity as much as disappointment and the bracing realization that your capabilities might be more limited than you imagined.

He'd explored something similar in The Return of the Secaucus Seven, albeit with adults breaking into their thirties harrowed by a reprise of this brute reality. It endeared me to him quite a bit, though I remember being more than a bit disappointed by his follow-up film, The Brother From Another Planet, which I can't help but recall as a film that Spike Lee might have had more success with.

John Sayles, Toronto, Sept. 1994

I don't know why I put Sayles in the deep shadows of the hotel room where we did this shoot. Perhaps I was trying to say something about his reputation as a screenwriter and script doctor - one of the movie industry's more obscure jobs. Or perhaps I just liked this stark piece of light by a bit of bare wall.

I know that I was trying to capture something heroic with the shot at the top, not just because of Sayles' politics (Men of the Left tend to regard their political stances as implicitly heroic) but more particularly reflecting his role in the independent film scene, in which he was once a trailblazer and where he's now something of a survivor, and an endangered one at that.

No comments:

Post a Comment