John Sayles hasn’t directed a film in a decade, and his presence is sorely missed

JOHN sayles



John Sayles has a new novel out, and that’s cause for celebration.

But I wish it were a movie, instead.

The book’s called “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey” (Melville House) and The New York Times gave it a rave, calling it “a first-rate historical novel.” Set during the 17th century, it is centered around a Scottish family and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s fight for the British throne — but still finds time to bring in Henry Fielding, and to sail to the Colonies.

It’s currently on my nightstand and I look forward to reading it — although, I have to confess, at 696 pages, that won’t be until I have a few days of uninterrupted leisure time. And maybe a comfy spot by the fire. It feels like that kind of story.

The downside of getting new fiction from Sayles, though, means we’re not getting any new films from him. Still. (His last feature as a director, “Go for Sisters,” came out 10 years ago.)

And we could really use some new John Sayles films.

By the way, Sayles isn’t one of those failed filmmakers who turned to memoirs or children’s books out of sudden, desperate re-invention. His first novel, “Pride of the Bimbos,” was published in 1975, years before his first screen credit. His second novel, “Union Dues,” was a finalist for a 1978 National Book Award. He cares about fiction.

And he’s writing for the screen, still. (The Western “Django Lives!,” for which he did the script, is currently in production.)

But it has been a decade since we’ve seen a “Directed by” credit from this longtime Hoboken fixture. And that’s a shame.

John Sayles signs copies of his novel “Jamie MacGillivray: The Renegade’s Journey.”

As a screenwriter, Sayles always combined a blue-collar worker’s pragmatic approach to paychecks with a history teacher’s enthusiasm for the little-known fact. As a for-hire scribe, he’s happy to deliver a script about urban alligators (or, anonymously, help rewrite your script.) And when it comes to passion projects, few things excite him more than the bits of the American past we don’t talk about — our occupation of the Philippines, say, or the real story of the Alamo.

He’s a fine scenarist. But it’s when he’s directing those scripts himself that he really excels.

As a director, Sayles isn’t easy to pigeonhole. He doesn’t have obvious visual signatures — fast and furious editing or slow, sinuous camera movements. And while he often works with the same actors, he doesn’t have a theme he returns to obsessively — like guilt, or identity, or gender. That makes him hard to categorize (and less attractive, perhaps, to auteurist critics, who are always looking for some connective tissue).

If Sayles does have a philosophy of style, it’s to stay out of the way of the story. And if he has an overriding message, it’s simply: People are complicated.

So are his movies, but always in a richly satisfying way. Think of “Return of the Secaucus 7,” an earlier, better “The Big Chill” in which slightly aging radicals began to think about what “the Movement” had really meant, and where it had brought them. Or “The Brother From Another Planet,” a film about race and immigration, but told as low-fi sci-fi.

Neither movie unfolded quite the way you expected it to, and that was the pleasure.

Rosanna Arquette and Vincent Spano co-starred in John Sayles’ 1983 movie, “Baby It’s You.”

Like the way his Trenton-set “Baby It’s You” turned romantic cliches on their ear by showing a couple who were clearly not meant for each other. (Criminally recut by others, it would be the first and last time Sayles worked for a studio.) Or the way “Lone Star,” his biggest hit, seemed to be about a vicious lawman but was really about the vagueness of blood and borders.

His serious period pieces — “Matewan,” “Eight Men Out” — grabbed American subjects like the labor movement, or baseball, then took a different look at them. His modern stories — like the great, underseen “City of Hope” — were mature and multilayered. (And then, just when you thought you’d figured him out, he’d do something like the offbeat fantasy “The Secret of Roan Inish.”)

Critics often called Sayles’ movies “novelistic,” a lazy trope — like calling “The Godfather” movies operatic, because they deal with Italians and big emotions, or “Game of Thrones” Shakespearean because it has murderous nobles. I interviewed Sayles a couple of times and I know the word annoyed him — because he actually wrote novels, and he knew scripts were a very different form.

What reviewers were really responding to, I think, is just how dense Sayles’ movies were, how thick with theme and incident, character and motive.

Kris Kristofferson in “Lone Star.”

While other movies often limit themselves to a binary world — protagonist/antagonist — Sayles fills the screen with characters of equal importance: the ballplayers in “Eight Men Out,” the pols and hangers-on populating “City of Hope.” And although he doesn’t shy away from villains — Kris Kristofferson’s racist sheriff in “Lone Star” is as evil as they come — he loves flaws. The temptations that even good people give in to. The compromises that even idealists make.

This rich approach used to be a more common one in American cinema. Seventies movies such as “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo” (both by Hal Ashby), “Nashville” and “The Long Goodbye” (both by Robert Altman) had star-driven stories that still dared to stretch out and take their time. But Sayles’ “Return of the Secaucus 7,” his directing debut, appeared just after that decade ended — and, with it, it seemed, support for quirky films and personal visions.

A revival of independent filmmaking in the ’90s certainly helped him, for a while (1996, the year of “Lone Star,” also brought moviegoers “Fargo” and “Trainspotting”). But then the indie world began to divide itself into high-concept genre films and low-drama experiments. Sayles’ quietly grown-up pictures seemed out of fashion again.

If Sayles has decided to retire, quietly, from film directing and its discontents, he can surely afford to. He still works as a screenwriter; he has a TV project in pre-production. And he bought his Hoboken townhouse decades ago, long before everybody else was doing that (he also has a place in upstate New York). And of course, there is this big new novel. He doesn’t need the movies.

But they could sure use him.


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