John Sayles and “Amigo” Doing it His Way

Ideas and Issues

New Orleans John Sayles is a filmmaker with some skills and some politics.  I had read his book, Union Dues, and his famous short story about the Anarchist Convention years ago and like them.  I had watched some of his historical dramas like Matewan, a great movie about a rough coal strike,  Lone Star with its solid view of tensions and contradictions on the Rio Grande borderlands, Passion Fish a good piece set in Louisiana’s Cajun country, and of course Return of Secaucus Seven, when he broke in.  I had sometimes wondered whether or not I had crossed his path in one of my two hitches at Williams College where he had graduated a couple of years after I had done hard time there, but who knew.  Anyway, the blurb in the paper that said he had done a movie, Amigo, set in the Philippines, a country where ACORN International has many friends and partners, about the Spanish-American War, was not enough to get me moving, but the fact that he was actually going to be in the house and answering questions after the flick at Chalmette Theater only a couple of miles from my house made it a “can’t miss” event.

The movie was ok.  As always some great Sayles lines, my favorite was “The revolution burns whatever fuel it is fed.”  Another was the concept of “blood simple,” but about de gustibus non dispuntandum est – about taste there is no agreement.  The basic story was like if the rural villages outside of Luzon and the impact on the community and the cross cutting pressures on the “mayor” when the Americans took over and garrisoned there as his son went over to the local guerrillas led by his own brother.  As you can imagine, none of this was likely to end well for anyone, and it didn’t.

More interesting to me was Sayles continuing, categorical commitment to his artistic and political vision that leads to unique works like Amigo and the Spanish-American War finding a place on the screen and an audience in the chairs to watch a movie (in captions!) both beautiful and boring about war, colonialism, and conflict among people and a place most don’t care about in the grand scheme of their own lives and concerns, but still shapes a great part of the experience both here and there, no matter how dimly recognized.  In the Q&A he indicated that this is the third consecutive film he has done in recent years that was both self-financed and self-distributed.  He works on a union exemption from his guilds that lets him get paid in residuals, even though there are none, and the actors, many of them veteran Sayles-hands like Chris Cooper, work for one set of straight wages or essentially nothing at all.  He makes these films happen at $1.5 to $2 million a pop by doing other Hollywood work including rewrites and hack horror films so that he can do these films.  I admire everything about that kind of commitment to a vision and the discipline to realize it.   From the answers he gave to some of the technical questions, it was clear from his own mixture of contempt and regret that he does not believe there is a real independent film movement or industry at work anymore, which essentially leaves him no choice to go silent or push forward to realize his own vision and voice.

Also admirable continues to be his commitment to the defining distinctions in experience triggered by race and ethnicity, particularly as his career has developed.  Certainly that conflict and the hypocrisy around it had been stark in Lone Star. Sayles was clear that there was also no way to get around the issue in his writing and filming of Amigo after he had done the research and been on the ground.  Standing in Chalmette where local officials are dragging themselves into rebuilding from the Katrina devastation with court orders at their throats, forcing them all the way, and looking squarely at an audience, albeit perhaps mainly art house fans, but also virtually all lily white save for one fella sitting in the middle, I respected the fact that his commitment was so deep and categorical that he was willing to either pull his audience along with him or leave them gasping in the ditch.  Sayles has picked a lonely path where he cannot even expect too much in the way of praise for these themes and his steadfastness to them, because as a white filmmaker the applause there could sound begrudging.

I couldn’t help identifying with the experience, while thinking of organizing and what it takes to build something distinctive, keep it alive in unique and different ways, and allow it to survive and get to some scale.  I was pleased to hear that there were fellow travelers out there like Sayles.  The roads may be different but they are all long and hard, and when we’re lucky, as we were in Chalmette the other night, they meet at the crossroads and give hope to all of the travelers moving on the waysides to a better future.