John Sayles is one of the best and most influential independent filmmakers alive, but availability of his films seems to have waned in recent years. Hopefully that will begin to turn around soon: A beautiful new Blu-ray of his classic union movie Matewan was issued earlier this year by Criterion and I’m crossing my fingers that more may be in the pipeline.
He’s been a stalwart of left-wing politics his whole career and can back it up: He has remained independent in the financing and production of his movies for decades, a fitting approach for an artist who started as a writer for Roger Corman productions before self-financing his groundbreaking 1979 directorial debut Return of the Secaucus Seven. I started collecting his movies a couple years ago and I’ve been hooked ever since. There is so much wit and depth to be discovered in his filmography; his movies always unfold more meanings and insights through repeat viewings. And I love his sci-fi and horror screenplays for other directors too, like Piranha, Alligator, and especially The Howling.
Here are four stellar selections from his ‘80s work that show his great intelligence as a writer and director as well as his unshakeable political commitment.
Lianna — 1983, DVD, MGM
Superb character study starring Linda Griffiths as a woman who falls in love with a female teacher and, realizing she’s a lesbian for the first time, confidently leaves her family and starts a new life. All the characters are carefully developed and the dialogue is some of Sayles’ very best. The film is not sensational at all, no big blow-ups or melodrama, it doesn’t need that, there’s plenty of drama just from watching interesting people subtly change, together and apart. The understated tone, and Griffith’s subtly self-possessed performance, carry a deeper message: This is not a big deal. The film has been cited as a landmark of LGBT cinema. This one needs a reissue; it’s a beautiful movie.
The Brother from Another Planet – 1984, VHS, Key Video
First of all, I love Key Video. I collect these and they are wonderful — I love the design on the box as well as their selection of films. Joe Morton stars as a mute alien who crashes in Harlem. He’s an alien but he looks exactly like a black man and he is embraced by the patrons of a local bar. Because he can’t talk, people are constantly talking at him, sometimes rambling off into self-exposing monologues (a Midwestern white guy who talks his ear off made me blush with self-recognition). In the process, they reveal all kinds of smart insights about the endemic inequalities of our country. Morton’s silent performance is deeply affecting. He carries this movie just by listening. America becomes alien and strange, but also funny, when seen from his perspective. With cinematography by Ernest Dickerson, who went on to shoot some of Spike Lee’s best joints including Do the Right Thing and Malcolm X.
Matewan – 1987, Blu-ray, Criterion Collection
Sayles’ masterpiece. This was the film debut of Chris Cooper and an early role for Will Oldham. James Earl Jones, Mary McDonnell, and David Strathairn also star in this enraging — but inspiring — telling of a real-life coal miner strike in 1920s West Virginia, shot on location (a nearby town) by Haskell Wexler. The film shows the painstaking challenges of forming and maintaining a union through a strike, as well as the overwhelming force with which owners will respond to put the strike down. As in the 1954 labor classic Salt of the Earth (which is on YouTube), the strikers have to overcome prejudices in order to band together. Cooper plays an organizer who comes to town to help the union. He delivers two stirring speeches that you will never forget. Oldham’s character is a child preacher and miner who is disgusted by the injustice he sees. James Earl Jones plays “Few Clothes” Johnson, based on an historic figure; he convinces the African American miners — brought in as strike-breakers — to join the strike. The Blu-ray looks great in a new restoration overseen by the director, and includes two new documentaries on the making of the film, among other special features. Highly recommended.
Eight Men Out – 1988, VHS, Orion
If you are new to Sayles’ work, maybe start with this classic baseball movie about the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919. It features a heartbreaking turn from David Strathairn as Eddie Cicotte, as well as memorable roles for John Cusack, John Mahoney, Michael Rooker, and historian Studs Terkel. Sayles always works with great cinematographers and this one was shot by Robert Richardson, Quentin Tarantino’s preferred photographer who earned raves last year for his work on Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. This movie is a great example of how Sayles draws out his themes: iIt starts as a seemingly familiar baseball period piece before transitioning into a trenchant expose of labor’s perennial exploitation by wealthy owners. History has remembered these players as cheaters, but Sayles shows how they were also cheated.