Sunday, October 17, 2004

John Sayles' Silver City

This film is not being particularly well-received -- with even left-leaning film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum being particularly harsh to it -- but, after being initially somewhat troubled by a certain gracelessness to the first half of the film, I decided, watching it tonight, that it's one of the few Sayles' films of recent years that I can say I fully enjoyed. It does stand as a tapestry of things we've seen before in other Sayles' films -- a Shannon's Deal-style PI, played by the son of Chinatown director John Huston; a detailing of the negotiations and machinations of corrupt real estate developers, polluting industrialists, and political hopefuls, smacking of the deal-making in City of Hope; concern for Mexican migrant workers and illegals, as one saw in Lone Star; and an attempt, found in almost every film Sayles has made, to capture the way of life and landscape of a given region of America, this time Colorado. It's not a great Sayles' film -- it is neither as character-driven nor as enthusiastic about the slice of American life being documented as Limbo, my favourite of Sayles' films in recent years, nor as nuanced and complex as Men with Guns; and it does (for those of us who know Sayles' work) have the taste of formula to it -- something that made Sunshine State and Casa de Los Babys, Sayles' previous two features, quite uninteresting to me, both feeling, for their memorable moments, a little too much like manufactured products (as if Sayles actually wants to encourage brand recognition by assembling his films according to predictable patterns. Perhaps that's market savvy, I don't know -- it's made some of his recent films just a little dull to those who are well-familiar with their design, which the Rosenbaum review gives many further examples of). This time, tho', there seems to be something just a little more heartfelt at work behind the film, something Sayles sincerely wants to offer his audience. Surprisingly, given how the film is being marketed and received, that has very little to do with Bush-bashing.

Don't get me wrong: Chris Cooper is fun as a caricature of George Bush, and does the job well; and I would imagine the slightly rushed feel to the film has something to do with a desire to get it into the theatres before the US election -- there are certainly topical elements to the movie. All the same, there is no serious attempt to skewer Bush being made here that I can see; it simply doesn't seem like a point of interest for Sayles -- Cooper's scenes play more like comic relief than a crusade. It's a given, in the film, that Bush is evil -- his image appears early on with little devil horns drawn on in the office of Internet activist Tim Roth, and there are fairly clear references to the Republicans as bought-and-paid for representatives of corporate interests. To say that Bush is bad for the environment and a puppet of big money is, then, "old news," as Roger Ebert puts it. Whatever his starting point, it seems clear that what came to interest Sayles in making this film are questions about the overall political climate we all labour in, including those of us in Canada; though I don't find this a matter of "cynicism and resignation" (as Ebert says), as more a matter of despair, bound with an attempt to find some cause for hope.

The thing is: I agree with Sayles. It isn't a matter of cynicism or resignation to observe that we are pretty much powerless as wealthy and powerful destroy the planet as much as it is an accurate assessment of the current state of things. If you want any degree of security in North America these days, whether you're an illegal immigrant or reporter or pretty much anyone who wants to survive with a certain degree of comfort and ease, you end up compromised and subservient, whether you like it or not, to those with more power than you. Rosenbaum wants to take Sayles to task for "romantic fatalism" and lumps the filmmaker in with "defeatists who wouldn't know what to do with success if it hit them over the head;" but observing that the United States, and the world at large, are in a pretty dire position -- or that those who care enough to try to observe or change things are in for an uncomfortable ride, which will indeed bring them close to despair and hopelessness time and again -- isn't a matter of defeatism, it's a first premise for any possible comment one could make on the world today, if one is paying attention. And this seems to be where Sayles interest in his subject matter begins; it isn't, contra Rosenbaum, the conclusion Sayles reaches in this film, it's the problem that he is wrestling with, trying to find some cause for optimism and hope to offer an audience without cheating.

So this is why Sayles turns to the formulae of noir: the smart, cynical, world-weary detective, investigating a murder, as his own personal disappointments and failures mount, has to confront his demons (his despair) and overcome them. The best moment of the film comes when our detective/hero is told by the Karl-Rove-esque Richard Dreyfuss character that he's made it abundantly clear he's a loser (which seems to be the judgment passed on all those who don't play the game enthusiastically enough these days), so he could at least be a good loser -- to shut up and smile and accept his powerlessness gracefully. While Sayles doesn't duck out of his responsibility to acknowledge just how grim things look at this juncture in history, he does set his main character on a trajectory that is quite the opposite of the one Dreyfuss is suggesting; he moves from a position of considerable compromise, as the smiling creature of the corrupt politicians he ends up fighting against, to one of renewed faith in his ability to make some degree of positive difference in the world. (There are more reasons why I could argue that the ending of the film is a happy one, but not without giving away plot points).

Elsewhere recently in the Chicago Reader, Rosenbaum quotes film critic and filmmaker Thom Andersen as saying, of the films of John Cassavetes, that "his comedies face up to tragedy and reject it" -- a perceptive remark, tho' the bizarre judgment that Cassavetes' films are "comedies" seems based in a faulty binary that a text must be either comedy or tragedy. It's the marvelous thing about Cassavetes' films, though. Even at their grimmest -- and here I'm thinking of Faces and the bleakness, impotence, despair, failure and apparent inability, at the end of the film, to find any possible resolution to the problems the film poses for its characters -- there is an inspirational quality to Cassavetes' project, because his films, as determined as they seem to confront us with the weakness, fear, madness and pathology of his characters, do not end in a feeling of hopelessness; they challenge us to look at the reality of our situation and do something about it, and in doing so, suggest that something can be done. Sayles is a far less inspirational filmmaker than Cassavetes -- he is more interested in problems of simple survival, and the compromises that it sometimes requires, than the triumph of any particular idealistic vision -- but Silver City, too, is an attempt to face up to despair and reject it, to find some cause for hope. I'll leave out mentioning how it does this -- and perhaps it will be a matter of contention whether it does or not -- but I felt very happy with Silver City. By the end of the film, I felt lighter, cheered up a bit, strengthened.

It is possible that I'm just another romantic defeatist, tho', I guess...

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