Tuesday, December 31, 2019

John Sayles' Matewan, revisited: an unexpectedly emotional experience

I could feel my wife looking at me, from beside me on the couch, as my chest chugged with something in between laughter and sobbing and I swatted tears from my eyes - a near constant state during last night's movie. She only asked me once why I was laughing, never why I was crying, nor what it meant that I seemed to often be doing both at the same time; but surely part of her puzzlement was the seeming disconnect between my emotional reactions and what was going on on the screen, which may not have seemed to justify said reactions. He's really responding to this... I wonder why?

Hopefully with the oft-re-affirmed perception of my strangeness came at least a bit of fondness.

I was playing her Matewan, a period piece about striking coal miners in West Virginia, newly released on blu-ray by Criterion. I don't entirely blame her for being puzzled: why would anyone  laugh at the scene where the dour Sid Hatfield (played by David Strathairn, from back when almost all his roles were in John Sayles films) sits more or less inexpressively in his office, cleaning his revolver, the night before the company guns arrive in force? It seems a minor moment, and even if you note Hatfield's angry determination, resignation, and cynicism, just hinted at in his expression, how do they add up to a visible emotional reaction, unless, perhaps, your husband is a nut?

But revisiting Matewan was kind of like that to me - an intensely sentimental experience, taking me back as far as my first-ever video store jobs, where I recommended the VHS of Matewan to customers, and the days I shared the film with my parents and my friends. I had that VHS tape, as well as the poster on my wall, and read at least part of Sayles' book about the making of the film, Thinking In Pictures. I watched the film at least once a year for awhile, there, though at some point that tapered off. It's one of Sayles' greatest accomplishments, and I'm delighted it's out on blu (may other Sayles films follow: could someone please distribute City of Hope?).

And the thing that's greatest about it is not the message it imparts - I'm willing to agree with its early critics who found it simplistic and heavy-handed at times. It does allow for shades of opinion about union politics and union business: strikers argue about whether to allow Italian immigrants and "coloureds" brought in as scab labour to join their ranks; they argue as to whether they should commence direct action against company property or not. Not everyone is equally impressed with the idea of the union, and there are definitely echoes in the ranks of the union being just one more boss telling them what to do. But that's about as far as any nuance is allowed: the film will allow people within the union to have opinions, and even allow sympathy to working men (including one of the company guns) who find themselves on the wrong side of the film's conflict, but there is never any serious question as to whether the union is valuable, and the main opposition to it and the strike we see is given in the form of repugnant, coarse, and violent company guns, on the one hand, and a snakelike traitor on the other. (The company itself is mostly excluded from the action). So I agree that the politics are a bit obvious, a bit heavy handed. I find them sympathetic, but no matter: they're not the draw anyhow.

No: what's great about Matewan is the way it weaves a coherent story out of the actions and words of its characters; and the ways in which you can see Sayles thinking about these characters, and inviting you to think about them. For a film with fairly straightforward and overt politics, there's some subtlety and nuance allowed, a sense of morality and fairness in the way Sayles handles his characters. For example, take the aforementioned sympathetic company thug: a naive young man - Michael Mantell, I believe, in one of his first film roles - you see him arriving in town with other men, whom he's asking questions of. He's been hired on out of an advertisement and is not sure what he's actually there to do. Later, we see him run away from the ensuing battle, pleading of Danny not to shoot him. We can fill in all the blanks. The way Sayles signifies the character's lack of culpability and offers us a chance to agree with Danny in not shooting him - to say nothing of Sayles not judging him for "running away from a fight" - is interesting and satisfying, and may even tug slightly at ones heartstrings, since there's an idea of what constitutes human innocence at work, an idea, even, of forgiveness - both of which are somewhat large themes than can usually be expressed through two brief character moments (between the fella arriving in town and running away, as I recall, we don't see him at all). 

For a film not generally praised for subtlety, it's interesting, too, to see just how subtle some of the character-driven segments of the film are. Take the scene where Few Clothes (James Earl Jones) sits at a campfire with union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper). Kenehan has been framed as a spy, and Few Clothes has been tasked with killing him. It's something he doesn't speak about at all, and which Kenehan knows nothing of, so Few Clothes' ambivalence has to be expressed without dialogue; in fact, the men talk about other things altogether, which seem to contradict the judgement that Kenehan is a rat. That thread is nicely woven against the story of Danny, the young preacher (Will Oldham, in an acting role that pre-dates his music career). Danny has discovered that the organizer is in fact innocent, but the company guns staying at his mother's boarding house know that he has learned this, and are keeping him under close watch; when he sees that they have no knowledge of, even contempt for, scripture, he uses that against them in a fairly clever way, working a warning to his fellow miners into his preaching, so that what he seems to be saying and what he is actually saying are very, very different. (The company guns don't notice at all).  Sayles' book emphasizes the ways that the film assembles its story out of images, but an equally interesting way to approach Matewan is to consider not how Sayles thinks in pictures, but thinks in characters. They're the draw, not the respect Sayles has for early union organizers. That can almost be assumed, taken as a given. The richness of the film lies in the people that inhabit it.

It was really enjoyable spending time with them again.

Of course, if you've been a fan of Sayles for as long as I have, there are added bonuses - like hearing Mary McDonell's full-blown West Virginia accent, or how any role for Nancy Mette is coloured, now, by that line of dialogue from Passion Fish, where - playing an actress - she offers different shades on a line reading of, "I never asked for the anal probe." That particular pleasure - like the pleasure of seeing Maggie Renzi speaking Italian - may be reserved only for the faithful. I can't promise that everyone who sits down to Matewan will find themselves engaged with it to the almost absurd extent that I was.

But it's worth a try! At the very worst, you'll get a period-accurate, rousing depiction of early labour struggles; at the best, you'll be sobbing and laughing at the same time, and not fully able to explain why.

In either case, the film is highly recommended.

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