The Return of the Secaucus Seven

May 2, 2012

It’s not every good movie that convinces you of its worth in the first five minutes—from the git-go, as Joan Micklin Silver might say. Sometimes it takes awhile—especially if the filmmaker is an unknown quantity, as is the case with John Sayles’ first directing effort, The Return of the Secaucus Seven—before you suddenly realize that Hey! this guy knows what he’s doing! After a few minutes and scenes into Secaucus (and, nicely, before we have even had a chance to sort out who’s who in this weekend get-together of old friends), we notice that the people we are watching have a very stylized way of speaking—and they don’t merely respond to what has been said when they’re answering somebody; they also bring back phrases or refer to incidents that have happened long before (either in screentime or in real time).

For instance, just the first name of an ex-boyfriend of one of the women is conjured up as a running gag, and it gets funnier every time his name is invoked (Dwight, for God’s sakes) even though we will never come close to seeing the guy. Such rich intricacies make the screenplay very solid—but I think that, being in the middle of a breathless screenwriting class, I’ve probably got Screenplay on the brain; and it’s important to note that Sayles makes a very satisfying, modest directorial debut (particularly under such low-budget conditions). Not that I care to separate the success of Sayles’ script from the success of his direction, ’cause I believe they go (as they should) hand in hand. But, to grab the first example that comes to mind, Steve Tesich’s script for Breaking Away was also very solid, and directed with fine professionalism by Peter Yates—yet somehow that professionalism could not quite match the spirit of the screenplay, and didn’t make for that special experience when a really enjoyable film clicks onto a higher level altogether.

Well, The Return of the Secaucus Seven clicks. The way Sayles shuffles bodies around in the frame is a nice complement to the seemingly freewheeling screenplay, and his occasionally showoff-y editing (like the cutting between J.T. and Maura on their walk/talk versus the rest of the gang back home trying to decide whether to present J.T. with a possibly depressing 30th birthday cake—the rhythm of the editing somehow reinforces the complexity of the dialogue) also highlights this. Just watch the movement—by the actors, of the dialogue, of the editing, of the music—during the long scene in a tavern. It’s a deliriously happy mixture of all those elements, judiciously weighed and beautifully timed (“Sunday! Sunday!! Sunday!!!”).

Anyway, it’s a relief to be able to recommend a movie wholeheartedly again; and refreshing to be engaged by a filmmaker who does not speak down to his audience, or feel that he has to (it’s exhilarating—as one exhausted character says at the end of the movie, “I get so excited with people around who I don’t have to explain my jokes to”). Sayles goes so far as to begin his movie with a series of still photographs, full face and profile, of his main characters—and we can’t possibly understand why they’re there or what they are until the movie is four-fifths over. Then we jump back to that opening, realize what it was (and what the title means) and as a healthy moviegoer, you have to smile—isn’t it nice to be respected again?

First published in the Informer, November 1980

I guess Joan Micklin Silver was the first person I heard use the phrase “from the git-go,” and I think it might have been during the huge Screenwriting course that Jeff Dowd (yes, the original Lebowskian Dude) and others organized at the University of Washington that Fall. Sayles came and spoke to the course (his remarks collected in Movietone News, a memorable talk), and so did Jonathan Demme and the Airplane! guys and a bunch of others. I’m trying to make the case here for Sayles as not merely a great word man, which Sayles’ own subsequent movies has made somewhat difficult; he so frequently seems suspicious of the juicier possibilities of moviemaking and of his own sense of humor. Interesting to see who came out of the cast with careers: David Strathairn, the hard-working Adam LeFevre, Gordon Clapp. Not necessarily the people you’d predict. By the way, an Oscar suggestion: the Irving Thalberg award (that’s for producing films) to Sayles and Maggi Renzi – can you think of a better example of producing genius than to work at the true indie level and re-invent the wheel every time out?

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The Brother from Another Planet

November 8, 2011

Brother Morton

The Brother from Another Planet is the latest low-budget triumph for writer-director John Sayles, the man who brought us The Return of the Secaucus Seven, that delightful arthouse hit of a couple of years ago.

Sayles is still making films his own way. For years now he’s been writing scripts for exploitation films—smart little horror movies such as Piranha and Alligator—and using the money to shoot his own films. That’s exactly how he made Secaucus and Lianna.

After an unsatisfactory experience with a major studio production (Baby, It’s You), Sayles has gone back to his home-grown brand of cinema. This time out it’s a wonderfully inventive sci-fi comedy drama, with broader commercial possibilities than his previous efforts.

The title gives the basic idea. The brother from another planet is an alien, looking for all the world like a black human (except for his three toes). This alien, who remains wordless throughout and who undergoes all the shocks of encountering a new civilization, is played by Joe Morton, an actor best known for his role on a soap opera called—appropriately enough—Another World.

His spaceship crashes at the Statue of Liberty. As it turns out, this is fitting, because he’s refugee from his planet, on which exists some sort of slave society. In fact, he’s pursued to Earth by some mysterious men in black (played by David Strathairn and Sayles himself), whose knowledge of English is limited to what they have gleaned from the movies.

The brother finds his way to Harlem, and stops by a bar where some regulars sit sipping their drinks. The scenes in this bar represent Sayles’s dialogue at its best: lines overlap and feed off each other as the men try to figure out where the brother came from. Eventually, they find him a place to stay and a job at a video arcade (they notice that he has an uncanny power to fix video games—which he does just by placing his hand on the afflicted machine).

In the course of the brother’s travels, we listen always to what other people say to him. Because he’s speechless, the film becomes a little tapestry of Harlem, with the eccentric characters lighting up each of the vignettes.

Sayles keeps the proceedings light and funny until the midway point, when the brother encounters the world of drugs and the darker side of Harlem. Sayles is so talented with comedy, and it seems to come so naturally to him, that he could well have made a wholly comic film. But he’s obviously interested in getting at something deeper, and the shift in tone works well here.

Indeed, Sayles proves himself quite adept at balancing the suspense of the drug-dealing story, the comedy of the guys at the bar, the tenderness of the brother’s romantic encounter with a nightclub singer (Dee Dee Bridgewater), and the analogy between the brother’s flight from slavery and the Underground Railroad of the Civil War, which is referred to during the film (Harriet Tubman had the Underground Railroad, and so does the brother: but today it’s the subway A Train, heading downtown).

All in all, it’s a satisfying outing for Sayles and company—made even more remarkable when you realize they shot the thing in a month. But even if you didn’t know that, The Brother is good enough to impress anybody; even those who, in the wake of the similarly plotted E.T. and Starman, have had their fill of movies about extraterrestrials.

First published in the Herald, September 1984

It’s a neat movie. Sayles still seems embarrassed about his ability to write comic scenes, as though he had more important things on his mind, but in this one he lets his dialogue-writing demon out to play.


Eight Men Out

March 9, 2011

Certain true stories add up to more than just the random events of a particular place and time; they tattoo themselves onto the shared consciousness of an entire nation. Such a story is that of the notorious Chicago “Black Sox,” who threw the 1919 World Series.

If you were ever a child who loved baseball, chances are you heard this story. If you heard it, you never forgot it. The Chicago White Sox of 1919 were heavily favored to win the series, but they lost, and in the months after the series, it was revealed that eight Chicago players were involved in a payoff to dump some games. All eight were banned from baseball forever.

Director John Sayles (Return of the Secaucus Seven), who has been wanting to film this story for years, recognizes that there is much more in this tale than the tragedy of Eight Men Out (as the title of the movie has it, held over from Eliot Asinof’s book). The “Black Sox” scandal was a sharp disillusionment to the national character, a tear in the nationwide return to normalcy in the postwar years.

The affair is still haunting, and it contributed one of the most wistful moments in all Americana: the little boy who confronted the incomparable hitter “Shoeless Joe” Jackson and pleaded, “Say it ain’t so, Joe—say it ain’t so.”

That moment is retained in Sayles’ film of Eight Men Out, which lovingly re-creates its era. Sayles skillfully sketches the circumstances that led to the players’ sellout, including the hard cheapness of Chicago owner Charles Comiskey, and the ruthlessness of the gamblers who set up the fix. The players are drawn into the fix with an offhandedness that belies the deep scar their actions would leave.

It’s an ensemble piece, but Sayles gives special attention to three players: Jackson (D.B. Sweeney), the illiterate but gifted player who went along with the fix almost casually; Buck Weaver (John Cusack), who knew about the fix but did not participate in it, and was banished from baseball anyway; and Eddie Cicotte (David Strathairn), who saw the end of his career coming and agonizingly went along with the deal.

The many characters fly by, but Sayles keeps them distinct. Sayles himself plays Ring Lardner, and writer Studs Terkel plays a fellow journalist. Other ballplayers are played by Charlie Sheen, Michael Rooker, James Read, and Don Harvey. John Mahoney does his usual excellent work as the team’s bewildered manager. Some of the sleazier money men are played by Kevin Tighe (he was also a meanie in Sayles’ Matewan), Michael Lerner, and Richard Edson.

As opposed to the black-and-white world of greed and culpability in Matewan, Eight Men Out has no easy villains; everybody seems to have their reasons. The film is most poignant as a study of a few men who made a mistake, whose names were permanently blackened, and who wound up losing their livelihood and their joy.

First published in the Herald, September 1988

A fine job on a great American story, even if the film sometimes seems to have been made by a journalist dabbling in cinema. Aside from the tracing of national disillusionment, of course Sayles’ interest in the story had much to do with its portrait of the rift between ownership and labor, a tale that keeps re-telling itself (as it is right now in both the sports world—an NFL lockout looms—and an epic union-busting showdown in Wisconsin). When I said everybody had their reasons, it referred mostly to the players whose names were tarnished. The owners kept their jobs.