26 January 2008

JOHN SAYLES - The Voice of American Independent Cinema

No other American film maker comes close to the simplicity of John Sayle's cinema. Unlike other once Indie film makers like Spike Lee and Kevin Smith, John Sayles has successfully and happily resisted becoming subsumed into the mainstream. John Sayles continues to make films with the same sense of complex psychological characterisation and moral integrity that he started out with towards the end of the 1970s, supplementing his film making with scriptwriting for generic B movies like Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars. Sayles's reputation amongst popular film criticism is somewhat in doubt because not much has been written about his films nor has their really been an indepth and significant study of his work as a contemporary auteur. With such oversight, it is suprising that Sayles continues to make films. Though it would be wrong to compare Sayles to popular European film auteurs like the Dardennes, his work does find parallels with the Iranian New Wave and literary cinema as he still considered by some to be one of the finest writers working outside the mainstream today. His acceptance and relevance as a contemporary auteur is evident in the fact that he writes his own films but more importantly and crucially is involved in the editing process, sometimes taking a credit as editor. This suggests Sayles has complete control over the creative process and is in no doubt reflected in his masterful control of pace and framing. Most of his films are a combination of understated character studies and an examination of American society and its relationship to political and social ideologies.


For me 'Matewan' continues to be Sayles most memorable film because it gradually transforms into a political indictment of American capitalism and how the racial divide that existed was merely a social construct used by a 1920s Mining corporation in order to suppress any sentiments of socialism, liberalism and racial harmony. The film is about the history of American politics and more specifically it deals with the working class male in the figure of the Miner. The film stars Chris Cooper who plays a Union agitator and left wing radical called Joe Kenehan. Chris Cooper and John Sayles have worked on a number of films together and though he has entered the mainstream recently with his work in American Beauty and Adaptation, he has always been an important part of the American indie scene, way before the term lost its meaning ever since the commercialisation of the Sundance Film Festival. Matewan works on a number of cinematic levels and superficially Sayles uses a number of popular genre conventions associated with the most American of genres, the Western, and does it in a way as if to comment upon how the history of the west is tied to the polarisation of political ideology amongst the working class. This is also a film about political and social unity amongst the working class against the hegemony of corporations which is ultimately resorts to violence, destruction and blood. Matewan is one of the key films of 80s and one of the most important films to come out of American cinema in regards to its radical and insightful representation of working class politics.


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