Prelude to a column on cinematographer Haskell Wexler by way of defending the ideological, political, and philosophical passions of John Sayles and Maggie Renzi against the intellectual bankruptcy of most current film criticism
This was a reception for "Film and Politics: A John Sayles and Maggie Renzi Film Retrospective Tribute," which was part of the North Star Fund's 25th anniversary celebration. Now, this piece will be in two parts, and this first part is just setting it all up. Reading it, you will think it is about John Sayles and Maggie Renzi. Mentioning that Chris Cooper and Marianne Leone (she plays Christopher's mother on The Sopranos), David Strathairn, director Nancy Savoca, and producer Rich Guay were also there might be further misleading. This is really about cinematographer Haskell Wexler, but that part will come next week. This is only Part 1, just the background, simply providing the context for the point.
The grievously underpublicized (even by themselves) North Star Fund has provided grants to all kinds of grassroots, local activists and national progressive groups over the past two and a half decades. They've helped incubate groups that otherwise might not have made it, providing technical assistance as well as funds. Before this event, I had never heard of them, but they seem especially focused on the kind of kitchen-table activism that often promotes the most focused and realistic changes. Admirably but unfortunately, they've focused much more on their mission than on publicity, so all evening I was finding out more about other social, economic, neighborhood, and political projects with which they've been involved.
Sayles and Renzi were being given the Fund's Frederick Douglass Award North Star was the name of Douglass' abolitionist paper. As part of the Retrospective Tribute, held at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, they presented some panels. I'd been invited to join Sayles, film professor and producer Jerry Carlson, filmmaker Michele Stephenson, and longtime media activist Lillian Jiménez in a discussion of political filmmaking. This reception was the evening before.
In this column, on a number of occasions I've discussed my utter dismay and deep despair at the truly pathetic and intellectually bankrupt quality of current film criticism (excepting the Chronicle, of course). It's generated into the almost always predictable, anti-Hollywood (while really loving Hollywood), well-made-film school of criticism, abandoning ideological, political, and philosophical appreciations. Even more depressingly, there is hardly ever an indication that a film might make meaning in any but the most intentional, obvious ways. (With the term "making meaning," I'm suggesting things like conveying and offering complex information, contradicting the film's own most apparent intentions, actively subverting what the work seems to be endorsing or how it exists as a work of culture independent from its creators' intentions.) Worse, critics seem far more concerned that they appear hip and condescending, above both the films themselves and the overall culture, than display any passion or take a critical position that might be regarded as overly passionate, in any way political, or too naively loving. Almost every critic writes not just as consumer advocate rather than conscientious thinker, but with a major concern being that his or her position won't be mocked by other, "hipper" critics. The most thoughtful advocate the profoundly atavistic standard that dismisses most modern American cinema, and certainly any kind of popular filmmaking, as not up to foreign, obscure, independent, and classic films an attitude that I once thought had been mercifully laid to rest sometime in the Sixties.
Sayles and Renzi have been as ill-served by this tendency as any contemporary filmmakers and, in fact, far more grievously mistreated than most. It is as though, given that they make exactly the kinds of films the popular audience would expect them to privilege, critics go out of their way to be especially harsh and dismissive toward these films. Although critics regularly lament the paint-by-numbers, cookie-cutter shallowness of most releases, they attack Sayles and Renzi films for their politics, humanist ambitions, and refusal to conform to either overt obscurity or to tight, Hollywood, no-wasted-shot, no-extra-second filmmaking. Again and again, the critics demonstrate how removed they are from Hollywood culture by decrying the lack of believable dialogue, realistic situations, and fully rounded characters in the exploding action films or TV-sitcom-inspired, completely contrived melodramas released. In film after film, the Sayles and Renzi team have not only championed the former, but also actually detailed people and aspects of American life long ignored by mainstream culture. Are there any better movies on the labor movement than Matewan and Eight Men Out, which actually detail the kinds of exploitation that lead to collective organizing? Most labor movies show rotten working conditions as a briefly cataloged prelude to union mob control, abuse of power, and pervasive corruption. Passion Fish captures Louisiana as almost no other movie does, and Lone Star is quite simply one of the most understanding and ambitious films about Texas. Men With Guns, dismissed by so many critics as a display of Sayles' arrogance because it is in a variety of Spanish dialects, is a cohesive, beautiful, and stunning road picture. Yet it is damned for its very brilliance. Most critics love those films that depict social outlaws celebrating life via the freedom of the road, embracing violence, sex, rock & roll, and drugs while ignoring all accepted conventions. Men With Guns, on the other hand, all too "sincerely," is the most poetic and saddening evocation of the absolute immorality of so many modern wars, which completely lack any specific ideological definitions or even very clearly defined sides.
I was truly surprised and saddened when a number of people whose opinions I value so disliked Silver City, Sayles and Renzi's last film. Despite a serious casting problem in the main role, I found it so fresh, sharp, and rich, with wonderful performances by Richard Dreyfuss, Daryl Hannah, Chris Cooper, and Kris Kristofferson, among others. Instead of going with the film or even giving it the benefit of the doubt, I felt that, in this modern world where distance is more prized than commitment, they simply refused to go with it.
Certainly, Sayles can be a bit pedantic, often slowing down or sidetracking his stories to make too-overt historical or political points. But as much as anything, seeing an almost complete lack of any acknowledgement of such issues in contemporary popular culture, he feels the need to at least offer them as a record so they won't be lost. His films offer more fully rounded characters, common daily situations, and beautifully rendered but still very realistic dialogues. His characters are people, not cutouts. In most current films,
continued on p.8 relationships are either about sex (no matter the affectations with which they are rendered) rather than intimacy, communication, interaction, or affection or so predictably trite as to be barely one-dimensional. Is there a realistically rendered relationship in any of the films of Steven Spielberg, Michael Bay, Brian De Palma, Roland Emmerich, Michael Mann, Oliver Stone, George Lucas (except for American Graffiti), or John Woo, among so many others? Not to mention the complete absence of any sexuality in so many popular movies, ranging from Shrek to The Matrix to The Terminator to the Harry Potter series and so on. Even a film like Pretty Woman is less about sex and love than a screwball normalization of class difference.
Renzi and Sayles make films about adults becoming involved with each other, which sometimes lends an eroticism completely lacking in the athletic-coupling-under-the-sheets montages so regularly offered. These are also people who live relatively normal lives, interact with each other, deal with the problems of everyday life from the mundane to the exaggerated, and who come out of, resist, reject, and/or are defined by their and our histories. These are not artificial fragments, but Polaroids of life ongoing. Yet to read the critics, you would think they were lectures by your most boring seventh-grade teacher or Soviet-style, socially realistic dramas. Instead, they overflow with humanity, passion, intelligence, emotional complexity, genuine political issues, the pervasive consequences of the past that are as much an everyday force in all our lives as anything else, humor, ambiguity, and ideas.
Instead of dealing with these attributes, as well as the acknowledged problems of these films, it's so easy to dismiss them for their intentions, even while decrying the lack of substantive, intelligent filmmaking in general. After all, it is easier to savage or begrudgingly celebrate the latest blockbuster than to really dive into the messiest components of modern life.
Next week: Haskell Wexler the Heart of the Matter.