John Sayles turns attention toward today's urban mess


October 06, 1991|By Stephen Wigler

Our cities are a mess: Crime is rampant, there's not enough money to pay for public services (but there is enough to line the pockets of the powerful and the wealthy), tribalism is rampant, everyone hates everyone else's guts and no one -- least of all the people who make movies -- seems to give a damn.

No one, that is, except John Sayles, whose "City of Hope" opens Friday at the Charles Theatre. This is a film that is likely to make people aware of poverty and the spiritual sickness of our postindustrial age in the same entertaining but honest way that the great novels of Charles Dickens did in the England of his day.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Sayles is also considered one of our best fiction writers -- he earned a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1983 -- and readers who don't pay much attention to movies are sometimes surprised to discover that he's also a filmmaker. Before starting work on "City of Hope," he had just finished an epic novel, "Los Gusanos," about a cast of Cubans' lives from the 1930s to the 1980s. The work had taken him 13 years to complete -- he learned to read and speak Spanish fluently just to write it -- and "it was time," Sayles says, "to do something new."

"It had had been in my head that I had to do something about a whole city and the interconnectedness of society," he says. "I have lived most of my life in cities and I feel responsible to them. Cities are what civilization is about -- if they go, we all do.

"The film is about decaying urban politics, and the [fictitious] city here is in what I call the Tammany Hall period. In this country, there's a tradition of cities being ruled by one ethnic or power group and then eventually that group moves out to the suburbs. But there's a short period during the transition when the outgoing group is still in control. And in that time -- in this film it's before the blacks and the Hispanics wrest control from the Italians and the Irish -- they're not handing out patronage, they're just stuffing their pockets. It's a dirty treasure hunt and everyone suffers."

The film has almost two dozen characters -- including the physically imposing Sayles himself as a small-time shakedown artist -- but the moral center of the film is played by Joe Morton (a longtime Sayles favorite) as a well-intentioned black pol who's idealistic enough to be bothered by the ethical sacrifices he must make in order to help his people.

"I don't like to say that the old days were better, but in some ways they were," Sayles says. "It was once the case that a politician was able to speak of crime as 'a police matter.' But in a society that's become increasingly tribal that's become impossible. If it has to do with race, a politician must have an opinion -- he has to figure out if he needs to gain points with the police or the community.

"Joe's character is put in the position of having to defend two kids whom he knows are guilty. But he's somebody who's also lucky in that he still believes there's the possibility of personal action. So even though he makes an ethical compromise, he's still able to turn it into something positive."

When it comes to turning a bad situation to advantage, Sayles himself is an expert. He's an an independent filmmaker in the way that Arnold Schwarzenegger is a body builder -- it's obvious in everything about him. The 40-year-old director lives in a rundown section of Hoboken, N.J., across the river from New York, with his partner and producer of 17 years, Maggie Renzi. Their low-budget films usually cost just $3 million to $4 million to make and they raise all the money themselves -- Sayles is one of the best-paid screenwriters in Hollywood when he works for other people. To keep costs to a minimum he uses no stars but such fine actors as Morton, Vincent Spano and Tony LoBianco, who have worked with him before.

"When you have no money, you have to work cheaply and efficiently," Sayles said.

Indeed. If American cities were run as efficiently as Sayles' films -- his six previous movies were all critical and financial successes -- "City of Hope" would never have had to have been made.

"The cost of all seven of my films is about $17 million, less than the cost of an average feature film in Hollywood today," he notes. "Pre-planning is the secret. Generally I shoot my films in seven or eight weeks. 'Brother from Another Planet' was shot in four; 'City of Hope' in five. So I don't have to pay people for long and the fact that I'm the writer and the editor as well as the director also saves money.

"How could I do things differently? Do you think I could sell my movies to Hollywood? Hollywood movies tend to simplify things and get things on a heroic basis. That makes for an idea that's easy to pitch and it makes for a good coming-attractions trailer.

"But I'm interested in the complexity of human behavior and that's hard to sell to a bunch of guys who are interested in making a quick buck. Plus, my stories themselves are so unsexy -- lesbianism in 'Lianna,' labor relations in 'Matewan' and the counterculture in middle age in 'The Return of the Secaucus Seven.' My films don't get a mass release, but they're made so cheaply that even a tiny proportion of the market will earn back

enough so that I can make another."

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