A Buddhist might say that paradoxes don’t exist because multiple positions exist simultaneously.
For those of us who act, however, paradoxes reveal the suppleness of our intentions; they belie any myths we build for ourselves, as individuals or as a nation.
Take the US annexation of the Philippines. Around 1898, the US touted itself as an anti-imperialist nation, home of equality, but then it invaded a foreign nation under the auspices of white Christian duty: Save the heathen islanders. This, according to John Sayles, who visits Santa Fe to talk about his work, including the book A Moment in the Sun.
The story follows a black regiment of the US Army through largely forgotten, and certainly under-recorded, conflicts: the Spanish-American War, the invasion of Cuba and the Philippine-American War.
“American myths of who we are have always been there, written in italics, proclaimed on Veteran’s Day,” Sayles tells SFR by phone from his home in upstate New York. “Very often, we don’t live up to these ideals, and when we don’t, we take a lot of effort to justify ourselves.”
A Moment in the Sun began, he says, several years ago as screenplay. Earning a living as a for-hire scriptwriter and script adviser, Sayles also writes and directs independent films with his longtime creative partner Maggie Renzi. He and Hollywood have a mutual distaste for one another: “It is a choice, but it’s not a choice,” he says. “It’s not like anyone’s ever offered me Hollywood movies.”
I ask Sayles, in so many words, why movies today suck, and he explains a paradox that unsurprisingly boils down to cost: more competition and fewer venues. While technology has made it possible for just about anyone to make a movie, and cheaply (if they don’t use union labor), the number of distributors and independent cinemas has lessened. The remaining theaters go with safe bets: big names and predictable genres (comic books, slacker comedies, horrors and “guys-drunk-at-wedding” movies).
“Movies will continue to get made,” he says. “But I worry about indie filmmakers being able to have careers without going into studios.”
I discovered Sayles’ work through 2004’s Silver City, a political satire depicting a naïve Colorado gubernatorial candidate, unmistakably based on George W Bush. Then, I worked my way back through Sayles’ catalog, finding similar themes: Sunshine State, The Secret of Roan Inish, Matewan and The Brother from Another Planet concern themselves with family, identity, corporate power, racism and myth. Sayles’ films tend to set the history books straight or fill in where history lacks. A Moment in the Sun has similar impulses.
When his screenplay for the tale of the black regiment failed to pick up financial backers, Sayles tabled it until 2007, when the Writers Guild of American went on strike.
Being a guild member, Sayles was out of work, so he returned to the story, realizing he had been trying to cram too much into a movie. The result was a book nearing 1,000 pages. His agent lugged it around, he says, for nearly two years before the adventurous, independent press McSweeney’s picked it up. Sayles also refined a portion of the manuscript into a film, 2010’s Amigo.
“We broke even on Amigo, but it was only playing in two theaters for four weeks,” he says. “Twenty theaters and four weeks would be really good. In Hollywood, they have to do it opening weekend.”
And how does he expect his unusually long book, published by an indie press, will fare? “McSweeney’s has good relationships with indie bookstores,” he says. “And they don’t always do paperback versions, so I’m happy they’re doing a paperback of this book.”
Wednesday, Jan. 18
Lensic Performing Arts Center
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