Wednesday, December 07, 2005

John Sayles: Crafting the American Foreign Film

In 1997, writer/director/editor John Sayles released the movie Men with Guns. The film garnered immediate attention as it represents one of the rare cases in American cinema where an American director has filmed a movie almost entirely in a foreign language. In his study on bilingual film, Joshua L. Miller suggests that “Sayles is the most prominent American filmmaker to write and direct a film predominantly in a language other than English.” (Miller, 122) Sayles himself is quick to acknowledge that his situation is not quite as unique as it sounds, “there’s Michael Radford, for instance, who did Il Postino. He’s a British guy directing a movie in Italian from a book that was set in Chile where people spoke Spanish, and that worked fine.” (Ulin, 49) Regardless of exact historical examples, it is unquestionable that Men with Guns serves as a distinct milestone in the hybridization of Latin American and American filmmaking.

The first question that must be addressed is what it means for Sayles to be American and making this almost exclusively foreign film. While it is nothing new for an American production to be filmed in a foreign country or to deal with different cultures like Schindler’s List or K-19: The Widowmaker, the difference is that Sayles was adamant about filming the movie in its ethnic language. There is some English spoken by a pair of American tourists but the majority is spoken in either Spanish or a bevy of different Indigenous dialects like the Kuna spoken by the Mother and Daughter in the opening scene for instance. The film is also shot entirely in Latin America, with a cast comprised of actors who adhere to the ethnicity of their characters. The set was virtually English free as Sayles communicated in Spanish with everybody on the crew except for the cinematographer who was Polish. (Ulin, 52)

This leads us to ask what this means for the film ethnographically. Ethnography is a branch of anthropology that deals with scientific description of specific human cultures, often based on a lengthy and comprehensive study of the subject. Traditionally, the term Ethnographic filmmaking has been used to refer exclusively to documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Chronique d’un Été (1961). Writings on ethnographic filmmaking first became prevalent in the 1970s with an exclusive focus on documentary and even now, studying fiction films as ethnographic is infrequently explored territory. Sayles is not representing the cultures in a manner that would satisfy established guidelines for documentary representation but he is dealing with people and place in a manner that purports itself to be more honest than something out of Hollywood cinema. A brief overview of his career, particularly since the mid ‘90s, will reveal a trend of Mexican characters and locations scattered throughout his work. In Lone Star (1996) he dealt with issues of culture and ethnic clash in a Texas town; in Casa de Los Babys (2003) he returned to Mexico to shoot a film about third-world adoption by American women; and in Silver City (2005) he created a political satire/thriller that featured a controversial subplot about immigrant workers. We must question if this common theme is indicative of an urge to represent the Mexican culture respectfully and accurately or if it is something more fetishistic about him wanting to flavor his films with Mexican semiotics. Men with Guns will be the primary focus of this study, but it is very difficult to talk about that film without mentioning Lone Star, the film made directly before it that featured many similar themes and also represents his most significant success, both critically and financially. That he would follow up his biggest American success with what is essentially a foreign film speaks volumes about his interests as a director. His technical competence as a writer, director and particularly as editor is also a quality that cannot be ignored when discussing his work.

One of the early works that acknowledges film as part of the ethnographic field of science is Ethnographic Film by Karl G. Heider. Published in 1976, Heider attempts to explain how the two fields can work together to yield results. In his writing he concedes that to an extent we can see all films as being ethnographic because they are about the observation of people or at least made by a person with intent to represent something in a particular manner. (Heider 5) He acknowledges a few fiction films that he feels are effective representations of specific cultures and sub-cultures but for scientific purposes he only investigates documentaries under the ethnographic lens. Heider decrees that there are inherent differences between an ethnographer and a filmmaker that cannot be bridged, the main issues being how data is analyzed and presented.

His main point of contention seems to be that filmmakers are more readily able to manipulate the truth through shot selection, composition and juxtaposition in order to heighten the effect of the film’s narrative. He bases this on the belief that anthropologists, as scientists, are more trained to present the truth as accurately as possible rather than presenting it as entertainment. This claim can be argued as biased, suggesting that films widely acknowledged for taking cinematic liberties like Nanook of the North have dominated his assessment. This is not the case with all documentary films but it has to be acknowledged that contemporary examples of the situation are very much prevalent, most famously in the work of Michael Moore. Heider does understand that with the different mediums we must employ suitable means of critical scrutiny, suggesting that film “cannot be judged on the basis of whether or not it has omitted things. Rather, it must be judged on the appropriateness of what has been included and how it has been handled.” (Heider 12)

The active role of the ethnographer influencing the subjects and more importantly the presence of video equipment, are touched upon lightly. He uses the term ‘camera consciousness’ to refer to instances of the camera’s infraction on natural behavior like people looking directly at the camera, body stiffness or exaggerated mugging. (Heider 54) The issue of camera intrusion and filmmaker interaction is studied more thoroughly in Peter Loizos’ 1993 overview of the subject, Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness, 1955-85.
Loizos explores the idea of filmmaker as active participant and explores the question of whose voice is it that we are hearing in ethnographic films: the subject or the ethnographer? He utilizes the example of filmmaker Jean Rouch and some of his personally participatory films to explore that question. Rouch is often noted for his empathy but the most innovative quality is his approach to collaboration with his subjects. He found it very important to have them behave as active creators in the narrative as well as having them voice their reflections on the process, a technique employed most famously in Chronique d’un Été where he incorporated footage of the subjects watching a test screening of the documentary at the end of the final cut of the film. His films are marked heavily by his desire to accentuate the camera as apparatus and the power that it gives the investigator to create and to engineer situation and response. Rouch felt it was important to understand “that realities are constructed and meanings always change as contexts of interpretation change… presence of the camera, like the ethnographer, stimulates, modifies, accelerates, catalyzes, opens a window.” (Feld 16)

Ella Shohat and Robert Stam’s exploration on representation of Third World countries and citizens in film in Unthinking Ethnocentrism uses some of the same ethnocentric qualifications of documentary and apply them to fiction films. While it is not suggested that fiction films can carry the same weight as documentaries can ethnographically, a certain agency is inherent to representation of ethnicity in fiction films. “Films which represent marginalized cultures in a realistic mode, even when they do not claim to represent specific historical incidents, still implicitly make factual claims.” (Shohat 179) This mentality accentuates the importance of Men with Guns. Continuing on this trajectory, the significance of realism in Third World films is stressed, “Many oppressed groups have used ‘progressive realism’ to unmask and combat hegemonic representation, countering the objectifying discourses of patriarchy and colonialism with a vision of themselves and their reality ‘from within.’” (Shohat 180) The text feels it is important to stress the compatibility between realism as a goal (representing the qualities of the story in a truthful manner) and realism as a style (lessening the viewer’s awareness of the film’s constructs).

Fatimah Tobing Rony explores similar ground with The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle, stating that the category “describes a relationship between a spectator posited as Western, white, and urbanized, and a subject people portrayed as being somewhere nearer to the beginning on the spectrum of human evolution.” (Rony 8) This sentiment is echoed in Sayles’ depiction of the Mother and Daughter inhabiting Cerca del Ciel as somewhat mystical and otherworldly in their simplicity and virtue. Rony is also open to considering fiction films as ethnographic and details a lengthy analysis of King Kong (1933) and its ethnographic implications. This specific case is strengthened by the fact that the story of King Kong is about a group of ethnographic filmmakers intruding on a tropical island. Even more important is that the filmmakers, “[Merian C.] Cooper and [Ernest B.] Schoedsack were well-known ethnographic filmmakers, producing and directing both Grass (1925) and Chang (1927).” (Rony 159) The text bolsters Shohat and Stam’s idea that Third World representation can be inherently perceived as real in the concise assertion that “the telling of history is linked to the telling of stories, both textual and cinematic.” (Rony 194)

In the case of Men with Guns, Sayles is not making a film that is overtly formalistic but there is heavy use of editing techniques, particularly through flashbacks and montages employing non-diegetic music, which call attention to the filmic process. Sayles also chooses not to ground the situation entirely in realism by purposely keeping the location of the events anonymous and inserting music from various different regions of Latin America to keep things vague. Yet, the film stands as an infinitely more honest representation of Mexican people than the majority of Hollywood films that deal with the subject due to the decision to cast ethnically specific actors and shoot in regional dialects. (Miller 137) Comparatively, Sayles takes his time to capture the atmosphere of the Latin American locations and its inhabitants through lengthy, deep focus shots of landscapes and long takes that allow extras to serve as non-speaking characters flavoring the background. Take for instance the shot of Dr. Fuentes (Frederico Luppi) walking on the street after the meal with his daughter. From an interior we cut to the sidewalk and get a shot of a man crossing the street with a child on his shoulders and a brief overview of the city street before panning to Dr. Fuentes walking down the street. The purpose of the shot is not confined to showing the lead character walking from location to location but takes time to showcase the world of the city around him foremost. At other times we get shots of indigenous people picking berries or burning fields for crop rotation interspersed throughout the narrative. These shots are filled with characters we never see again and serve no ostensible purpose to the plot as individual characters.

One sequence in particular stands out from the rest of the film: the cane cutting scene that appears around the 21 minute mark. This elongated sequence is presented in the middle of Dr. Fuentes’ initial journey with no explanation or commentary on the practice. The act is presented as self-evident, needing no preface or afterthought; it exists purely as cultural flavoring. In John Sayles’ audio commentary track on the DVD, he explains that this is an authentic sequence of local inhabitants doing their job as normal. He recounts that they were filming a scene in a classroom when he and the crew overheard the loud noise of men cutting cane. Expeditiously, they stopped filming in the school and asked the men if they would mind being filmed while they went about their work. The men complied and were paid as extras for a half-day’s work which he believes was probably more than they would get paid in a week. This sequence is directed artistically with lyrical editing and beautiful shots of leaves and grass flying through the sky but it is impossible to ignore the ethnographic implications of the camera’s quiet observation.
In contrast, the extended driving sequences showcasing grandiose shots of majestic vistas work both as cultural flavoring and formalist filmmaking. While they exist to ground the film in a location that feels real and habitable, they also call attention to the editing process through montage and employment of non-diegetic music. It is also to be noted that the editing is also obstructing the realism of the locale by connecting places that may be miles apart in reality.

The foremost reason to address the editing when discussing Men with Guns is because Sayles himself serves as editor on a large quantity of his films and thus extends his authorial voice slightly further than other writer/directors. The editing is also significant in that it accentuates Sayles as a filmmaker who is aware of generic conventions and how to manipulate them. Just before the travelers arrive at Mondelo #4 – “Community of Hope” there is an exhilarating sequence in which Domingo, the Soldier (Damián Delgado) tells Dr. Fuentes to pass the truck of soldiers on the road. Fuentes’ action of pressing down on the accelerator is synched with the start of a lively musical track which concludes when they pass the truck, to which Conejo, the Boy (Dan Rivera González) exuberantly exclaims “What a ride!” The scene where Dr. Fuentes steals the gun while Domingo sleeps also illustrates a mastery of the format. Precise timing is employed during the shot/reverse shot pattern of Fuentes examining the gun and then returning to the sleeping Domingo every time Fuentes makes a slight noise with the barrel or hammer. Each time Domingo is still sleeping peacefully and the editing plays with our expectation that he has awoken because the cuts do not follow Fuentes’ eyes looking back to Domingo but rather are motivated by the sound of the gun.

The most important role that editing plays in the film is its segue into flashback sequences. Throughout the narrative we are being transported back in time to events in the lives of Dr. Fuentes, Domingo and Padre Portillo that have had profound effects on their lives. These temporal shifts are marked by sound and color techniques not seen in the rest of the film. Dr. Fuentes’ flashbacks are presented in black and white with almost entirely muted diegetic sound. In the flashbacks of Domingo and Padre Portillo, the color is saturated and adorned with a golden tint contrasting the natural look of the present tense. To properly appreciate the significance of these stylistic devices we must consult the editing in Lone Star. Lone Star’s most defining technical characteristic is its approach to flashback through its time shifts that appear seamless and unnoticeable. This is achieved through in-camera transitions that pan from one time period to another without cutting between shots. For example, a shot will begin with one character in present time standing in a bar and then pan over to that character’s father sitting in the same bar thirty years earlier. Sayles believes that “A cut is very much a tear. You use a cut to say there’s a separation between this thing and that thing.” (Sayles and Smith 230) The editing in Lone Star emphasizes the theme that the past is still very much a part of the present and repeatedly connects the two time periods.

In Men with Guns, flashbacks are initiated by ‘tears’ and furthermore, they are emphasized by changes in color and sound. The flashbacks in this narrative are introspective and personalized which we interpret to mean truthful whereas the flashbacks in Lone Star frequently begin with one narrator and end with another suggesting a shared approach to history. Having the flashbacks so physically different from the present in Men with Guns creates an unbridgeable distance between the two time periods. This emphasis on change of time and place lends itself to the film’s redemption narrative. While each of the three characters made mistakes in the past that continue to haunt their lives, these events are portrayed as dead and not continually flowing like in Lone Star. Because of this distinction, the characters’ journeys are able to be represented as ultimately redemptive. By the film’s conclusion, Padre Portillo has given himself up as a sacrifice, something he could not bring himself to do in the past; Dr. Fuentes has finally acknowledged the repercussions of his willful ignorance; and Domingo finally gives up being obtusely stubborn and uses what little medical skills he learned in the army to help treat the sick people in Cerca del Cielo.

More work on the subject of fiction filmmaking considered as ethnographic filmmaking needs to be done in order to state conclusively if Men with Guns can be considered in this stratosphere of classification. As of now it can be said that Men with Guns is a fiction film that exhibits ethnographic qualities. While it certainly displays the shell of an ethnographic film (white man with a camera comes to a foreign country and films native people), he is still using mostly professional actors and telling a fictional story, despite it being one very familiar to the people of these areas. A more traditional ethnographic film about very similar subject matter is Nettie Wilde’s 1998 documentary, A Place Called Chiapas. In this, Wilde travels to Chiapas to document the Zapatista uprising in Southern Mexico in response to the unsettled way of life that erupted as a result of Mexico’s incorporation into the free trade agreement. Most detrimentally, free trade allowed cheap corn to flood into Mexico from the United States, causing the Peso’s value to drop drastically. The Zapatistas revolted in an effort to regain control of the land and the lives of the citizens being oppressed by the military. Incidentally, a large portion of Men with Guns was shot in Chiapas during the end of the Zapatista revolution. Although Sayles specifies it was mostly for monetary reasons in the DVD audio commentary, the real-life events inherently change the location and the behavior of the extras as they can relate so closely to the events being portrayed in the film.

In addition to ethnographic qualities, the film stands as an important piece of history because of its innovative existence as a hybridization of American and foreign film. Even if Sayles feels like it should not be an issue to film and write about other foreign cultures: “If you’re qualified to watch it and understand it, you’re capable of writing it. It’s not a big leap to look at another culture and say, Here’s what I understand, here are the things that are common to everybody.” (Ulin 53) One of his intentions with Men with Guns was to open the possibility for people to create more products of this type. How successful he has been at achieving this goal remains to be seen.

As for the question of what the Mexican subject means to Sayles, his humanistic character portrayals seem to indicate a reverence and admiration rather than a fetishistic curiosity. It is also important to consider Sayles’ influence on the communities since he is introducing film production to some people who have never seen a film or a television program before. Can this act be construed as Sayles practicing a form of colonialism on the indigenous people? In one sense it is true that he is imposing a new form of culture upon the natives, however, he is doing it in a constructive and participatory manner. When he returned to Mexico to shoot Casa de los Babys he was keen on getting the native inhabitants involved in working on the film in various technical areas and insisted on casting as many locals as extras as possible. This is indicative of a desire to incorporate the community rather than to conquer.

The DVD of Casa de los Babys contains extensive behind-the-scenes material and in a segment entitled “On Location with John Sayles,” he explains that he first learned Spanish while he was living in Chicano neighborhoods in Santa Barbra. This initial interest was a matter of necessity as he was doing research for a novel he was writing about Spanish characters. Clearly his interest blossomed as his work over the past fifteen years has frequently employed Latin American subject matter and locations. Since he tries to portray the characters as three-dimensional and intelligent, tries to retain an honest representation of the culture and makes an effort to incorporate indigenous people into the world of filmmaking, it can be declared that he is approaching his subject with empathy and not as the incomprehensible other.

Works Cited
Loizos, Peter. Innovation in Ethnographic Film: From Innocence to Self-Consciousness,
1955-85. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Heider, Karl G. Ethnographic Film. Texas: University of Texas Press, 1976.
Miller, Joshua L. “The Transamerican Trail to Cerca del Cielo: John Sayles and the
Aesthetics of Multilingual Cinema,” in Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations, edited by Sommer, Doris. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
Rony, Fatimah Tobing. The Third Eye: Race, Cinema, and Ethnographic Spectacle.
London, England: Duke University Press, 1996.
Rouch, Jean and Steven Feld. Ciné-Ethnography. Minneapolis, MN: University of
Minnesota Press, 2003.
Sayles, John and Gavin Smith. Sayles on Sayles. London, England: Faber and Faber
Limited, 1998.
Shohat, Ella and Robert Stam. Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the
Media. New York, NY: Routledge, 1994.
Ulin, David L. “John Sayles.” Bomb. 63 (Spring, 1998): 45-53.


Cinema Journal said...

A comment, just so you know someone still reads the blog.

By the way, tried to find you today! I went to see the new Adam Curtis doc, The Power of Nightmares. 3 Hours of BBC Goodness.


Cinema Journal said...

Check out this guy's blog It's called Latin America On Screen. You should leave him a comment about your site, he's a nice guy, a great writer. Just did a fabulous post on Allen's "Bananas."