Monday, March 26, 2012

Pete's Pantheon: John Sayles, Empathy's Witness

Like a string that vibrates in sympathy with other strings, John Sayles creates art from his deep ability to resonate with the emotion, thoughts and speech of others. His stories are testaments of faith in the decency of the individual, out of sync with the vulgarity and cynicism prevalent in popular culture. A frequent theme is the human capacity to choose what is right, and to act for the common good in spite of a world that, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, sets each against the other and God against all.

Sayles has managed to follow his muse, subsidizing his own films by working as a Hollywood script doctor. Yes, the man who wrote and directed "Matewan" was the guy who breathed life into "Pirhana 3-D". He has succeeded for decades outside the Hollywood system, making the movies he wants to make. That alone would certify him as worthy of the MacArthur "Genius" grant which Sayles won in 1983.

The Sayles point of view is captured in his short story "The Halfway Diner" He employs dramatic irony brilliantly to create suspense as we wonder how a busload of women on their monthly trip to visit their men in prison will be affected by events that occur at the prison as they make their journey. The women come to life for the reader as they forge fragile alliances and share common burdens. Thanks to Sayles' ear for the way people talk and his ability to conjure flesh and blood from ink on paper, the reader takes that bus trip along with the other passengers.

The "The Halfway Diner" was originally published in the Atlantic Monthly. In 1998, When Sayles gave a reading of the story in Anchorage, he recounted how when he got the galleys, the editors had changed his punctuation throughout the piece. He threatened to withdraw it, and the editors put it back the way he originally submitted it and published it. When the National Magazine awards rolled around the Atlantic submitted the story and won a prize- for editing. A nifty little John Sayles story in itself.


  1. Loved Return of the Secaucus 7. Made The Big Chill seem so ... ordinary.

  2. We want the formula! We want the formula!