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Full Sayles: No subject or genre is foreign to director John Sayles.

Filmmaker John Sayles receives Steinbeck award in San Jose

By Richard von Busack

AS A NOVELIST and filmmaker, John Sayles has made cinematic journeys to New England, Chicago and Texas. He's tackled everything from movies about lesbianism to the children's picture The Secret of Roan Inish. He's made a study of 1920s labor struggles (Matewan) and intimate love stories (Baby, It's You and Passion Fish). Sayles' new movie, the follow-up to his 1996 art-house hit, Lone Star, is Men With Guns (Hombres Armados). Though it's in Spanish with subtitles, Sayles stresses that the film could be set anywhere: Honduras, Yugoslavia or Africa.

Sayles is coming to San Jose on Saturday (Feb. 14) to give his new film its Northern California preview and to accept the second John Steinbeck Award presented by the Martha Heasley Cox Center for Steinbeck Studies at San Jose State University (the first recipient was Sayles' fellow Jerseyman Bruce Springsteen). In conjunction with the appearance and the screening, the Towne Theater will present a week-long retrospective featuring six of Sayles' films.

Sayles, in a phone interview, says that he has studied Steinbeck not only as a reader and a writer but as an actor: "I was in two different productions of Of Mice and Men, and I played Lenny in one and Candy in the other. I was walking into the same bunkhouse, but I'd hear different things each time.

"Steinbeck and Nelson Algren were two writers that I read a lot when I first started reading, and I admired their feeling for a certain kind of America. I liked reading about people who work. It's such a big part of people's lives, and it's not seen much in fiction."

Or in the movies, either. "In the movies," Sayles says, "people are always architects. There's never a feeling that all the characters are screwed down somewhere into their jobs. I liked The Grapes of Wrath because it showed the consequences of [the characters] not being able to work, what effect that has on people."

SUSAN SHILLINGLAW, director of the Center for Steinbeck Studies, says that Sayles is a natural choice for the award: "The subtitle on the award, 'In the souls of the people,' comes from The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck said that the only reason he wrote was to make people understand one another. I think Sayles does that in film after film after film.

"The other similarity is that Steinbeck was also trying to experiment. Sayles is constantly changing subject matters. After Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he declared that the novel was dead, and he tried the new format of filmmaking. That willingness to experiment is very close in spirit to what Sayles does, crossing all lines of interest."

The Steinbeck-scripted film The Forgotten Village (1941) will be shown by the center on Thursday before Sayles' arrival. Like Men With Guns, The Forgotten Village is the story of modern medical care going to the most remote parts of Mexico. In the film, which was directed by Herbert Kline and narrated by Burgess Meredith, a white doctor arrives at a small village and is barred from practicing by the town elders.

Because it included a realistic presentation of childbirth, Forgotten Village was at first banned by the New York Board of Censors. The decision was later overruled, an early victory against movie censorship.

Men With Guns deals with a thornier problem than censorship: the deliberate North American blindness to what's going on in the rest of the Western hemisphere. Sayles based the film on a paragraph from The Long Night of the White Chickens, a novel by Francisco Goldman, who told the story of an uncle who was a doctor in Guatamala. Few Central American "dirty wars" were as dirty as the longtime fighting in Guatamala, where some 150,000 were killed.

In Men With Guns, Doctor Fuentes, of an unnamed country, is a new widower at loose ends who goes to visit the students he once trained in the hinterlands. Fuentes (played by Federico Luppi, the star of the Mexican horror film Cronos) learns the hard way about the troubles in the hinterlands of his own country.

"It's difficult to live and to act if you know too much," Sayles says. "It paralyzes you. One of the things Men With Guns is about is the price of willful ignorance. The Indians here live in a kind of willful ignorance. They try to keep themselves pure. With this kind of purity, you can hang on to your culture for about a decade--maybe longer if you're Shiite or Amish. Very often one of the things you don't get when you cut yourself off from the outside world is the power to save yourself."

Like Lone Star, Men With Guns isn't about a massacre but about the aftermath of violence--the bones left long after the attackers have disappeared into the tall timber. It doesn't have the easy pleasures of confrontation or revenge.

"I didn't really want to make an action picture," Sayles concludes. "I was more interested in the balance of power the gun represented. Half the stories of the world could be called 'men with guns.' Before that it was 'men with swords' and 'men with rocks.' "

In Sayles' films, as in Steinbeck's novels before him, violence doesn't clear the air--it clouds it, obstructing a view of the past, fogging the ability of people to see one another clearly.

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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