directed by John Sayles
“Well, he’ll never be a filmmaker…” were the first words out of the mouth of a friend I asked about John Sayles’ Limbo before I saw it myself. But they were said wryly, even a bit fondly, and they prefaced a generally favorable opinion of the movie, an opinion I ended up sharing.
As for Sayles not being a filmmaker, that’s been a given for a long time. Unlike the films of the generation that came just before him (Scorsese, De Palma, et al.) and the one that arrived on his heels (Jarmusch, Hartley, Spike Lee), his work contained nary a hint of cinephilia, largely, it seemed, because he wasn’t really interested in film. He was interested in the novel, in fiction-writing in the Hemingwayesque mold, but came to it in the moment when it had been eclipsed by the movies. Of course, he wrote novels himself, yet to the extent that his movies served as substitute novels, they were intrinsically deficient in the very qualities—a characteristic style and consistent thematic preoccupations—that made “filmmaker” register as artist rather than technician.
That Sayles obviously didn’t care too much about any of this was in his favor; auteurist cinema tends to be too primly self-conscious not to need the challenge of a few crusty outsiders and nonconformists. All the same, he has often come off less as Hemingway With An Arriflex than as a Crunchy Granola Michener, inserting his glibly lefty political notions into a tourist’s brochure’s worst of nifty locales, as if compiling a “Sayles Visits…” series of sporadically polemical travelogues.
The backdrops have included Appalachia (Matewan), inner-city Philly (City of Hope), Cajun Louisiana (Passion Fish), Rio Grande Texas (Lone Star), mystic Ireland (The Secret of Roan Inish) and embattled Mexico (Men with Guns), among others.
How tolerable, or not, one finds these exercises depends on the individual film’s authorial viewpoint and cultural evocations. The results aren’t always predictable. Given my own proclivities I would expect to be least amenable to his films with Southern settings, but two of those, Matewan and Passion Fish, are my favorite of his films, even though the former also has the apparent disadvantage of being preachily “political.” On the other hand, I groan to think of his biggest hit
to date, Lone Star, with its thunderously tinny regional stereotypes, its imperious outsider’s viewpoint and (worst of all) its creaky, bludgeoningly obvious narrative machinery.
Limbo, whose posters could be emblazoned “Sayles Does Alaska!” happily dispenses with his usual political bromides and, less happily, doesn’t entirely jettison certain generic contrivances, which ultimately makes it a film that feels somewhat at war with its own better instincts. Its virtues, though, which predominate, involve allowing the story’s human and geographic textures to bear the weight of meaning. Come to think of it, maybe those posters should read “Sayles Lets Alaska Be Alaska.”
The film opens with an actual travelogue about Alaska that seems to chide Sayles’ own touristic propensities. The story proper begins at a wedding beside a bay outside Juneau, where the looming panorama of mountains, sea and forests gives the human action an immediate, subtly daunting context. Leisurely paced, the scene takes its own sweet time, skipping so erratically from one clump of characters to another that you begin to wonder who the dramatic focus will turn out to be. Is it the fleshy businessmen who’re discussing the local economy? The glowing bride and groom? The bickering middle-aged lesbian couple who own the bayside resort?
None of the above, it turns out. The band playing the wedding is fronted by a rangy, fine-boned woman with a keening voice. Between songs Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) offhandedly but acridly announces that she’s just broken up with the band’s leader and guitarist, then launches into Marshall Chapman’s “Better Off Without You.” When she comes offstage afterward, flustered and ready to bolt, she cajoles a ride to town out of Joe Gastineau (David Straithairn), resident handyman and, in this moment, interested innocent bystander. Left behind when they take off is Donna’s disaffected teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez), who’s working as a waitress at the event.
After just a short while in the company of Donna and Joe, a couple of things are blazingly apparent. One: They are both damaged goods. She’s a wilted flower child and perpetual adolescent, still harboring unquiet dreams of music-biz success, dazed that she’s just ended another disastrous romance, and guilty that she’s given such a rotten, slipshod life to a daughter who seems both older and wiser than she. Joe’s backstory is just as tangled if a touch more melodramatic. Feeling responsible for a couple of deaths in a boating accident many years back, he’s exiled himself to a kind of downcast marginality, both professional and personal.
The second thing that stands out about these two is more salutary: They are far more richly drawn and persuasively fleshed out than any comparable characters hailing from Hollywood lately. In general, Hollywood avoids lead characters with too many battle scars and lines around the eyes; and when it does embrace them, it’s usually just to whisk them immediately toward some quick, airbrushed adventure or redemption. But Limbo, as its title might suggest, is actually interested in these characters for themselves, and in the antsy purgatory where they live: I don’t mean Alaska but the state of being in one’s mid-40s and still at loose ends.
As it unfolded, the film reminded me of great character-based noirs like Nick Ray’s In a Lonely Place. Sayles’ dialogue writing is at its sharpest here. He knows Donna and Joe inside out, their hunger for connection as well as their leeriness of it; these are people who come from a generation and mindset that’s as recognizable as a thumbprint. And this is where Alaska begins to make sense in an emotional way, not just as a pretty backdrop. Romantic mythology aside, it’s a natural place for wary, burned outsiders to end up; a frontier place, whispering of renewal but guaranteeing only respect for solitude.
The bar where Donna sings in town is a rustic saloon, and it’s a mark of Limbo‘s looseness and droll humor that Sayles pokes fun at its cowboy quaintness (and his own penchant for such things) by showing tour-boat tourists parading through the background, gawking as a guide extols the place’s wild past. The present can’t be nearly so wild and brutal, can it? Well, irony—along with the lure of genre—urges otherwise, and the possibility takes the form of two characters who appear in the bar. Smilin’ Jack (Kris Kristofferson) is a stranger who smilingly tries to hit on Donna one night, and whose affability seems to contain a hint of menace. Bobby Gastineau (Casey Siemaszko) is Joe’s half-brother, a ne’er-do-well who returns to town and, concealing his reasons for desperation, arranges a boat trip for himself, Joe, Donna and Noelle.
As it moves from land to water, the film edges roughly into the precincts of thrillerdom. Bobby is trying to outrun murderous drug dealers, and his failure to run far or fast enough soon lands Joe, Donna and Noelle on a remote island, without a boat or radio and with the lethal possibility that any day or minute the dealers might return to claim their lives.
In some ways, Limbo doesn’t want to turn into a thriller, and it does so rather half-heartedly and uncomfortably. The movie’s abrupt, enigmatic ending seems to leave viewers startled and disgruntled, and, indeed, it is a slightly awkward solution to the story’s dramatic problems. But I didn’t mind. By the time the last act rolled around I had already found satisfactions aplenty in the world and the people Sayles had created, which are so much more peculiar, flavorful and messily persuasive than what most current movies offer.
And then there are the performances. Limbo makes a helluva case that David Straithairn should be a major movie star, and should graduate instantly from character to leading roles. He has a reticent, rough-hewn virility that’s a bit like Robert Mitchum without the sleepy malevolence. Straithairn’s work here is striking in a very natural, unshowy way, and it’s well matched by Mastrantonio’s edgy, vulnerable portrait of Donna (she does all the singing herself, and does an extremely good job of it).
If you go to Limbo looking for big thrills, you probably should look for another movie instead. This film’s quiet beauties reside in its low-key humor and palpable sense of place and character; it’s an Alaska of the mind, but one so real that you can almost feel the scent of the enormous trees and the cool of the misty air. For all of that, it ends up being one of Sayles’ best films.
“Best of Manhattan” citations happen only in the fall, but here at the film desk we’re pleased to hand out “Worst of” prizes year round. Here’s the latest: The award for the city’s Worst Publicized Annual Film Event goes, yet again, to the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.
This negative accolade was not always merited. Back in 1992, not long after I started writing for NYPress, the NYGLFF employed an actual film publicity firm, Samantha Dean and Associates, which did radical things like send out news releases and hold press screenings. I attended a number of the latter and was more than happy to devote a column to the festival: It introduced me to the most gifted Japanese director I encountered during the 90s, Ryosuke Hashiguchi (A Slight Fever, Like Grains of Sand), along with Mark Rappaport’s brilliant Rock Hudson’s Home Movies and a bracing array of other interesting, ambitious films.
But sometime thereafter, the festival apparently decided to handle its publicity chores “in house,” which meant a collapse into abject incompetence or a decision on someone’s part no longer to reach beyond the gay press and audiences, depending on how you read the subsequent de facto blackout. I appealed at various times to board members of the NYGLFF, on the grounds that there were actually good, important films in the festival that deserved coverage as such. I got vague promises of the “we’ll do better next year” variety; but they never did.
Maybe it was a blessing in disguise. In an article titled “The Unbearable Lightness of Gay Movies” in the March-April Film Comment, Christopher Kelly argues that the Amerindie gay cinema “has gone fallow. The wealth of promising talent to emerge at the end of [the last] decade and the start of this one has mostly failed to live up to its potential, while the next wave has offered up a series of works that ape the conventions of softcore pornography or Beach Blanket Bingo-style
farce, or sometimes both.”
My assumption a half-decade ago was that the NYGLFF contained work that merited scrutiny and exposure for its value as filmmaking, not just as part of a social event for Manhattan’s famously insular and parochial gay community. Maybe that’s still true, but you’d never know it given the festival’s “Silence = NYGLFF” approach to publicity, which isn’t nearly as insulting to interested critics and cinephiles as it is to filmmakers who’d like their work to reach beyond the ghetto walls.