Limbo
directed byJohn Sayles "Well, he'll neverbe a filmmaker..." were the first words out of the mouth of a friend Iasked about John Sayles' Limbo before I saw it myself. But they weresaid wryly, even a bit fondly, and they prefaced a generally favorable opinionof the movie, an opinion I ended up sharing. As for Sayles not beinga filmmaker, that's been a given for a long time. Unlike the films of the generationthat came just before him (Scorsese, De Palma, et al.) and the one that arrivedon his heels (Jarmusch, Hartley, Spike Lee), his work contained nary a hintof 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 substitutenovels, they were intrinsically deficient in the very qualities?a characteristicstyle and consistent thematic preoccupations?that made "filmmaker"register as artist rather than technician. That Sayles obviously didn'tcare too much about any of this was in his favor; auteurist cinema tends tobe too primly self-conscious not to need the challenge of a few crusty outsidersand nonconformists. All the same, he has often come off less as Hemingway WithAn Arriflex than as a Crunchy Granola Michener, inserting his glibly lefty politicalnotions into a tourist's brochure's worst of nifty locales, as if compilinga "Sayles Visits..." series of sporadically polemical travelogues. The backdrops have included Appalachia (Matewan), inner-city Philly (Cityof Hope), Cajun Louisiana (Passion Fish), Rio Grande Texas (LoneStar), mystic Ireland (The Secret of Roan Inish) and embattled Mexico(Men with Guns), among others. How tolerable, or not, onefinds these exercises depends on the individual film's authorial viewpoint andcultural evocations. The results aren't always predictable. Given my own proclivitiesI would expect to be least amenable to his films with Southern settings, buttwo of those, Matewan and Passion Fish, are my favorite of hisfilms, 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, bludgeoninglyobvious narrative machinery. Limbo, whose posterscould be emblazoned "Sayles Does Alaska!" happily dispenses with hisusual political bromides and, less happily, doesn't entirely jettison certaingeneric contrivances, which ultimately makes it a film that feels somewhat atwar with its own better instincts. Its virtues, though, which predominate, involveallowing 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 AlaskaBe Alaska." The film opens with an actualtravelogue about Alaska that seems to chide Sayles' own touristic propensities.The story proper begins at a wedding beside a bay outside Juneau, where thelooming 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 beginto wonder who the dramatic focus will turn out to be. Is it the fleshy businessmenwho're discussing the local economy? The glowing bride and groom? The bickeringmiddle-aged lesbian couple who own the bayside resort? None of the above, it turnsout. The band playing the wedding is fronted by a rangy, fine-boned woman witha keening voice. Between songs Donna De Angelo (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio)offhandedly but acridly announces that she's just broken up with the band'sleader and guitarist, then launches into Marshall Chapman's "Better OffWithout You." When she comes offstage afterward, flustered and ready tobolt, she cajoles a ride to town out of Joe Gastineau (David Straithairn), residenthandyman and, in this moment, interested innocent bystander. Left behind whenthey take off is Donna's disaffected teenage daughter Noelle (Vanessa Martinez),who's working as a waitress at the event. After just a short whilein 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 perpetualadolescent, still harboring unquiet dreams of music-biz success, dazed thatshe's just ended another disastrous romance, and guilty that she's given sucha 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 responsiblefor a couple of deaths in a boating accident many years back, he's exiled himselfto a kind of downcast marginality, both professional and personal. The second thing that standsout about these two is more salutary: They are far more richly drawn and persuasivelyfleshed out than any comparable characters hailing from Hollywood lately. Ingeneral, Hollywood avoids lead characters with too many battle scars and linesaround the eyes; and when it does embrace them, it's usually just to whisk themimmediately 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 stateof being in one's mid-40s and still at loose ends. As it unfolded, the filmreminded 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 insideout, their hunger for connection as well as their leeriness of it; these arepeople 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 justas 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 guaranteeingonly respect for solitude. The bar where Donna singsin town is a rustic saloon, and it's a mark of Limbo's looseness anddroll humor that Sayles pokes fun at its cowboy quaintness (and his own penchantfor 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 nearlyso 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 onDonna one night, and whose affability seems to contain a hint of menace. BobbyGastineau (Casey Siemaszko) is Joe's half-brother, a ne'er-do-well who returnsto town and, concealing his reasons for desperation, arranges a boat trip forhimself, Joe, Donna and Noelle. As it moves from land towater, the film edges roughly into the precincts of thrillerdom. Bobby is tryingto outrun murderous drug dealers, and his failure to run far or fast enoughsoon lands Joe, Donna and Noelle on a remote island, without a boat or radioand with the lethal possibility that any day or minute the dealers might returnto claim their lives. In some ways, Limbodoesn't want to turn into a thriller, and it does so rather half-heartedly anduncomfortably. The movie's abrupt, enigmatic ending seems to leave viewers startledand disgruntled, and, indeed, it is a slightly awkward solution to thestory's dramatic problems. But I didn't mind. By the time the last act rolledaround I had already found satisfactions aplenty in the world and the peopleSayles had created, which are so much more peculiar, flavorful and messily persuasivethan what most current movies offer. And then there are the performances.Limbo makes a helluva case that David Straithairn should be a major moviestar, and should graduate instantly from character to leading roles. He hasa reticent, rough-hewn virility that's a bit like Robert Mitchum without thesleepy malevolence. Straithairn's work here is striking in a very natural, unshowyway, 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 Limbolooking 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 ofplace and character; it's an Alaska of the mind, but one so real that you canalmost feel the scent of the enormous trees and the cool of the misty air. Forall of that, it ends up being one of Sayles' best films. Reeling "Best of Manhattan"citations happen only in the fall, but here at the film desk we're pleasedto hand out "Worst of" prizes year round. Here's the latest: The awardfor the city's Worst Publicized Annual Film Event goes, yet again, to the NewYork Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. This negative accolade wasnot 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 columnto the festival: It introduced me to the most gifted Japanese director I encounteredduring the 90s, Ryosuke Hashiguchi (A Slight Fever, Like Grains ofSand), along with Mark Rappaport's brilliant Rock Hudson's Home Moviesand 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 partno longer to reach beyond the gay press and audiences, depending on how youread the subsequent de facto blackout. I appealed at various times to boardmembers of the NYGLFF, on the grounds that there were actually good, importantfilms in the festival that deserved coverage as such. I got vague promises ofthe "we'll do better next year" variety; but they never did. Maybe it was a blessingin disguise. In an article titled "The Unbearable Lightness of Gay Movies"in the March-April Film Comment, Christopher Kelly argues that the Amerindiegay cinema "has gone fallow. The wealth of promising talent to emerge atthe end of [the last] decade and the start of this one has mostly failed tolive up to its potential, while the next wave has offered up a series of worksthat ape the conventions of softcore pornography or Beach Blanket Bingo-style farce, or sometimes both." My assumption a half-decadeago was that the NYGLFF contained work that merited scrutiny and exposure forits value as filmmaking, not just as part of a social event for Manhattan'sfamously insular and parochial gay community. Maybe that's still true, but you'dnever know it given the festival's "Silence = NYGLFF" approach topublicity, which isn't nearly as insulting to interested critics and cinephilesas it is to filmmakers who'd like their work to reach beyond the ghetto walls.