Monday, January 12, 2015

Together: watching LIANNA and SUNSHINE STATE

The scale and scope of John Sayles’ movies have always appealed to me. Many of his stories are not epics, but you come to care about the characters and want to know what happens to them, and frequently they wrap up on a decidedly ambiguous note. 

Lianna (1983) focuses on a 33-year-old mother of two who had married one of her professors as a college freshman. In the course of the collapse of her marriage to philandering Dick, Lianna begins an affair with another professor, Ruth, and the consequences for Lianna are swift and cruel.

Lianna was a daring feminist meditation on what can happen to women who attempt some agency, an important and unexpectedly respectful exploration of lesbians’ options and the prejudices we faced in the early 1980s.

Watching Sunshine State (2002) in a double feature with Lianna reveals the riches of Sayles’ development as a filmmaker over the 20 years between them. Unlike Lianna, through incisive writing and excellent casting, each character on the economically and racially diverse fictional Florida island in Sunshine State has texture and sensibility and blood. Each operates in a skein of sometimes conflicting motives and connections with other characters. Nothing is black and white.

By contrast, Dick, Lianna’s husband, is unrelentingly arrogant and entitled and so winds up little more than a foil for Lianna, who herself has little substance (a quality that does seem to fit with her character, however). We have the Friend, the Fling, the Neighbor, the Pushy Grad Student. Lianna's children and Sayles' own cameo are the most nuanced of its characters.

In Sunshine State, however, no character seems flimsy. Some are funnier or more pathetic or more affecting than others, but no one—other than the Greek Chorus golfers—is a just a role, rather than a person you could imagine crossing paths with. Class complexities crisscross the film and destabilize viewer assumptions. Some tragedy affects nearly everyone. Greed muddies the lines bigotry drew long ago, but those who bear the brunt of development and those who stand to benefit from it defy tidy convention.

Like Lianna, Sunshine State ends with life looking markedly different than it did at the film's beginning. Pacing and structure emerge to intrigue us from within two very different yet gently gripping narratives. Having both to enjoy and absorb, along with the dozens of other movies in his body of work, is an inspiration.

Susana Darwin

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