Original Independent: John Sayles

Filmmaker and author John Sayles has been creating excellent work for over forty years. Helming his first film in 1980 at the age of 30, he had already written two books and a few genre films for Roger Corman, including the timeless eco-parables Piranha and Alligator. Favoring stories about communities during moments of upheaval and duress, Sayles’s brand of social consciousness is present across his work, often marked by ensemble casts that occupy various strata of economic power. Through Overdrive and Hoopla, you can explore a sample of this great storyteller’s work with your Seattle Public Library card.

Available as both an ebook and a downloadable audiobook is his latest novel, Yellow Earth. Following over a dozen players around the Dakotan region of the town of Yellow Earth, the book explores the evolution of a community affected by the discovery of oil in its vicinity. The story dives headlong into fracking dynamics, exploring the geological and psychological fallout of corporate mandates in a world that is still addicted to petroleum.


The other Sayles novel available on Overdrive is his 2011 monumental A Moment in the Sun. The globe-spanning narrative scope, being a snapshot of the turn of the twentieth century, demands over a thousand pages to develop and explore. A tale of families, violence, gold, politics, art, and more, this book rewards commitment by achieving a breadth and depth that is only possible in epic novel format.


The two featured films of his on Hoopla are an interesting showcase of his talent and influence. The first, 1980’s Battle Beyond the Stars, is essentially a retelling of The Magnificent Seven (itself a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai), but much sillier and in outer space. It’s got aliens, space valkyries, big ships that go boom, and is highly recommended. Apart from its many puerile pleasures, there are plenty of early gestures indicating Sayles’s signature interest in ensemble political fables. But most importantly, it’s a hoot.

The second film, 2007’s Honeydripper, is a more somber and representative work, and is the exact opposite of cheesy sci-fi opera. It tells the story of an Alabama community in the 1950s contending with the shock of the encroaching electric culture of rock and roll. The film uses music, specifically the evolution of the blues, as a tool to explore complex character developments and interactions. The cast is uniformly excellent, and the period recreation (a Sayles trademark that he always gets right) is gorgeous.
This is just a tiny portion of Sayles’s output.

If you explore the library’s other big movie streaming service, Kanopy, it includes 1992’s Passion Fish, which follows the relationship between a racist paralyzed actress and her Black caregiver. I also encourage everyone to check out the library’s circulating collection of DVDs when we reopen. Criterion recently reissued on DVD his resonant thriller Matewan, about the unionizing of a mining town. It’s rare to encounter an expressive artist of such spanning interests and sensitivities, but I contend that John Sayles is exactly that rare bird.

~posted by Sven S.

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