By Seb Cooke
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The Cinema of John Sayles

This article is over 13 years, 1 months old
Mark Bould, Wallflower Press; £16.99
Issue 338

In a scene in Matewan, John Sayles’s brilliant film about the struggle for unionisation in a West Virginia mining town in the 1920s, an argument erupts that is still relevant today.

The miners, on strike, meet to discuss their tactics and the possibility of beating up black and Italian workers whose labour the company has brought in to undermine the strike. A man who is not a miner, but a communist just arrived to help the strike, makes an intervention and argues that the union should accept the black and Italian workers, and calls for unity, not division. He states that there are two kinds of people: “Them that work, and them that don’t.”

Mark Bould is very quick to show us the Marxist roots in such a line when he claims it is a “vulgarised version of Marx’s observation that capitalist production ‘produces and reproduces the capitalist relation; on the one side the capitalist, on the other the wage labourer'”.

In attempting to show Sayles’s films in a broad political framework, and with a socialist analysis, Bould does well to rescue film criticism from the academic fantasy world of postmodernism. But he is keen to reject what he calls “one-sided” Marxism – a mechanical approach to art that criticises anything that does not explicitly depict class struggle.

Instead he calls for a dynamic approach and heaps praise on Sayles’s films for showing the changing nature of the working class and the different areas in which people face struggle.

The book offers an insight into the work of one of greatest independent filmmakers of the last century. It follows Sayles’s career from screenwriter to auteur, showing the development of his work and his role as a people’s filmmaker in charting the lives of ordinary Americans with great skill and passion.

However, Bould often uses needlessly academic language that makes for difficult reading and sometimes leads him to a fairly abstract analysis. He fails in locating both Sayles’s drive to make such films and people’s appetite for them. This can lead you to believe that Sayles simply read Marx and then set about his work. It could have done far more if it looked outwards into society and placed Sayles’s work as not only coming from our cultural history but also playing a vital role in shaping it.

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