Film Festival: Celebrating the Work of John Sayles

Chris Hale, November 2012

John Sayles. Photo by F. Stop Fitzgerald; courtesy <a href="http://johnsaylesblog.com" target="_blank">johnsaylesblog.com</a>.Writer-director John Sayles has very a unique place in the history American film: not only did he play a vital and integral role in the development of independent American film over 30 years ago, but since then, he has also been able to successfully balance mainstream success while maintaining his independent status against the threatening tides of corporatization. Sayles also has a unique relationship with history, infusing a majority of his films with a nuanced perspective on the past, focusing particularly on the American working class, race, and national identity.

For the 127th annual meeting, the AHA's Program Committee has put together an incredibly exciting retrospective on John Sayles's cinematic work. Sayles himself will be in New Orleans to screen and discuss six of his films with us. He will also comment in a presidential session focusing on the historical implications of his work, and will be a panelist in a special plenary session examining the historical impact of his films.

The AHA invites everyone attending the 127th annual meeting to come to these special screenings and sessions:

Eight Men Out (John Sayles, writer and director, Orion Pictures, 1988). Thursday, January 3, 2:30–5:00 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. Sayles presents a deft examination of capitalism and the relationship between management and labor amid the backdrop of a sports film, in this case the "Black Sox scandal" in which eight members of the Chicago White Sox conspired with gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. Sayles and Elliott Gorn (Loyola Univ.Chicago), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Amigo (John Sayles, writer and director, Anarchist's Convention Films, 2011). Thursday, January 3, 5:30–8:00 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. Using the Philippine-American War of 1900 as a backdrop, Sayles focuses on the history of American imperialism, and its continuity with the international conflicts of today. Sayles and Paul Kramer, (Vanderbilt Univ.), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Lone Star (John Sayles, writer and director, Columbia Pictures, 1996). Friday, January 4, 12:00–2:45 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. In this film, Sayles delves into the murder mystery genre, but with a multicultural and historical twist, exploring the racial, cultural, institutional, and personal borders within a small Texas border town.

As it cuts back-and-forth between the past and the present, Lone Star is also an affecting examination of memory. Sayles, and Rachel St. John (NYU), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Matewan (John Sayles, writer and director, Cinecom Entertainment, 1987). Friday, January 4, 4:30–7:15 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. One of Sayles's better-known films, Matewan is a riveting look at the struggle of the American working class in the interwar period. It focuses on a small West Virginia coal-mining town to explore one of the most violent clashes between management and labor in American history. Sayles and Walter Licht (Univ. of Pennsylvania), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Men with Guns (John Sayles, writer and director, Clear Blue Sky Productions, and Anarchist's Convention Films, 1997). Saturday, January 5, 12:00–2:30 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. Men with Guns is one of the more personal and lyrical of Sayles's films, using the journey of a Latin American doctor as an allegory for human endurance, faith, and love, amid brutality and hopelessness. Sayles and Susan Fitzpatrick-Behrens (California State Univ., Northridge), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Sunshine State (John Sayles, writer and director, Sony Pictures Classics, 2002). Saturday, January 5, 4:45–7:45 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Waterbury Ballroom. In this film, Sayles examines the relationship between community and history amid the promises and changes brought on by captialism. As a sleepy Florida coastal town invites outside investors to revitalize their community, the film looks at the importance of history and place (this film earned Sayles the Duke University LEAF Award for Lifetime Environmental Achievement in the Fine Arts). Sayles and Nathan Connolly (Johns Hopkins Univ.), will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Session 194: Thinking Through History with John Sayles. Saturday, January 5, 2:30–4:30 p.m., New Orleans Marriott, La Galerie 2. Chair: Gregg Mitman, Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison, Topics: Matewan, Thomas G. Andrews (Univ. of Colorado Denver); Men with Guns, Gabriela Soto Laveaga (Univ. of California, Santa Barbara); Amigo, Paul Kramer (Vanderbilt Univ.); Lone Star, Rachel St. John (NYU); Sunshine State, Nathan Connolly (Johns Hopkins Univ.) Comment: John Sayles.

Plenary Session: A Conversation with John Sayles. Saturday, January 5, 8:30–10:00 p.m., Sheraton New Orleans, Rhythms Ballroom. Chair: William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison). Panel: Peter Galison (Harvard Univ.), Vanessa R. Schwartz (Univ. of Southern California), and John Sayles.

Also Showing at the Film Festival

2012 O'Connor Film Award Winner: The Loving Story

Friday, January 4, 4:30–6:30 p.m.
New Orleans Marriott, Preservation Hall, Studio 3

Nancy Buirski, writer, director, and producer; Elisabeth Haviland James, producer and editor; Susie Ruth Powell, writer (Icarus Films, 2012)

The Loving Story explores the history of the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision that legalized interracial marriage by narratively weaving together rare 16mm archival footage, documentary photographs and contemporary interviews with the plaintiffs' daughter Peggy Loving and the two attorneys who tried the case, Phil Hirschkop and Bernard Cohen. The documentary takes viewers behind the scenes of the legal challenges and the emotional turmoil that they entailed, documenting a seminal moment in American history and reflecting a timely message of marriage equality in a personal, human love story.

Nancy Buirski will introduce the film and lead a discussion afterward.

Chris Hale is the AHA's publications production manager.