15 May 2008

HONEYDRIPPER (Dir. John Sayles, 2007, US) - Another Masterwork from a True American Independent Film maker

Most film maker’s careers are shaped by either good or bad films, and most film makers are judged on what is commonly known as consistency – this is a pertinent question that is asked by many critics when evaluating the oeuvre of a certain film maker in an attempt to determine if they can be classified as a credible film auteur. However, such criteria somehow seems to become irrelevant when we study the collective body of work associated with the independent American film maker, John Sayles, who by the way truly is an ‘independent’ working outside the Hollywood major studios.

I can’t ever recall John Sayles making a bad film or an even average come to think of it, and in terms of creative consistency he occupies a uniquely singular position within American cinema, and is undoubtedly one of the few original independent film makers to emerge out of the Indie scene in the 80s not to have become subsumed into the mainstream. His contemporaries like The Coen Brothers and Spike Lee made the decision a long time ago to run in tandem with the tastes of populist mainstream cinema and approach studios for financing and distribution deals.

John Sayles, not only stars in Honeydripper in a small walk on role, he is also credited with writing, directing and most unusually editing – this is strange in that though most seriously inclined film makers are involved in some way in the editing process, John Sayles completely edits his own films, and this is a signature that not only confirms his status as an auteur, but as a film maker who has complete creative control over the entire production process from start to finish. This is perhaps why John Sayles is one of the few film makers working within American cinema today who can lay claim to the term independent, a term that has lost it’s original sense of cultural worth, hijacked by frightened Hollywood studios and now used inappropriately as a marketing tool to push so called superficial ‘indie’ films like the recent ‘Juno’.

Honeydripper is the name of a club run by a black owner called Tyrone (Danny Glover) who is trying to come to terms with his violent past and pursue his musical ambitions of running a successful club that plays real live music. Set in 1950s Albama, Honeydripper is a film that celebrates the potency of black music and how it was used by the African American community as a means of collective unity and a powerful expression of a freedom that was denied to many of them in a racially segregated post war society.

When Tyrone is threatened with closure for being unable to pay outstanding debts to the people who own the club, he comes up with the idea of bringing ‘Guitar Sam’, an emerging musical sensation, to his club in an attempt to revive flagging interest. The youthful figure of Guitar Sam’s shadowy imitator, a drifter and talented guitarist called Sonny, appears magically and his presence throughout the film seems at times like a figment of Tyrone’s imagination. Sonny’s arrival is carefully juxtaposed to the death of a local legend, Mable John, who symbolises the traditions of early rhythm and blues. This is a film that is also very much about the emergence of the electric guitar that would radically transform musical conventions and perceptions throughout America.

Sayles refuses to play to our expectations that we bring with us to a film strongly associated with music, and this is evident when Sonny arrives in town as we immediately expect a series of colourfully well-edited musical montages extenuating his brilliance as a musical poet. Instead the film takes considerable time to get to the moment when audience expectations are fulfilled and fully satisfied, and this occurs in the final sequences as Sonny’s energetic singing and guitar playing is endorsed by a largely African American audience who provide a reaction that amounts to euphoria.

Getting to the end of the narrative has never really been a defining characteristic of Sayles as a film-maker, but Honeydripper appears to end with a greater degree of closure than typical Sayles’ films like ‘Limbo’ and ‘Lone Star’. Look closely at any film directed by Sayles and the characteristic that is most strikingly apparent is that of ‘simplicity’ – characterisation is gracefully understated, the camerawork is uniformly unpretentious, no easy moral judgements or ideological positions are explicitly signposted, and the editing does not draw attention to itself.

The films of John Sayles are closer to the work of major European directors like the Dardennes and even some of the Iranian masters like Abbas Kiarostami come to mind when attempting to position his work in some kind of wider auteur context outside of American cinema. Some critics have already stated that Honeydripper should be considered a minor work in the overall oeuvre of John Sayles but even if this is the case, he has very little to worry about when many consider his minor films to eclipse the major films of many film makers working within the severe social and political constraints of contemporary mainstream American cinema.

With the recent loss of Robert Altman, I feel Sayles alongside Jim Jarmusch is one of the few film makers left within American cinema who can be considered a maverick. His films not only seem to celebrate the forgotten social groups of America, but try to present us with an alternative perspective of American history, one that Hollywood would rather see relegated to the documentary medium.

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