Soupy Sayles

How could anyone not pull for earnest, do-it-yourself filmmakers such as John Sayles and Maggie Renzi? Sayles tackles serious, challenging subjects -- a coddled actress rediscovering her will to live after a paralyzing accident, violent labor union-management conflicts in West Virginia coal-mining country during the Twenties, the "Black Sox" World Series scandal of 1919 A and then writes, directs, and even edits his projects himself. Renzi, whose professional collaboration with Sayles dates back to her performance in 1980's Return of the Secaucus Seven (Sayles's debut as writer-director), and who is the director's romantic collaborator off-screen, has produced six of his nine films and three Sayles-directed videos for Bruce Springsteen ("Born in the U.S.A.," "I'm on Fire," and "Glory Days").

Sayles is bright, talented, funny, and accessible as all get-out. He's an underdog to boot, a classic Hollywood outsider who approaches the glamorous, high-stakes movie business as if it were a mom-and-pop grocery store. He and Renzi not only will sell you the bread and milk, they'll bag it for you and carry it out to your car. Small wonder Springsteen hired them, especially after Bruce's first blatant attempt to pander to the MTV crowd, the Brian De Palma-directed "Dancing in the Dark," incurred the wrath of so many of his long-term fans, who blasted the cheesy posing for being the transparent sell-out it was. The Boss needed unassailable blue-collar integrity to polish his tarnished rep. In time-honored show-biz tradition, he went out and bought it.

In a few short years, John Sayles went from writing scripts such as Piranha and Battle Beyond the Stars for legendary low-budget B-movie king Roger Corman to assuming the mantle of cult hero-independent filmmaker to directing arguably the biggest rock star of the Eighties in a series of glossy videos. And yet the popular image of Sayles remains that of a low-key regular guy who paid his dues, caught the big break, and made it in the entertainment industry without compromise.

According to the publicity materials accompanying Sayles's newest release, The Secret of Roan Inish, "Sayles's strong suit has always been as a realist, with an incredibly fine ear and eye toward delineating living, breathing human beings." True enough. The unconventional auteur's scripts derive their strength from cutting observation, subtle characterization, and a carefully cultivated veneer of working-class authenticity. But what the press kit doesn't tell you is that Sayles can play his hand so delicately that viewers who don't share his enthusiasm for muted shadings of personality and naturally evolving, unsensational plots can find his work sleep-inducing.

That brings us to The Secret of Roan Inish, which shows Sayles struggling to grow as an artist within the constraints of the regular guyness he has imposed upon himself. The result is a self-conscious attempt at doing something big A creating a full-blown fable A without the benefit of eye-popping special effects or marquee-friendly names. Sayles's effort to invoke the rich Irish oral tradition adds up to more blarney than plot. The principal characters say a lot more than they do in this snail-paced yarn about little Fiona (golden-tressed Jeni Courtney in requisite plucky waif mode), the second-youngest member of a displaced fishing family. Fiona's obsession with finding her long-lost (and presumed dead) little brother teaches the old folks a thing or two about keeping the faith, and eventually restores the clan to its home. On the one hand, you could compliment Sayles on his sincere attempt to draw upon the grand Irish spirit and rich word-of-mouth storytelling custom by devoting screen time to loving shots of old grandpa stroking his beard, stoking his pipe, and relaying family lore to his headstrong granddaughter. On the other hand, you could walk into the nearest gin mill and hear better stories from just about any drunk at the bar, all for the price of a beer.

Simply put, the movie is slow. A little detail is one thing; this film layers on the mundane until the suspicion arises that the director is padding. We learn the fine points of tarring a boat, mixing whitewash, cutting turf, and thatching a cottage roof. Roan's wham-bang dramatic highlight is a scene in which the imperceptibly rising tide picks up a baby's cradle left absent-mindedly on the beach and inexorably carries it out to sea. Sayles is nothing if not consistent; the most common criticism of his films is that they run too long. Roan delivers its secret in less than two hours, but it feels much longer. Combine the film's sluggish pace with Sayles's proclivity for coining arcane or ambiguous titles A The Secret of Roan Inish, Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Lianna, and, of course, Passion Fish -- and you've got a marketing person's nightmare.

It's not a good sign when you find yourself hoping for more shots of the animals and less of the human actors. (Although in fairness to the cast, Sayles's seals are shameless scene-stealers.) Sayles enjoys a reputation as an actor's director; this time out he must have concentrated his efforts on the thespians with flippers. They're the only ones who appear to be having any fun. They swim, they play, they flop around, but they do not talk. Sayles could have learned from their example.

At least the dialogue is smartly written and the scenery is lovingly photographed (by two-time Academy Award-winning cinematographer Haskell Wexler). Like a good anthropologist, Sayles successfully depicts the rituals, work routines, and habits that make up his characters' daily lives. His camera catches the crude crucifixes on the cottage walls; his microphone records the carefully researched dialects and colorful phrases his characters speak. As expected, the effort is genuine. Too bad Sayles is more concerned with showing us how well he did his homework than he is with entertaining us or making us feel as strongly about the value of a wee bit o' gab as he does.

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