John Sayles started his career as a self-styled working-class novelist, then worked as a screenwriter for exploitation maven Roger Corman before making his self-financed directorial debut with 1980's Return Of The Secaucus 7. Neither avant-garde nor sensationalist, Sayles' early films were essentially regional, but in a region that critics don't find notably exotic. Sayles also stood out for his crowd-pleasing streak, and even today, the movies he writes, directs, and edits are designed to appeal to anyone interested in involved stories and complex characters. But it all started with the directly conveyed, fundamentally entertaining Return Of The Secaucus 7, which presents a reunion of former student radicals and surveys how the free-love generation deals with a developing desire to settle down. Sayles holds to a simple style with few camera moves, and functional editing that serves his writerly dialogue. Typical of the filmmaker, the speeches are hyper-real, and delivered by a mostly amateur cast with forced conviviality, but the film as a whole captures the sound and mood of apple-cheeked baby boomers as they approach middle age. Sayles carried that confident sense of people and place into his second feature, 1983's Lianna, which stars Linda Griffiths as a film professor's wife who jeopardizes an already brittle marriage when she falls in love with another woman. Sayles indulges a few movie-of-the-week clichés as Griffiths suffers the scorn of her children and friends, but he smartly focuses on her excitement as she figures out how to be more open, and learns that a stronger sense of self won't prevent loneliness. Though Sayles is often accused of having no visual pizzazz, Lianna is bathed in autumnal light, and the 1984 indie hit Brother From Another Planet has a lively look aided by novice cinematographer Ernest Dickerson (who shortly thereafter partnered with Spike Lee). Brother comes closest to drawing on Sayles' exploitation background in its quasi-science-fiction story, which features mute, black-skinned alien Joe Morton serving as confidante and crimefighter to his adopted Harlem. The superhero stuff is often unintentionally silly, but again, Sayles shapes a catchy premise into a subtler piece, using Morton's "alien" status as a way of asking who deserves to be called an outsider in a country born of outsiders. Secaucus 7, Lianna, and Brother have all just been released on DVD with marvelous commentary tracks by Sayles, who moves fluidly from behind-the-scenes anecdotes to useful technical tips to unpretentious dissections of his own themes. He discusses his preoccupation with his characters' economic status, thereby clarifying his primary contribution to the independent-film movement: a populist take on class struggle. But Sayles has matured over the years, and for contrast's sake, it's nice to have a new DVD edition of his Men With Guns. A Spanish-language feature set in an unnamed Central American country, Men With Guns may have been too presumptuous to draw a crowd, but it's an accomplished, sophisticated piece of storytelling. The purposefully abstract political situation emphasizes how comfort insulates an old doctor (Federico Luppi), who comes to understand his tacit approval of injustice once he ventures into the wilderness and meets people with no nationality beyond what they do to eke out a living. Men With Guns is more visually polished than Sayles' early work, and it better integrates social comment and novelistic character development, with a rich deployment of metaphors large and small. Luppi's quest to find "a place where men with guns don't go" spurs a simultaneously natural and semi-mystical narrative which ends with a stinger and contains a repeated line of dialogue that may serve as Sayles' defining statement: "The people love drama."
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