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Where Have All the Issues Gone?

Very few political films are in the works. Possible villains include audiences, studio executives, directors and even the stars.

July 07, 1996|John Clark | John Clark is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Director John Sayles' new movie, "Lone Star," can be summed up in a line delivered by a Mexican American woman to her Anglo lover: "Forget the Alamo."

This line is both personal and political in a way that American movies seldom are these days.

"It's something that I often try to do, which is to make a story where people can expand it to social issues even if it's personal," Sayles says.

"And they can contract it to personal issues even if it's political. 'Lone Star' is very much about the burden of history and whether we can get away from it or not. Even though it's about the Texas-Mexican border, I was thinking an awful lot about Yugoslavia when I was writing it. There's a bunch of people killing each other, and a lot of the impetus for that is stuff that happened generations ago."

Sayles, who wrote and directed the socially conscious "Matewan" (1987) and "Eight Men Out" (1988), is one of the few directors with the interest--and the wherewithal--to make overtly issue-driven movies. (Oliver Stone and Spike Lee are other, more recognizable, filmmakers who come to mind.) Twenty-five years ago, this list was much longer and more mainstream.

Such filmmakers as Francis Ford Coppola (the "Godfather" films in 1972, 1974 and 1990), Martin Scorsese ("Taxi Driver" in 1976), Robert Altman ("M*A*S*H" in 1970) and Warren Beatty ("Reds" in 1981) were making movies that took hard looks at our political, economic and social institutions. Where have these kinds of filmmakers and their movies gone? Some say they've been swept away along with the cows and the trees and the farm machinery in "Twister."

"Let's face it," says screenwriter Frank Pierson, who wrote a draft of "City Hall" and won an Academy Award for "Dog Day Afternoon" (1975), "the studios' principal interest is gratifying an audience that is defined as 14- to 24-year-old males who are by their very nature the least political of animals, except if you want to take their guns away from them."

Sayles says he couldn't have made "Lone Star" for a major studio, because of the cutthroat nature of the domestic marketplace. He would have had to shoehorn in a major star and tinker with the plot to make it a more conventional thriller.

"You're talking about huge amounts of money and enormous numbers of people who want to see them and enormous competition to open a movie," Sayles says. "And so far no studio has been very successful making a $15-million to $100-million movie and doing a platform release. They've got to open wide. And to do that, you're talking about 'elements,' as they say. And the element must be some kind of genre or plot or stars that people are dying to see."

Phil Alden Robinson, who wrote and directed "Field of Dreams" and has shot documentaries about the conflict in Bosnia, says the strategists in Hollywood are making decisions based on other markets as well.

"The studios are so guided by foreign sales, it seems that domestic politics is a very tough sell today," he says. "I had this experience where I tried for four years to get a serious movie made about the civil rights movement, and I couldn't get sufficient financing. A lot of people loved the script and wanted to make it, but at a very low budget that we couldn't meet. Every studio said the same thing. There's no foreign sales for a film like this. The stuff that translates best is big action films and star-driven movies."

Of course, it's also true that such culturally bound genres as comedies and talky features have trouble traveling abroad. And it's not just the studios that are interested in keeping it simple. According to Costa-Gavras, who directed "Z," the 1969 political thriller that won the Oscar for best foreign-language film, some stars also avoid politically themed films. Luckily, he says, other stars are willing to take that risk.

"That movie with John Travolta that takes place in a society where the black people take the position of the white people," he says, referring to last year's "White Man's Burden." "I found that extremely courageous of him. He's a major star, and he did a movie with a very interesting theme."

Most observers say that all of this anxiety on the part of executives and stars is the inevitable result of the studios' primary mission: making money. This is especially true now that they've been absorbed by conglomerates that have no institutional interest in movies as an art form. Sayles, although he makes what many people consider left-leaning films, does not have a problem with this.

"Their responsibility is to make money for their stockholders," he says. "If they can do anything more useful, that's terrific, but finally I can't think of it as anything more than the entertainment business."

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