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NewCityNet State of Limbo

John Sayles opens up the wilds of Alaska

By Ray Pride

JUNE 14, 1999:  The tense, story-drenched "Limbo" challenges most of the clichés about American independent movies.

Slipping readily from remunerative studio script-doctoring to financial and editorial control of his own bustling studies of the use of history and story in our world today, John Sayles is one maverick who puts his money where his moxie is. "Limbo" begins like a Robert Altman movie ("Nashville" by way of Sayles' own "City of Hope") but takes an abrupt turn midway into a compressed Jack London tale, which then turns into a metaphor, obvious yet sweet, about the feat of storytelling itself. Sayles anatomizes the fiber of economically depressed Port Henry, Alaska (a stand-in for Juneau), where a developer, consumed with turning the forty-ninth state into a theme park enthuses, "History is our future, not our past."

Early reviews have chastised Sayles for the tale's narrative reversals, yet the elegance and simplicity of how he moves his characters into the wilds of Alaska and the wilds of their hearts felt just right to me. Sayles anatomizes the fiber of economically depressed Port Henry, Alaska (a stand-in for Juneau), where a developer, consumed with turning the forty-ninth state into a theme part enthuses, "History is our future, not our past." About an hour in, the narrative turns into a compressed Jack London tale (that then turns into a metaphor, obvious yet sweet, about the feat of storytelling itself). The luminous photography and brooding performances enhance a script wrought with a short story writer's wayward acuity.

Aside from the remarkable, clear-eyed photography by Haskell Wexler, "Limbo" also boasts fine work by David Straitharn (Sayles' customary alter ego), as Joe Gastineau, a taciturn fisherman with a sorrowful past, and a more-than-Oscar-worthy turn by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, as a single mother and vagabond bar chanteuse, whose every gesture trembles with the confidence and hesitation of flesh and blood. Better yet is Vanessa Martinez, as Noelle, Mastrantonio's self-punishing teenage daughter who has not found her place in life but is finding her voice as a budding writer. Memory matters. The past is prologue. And the imagination is everything and nothing in "Limbo."

As a former student of psychology (animal and human), the 48-year-old Sayles freely launches into reasons for the smallest particulars of the motivations and desires of his characters. He collects bits and pieces of story for years, eventually finding a location that makes sense for the characters and conflict he's collected. From the border towns of "Lone Star" to the jungle mountains of "Men With Guns," Sayles sets his movies far from a world where everyone drinks Starbucks and talks about their Hush Puppies and shops at the Gap.

"Someday I may tell a story about that world," Sayles says, "but right now it's hard for me to tell a story about people, who only have in common the products that they buy, the TV shows that they watch, that's their shared culture. That is true for an awful lot of Americans, and I play with that in my novels."

But Sayles sees a different purpose for his movies. "They're physical, they're rooted to place. For me, even the physicality of a room that you're in, that's going to be a big part of the storytelling. I try to pick places where the people are connected in some very distinct way with the. And if you want to make metaphors, even though they're not necessary to movies, they help people understand what's going on."

For "Limbo," he found himself a new frontier. "Alaska is a place where people are going from real risk to the illusion of risk. For me, one of the most important themes is how does it change you when you no longer go out and put your ass on the line to catch fish? But most movies - and I write them for other people all the time - are there to deliver an illusion of risk. You go to a Harrison Ford movie, you get the twists and turns. But we know it's Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan on screen, no one's going to die. I was interested in the setting of Alaska, because it's still a frontier, because there is this possibility that you can go out and really risk your ass only a few miles out of town."

The structure of "Limbo" takes risks as well. Sayles is equally emphatic on that count. "If we're talking about risks, I'm gonna ask the audience to take a couple of risks. The first one is I'm going to give them almost no warning about the structure. I don't show you their world just for fifteen minutes like your average disaster movie, over half the movie is like a Robert Altman movie. I don't tell you it's going to turn into [an Ingmar] Bergman movie! Then you're as surprised and disoriented as the characters, down to not showing the [actions] which set them adrift. Then at the end, I'm saying to people, you've got to step up. You're on the beach, you hear that prop plane and you don't know what the hell happens next. This is a movie about risk and the other way out of those situations that people get into, treading water but not drowning, but you're not going anywhere, is to take some kind of risk. It could be going on strike, it could be getting divorced, quitting your job, putting the mask on and joining Subcomandante Marcos. But it's a risk. And you don't know how it's going to turn out. And very few people take them, even in their personal relationships."

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