Attack of the Well-Meaning Bores
By Fernando F. Croce

Good intentions pave the road to hell, especially when it comes to film. Someone tell that to John Sayles, whose latest, Silver City, is one position-paper reading closer to the dreaded Stanley Kramer Throne. Cheap shot, I know -- the conscious lines (social, political, racial) that run through Sayles' work at its best are far richer and more complex than anything by ol' auteurist punching bag Kramer, whose treatises on racism (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner), nuclear fears (On the Beach) and the Holocaust (Judgment at Nuremberg) are enough to turn people off movies forever. Yet Sayles' admirable engagement has, in picture after picture, hardened into a slack earnestness not dissimilar from Stanley K.'s piledriver liberalism.

In Silver City, the clotting is complete. The clothesline on which Sayles hangs his preaching is a plodding whodunit set in an imaginary Colorado town on the eve of gubernatorial election. As the picture opens, a dead body turns up in a lake courtesy of the fishing rod prop of the slow-poke frontrunner (dubbed "Pilager" and played by Chris Cooper as a series of Dubyaesque fumblings) while shooting an environmental campaign ad; smelling foul play, campaign brain Richard Dreyfuss hires a rumpled snoop (charmless Danny Huston, John's boy) to check through a list of possible culprits. Miguel Ferrer's bellicose talk-radio host, Kris Kristofferson's cowboy entrepreneur and Ralph Waite's fallen mine boss are among the many talking heads spelling things out for Huston before he realizes the depths of rot pervading the system.

Sold as a cheeky anti-Bush salvo, the film is actually a laden slog through Sayles' agenda, which includes ruthless privatizing, exploited migrant workers, lobbyism, environmental despoiling, incestuously tangled political strands, downtrodden liberals trudging along on the Internet, et al. I sympathize with the restless concerns of a fellow leftist as much as I tire of his increasing inability to explore them expressively on film. Coming so near election time, Silver City's satire is particularly toothless, never venturing beyond a lampoon of patented presidential dim-wittedness that Bush has long ago cannily woven into his own image as a jus' plain folks fella. Sayles' outrage is vociferous but safely reigned-in, so that his final image (poisoned fish bellying up while "America the Beautiful" swells on the soundtrack) is less despairing than comfily defeatist.

The cinema is ultimately of no use to Sayles since he knows in advance what he wants to say, and the visual -- the essence of film -- doesn't hold any interest to him. As a result, the camerawork (even when helmed by the redoubtable Haskell Wexler) makes TV look positively Von Sternbergian, while the dialogue is permanently locked into all-exposition mode. The sense of human messiness of City of Hope or Passion Fish has given way here to streamlined point-smacking that leeches all life from the characters other than as director mouthpieces. Worse, the approach turns a gallery of gifted performers (Maria Bello, Tim Roth, Sal Lopez, Thora Birch, David Clennon, James Gammon) into stone. Only Daryl Hannah, playing the crossbow-toting black sheep of Cooper's clan, fleshes in enough specific flakiness to escape Sayles' Medusa stare.

*

Walter Salles' Motorcycle Diaries is another film that's getting points simply for its intentions. Charting the soul-transforming 1952 trek across South America that molded young, asthmatic medical school preppie Ernesto Guevara de la Serna into '60s radical icon Che Guevara, the film oozes shallow icon-worship. With rowdier, roundier buddy Alberto Granada (Rodrigo de la Serna) in tow, young Ernesto (Gael García Bernal) takes off from gilded Buenos Aires on a joyride, until their leaking, farting motorcycle dies on them and their eyes are pried open via contact with the People. A myriad of brawls, dances and encounters with halo-wearing peons and evil capitalists later, and Bernal's ambulatory magazine cover is supposed to have solidified into a revolutionary firebrand. All I could see was an Argentinean Ashton Kutcher.

As much as I would like to write a critical check to a fellow Brazilian, Salles keeps draining the juice out of the material with fraudulent nobility. At least, unlike Sayles, he has some cinematic fair, a feeling for landscape (the pampas, the Andes and the expanses of the Amazon) and an appetite for strong indigenous faces. It's a smooth enough experience, which is precisely what's wrong -- the bouquets the picture (produced by no less a middlebrow authority than Robert Redford) has received from critics are proof that the real Che Guevara has not been prodded. Politics? Marxism? Anything that might disturb the public who knows the bearded figure only through T-shirts? Not for a bourgeois gladhander like Salles, who's in love less with the revolutionary ideas of Che than the abstract romanticism of "Che." Imagine Godard's Che, or Gillo Pontecorvo's, and Salles' chickenhearted vision glares.

Reviewed October 5, 2004.


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