SURELY, IN THE COMING MONTHS WE WILL GROW weary of hearing how the title and subject of his new film, Limbo [see review in Film Shorts], so concisely describes John Sayles' career as a filmmaker. Forever encamped on the outskirts of Hollywood, and occasionally invited in as a day laborer, the 49-year-old director as yet refuses to settle down in the cozy Hollywood neighborhood.

At what we can presume is about the halfway point in his career, Sayles stands atop the edifice of his 12 feature-length films with a somewhat dubious conviction. On one hand, he has established himself as the foremost proletarian in the field of writer-directors, with a reputation for bringing in solidly crafted, modest works with formidable attention to detail and well-placed political constructs. His films are admirably obsessed with the influence of history on community, and are universally fine in their evocation of place. A gift with actors allows his work to showcase their talents without ever forcing them into the compromised servitude of stardom.

On the other hand, he has never lived up to his promise: Despite his seeming outsider's stance vis-à-vis the Hollywood storytelling machine, his films are, with the anomaly of Brother from Another Planet, all firmly within the mainstream mold. His writing, though exceptional in style, is unsurprising in conception. Similarly, his characterizations and plots seem grossly utilitarian, conspicuously lacking in risk. Despite the subdued brilliance of their craft, his films seem somehow hermetic and finite; specific stories as opposed to hieroglyphs or representations; capable of illustration, but not illumination.

"I'm not interested in being a user-friendly director," Sayles answers, when asked why he insists on making films the hard way, largely without Hollywood's financial backing, without big-name (or often even small-name) stars, without the requisite graphic sex or violence. "I don't think it's so great to be able to make any movie anytime, or to have all the money in the world," he continues. "You're more likely to make a movie you want to make just because you want to be a filmmaker, or because it's October and you haven't done anything. The fact that my movies have been so hard to make means that every one of them was something I really wanted to make."

That Sayles still works hard for the money, even after the relative critical and commercial standout of Lone Star, seems surprising at first. "I'm willing to spend about a year trying to get the thing made," he says, "after which I have to move on." In a few rare instances, such as Brother from Another Planet or Men with Guns, Sayles has seeded production with his own capital, after outside funding failed to materialize.

But what at first seems curious is, on closer examination, endemic to the world and style in which he works. "If you've made 11 films and have never gone platinum, you probably aren't going to," he notes dryly, "so someone who's made only one or two films might be more exciting." Thus, our nation's foremost meat-and-potatoes filmmaker, who, shockingly, has never gone over-budget and whose films have always been granted full theatrical release, is still working hand-to-mouth, living from one film to the next, though by increments it has gotten easier. Sayles gleefully notes, "At least now I can get my phone calls answered right away, so I can get a good, quick 'No.' It's 'Here's the script; assume you know none of the actors; here's the budget: Yes or No?'"

In exchange for creative freedom and final cut, Sayles keeps his budgets low and his talent inexpensive. In the best instances, this simple, austere producing process allows him to pursue his vision to an uninterrupted finish. More often, he finds himself stuck in the vortex of low-budget mainstream filmmaking. He says, "You're at the mercy of the bigger pictures. Your lead actor is on a bread job with some star, and you think, 'Please, let Woody Harrelson behave this week so Chris Cooper can get out of his fucking movie and come be in ours." And so it goes on, a particular kind of limbo.

Fresh off of his 12th film, for the first time in his career Sayles is without a script in hand for another film. For a director who, from his first film at age 29, has continuously had a screenplay in the pipeline, it is a curious, cloudy position. His career from here on is as open a question as the ambiguous ending of Limbo, and potentially as grave. At this point, Sayles' talent as a storyteller and craftsman is well proven. Yet his abilities as an artist remain stunted and half-formed. His ambition thus far seems too conscious of the limitations of Hollywood: Rather than challenge those limitations, and use his formidable talents to stretch the boundaries of storytelling, he seems content to find a neglected corner in which he can curl up with his modest agenda and preach to the (somewhat) converted.

That said, what Sayles does next is by no means a foregone conclusion. His evident political conscience, his broad but frugal technical competence, and his skill with actors all point toward something greater than the total of his output. Perhaps the problem is his proximity to Hollywood, but the solution, rather than to move away, is to move in lock, stock, and barrel. Leery of the controls and false passions demanded by the studios, Sayles has thus far avoided them. What he has gained in freedom, he pays for with lack of resources. He has made his peace with the situation, noting, "I think you get a lot of good ideas by having to have a box to fit in." But it seems Sayles has simply outgrown that box. Perhaps the bigger, better-funded, but oddly more demanding box of big-budget filmmaking is what he now needs. After all, wouldn't you love to see his version of Star Wars: Episode II?

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