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The brother from another planet.

John Sayles make movies to scale--or is it movies to go? Alongside the vast supermarket of Hollywood epics, blockbusters and high-concept product, his cinema of convenience is sparsely stocked with snacks and munchables: a Lesbian sandwich on wry, lightly chilled 1960s nostalgia and soul food to take out--far out. Sayles can execute a movie from blank paper to answer-print in the time it takes the conglomerate film-makers in L.A. to negotiate their drug deals. The Brother From Another Planet came to him one night in a dream (already carrying the appealing title Assholes From Outer Space); it was written in one week, shot in four, and soon landed in Cannes to serve as a topic of cocktail conversation with Andrew Sarris. And all for a low, low $350,000, with deferred salaries, credit crunches and the usual financial nightmares of independent production. Best of all, Sayles keeps a sense of humor about the whole hectic process and pokes fun at the megalomaniacs of the industry: early in Brother there's brief shot of a sign for Harlem's Cotton Club, just to remind Film insiders that Francis Coppola's picture of the same name still has not been released.

Smallness of scale and brevity of moment are the most attractive aspects of the four films Sayles has directed. The specific subjects under his consideration hit the high spots of current politics and sociology: The Return of the Secaucus Seven was about the evolution of the radical generation of the 1960s; baby, It's You was about that generation's origins; Lianna dealt with sexual politics; and Brother has to do with racism. But the cultural message beneath the plot is always the same: movies need not be escapes, rituals or mystifications of ordinary experience. They can instead be mirrors for self-evaluation and parables of real life. Method and style are crucial to Sayles's purpose. His movies must be accessible, unpretentious, low-tech and narrow-gauge; in other words, cheap and quick. Grandeur, sweep and finesse distance a production from its audience, the way a haute couture show makes clothes into myths or a three-star meal transforms dinner into a dream.

The Brother From Another Planet takes its cue from the science fiction genre, but not its sense or sensibility. The Brother (the marvelous Joe Morton) is a fugitive slave from some distant world who hurtles to Earth on a well-traveled intergalactic railroad. There's a bit of blurred spaceship technology before the titles, but Sayles has no interest in (or budget for) kubrickian fantasies. His special effects, and the Bro's special talents, are kept to a minimum. The fugitive has a luminous finger which can regenerate limbs, heal wounds, repair video games and open cash registers. He can hear conversations from long ago in empty rooms and leap halfway up tall buildings in a single bound. His alien piece de resistance is the ability to remove an eye, which can keep which on its surroundings and transmit all it has seen when replaced in its socket.

But the Brother is no superman. He is almost unendurably sensitive to the suffering of his black brothers and sisters in Harlem, that ghetto of the universe where he naturally finds a home. Like a mute messiah (he never makes a peep), the Brother assumes the pain and oppression of those he walks among: an Oriental grocery clerk calls the police on him for stealing a pear, a white employer treats him like dirt, black punks fall upon him and he shoots up with heroin when he finds a young addict dead with a needle in his arm. He is a gentle and defenseless stranger in a land that must not be so terribly strange to him; a slave's life on the other planet is clearly no piece of cake. Two white bounty hunters (Sayles and David Strathairn) are on his tail, but as bad as conditions may be around 125th Street, the Brother desperately wants to stay on Earth.

The messianism gets maudlin at times, and the movie's good intentions may be hard even for liberal audiences to swallow whole. A long sequence in which the Brother finds the white yuppie who controls the ghetto drug trade is both overblown and simple-minded, and fits uncomfortably with the mood Sayles has created. But Sayles's sense of humor and his wonderful way with words are always available to effect a rescue. There's no danger that he will turn into stanley Kramer before the final frame. Little theatrical monologues and set pieces dot the narrative like jewels: an endearing young hustler plays card tricks on the subway, then asks the Brother, "Do you want me to make all the white people disappear?" just as the train leaves Columbus Circle for 125th Street; the bounty hunters make their rounds like robot twins, speaking lines out of Dragnet and The treasure of the Sierra Madre; a Rastafarian takes the Brother on a Faustian walk through Harlem nighttown; and two absurd Midwestern white boys barge into a Harlem bar for several hours of meaningful conversation with a mute black alien.

All this takes place in a cozy community constructed around the bar, where a complement of amusing denizens takes up the slack moments in the plot. They provide diversions, which are not really digressions, for the community is the movie--if is the way Sayles's constituency (more than an audience) can enter his country. Jean Renoir built the same kind of neighborhoods in his mid-1930s movies (typically, in The Crime of Monsieur Lange) and there are glimpses of other landscape signatures in some recent Australian offerings--for example, Gillian Armstrong's working-class corner of Sidney in Starstruck. But most American movies have abandoned their sense of the community for milieus that are either mythic or exotic.

Sayles rushes in where most other filmmakers would not even think to tread. What straight white male, even with the best social conscience in the world, would risk making a film about lesbian relationships in the 1980s? Who wants to tempt the gods of commerce and the gurus of correct politics by tackling black life in Harlem? Sayles seems oblivious to the cultural constraints that limit the rest of us. He gets away with it, too, by keeping his sights low and his eyes clear. He does not claim to offer the last word on any of his subjects, nor does he pretend to produce masterpieces or hope to gross zillions. Each of his films is incomplete, tentative, exploratory. That is a style that Godard and some American filmmakers tried in the 1960s, but they always took themselves and their politics too seriously and in the end foundered when their integrity was unmasked as ego. Sayles should have no such problems. His one-man alternative cinema is a real treat, and if you watch closely, he can make Hollywood disappear.
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Author:Kopkind, Andrew
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Movie Review
Date:Oct 6, 1984
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