- The Washington Times - Friday, February 22, 2008

In a filmmaking career that spans from the combustible (1987’s “Matewan”) to the touching (1992’s “Passion Fish”), “indie icon” John Sayles has dutifully and deftly served as writer, director, editor, producer, script doctor, actor and publicist. With his latest project, “Honeydripper,” he adds one more credit to the list: music scholar and appreciator.

The fictional film takes place in the 1950s Deep South and stars Danny Glover as Tyrone “Pinetop” Purvis, a boogie-woogie piano player who runs the Honeydripper roadhouse. Times and tastes have changed, though, and the club’s once-successful acoustic blues shows are no longer pulling in enough loot to appease the landlord. The young crowds want to go to the juke joint next door, where they can hear the latest amplified tunes.

As with many of Mr. Sayles’ previous protagonists, Tyrone is standing at a personal, social and cultural crossroads and must choose either to adapt or let time pass him by. He decides to make a move, booking Guitar Sam — a star of the nascent electrified music movement — for one blockbuster Saturday-night show that he’s sure will solve all his woes. When the musician is a no-show, Tyrone may have to take a chance on a young unknown guitarist who’s blown into town named Sonny Blake (Gary Clark Jr.).

The film builds mounting tension through its final scenes, with potential for a showdown coming from every direction: Tyrone’s religious wife, the racist white sheriff, the neighboring club’s owner and so on.

While underpinned by sociopolitical issues, “Honeydripper” doesn’t delve into them with the force or treat them with the nuance that many of Mr. Sayles’ other works have. Instead, it relies on rather broad strokes to establish the issues quickly, spending most of its time on the main characters’ personal struggles.

To some viewers, the film may come across as a bit slow and talky, but Mr. Sayles provides plenty of compensations: beautiful, crisp cinematography, a stirring performance by Mr. Glover and a rhythmic focus throughout the film that helps establish music’s constant forward motion as a metaphor for life’s.

The inspiration for the rock ‘n’ roll fable comes from Mr. Sayles’ 1993 short story, “Keeping Time.” Published in his 2004 collection “Dillinger in Hollywood,” the contemporary tale features a character who’s currently working as a janitor in a club but used to be a famous musician. Mr. Sayles recalls thinking at some point that “it’d be cool to make a movie about the stories that guy tells.”

Before finally writing the screenplay for what would become his 16th feature film, the writer/director did intensive research to discover what the hit songs were in 1950, how the rock ‘n’ roll sound spread, what other key historical events were happening simultaneously, and how people thought and spoke at the time. Mr. Sayles says he read everything from Billboard charts to autobiographies.

Part of what fueled the filmmaker’s hunger for knowledge was a long-standing fascination with music. He’s dabbled in songwriting in previous films and has also used music to create powerful scenes — particularly in “Matewan,” in which coal miners who’ve been segregated by their employers first begin to interact with one another by trading chords on their respective instruments.

“One of the things that I think is important about music is first of all, it goes across languages, and second, it goes across cultures,” says Mr. Sayles. “I think it’s one of the first places that Americans assimilate and integrate. They bring something with them from their own place, but they also get something from the new place. … They listen to each other musically before they will even look each other in the eye.”

Listening is something Mr. Sayles takes very seriously. In fact, he says it’s the key to creating authentic-feeling, regionally specific works like his.

Screenwriting is about “getting into other people’s heads,” he says. “One of the first things about doing it well is you have to do a whole lot of listening before you write anything.”

Jenny Mayo

Haneke films series

Next month, Austrian director Michael Haneke’s English-language debut, “Funny Games,” a shot-for-shot remake of his 1997 German-language film of the same name, will hit theaters. I use that violent verb advisedly: Mr. Haneke is a controversial director, and “Funny Games,” about two sadistic men who take a family hostage in their own home and play torturous games with them, is one of his most controversial films.

Hence the title of a film series devoted to the man’s work. “Michael Haneke: A Cinema of Provocation” starts Monday and runs through March 24. The series features three of the outspoken director’s feature films and seven of his made-for-television films.

As befits Mr. Haneke’s multicultural filmmaking, screenings in the series take place at the Goethe-Institut Washington, La Maison Francaise and the Austrian Embassy. All films have English subtitles. Here are some highlights:

“Das Schloss” (“The Castle”) opens the series on Monday at the Goethe-Institut and is introduced by Peter Brunette, director of the film studies program at Wake Forest University. This 1997 television film centers on a land surveyor who arrives at a castle at the invitation of a count only to find nobody seems to be expecting him.

The next night, the French Embassy shows the feature “Code Inconnu” (“Code Unknown”). Juliette Binoche stars in this story of interconnected characters in Paris, Mali and Romania.

The Austrian Embassy shows its first film the night after that, with “Lemminge, Teil 1: Arkadien” (“Lemmings, Part 1: Arcadia”), the first of a two-part drama about the generation that came of age after World War II. “Lemminge, Teil 2: Verletzungen,” (“Injuries”), in which the first film’s 1950s teenagers become 1970s adults, screens March 4 at the Austrian Embassy.

More information can be found on each venue’s respective Web site: www.acfdc.org, www.la-maison-francaise.org and www.goethe.de/washington.

Kelly Jane Torrance

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