Passersby and Politics:City of Hope and the Multiple Protagonist Film

Greg M. Smith

In Sayles Talk:New Perspectives on Independent Filmmaker John Sayles, edited by Diane Carson and Heidi Kenaga (Wayne State University Press, 2005)

More than any other contemporary American director (with the possible exception of Robert Altman), John Sayles consistently experiments with making films about groups.The maker of Return of the Secaucus Seven, Matewan, Eight Men Out, Lone Star, andSunshineState explores how to tell stories where heroes and villains are deeply rooted in their communities, not isolated from them.For Sayles, community is not just a backdrop for action; it is the stuff of everyday drama and everyday politics.

Sayles also attempts an even more difficult juggling act:telling a story with multiple protagonists, each one crucial to the narrative’s completion.In the commercial cinema (a medium whose structures are geared around telling stories about individuals), an auteur must necessarily rethink and reform basic narrative principles in order to deal with the intersecting desires of multiple protagonists.To do so may also require reinventing the visual strategies of storytelling, as Sayles does in perhaps his most narratively complicated film, City of Hope, a film with over 50 speaking parts and dozens of key players.City of Hope creates an urban environment in which people with only passing familiarity with each other may have profound effects on each other’s lives.The fictional HudsonCity is a network of apparently invisible but in fact strongly binding threads of causality, and Sayles creates this network through a beautiful linkage of Steadicam movement and staging.This essay in part examines the ways Sayles's City of Hope moves our attention from one character to another, and I compare Sayles's choices with similar aesthetic techniques chosen by previous filmmakers.I also tie these formal strategies to the larger thematic and political concerns of the film, arguing that the bravura transitions reveal the interconnectedness of urban life in a way that standard Hollywood practice cannot.Sayles’s community politics are irretrievably bound up with his economic mode of filmmaking, but the visual style of each particular community portrait depends a nexus of factors, including his collaborative approach and his understanding of a community’s particularity.


City of Hope shows how graft, personal influence, and family obligation are the building materials used to construct an American city.It traces the way that a development deal is made to level a slum and build a high-rent condominium complex.The political machine seizes upon several seemingly chance events – a racially motivated mugging entangled with allegations of homosexuality, an inept burglary of an electronics store – and makes these the fulcrum for bringing about the development deal.Using the leverage provided by these events, the political operators exploit family and community ties for their own purposes.Fathers make deadly deals with the devil to protect their sons from prosecution, and politicians compound lie upon lie to gain a little ground. The bad guys and the good guys both play the same game: the local politics of expediency.Characters take advantage of a situation and try to exploit it for their own advancement or to further their cause.Mob furor over a mugging can become the spark that ignites positive political change if one plays it correctly, or a petty crime can create the opportunity for riches if one tweaks the players properly.What is doomed in this portrait is the politics of principle.Well-meaning citizens trying to hold onto their values become complicit with murder.A junior politician learns that he must compromise his high moral ground if he is ever to achieve any real effectiveness. 

In order to transform these ordinary events into political forces, we must have a community so interrelated that even the most insignificant events can trigger a response from others in the network.Actions ripple across the surface of HudsonCity, spreading from passerby to passerby, and Sayles conveys this connection by doing what he calls "trades."[1]Cinematographer Robert Richardson's Steadicam follows a set of characters until the camera "trades" its emphasis and begins to follow an entirely different conversation or action, often in the same shot.This carves individual scenes into dramatically separable mini-scenes involving different casts of characters.City of Hope's camera performs an intricate dance with the characters, trading partners over and over.Like a formal series of pas de deux, Sayles's staging is comprised of a set of simple maneuvers which, when used in different configurations, can provide an enormous number of expressive possibilities.

The dominant staging move involves two characters (or sets of characters) walking in opposite directions, passing each other.The camera takes advantage of this brief sharing of space and moves to follow the newly met characters.Often this "passing" move is staged in deep space with the characters moving toward and away from the camera.For instance, early on in the film we see Jeanette (Gloria Foster) walking down the street away from the camera, ignoring the obvious flirting from Levonne (Frank Faison) at the community center.As their interchange falters, Jeanette passes City Councilman Wynn (Joe Morton), who is moving toward the camera, preparing to speak to Levonne, and the camera now stays with Wynn for his next conversation scene.

On multiple occasions, Sayles does this passing maneuver several times in a single location, going back and forth trading conversation partners, showing how these characters' lives overlap unwittingly.For instance, one scene begins by following Asteroid (David Strathairn), a mentally ill man, as he shouts and walks down the street.As Wynn passes him (walking toward the camera), he glances at the pathetic figure, and then the camera begins to follow Wynn.Then as Wynn walks up the street, he glances at two women (Maggie Renzi and Marianne Leone) who are passing by, loudly haranguing two police officers (Jude Ciccolella and Jaime Tirelli), and the camera starts to trail the complaining women.

The passing maneuver duplicates and extends one of the basic experiences of being in a city:the sideways glance.It is acceptable to look briefly at the crazy homeless guy or the loud Italian housewives, but one cannot stare without making contact with a stranger, which can be unsettling or even sometimes potentially dangerous.To walk down the street in a modern American city is to be constantly aware that there are odd or intriguing or frightening characters all around us.We intuit that some of these "characters" we pass on an urban street must have interesting stories, but we cannot allow ourselves to pursue these stories in the hurried rush of urban life. We know that there are a million stories in the naked city, but we cannot follow them.City of Hope takes this intuition and elaborates it, allowing us to follow these characters' lives instead of merely glancing at their faces. The passing maneuver in City of Hope gives us a sense of what it would be like to wander from story to story, a distracted spectator switching from one narrative to another.The shifts in perspective are naturalized by these movements, making Sayles's narrative orchestration seem like simply accidental crossings of passersby.

Another mode of city life (in addition to the exchanges of passerby) is exemplified by the traveler who flits from one thing to another in rapid succession.A jogger, for instance, moves quickly through the urban space, covering a great deal of ground without being able to linger in any one place.(In some ways, the jogger is Baudelaire's flaneur[2] passing by urban sights too quickly to be able to shop)Not surprisingly, Sayles also uses versions of this figure to weave together his urban tableau.Les (Bill Raymond), the jogger who resumes running to overcome his fear after being mugged, roams the streets, providing a useful connective to help spectators move from one space to another.Les runs past a police car, and we linger on the car, noticing that Mike (Anthony John Denison) is spying on his ex-wife Angela's (Barbara Williams) window.We follow his gaze into the apartment where Angela is engaging in her first sexual encounter with Nick (Vincent Spano).Les's jogging also leads us past an arsonist disguised as a repairman, and we stay with the arsonist as he enters the soon-to-be-torched slum building.

The other traveler who structurally allows Sayles to flit from conversation to conversation is Asteroid, the lunatic who incessantly babbles as he lurches chaotically through city streets.When the poor people displaced by the slum fire gather in a makeshift emergency center, Asteroid is there, repetitively shouting, "We need help!"We follow him until we trip across a conversation between Levonne and Jeanette about the bureaucratic paperwork.Asteroid then crosses in front of them, and we follow him as he travels, shouting, "Why settle for less when you can have it all?"He confronts a startled social service worker, and we stay with her as Councilman Wynn approaches her and learns about the arson.At first, Asteroid seems to be no more than a narratively efficient excuse to move from one conversation to another without Sayles having to cut.However, as we encounter him again and again obsessively repeating dialogue and cliches from television commercials, he begins to function more like City of Hope's wild-haired prophet or its schizophrenic Greek chorus.Phrases like "We need help" and "Why settle for less when you can have it all?" become commentary on the dire straits of the American dream and the shallowness of a consumerist society in which the power to purchase defines the citizenry, not an interest in the collective good.Like so much in this film that initially seems tangential, this traveler serves much more than his initial narrative function.

As the brief description of the scene in the makeshift emergency center indicates, Sayles does much of his trading between characters in public places.Restaurants, bars, police stations, and parties are places where a cross-section of the community congregates, all with different purposes in mind.Such crowded spaces make it easier for Sayles to unite the characters with his camera, and these scenes truly showcase the stunning choreography of actors and camera that Sayles manages in City of Hope.One example follows the young delinquent Ramirez into a bar.We walk with him until we trade to follow Zip (Todd Graff) and Bobby (Jace Alexander), who meet up with Nick, who is eyeing Angela lustfully.The camera moves with Zip as he goes to the bar, and we reencounter Ramirez.The two go back to the bathroom to do a drug deal, and we pick up construction foreman Riggs (Chris Cooper) who approaches Nick for a conversation about his brother who died in Vietnam.Nick leaves this conversation, and we see him go pay off his bookie, the arsonist/mechanic Carl (played by Sayles).Following Nick again, we then pick up the now coked-up Zip who reencounters Bobby, and the two move onstage to begin singing.Sayles uses these public places as ways to get an incredible amount of narrative business taken care of in a superbly efficient manner.

In so doing, Sayles also underlines the importance of public spaces to the community.They provide places for the urban "tribes," as the director refers to them, to congregate. (Crowdus and Quart, 145-6)Spaces such as police stations and bars provide opportunities for chance encounters to occur between tribes.An urban community depends on having such neutral spaces where the members' stories may intermingle, conflict, and resolve.

I have outlined a few of the most important ways that director Sayles and cinematographer Richardson "trade" perspectives among the multiple protagonists, but there are many more:using a single unmoving character as an anchor in space and bringing various characters into that space to interact; using sound to cue a switch in perspective; changing the visual dominant from foreground to background or vice versa; and so on.City of Hope is a veritable catalog of inventive ways to move our attention from one character to another.It is not, however, an infinite catalog; examining some of the choices Sayles does not make helps to clarify why he chooses the particular devices that he does.

The film is full of attention-getting transitions, but still Sayles avoids certain snazzy ways to change character perspective.The camera rarely floats away from characters (a la Wings of Desire) to show us other characters without some strong diegetic motivation (figure movement, sound, eyeline, and so on).The bar scene described above provides one such rare example in which the camera simply leaves Ramirez to anticipate and find Zip and Bobby.There are also few matches-on-action to take us to another time and space (the only significant one is when the film cuts from Angela and Nick having sex to Wynn and Reesha [Angela Bassett] in bed).Nor does the film generally give us an anticipatory cue of what is to come and then cut to a thematically resonant object.One example would be when Mrs. Ramirez (Miriam Colon) commiserates with Laurie (Gina Gershon) about her demanding relatives, ending the conversation by saying simply, "It's family."Sayles then cuts immediately to framed family pictures of a younger Nick and Laurie, revealing that we have begun another scene with Nick perusing old family photos.By and large, in City of Hope Sayles eschews cutting based on theme and action.

He avoids these transitions only partly because these devices emphasize the heavy hand of the director.Throughout the film Sayles emphasizes contiguity as the main principle underlying in his transitions from one protagonist to another.When he cannot arrange to trade characters in relatively contiguous space, he tends to cut to the next set of characters using a rather unremarkable cut.The crossing passersby, the jogging traveler, and the crowded public space are favored people and places because these stagings require that the characters share space.Sayles wants to emphasize there's no avoiding bumping into other "tribes" in HudsonCity.As much as you may want to isolate yourself from homeless madmen, dangerous muggers, or whiny housewives, there's no way to do it in an urban setting.

These collisions initially may appear to be inconsequential.We seem to trade perspectives for no other reason than having bumped into another character.When Councilman Wynn passes two African American boys, we leave his negotiation for computer access for low income citizens to listen to the boys' inane conversation as they play video games.Only later do we realize that Sayles's naturalistically motivated but seemingly arbitrary decisions of whom to follow serve larger narrative purposes.

Such nonclassical changes of character perspective can provide surprisingly complex moral insights.For example, when Sayles follows two African American boys, Tito and Desmond, walking down the street at night, suddenly they are thrown against the wall and intimidated by two policemen.Our instinct is to side with the boys, who were doing nothing more suspicious than being two black boys walking down the street.We want to follow them to hear their reaction at being so roughly handled, but instead we trade to the policemen.After the confrontation ends, we hear the policemen discussing their doubts about whether they should have searched them at all.The public bluster of the aggressive cops suddenly shifts to reveal their private doubts.In a similar example, the policemen harass and threaten a mother and child living in a condemned building.We then follow the cops as they descend the slum stairs, only to learn that one of the policemen grew up in that same building and only left it due to the money his father earned by running numbers.Sayles’s choices of character perspectives initially seem to be driven solely by the coincidences of contiguity, but as we learn more about the community, we discover that his stylistic choices also serve narrative, political, and moral goals.

City of Hope wants to give us the feeling that we could follow potentially any character we bump into, no matter how unimportant they might seem to the narrative at the moment.After the film builds up our expectation that characters will be traded, it then sometimes sidesteps an opportunity to trade perspectives, making us aware of the road not taken.As we eavesdrop on Nick’s and Angela’s late night conversation in an empty street, we follow their eyelines as they both notice a passing police car.Given the stylistic norms established thus far, we could easily have transferred our full attention to the police officers (perhaps even Angela’s jealous ex-husband Mike), but in this instance we stay with Nick and Angela.The expectation that the spectator will be asked to follow almost anyone who passes by radically changes the way we interpret the space.As such, passing cars and pedestrians are not ignored in the way that we ignore the extras in a mainstream film.We slowly learn that there is no such thing as a truly secondary character in this film.

Characters that seem unimportant when introduced to us soon return to play crucial narrative roles.The best example here is that of the two African American boys, Tito and Desmond.As mentioned earlier, we meet them in Mad Anthony’s electronics store, where Anthony (Josh Mostel) and Councilman Wynn are discussing computer access for Wynn’s constituents.As they walk they pass by Tito and Desmond playing video games, and Wynn and Anthony move out of the frame while we linger with Tito and Desmond for a bit of conversation that has little plot significance.Finally Wynn and Anthony return to the frame, stealing our attention away from the boys.We pass the boys again hanging out in a night street as we follow a conversation between Reesha and her brother Franklin (Daryl Edwards).Once again the camera's attention is directed toward these boys, who make suggestive comments to passing women.There seems to be no narrative reason to be interested in this pair, but they become the crux of one of the film's major plotlines when their mugging of Les, the white jogger, ignites a community uproar.This sordid event, covered with multiple lies, provides Councilman Wynn the opportunity to change from an idealistic, ineffective politician to a practical leader with real power.Thus, these minor characters become major players.Without them the plot of City of Hope could not move forward.

It is this leveling of the traditional character hierarchy of mainstream cinema that is most radical about City of Hope.The camera’s tendency to be seduced into following passersby alters our expectations concerning who is a “lead” character.Because this radical equality is conveyed visually, this distinguishes City of Hope from other celebrated multiple protagonist films.For instance, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which has been compared to City of Hope, (Ryan, 158) is similarly committed to giving a complex portrait of a society, but it does so without systematically connecting its characters through visual transitions.Without this tight connective tissue that binds the characters together, Nashville does not convey the sense that every character’s slightest move could potentially have political ramifications upon others’ lives.Sayles'sSteadicam "trades" in City of Hope are not merely bravura flourishes; the style makes the political structure of the film possible.[3]

To see exactly how City of Hope uses its style, it is more useful to compare the film to its art-cinema precursors:Max Ophuls’s La Ronde and Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty.These films use related visual techniques, but they do so for significantly different purposes.Looking at how these films trade perspectives among characters will help us see better what Sayles accomplishes with his technique in City of Hope.Sayles humbly asserts that the style in City of Hope is “hardly original,” pointing to the opening sequence shot in Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil and to Ophuls’s La Ronde. (Baron, 134)But Touch of Evil’s initial sequence shot follows a single non-human "character" (a bomb) without the elaborate passing back-and-forth of perspectives we see in City of Hope, and the long sequence shot operates as a showy, independent opening moment instead of structuring the visual style of the film as a whole.La Ronde, however, is a more complicated example of narrative structure wedded to visual transitions.

Ophuls’s La Ronde is set up as a series of romantic entanglements in which, after spending a moment with a particular couple, we follow one character in the couple as he/she engages in an intimate moment with a different lover.Thus an interlude between a philandering husband and a young woman is followed by a rendezvous between the woman and a poet, whereupon that poet proceeds to a romantic scene with an actress, who then seduces a count, and so on.The baton is passed from one couple to the next, always having one character in common to anchor our understanding.To guide us along this narrative trajectory, La Ronde also has a superdiegetic master of ceremonies, a character (played by Anton Walbrook) who declares that he is neither author, announcer, nor passerby but rather the manager of the carousel of love.This master of ceremonies directly addresses the audience, announcing the next scene’s participants (“The Maid and the Young Man”), but he also weaves in and out of various diegetic spaces, interacting with the characters, now serving as a maitre d’, at other times as a coach driver.The scenes are doubly glued together by the connecting lover and by our metaphysical narrator-host.In so doing, Ophuls makes explicit his metaphoric point:that love is like a merry-go-round.His lyrical camera moves passing from one character to another invite us to ask what is the connection between this couple and the previous one, and the master of ceremonies overtly gives us the answer:that romance is an amusement, a joyous ride that cannot last.

It would appear that using character “trades” encourages the audience to step outside the immediate plot concerns to find larger connections, either by pondering Ophuls’s metaphoric carousel of love or by discerning the network of connection and coercion that runs a small city.Because Ophuls’s film is constructed in circular, linear fashion (the soldier in the first couple salutes the count in the last couple, bringing the film’s conclusion back to its beginning), it is more concerned with elaborating the overall metaphor of the carousel than it is with constructing a complex society.Characters interact, they pass the baton to the next character, and they disappear from the film.[4]In HudsonCity, however, characters do not conveniently disappear from other people’s lives.They keep bumping into each other, and these conflicts give much more particularity to the characters than the generic components of Ophuls’s metaphoric wheel of love (characters who are often referred to as type:“The Girl and the Soldier,” “The Young Woman and Her Husband”).Sayles takes advantage of La Ronde’s metaphor-building technique to build a City that stands in for many real urban spaces.Visually intertwining the narrative threads creates more possibilities for conflict and gives his characters complexity that Ophuls’s generic figures lack.

The other canonic art cinema film that passes visual perspective from one character to another contiguous figure is Luis Buñuel's The Phantom of Liberty.Although Sayles does not cite Buñuel's film as an overt influence, the film demonstrates another instructive alternative for how the "trading" technique might be used.Like City of Hope, The Phantom of Liberty will leave one character in mid-storyline to follow another character who crosses his/her path.As Linda Williams notes, the physical trajectory of characters "has been translated into narrative trajectory, as if the restless generative force that propels the film's narrative cannot resist the impulse to follow a physical movement." (162)We drift into a character's storyline and then abandon it for another passing character and his/her story.A man goes to a doctor for diagnosis, but the appointment is interrupted by a nurse saying she must leave to visit her sick father, and we follow the nurse, never returning to the patient.After a Buñuellian trip to the country where the nurse encounters a military tank hunting foxes, a group of poker playing monks, and a dominatrix couple, the nurse picks up a hitchhiker, and we follow him, never actually getting to the nurse's sick father.Susan Suleiman argues that The Phantom of Liberty operates based on a "principle of infinite suspension:every sequence is suspended by the intervention of yet another sequence," (287) with no closure for virtually all of the plotlines. 

In this way, Buñuel uses the "trading characters" technique for two of his most characteristic purposes.By abandoning plotlines and never returning to them,[5] Buñuel once again violates the conventions of classical narration and uses this frustration to make the audience grasp the very conventionality of these narrational norms. In addition, the filmmaker wants to attack one of his favorite targets:the fatuousness of the bourgeoisie.As Joan Mellen notes, "Buñuel follows each character only to discard him when one more promising -- that is, revelatory of bourgeois intransigence -- happens along." (321)The film targets a running catalog of bourgeois foibles, including sexual perversions, irrational denials, and prohibited desires, specifically abandoning a storyline in order to poke fun at yet another class conceit.

Thus Buñuel takes advantage of the way that the "trading characters" technique encourages us to reach for broader associations between characters, as noted with La Ronde and City of Hope.But The Phantom of Liberty does not follow La Ronde's example by presenting self-contained episodes with classical beginnings and endings.By leaving characters in the middle of plotlines and never reencountering them again, The Phantom of Liberty flaunts its violations of classical norms, frustrating our desires for closure.While City of Hope also leaves its characters at will, it continually returns to them, updating us on their stories.Sayles takes advantage of classical narrative closure to show the effects of characters' political choices.He does so without sacrificing the potential of the "trading characters" technique to make a broader political statement, as demonstrated by his art-cinema precursors.The result is a blend of the art cinema's ability to make more abstract statements with the classical cinema's narrative power. 

Although beautifully handled, the Steadicam trading of characters in City of Hope does not feel as innovative today as it did in 1991.To find earlier points of comparison for City of Hope's visual style, we had to look far outside of mainstream Hollywood to Ophuls and Buñuel;now we are used to seeing variations on this technique weekly on The West Wing and ER.The point is not that the "trading characters" technique necessarily carries a particular set of politics with it, but that a key aspect of Sayles's politics -- the radical equality of characters -- is made possible by this technique.ER and The West Wing may use similar visual transitions, but they do so within an economic and narrative structure that makes Sayles's vision of community impossible to convey.It is the combination of technique, narrative structure, and industrial film practice that makes Sayles's HudsonCity a place where everyone, high and low, rich and poor, is deeply interrelated.In HudsonCity, there are no stars.

On ER and The West Wing (and in mainstream Hollywood film), we are always aware who the stars are, and the camera follows them.We know that we're supposed to watch Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, not the boys they pass on the street.Extras are literally part of the background, a living form of set decoration.We are meant to believe that the stars are simply more talented, more important, more interesting than ordinary people, instead of concentrating on the way the narrative rather arbitrarily confers this form of privilege upon them.City of Hope does not let us off so easily.Sayles's emphasis on contiguity as the guiding principle for following characters makes us realize that in this film anyone -- any passing jogger or loiterer or madman -- can become a major character.The technique levels the traditional foreground/background relations of mainstream cinema that keep stars privileged above all else.[6]

This distinction between stars and extras is deeply institutionalized in Hollywood practice, even to the point that actors and extras have different labor representation.To attempt a project such as City of Hope within the economic structure of the star system would be almost unthinkable.Imagine the cost of hiring a well known actor for each of the dozens of crucial parts in City of Hope and then paying each of them to be present for all the elaborately choreographed scenes in public places.In order to portray this kind of community, Sayles must resort to his preferred strategy of relatively low-budget independent filmmaking.Hiring Joe Morton and Vincent Spano to participate in these massive group scenes is not quite the same as hiring Tom Hanks and Jim Carrey.The community portrayal here could only exist outside of Hollywood's dominant economic structure.

The aesthetics of classical Hollywood also makes it difficult for the form to portray true community.Most Hollywoodfilms center on a single individual and his/her struggles to achieve a goal.The musical and the romance are the primary exceptions, broadening Hollywood's focus from the individual to the couple.Antagonists are not faceless forces such as poverty, racism, and the government, but instead these forces are embodied in a single evil landlord, a particular racist, a specific politician.To defeat the lone antagonist is to overcome the entire social problem.When Hollywood does portray a stronger sense of community, it usually shows us one person's traversal through that community.It sometimes depicts a team, a group of people whose actions all move the plot forward.When it does show such a team, it usually gives them a common goal, giving the overall story a unifying singular thrust (e.g., The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible).John Sayles recognizes the way this form validates American ideals of individualism, the romantic notion that one's own actions propel the universe, and he chafes at the restriction.[7]

An occasional Hollywood maverick may produce a rare exception to this trend in mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, and by comparing City of Hope to one such film -- Lawrence Kasdan's Grand Canyon, which also uses elaborate visual devices to move between various plotlines – we can see how Sayles’s deeply interrelated stylistic and economic structures make his distinctive political portrait of a city possible. 

Just as Kasdan's The Big Chill (1983) provides an interesting study in contrast to Sayles's Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980), Grand Canyon seems to be examining concerns that are similar to Sayles's in City of Hope.Both films (each released in 1991) deal with the fragility of human connections, given the declining state of race relations in American cities, and both follow a number of characters (Grand Canyon has six prominent ones) who accidentally bump into each other.But Grand Canyon is centered around Mack (Kevin Kline), the figure whose missteps provide an (assumedly) white middle class audience with an entree into the darker urban environment.Mack is the figure whose well-intentioned interventions cause the other characters' lives to move forward.If Mack does not interfere with a character's life (as is the case with Davis [Steve Martin]), that character's life does not progress.City of Hope, lacking the economic star power of Kasdan's film, has no equivalent to this narrative privileging of one character.

In addition, Grand Canyon tends to move from one character to another with different stylistic devices than in City of Hope.Instead of linking characters through contiguity, Kasdan emphasizes the disconnect between subcultures in this modern world.Kasdan frequently uses police helicopters and television sets as his most frequent transition devices, showing that impersonal forces bind these characters together.All these characters share is that they watch the same programs on television and that they in turn that are watched by the passive eye of law enforcement.Bumping into someone from a vastly different part of Los Angeles is not an inevitable occurrence in Grand Canyon, as it is in the overlapping tribal culture of HudsonCity.Such collisions are infrequent in Grand Canyon, and so when Mack strays into Simon's (Danny Glover) part of the city, the meeting is momentous, a rare moment of personal connection.By contrast, City of Hope's structure makes it difficult to tell which of the multiple collisions will have important ramifications on the community.And so Kasdan's stylistic choices help him portray the grand canyon that exist between the communities;Sayles's aesthetic choices allow him to represent urban tribes that cannot avoid invading each other's turf.Kasdan's film blends Hollywood's individualistic politics with a style that emphasizes the disconnect between those characters to create a metropolis of rootless souls, not tribes. 

To find comparable portraits of communities in American filmmaking, the obvious place to look is within Sayles’s other group films.If Sayles is so concerned with showing the politics of groups, and if the character “trades” show interconnections so well, why does he use the technique only in City of Hope?Why don’t Lone Star, Matewan, Sunshine State, Eight Men Out, Men with Guns, or Return of the Secaucus Seven switch characters similarly?The answer depends on some of the forces discussed earlier (Sayles’s authorship and politics, his economic mode of filmmaking, the content of the film, Steadicam technology) and one other factor:key production personnel.

Although John Sayles’s work is frequently considered to be visually unremarkable, this is clearly not the case (as City of Hope demonstrates).It is more accurate to say that the visual style of his films vary widely, based partly on his funding and his choice of cinematographer.For instance, increased studio backing, combined with the estimable talents of cinematographer Michael Ballhaus, give the elegantly lit Baby, It’s You a sheen unlike any other Sayles film, and former documentarian Haskell Wexler lends Limbo a stark, sparse feel.Cinematographer Robert Richardson's suggestion to shoot City of Hope in a widescreen format allowed him to foreground his expertise with the Steadicam, thus elaborating on techniques he used in their previous collaboration (Eight Men Out).[8]Sayles’s authorship and Richardson’s execution were both fundamental components of City of Hope’s distinctive style.

But why didn’t future Sayles films use the contiguous trading technique, once Sayles had mastered the Steadicam technology?Why show this particular community in this manner, and not other Sayles communities?Because City of Hope is Sayles’s most urban film to date.SunshineState, Matewan, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Lone Star take place in significantly smaller areas, communities where small town ties (and frequently high school connections) still bind.To show that small towns are interconnected is a simple matter, given our American mythos of Mayberry and Grovers Corners.To depict the American city as equally tied (unlike the more typical portrait of city life as isolation, as shown in Grand Canyon) is more radical and requires a more radical technique.

Sayles’s authorship does not impose a consistent visual style across his films.Instead, Sayles (true to his community-oriented politics) varies the look of his films depending on his collaboration with key personnel, particularly the cinematographer.For most of his directorial career, Sayles has chosen to avoid the economic structures that come with major studio backing, and this mode of production allows him to portray communities as interconnected.But his style can also vary based on the kind of community he wishes to portray.To understand why City of Hope looks the way it does and has the politics of equality that it does, we must need to understand all these factors.

For Sayles, a community is not merely an aggregate of individuals; it is a network of bonds both small and large.Anyone can become a major player in the story of another person's life.In City of HopeSayles gives us a glimpse of how this alternate view of community can be portrayed in an urban setting.In order to do so, he must liberate both Hollywood's aesthetic and narrative strategies from their ties to the individual.As a result he depicts a city where people have unequal access to power but equal possibilities to change the course of human events.In HudsonCity, Sayles shows us a world in which truly anyone can be a star, a scapegoat, or a savior.

Works Cited

Baron, David.1999.Sayles Talk.In John Sayles:Interviews, 133-5.

Baudelaire, Charles.1964.The Painter of Modern Life.In Baudelaire as a Literary Critic, ed. and trans. Lois Boe Hyslop and Francis E. Hyslop, Jr, 290-300.University Park,PA:PennsylvaniaStateUniversity Press.

Benjamin, Walter.1968.On Some Motifs in Baudelaire. In Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn, 155-200.New York:Schoken Books.

Carson, Diane, ed.1999.John Sayles:Interviews.Jackson:University Press of Mississippi.

Crowdus, Gary, and Leonard Quart.1999.Where the Hope Is:An Interview with John Sayles.In John Sayles:Interviews, 145-155.

Mellen, Joan.1978.The Phantom of Liberty:Further Investigations into the Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.In The World of Luis Buñuel:Essays in Criticism.New York:OxfordUniversity Press.

Ryan, Jack.1998.John Sayles, Filmmaker:A Critical Study of the Independent Writer-Director; with a Filmography and a Bibliography.JeffersonNC:McFarland.

Smith, Gavin.1996.John Sayles:I Don’t Want to Blow Anything by People.Film Comment 32.3 (May-June): 57-68.

Suleiman, Susan.Freedom and Necessity:Narrative Structure in The Phantom of Liberty.Quarterly Review of Film Studies 3.3 (Summer):277-95.

Williams, Linda.1981.Figures of Desire:A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Film.Urbana:University of Illinois Press.


[1]This is the term Sayles used (Smith, 67) in the script for describing how the camera changes from following one character to following another.
[2] Also see Walter Benjamin's (1968) influential essay, "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire."
[3] Sayles describes the political structure of the film this way:
It's about people thinking that they are in these little enclaves, but they really are stuck together.What they do affects somebody else, even if it's like you send your kid to private school instead of public school -- it may seem very personal to you, but it's a political act whether you like it or not.That was the point of City of Hope. (Smith, 63)
[4] At times they linger briefly in the subsequent scene.For instance in the scene between the poet and the young woman, we hear the couple making plans for the woman to meet him outside the stage door after a theater performance.In the next scene, detailing the love between the poet and the actress, we get a glimpse of the young woman waiting by the stage door for a lover who will never come.Afterwards, she disappears from the film as the carousel of love continues.
[5] The only plotline he returns to involves a police investigation for a missing girl, and this is the only story that attains closure.Buñuel, of course, "solves" the puzzle in ways that make fun at the narrative conventions of the detective story.First, the "missing" girl is actually there all the time, but no one seems to notice her.When she at last is "found," the inspector begins to read a report detailing what happened to her, but he instead leaves during the recitation of the solution for another meeting, and we follow him, never learning the facts of the detective story.
[6] Sayles says that he told his actors that "Each of you, no matter what your piece in the puzzle is, we have to feel like that's a story worth following." (Smith, 60)
[7] One can envision a universe where Fred and Ethel are not merely Lucy's and Desi's sidekicks but are also the stars of a Fred and Ethel show, where Lucy and Desi play second fiddle.Spinoff television series such as Rhoda, Phyllis, Frazier, or Angel open up this possibility, but they rarely explore it.Key characters from the original series (such as Mary Richards, Sam Malone, or Buffy Summers) almost never appear on the spinoff show, and so these series often begin with the spinoff character moving away from the original community.
[8]City of Hope's trades have their origin in the sequence from Eight Men Out where the characters pop in and out of a hotel corridor.See Smith (67-8) for more details on the Richardson/Sayles collaboration.