John Sayles Sighting

John Sayles

My trip to New York included a John Sayles sighting.

And it’s not the first one.

Sayles, who is among cinema’s most thoughtful filmmakers, came to Portland last year to talk about his book, A Moment in the Sun, set in turn-of-the century North America.

I arrived early to find a seat at Powell’s Book, which is usually packed when celebrity writers come to town.

Sayles read passages and talked about his film project, Amigo, set in the Philippines in 1900.

In writing for the New York Times, A. O. Scott says Sayles “resembles a left-wing, baby-boom John Ford, spinning fables of the American character out of the threads of myth, memory and ideology.”

Sayles’ films are noteworthy for their political and ideological landscape, and he also makes them personal: the characters crawl under our skins, like the protagonist in Brother from Another Planet (1985), one of my favorite films.

Joe Morton plays an alien who crash-lands on earth, escaping his planet’s tyranny and performing good deeds in New York City.

Sayles plays a fellow alien in the film, a goofy-looking brown-shirt on the prowl for the escapee. Unfamiliar with local customs, Sayles’ character orders at the local bar a beer. With ice.

Nearly three decades later Sayles looks more seasoned, his hair nearly white.

I recognized him immediately as he left a shop at the Newark Airport, and I walked over to talk with him. I wanted him to know that his films are stunningly authentic, and that I appreciated his work.

When Sayles came to Portland, someone in the Powell’s crowd asked if any of his films made money. Only one, Eight Men Out, garnered financial success.

You have to respect someone whose life-work makes a statement about the intangibles: humanity, values, ethics. And he keeps plugging away at projects that have meaning. And depth.

As I approached Sayles in the airport, a dove flew past my head.

Seems a bird found its way through airport security.

The bird soared through the corridor, and when I turned back to Sayles, he and his companion left for their departure gate. I missed my opportunity to chat.

But I can still view his magnificent films.

[Photo from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in authenticity, cinema, journalism, writing and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to John Sayles Sighting

  1. conrad says:

    ha ha ha,,my brother fred and i ,,fred lives in portland with his wife sandy,,dr. and any way fred and i really love brother from another planet,,that and the gods must be crazy are two of our favorite movies. well cool you saw mr. sayles.


  2. Jonathan Franzen ‘s recent New Yorker essay about individualism and the origins/ evolution of the novel (and, perhaps most controversially, about David Foster Wallace‘s suicide) has me thinking about reading as “pleasure” versus reading as “work.” The reading and writing of (English) novels en masse coincided, as Franzen notes, with the “dramatic increase in leisure”; but here I am, along with others who have chosen the writer’s vocation, thinking of both as (quite difficult) work. Somewhere herein lie the roots of why the majority of writers will never make their living off their writing. We live, it would seem, in a culture where work and pleasure are not “supposed” to overlap.


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