Monday, August 3, 2009

Thinking about "Lone Star"

PBS aired John Sayles' "Lone Star" (1996) on Saturday night, and I found myself thinking about it again this evening. It's a great film, and while not well known it is generally well thought-of. Starring Chris Cooper, Elizabeth Pena, Kris Kristofferson and a generally terrific ensemble cast, "Lone Star" is the sort of movie that elegantly explores incredibly complex social issues without attempting to oversimplify or preach a particular moral outcome.

In an interview Sayles briefly explains the intersecting themes of history and borders within the film. In the fictional Texas border town of Frontera, where the film opens on the investigation of a murder that took place 40 years earlier, no one is completely innocent. At the same time, all the major characters (with the possible exception of the dead man) are clearly just trying to find their way -- to find themselves, to understand their "place" in society and finally, to choose whether they will accept the roles assigned them: to know "which side of the line" they are on, and why. All the major moral and social barriers are transgressed here in some degree: interracial relationships, incestuous relationships, family relations, legal prohibitions. A soldier fails a drug test; one young Hispanic man is jailed and another killed for "being in the wrong place at the wrong time;" a sheriff's deputy takes the law into his own hands; immigrants defy the border patrol; blacks and Native Americans engage in both racial violence and intermarriage; a prominent citizen rejects his familial legacy; adultery is committed, and the list goes on. No one is perfect. No one can stay on his or her side of the line for long.

The film shows us the hopelessness of moral absolutism without romanticizing anarchy. The characters who are fairly or unfairly accused of "transgressing" the boundaries have all suffered in some way as a consequence. As they mature, their suffering takes on new meaning for them; they are asked to move past bitterness, or fear, and to embrace the cause of their suffering in a new way. I suppose that is what I find compelling, along with the broader themes.

Some people never mature -- they never escape the role assigned to them by chance, never even find the emotional distance with which to see themselves as having choices, however limited those choices may be. But as Sayles shows us in the film, once we see ourselves outside the social structure, and choose to sidestep social norms, we pay a price in isolation. All of the characters who transgress in this film are lonely people in some degree. They lack loving support, or close family, or intimacy; they live alone with their secrets. Secrets everyone knows, as it turns out, but even outsiders participate in a kind of collusion that allows the society to maintain predictable daily operations. Even those excluded from social acceptance honor the social contract. Until they don't.

I get caught up in the story of the film's romantic protagonists, high school sweethearts struggling to understand what has kept them apart for 20 years or more. "True love" versus a society that wants to keep the lovers apart, for good reason as it turns out. But even the ultimate proscription loses relevance over time, because things change, people change.

I tend towards relationships that kick at societal restrictions. It's not an honorable calling at all times. I've experienced consequences and isolation, and yet I'm still struggling to mature; to figure out who I am and who I want to be. "Lone Star" is full of "pillars of society" -- the cop, the teacher, the successful business person, the mayor, the military officer. None of them are innocent, none of them are quite happy in their roles. There are also parts for the rest of us: the waiters, the kids, the day laborers, the minorities, the private, the Indian, the subordinate. All of them are moving towards fulfillment in a hopeful way, and trying to escape the darkness of oppression and uncertainty. Society advances or regresses along with us.

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