Our Man in Miami: An Evening with John Sayles

Story, baby. That’s where we come from, that’s where we’ll go, that’s what we are. It was also both subject and predicate for last Thursday night’s “Evening” at O Cinema. Why? Because the man of the hour has made his name telling story—in film and in fiction and in fact. Hell, when it comes to John Sayles, story is the nothing but.

The evening began with a screening of Sayles’ Amigo, and ended with me interviewing the director before the sold-out house. I say interview, but really it was more akin to me summoning a few sparkable Qs and allowing the story-mad iconoclast to regale the crowd with some elaborate As. I’d say “Jack London," and Sayles would be off on a tour that covered everything from the Klondike to box cars and boxing. I’d mention Gentleman Jim Corbett, and Sayles would come back not just with nuggets of the pugilist’s wild life; he’d link it clear through to the "unforgivably black" world champ Jack Johnson. No matter what I brought up, Sayles saw a way to see, feel, and share its narrative. After a while, it was all I could do to wedge in an occasional “amazing.”

My good pal Irvine Welsh, who’s hard at work on a prequel to his landmark Trainspotting, and who himself is no stranger to story, got word I’d be facing off with Sayles and gave me a nice way to start off the tete-a-tete. "That guy is a true legend and a genius and my ultimate hero in cinema. And I’m not in the slightest bit embarrassed if you tell him that."

Despite being one of the most enthusiastic and supportive creatives I’ve ever met, Welsh doesn’t offer praise without damn good cause. Furthermore, as anyone who’s read any of his books well knows, he’s a formidable talent. For someone of Welsh’s stature to wax so breathlessly is unequivocal proof that Sayles is considered a giant among storytellers. Of course, my fine friend’s worthy words were by no means the first time a mighty mind spilled superlatives over Sayles; they will hardly be the last.   

Also in attendance that night at O Cinema was none other William Kennedy, who’s been known to walk a wily narrative beat of his own. The Man from Albany, who was in town for the Miami Book Fair promoting his terrific Chango’s Beads and Two-Tone Shoes, had breakfast with Sayles earlier in the day, and it must’ve been some meal. You could say Kennedy’s presence at the screening was kinda like gettin’ the nod from a sage, a remarkable instance by any definition. While Sayles may have been honored (how could he not be?), he also seemed to take it in stride. I’m guessing here, but it’s likely Sayles sees Kennedy as both a peer (as he should), and as another thread in the great big story in the sky.

Like Sayles, who covered the Cuban exile experience in Los Gusanos, and makes it through Cuba in his monumental A Moment in the Sun, Kennedy seems to have a thing for our region. While Chango’s Beads sidles up to Castro, Sayles’ Moment goes all the way back to the Spanish-American War. Both masters have an uncanny knack at making history (read: story) come alive, no matter what the period. And to have been in the room such titans was an honor I’ll be dining out on for some time to come. Then again, it only stands to damn good reason that two storytellers would leave me with such a kickass story to tell. 

Photos by Jeffrey Delannoy

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