When I heard about the recent death of Christopher Hitchens, my first thought was that one of the last of the public intellectuals was gone. Now I think I had it wrong. Partly it’s because I had a chance to look over his body of work and found that, unlike his idol George Orwell, Hitchens produced little of lasting value. But mainly it’s because I had a chance to meet and talk with the real thing, and Hitch came off looking pretty weak in contrast.
So, why so hard on Hitchens? After all, the man had range: books about Thomas Jefferson and Tom Paine, literary criticism, atheist polemics. But the history books added nothing that was new to the thinking on their subjects. The literary criticism was smooth and chatty, but once again did little to stir things up. The advocacy for atheism was a welcome blast of fresh air in an environment dominated by crap piety, but God Is Not Great is really just a more stylish dance along a path already paved by Sam Harris.
The biggest problem with Hitchens is that for all his impiety and wit, the man was a preening fool on the Iraq war. Too may intellectuals reacted to 9/11 by deciding to heave good sense and caution over the side, but Hitchens — by virtue of his access to big media and his lucrative perch at Vanity Fair — did more damage than any of them in the realm of public opinion. His bufoonery was made all the more grotesque by his almost demented hatred for the Clintons; having excoriated the 42nd president as a lying sleaze, Hitchens then signed on with his successor, a man whose character and morals a tapeworm would consider beneath contempt. Launched with lies and planned by corrupt dolts, the Iraq war was a new low for American foreign policy, and yet its moral squalor and strategic idiocy barely stirred a whisper of a doubt for the scourge of the Clintons.
The Iraq war was a disaster for his adopted country, but his support of it made Hitchens a regular presence on Fox News, where his podium smarts and ability to speak in complete sentences made him look like an eagle in an aviary full of deranged parrots. But while it was amusing to see him deck squawk-show palookas like Sean Hannity, it was hardly fitting work for man of his education. I’m afraid I have to side with the naysayers who appeared in the wake of the eulogies filed by the man’s many drinking buddies. For all their flash and attention-getting polemics, the works of Christopher Hitchens will not have much of a shelf life. Much has been made of his ability to crank out reams of articles and shelves of books while staying more or less continuously drunk, but from here that seems to make him nothing more than the thinking man’s Hunter S. Thompson.
A few days after Hitchens died, I had the pleasure of meeting and talking with John Sayles during an event sponsored by The Raconteur, the soon-to-be-closed bookstore in Metuchen. The evening was a two-fer, with a reception at the bookstore (during which he signed copies of his new novel, A Moment in the Sun) followed by a Q&A session and a screening of his latest film, Amigo, at the local Forum Theatre.
Sayles received a MacArthur foundation “Genius” grant, and it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate winner. After debuting in the Seventies with a highly praised novel and story collection, Sayles became a pioneering independent filmmaker with Return of the Secaucus Seven, and he has comfortably kept a foot in both the literary and film worlds ever since. Part of his charm is that he trained up for his independent work by writing B-movie scripts for schlock impresario Roger Corman, and it’s hard to convey the pleasurable shock of going to the local twin theater or drive-in with low expectations to see something like Piranha or The Howling, only to be greeted by smart dialogue, clever storytelling and plenty of hip in-jokes. Sayles has also filmed videos for Bruce Springsteen, and he continues to do script-doctoring (credited and otherwise) on films like The Spiderwick Chronicles.
Sayles is the most personable and chatty writer you would ever want to meet, with a down-to-earth manner and a bottomless supply of amusing anecdotes about Hollywood and the trials of being an independent filmmaker. Like any working screenwriter, Sayles has a boatload of unproduced screenplays, including an early run at Jurassic Park IV that sounded pretty neat (the story, which involved velociraptors genetically modified to serve as soldiers) but was scotched when a draft leaked on the Internet; and Night Skies, an SF horror film that split into ET and Poltergeist.
But it is for his own work that Sayles will be remembered, and rightly so. Matewan remains one of the most inspiring depictions of realistic physical courage I’ve ever seen, and Lone Star uses the discovery of a long-buried corpse to dig up layers of history and personal guilt in the disputed territory of Mexico’s border with America. Few children’s films are as charming as The Secret of Roan Inish, and few dramas are as deceptively scary as Limbo.
Amigo isn’t a top-tier Sayles epic like Matewan, but its subject — a village leader caught between guerrillas and American soldiers during the Philippine-American war in 1900 — is of a piece with his career-long penchant for telling the untold and little-known stories from American history. His low-key methods and disdain for stylistic flash lead many critics to dismiss him as a writer with a camera, but give me Sayles’ concern for integrity over, say, Martin Scorsese’s brain-dead showmanship in the historical travesty Gangs of New York.
For all the wingnut whining about liberals in Hollywood, there’s no question that Sayles’ firmly left-of-center political stance makes him an outsider. Mainstream directors like Steven Spielberg are happy to employ him for smart dialogue and ingenious genre storytelling, but Sayles was on his own when he wanted to tell the story of a violent coal-miner strike in West Virginia, or show political bloodshed in Latin America.
That commitment to integrity, and the surprising art that grows from it, makes John Sayles a true public intellectual as well as a novelist and filmmaker. He never lost his bearings, even when the likes of Paul Berman were joining the 9/11 bedwetters brigade, and he figured out how to do exactly what he wanted to do (more or less) as an artist. He will probably never get invited to as many dinner parties as Christopher Hitchens, and he has better things to do with his time than swat aside inanities tossed by Fox News stooges, but he probably isn’t going to lose any sleep over that. He’s the real thing, and as such reserves his time for things that are real. He’s already done more work of lasting value than Christopher Hitchens, and I get the feeling he’s got a lot more good work up his sleeve.