It seems that today cinematography holds a firm place as perhaps the most widespread form of popular art at least in the Western societies. However, there is more to cinema than only its entertaining effects that people seek in numerous blockbusters. In fact, the artistic genre of film has an enormous potential for the expression of very insightful and complex ideas, and in many cases film may be arguably the best way of exploration of certain issues. For example, consider the film “Lone Star” (1996) directed by John Sayles. An inattentive viewer might think that this picture is about the life in a border town Frontera, where an investigation of a mysterious murder case is being undertaken by the local sheriff Sam Deeds. At the same time, for a thoughtful audience this movie would offer much more than an account of life stories of some of town`s inhabitants, and would rather provide a thought-provoking background for the reflection about the values that we have in our society, and, quite properly for the film about a border town, about the cultural and mental borders that we have inside us. Let us see how the film manages to achieve this profound effect on viewers.
The film`s main storyline is devoted to the investigation by Sam Deeds of the old murder case of the vicious sheriff Wade, during which he uncovers a lot of surprising facts about his famous and hero-like father, who had been the sheriff when the murder occurred, and about his relationship with his beloved Pilar. But the plot of the film is also built in such a way that it is harmoniously interwoven with subplots that depict various representatives of Frontera community consisting of whites, blacks, and Latinos. It is within this complex environment in which different cultures and world views coexist that the perfect stage is set for the exploration of the lines of demarcation between people.
One of the aspects of the social situation in Frontera is the ironic fact that even in our modern time elements of political and psychological segregation are still present. This is exemplified by the scene in which sheriff Wade tells young Otis Payne that black people must know their place, and by the fact that even in 1990s Payne retains this sense as he describes his bar as the rare place for “our people” to be at ease. In this way, we can see that there are not only borders that delineate physical space, but as well mental borders that influence the world views we have, and, as is shown by the fear of the old fashioned bartender that the blurring of the demarcation lines endangers civilization as we know it, that it is probably a more difficult thing to influence such mental borders than to control physical ones. And for different groups in Frontera such borders, often referred to in the film by the term “the other side”, signify different things – for the dominant white minority that strives to retain control the other side represents something foreign and threatening, for Mexican-Americans it stands for a past history which has to be either erased, as Mercedes Cruz is trying to do by distantiating herself from her ethnic origins, or has to be fairly reconstructed, as is being attempted by Pilar Cruz who is the local teacher of history.
The mentioned attitudes to personal and general history mark another important issue raised in the film, namely the problem of what may be called the burden of history. In the case of the Frontera community, this burden puts people in difficult situations when they have to decide how to treat the history, and how to relate it to the present time. In fact, this opposition introduces yet another borderline to the fabric of our reality, the one that can be consciously chosen or rejected by people who define for themselves whether to allow the past to shape their lives. And such challenges abound in the film, for instance in the mentioned case of Mercedes Cruz struggling with her past, or when an African-American boy learns that he is partly Native American. But the most difficult dilemma arises before Sam and Pilar, who learn that, due to the affair that Sam`s father had with Pilar`s mother, they are actually relatives. It is here that a powerful border arises between lovers and history becomes a true burden for them. However, their decision to “forget the Alamo” and abide by their feelings demonstrates that the burden of history can be shaken by us. This fact is perfectly bolstered by the imagery of a blank cinema screen signifying the freedom of choice in the scene when such a decision is made by Sam and Pilar.
In the same vein, the details that emerge in relation to the murder investigation by Sam and which point to the unexpected for the sheriff culprit also create a situation when a conscious choice has to be made by him as to how to treat the deeds of the past in the context of today. Sam`s investigation reveals that the past of Frontera was not exactly the same as one could suppose, and he fully realizes that it can affect the present state of affairs in which the former murderer today is the mayor of the town. Therefore, Sam decides to keep the past concealed and to prevent it from turning into the present. Whatever controversial this decision might seem, it nevertheless is instructive for those who maintain outdated borders in their minds that separate the community of Frontera, and many other communities as well.
With all this said, we can see that John Sayles masterfully used the medium of film to ponder on issues that in the concentrated form exist in the border town but which are equally present, perhaps only in a less visible manner, elsewhere in our society. After all, in accordance with the observation of Payne that there are no borderlines between good and bad people, we all, instead of building of borders that disrupt understanding between people, should rather strive to push evil and distrust that are so prevalent behind the borderline of our life.
Sayles, J. (1996). Lone Star. Warner Home Video.