The last word

I was at Duke. I was a sophomore. Lived in a fraternity filled with young men from New England prep schools: Groton and Hotchkiss and Deerfield.

They’d been away from home, many of them since they were 14. And some, like my freshman roommate, since they were in elementary school.

Most arrived on campus knowing friends, who also knew friends of other friends. The transition to college was easy for them. They had a network in place. They had skills, social and academic, that I did not possess.

I was, I suppose, unmoored, hemmed in by no social groups, no associations whatsoever. This, I think, turned out to be a good thing.

I had a good college roommate, still a close friend. This is how we met: As a freshman, I was hanging out in my room. He popped in. Said he had an extra ticket to this band playing on campus that night.

"Interested?"

"Who are they?"

"R.E.M."

"Never heard of them."

"They’re pretty good. Want to come?"

"Sure."

I went. Page Auditorium. Very small space on campus. The singer still had hair, long hair. He still mumbled. Didn’t understand a word. And he played half the night with his back turned to the audience. Didn’t matter.

Toward the end, they paused; then the singer alone, now turned toward the audience, earnestly felt his way through the first verse of "Moon River."

Someone yelled. Exultant or angry, it was tough to tell. The singer stopped, said, "All right, we’re going to do it again." They did.

My roommate and I also went to Durham Bulls games. You can go to Durham Bulls games now but not like you could then. Old park, down by the tobacco mills, just a few blocks off the east side of campus. They’re triple-A now, but they were single-A then.

Sometime later, my junior year, I think, a movie was shot at that ballpark. Much excitement. All the actors had rented small bungalows in a neighborhood between the campus and the park.

One night, someone said that there was a party for cast and crew going on. Let’s go. So we did. To one of those little houses. It was crowded, friendly. Maybe Kevin Costner was there. Maybe Susan Sarandon. Maybe even Trey Wilson, the actor who played the unforgettable team manager of the hapless on-screen version of the Durham Bulls.

All I remember thinking was: "Wow, they all seem so … normal." Maybe I thought movie people should be taller, stronger, better looking and of above-average intelligence, but here they were, cast and crew and hangers-on mixing easily.

Later, I started making it down to the Carolina Theater, Durham’s old single-screen art house (that’s what they called it back then). One night, I watched a movie called "Matewan," a movie I knew absolutely nothing about — not the lead actor, Chris Cooper, and certainly not the writer-director, John Sayles.

The title refers to the town in West Virginia where a deadly shoot-out occurred between miners and security men hired to suppress a 1912 strike. I’d never seen a movie like that: with those points of view, about real things and made in a style that seemed very familiar.

By contrast, so much of the films showing on campus in those years were experimental, trying different story and cinematic techniques. They always stuck in my head more than my heart. "Matewan" crushed me, stayed with me.

Every time I learn from someone that they have no idea who John Sayles is, I feel miserable. And yet I shouldn’t, because Sayles perseveres. A new movie, most good, some great, every two, three, four years. Whenever he can raise the money.

What I admire most about Sayles is that in spite of the small budgets he’s forced to work with, he remains a showman. He cut his teeth, so to speak, writing the movie "Piranha," the very bad and very cheap original version.

Sayles once said in an interview that the trick to writing "Piranha" was this: Once your characters know that there are voracious, man-eating fish in the water, how in the world do you contrive to keep them going back, over and over and over again, into that very same water?

Sounds funny or obvious, but when you stop and think about it, that sums up a large part of cinema history. If the lead doesn’t need the girl/grail/money/force/revenge/scholarship/respect/farm/job, then that’s it. Movie over.

But then, that’s just movie logic, right? Too simplistic. Life is far more complicated. I think.

Give me some time, 25 years, and I’ll come back with an answer.

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