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John Sayles, 41, looks like a high school basketball...

By VERNON SCOTT UPI Hollywood Reporter

HOLLYWOOD -- John Sayles, 41, looks like a high school basketball coach from Schenectady, N.Y.

Sayles was born in Schenectady, all right, but he is a director- screenwriter-editor of low-budget movies with high aspirations.

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The tall, athletic-looking Sayles makes pictures that terrify mainstream Hollywood producers. His choice of screenplays, which he writes himself, are unique and perhaps foolhardy in the eyes of his box- office peers.

His first picture 11 years ago was 'Return of the Secaucus Seven,' an elegy to the '60s counterculture generation, which he made for $60, 000 earned from previous screenwriting assignments.

Since then, the independent filmmaker has given us 'Lianna,' a story of a woman coming to terms with her lesbianism; 'Baby it's You,' a social study of an upper-class girl in love with a working-class boy; 'The Brother from Another Planet,' dealing with a black extra- terrestrial in Manhattan.

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Most recently he directed 'Matewan,' about a 1920s coal miners' strike, and 'Eight Men Out,' the story of the 1919 Chicago Black Sox baseball scandal.

Critics praise his work, which commonly wins film festival prizes.

Clearly, Sayles has not been looking for a quick buck. Nor does his current movie, 'City of Hope,' threaten 'Terminator II' for box- office champ.

'City of Hope' is a dark, thought-provoking tale of small-city corruption -- business, politics, racial prejudice, crime, morality and desperation. In truth, its title seems a misnomer. Even at the finish, there doesn't appear to be much hope for anyone.

But Sayles and his production collaborator Maggie Renzi deny the picture is a cynical study of urban chaos.

'Not cynical. Maybe partly ironic,' he said on a quick trip to Los Angeles from his home back East. 'There are characters in the film who give you some hope. Not a whole lot.

'I tried to make a movie about people with recognizable human behavior. There isn't a Frank Capra ending. Everything doesn't turn out all right. That's the way life is. When does everything end right?'

Unlike his characters, it would appear Sayles is heading for professional happy endings as his movies find more and more commercial success and his budgets increase.

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As is the case with many another independent filmmaker, he appears to be a man with a mission -- to enlighten the populace by exposing us to his version of truth, reality and morality. The catch is to present his views entertainingly, which he has accomplished in 'City of Hope.'

There are political and social messages in much of Sayles' work. Some of his material is lifted from the world around him. The setting for 'City of Hope,' for instance.

The picture stars Vincent Spano, Tony Lo Bianco, Joe Morton, David Strathairn and Barbara Williams in a large ensemble cast, all playing flawed human beings from many walks of life. Sayles asks moviegoers to identify with their dilemmas.

'I am politically conscious as opposed to being politically unconscious,' he said. ''City of Hope' is political, but not ideological. There's a big difference. The tone of this picture is asking people to enter this world.

''Bonfire of the Vanities' was definitely a conservative picture in a satirical tone. It says, look, the rabble can't govern themselves. My movie asks people to participate in the process.

'It wasn't necessary to do a lot of research for this film,' he said. 'I've spent time around Hoboken, Jersey City, Albany and other places where my story is repeated all the time.'

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Sayles is flummoxed by people who say 'City of Hope' should win an Oscar, but ask him why he makes movies that don't make money.

He is not convinced an Academy Award or a $100 million gross are legitimate standards of movie success. Nor does he seem driven to create a work of art so much as to present his personal agenda for political and social restructuring.

Sayles says his characters make compromises, a credo applied to his films as a means of making them entertaining as well as socially significant. His bad guys are not all bad and his good guys are not all good.

For moviegoers in search of entertainment, 'City of Hope' may not measure up.

On the other hand, the Sayles pitch does entertain and provoke thought.NEWLN:

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