Archive for April, 2009

Film: Ramin Bahrani: Goodbye Solo (2008)

Posted in Film Reviews on April 5, 2009 by baker

The best parts of Goodbye Solo transpire in the opening scenes, while the film is still a mystery, and the stylistic brilliance of its director, Ramin Bahrani, is still washing over us.  Bahrani’s sense of visual rhythm is initially as graceful as his jaunty way with dialogue and behavior, and although both eventually show a repetitiveness that feels formulaic, his is an unquestionably focused talent, committed to his characters and thinking through them with a concise clarity that’s unusual in American cinema.  Maybe in cinema as a whole.

To be fair, I feel a twinge of jealousy over this film, and it has nothing to do with the end result.  Three years ago I received a call to head down to Winston-Salem to boom op this film with a sound mixer I’ve worked with on several features (and saw this film with two days ago).  He went, I didn’t.  My hope was to get better-paying mixing work here in New York, to eventually afford my own gear and get out of booming (for reasons that still baffle me; on the smoothest of productions, booming is a soothing mixture of craftmanship and meditation).  Now, on the verge of directing my first film with substantive characters, I wish I had been witness to Bahrani directing his two leads.  They are masterfully performed, and they keep the film afloat even when Bahrani’s dexterity as a filmmaker starts to blunt.

I can only imagine Bahrani began with the faces.  Souleymane Sy Savane as the taxi driver Solo and Red West as William, his two-week long fare, have faces of plastic granite: boldly, fiercely expressive, on emotional front after emotional front, to an extent that would strain the keenest of trained Method actors.  The ancient pitted scar on Savane’s left cheek expresses as much about the past that molded him as his almond-shaped eyes, the ones that glow on his black face when he laughs, and narrow to half-consciousness in the white line fever of the late-night cabbie.  Red West’s eyes are half-submerged, and if at all possible seem even less conscious than his withered, craggy face, the one that says everything we could hope to know about whatever it is that’s eating him alive.

It helps too that both actors are wonderfully adept with movement and dialogue; nothing feels scripted, or worse, like Bahrani’s voice instead of their own.  It’s the cardinal sin of the low-budget indie film, and the most common problem: that the script never gets to quality actors, or to the right actor for the part – or that it does, and the film has no money for them, or the director can’t lure them in.  Bahrani evades the problem entirely, casting one anonymous actor with no screen persona (West, a former bodyguard to Elvis and a sometime day player in his films), and a complete non-actor (Savane, a former flight attendant), extraordinarily right for the role of an immigrant taxi driver aching to become a flight attendant instead.  It’s as close to flawless casting as I can recall, and a sign of legitimate vision that Bahrani could see their potential.

He mines them fully.  William’s offer of $100 in the opening scene for Solo to take him to the top of a mountain on a prescribed morning two weeks hence provides a launchpad for these men that succinctly articulates their individual needs (isolation for William, a fuller, deeper achievement of service for Solo) without sloughing into the trenches of banality.  Because Bahrani takes a whole film to do it, and because he understands that a whole film is necessary.  The depths of human need are not spelled out in a scene, or in an arc per se, but in the wear and tear of duration – a concept foreign to directors who feel that filmmaking functions on plot turns that impel change (another, paradoxical, form of constancy that articulates little more than impatience).  By the closing scenes, these bodies feel like the shells of living creatures, identifiable by the viscera inside.

I haven’t seen Bahrani’s other films, so I can’t speak to any consistency or his development as a filmmaker.  I wish I could.  Goodbye Solo shows he’s got an eye for shooting behavior that keeps the film’s visual flow alive and progressive, and he’s got a dramatic flair self-consciously inspired by the likes of fellow Iranian Abbas Kiarostami: rooted in archetype, where repeated action elicits deeper reflection, and where a natural, clean soundscape provides the tonal undercurrent generally engendered by music.  Bahrani even borrows Kiarostami’s color scheme, his thick browns and profoundly unlit sensibility, captured in controlled, visually rhythmic frames that flow together smoothly.  That it was shot with prime lenses on the Varicam is a monument to that camera, and a better tribute to the expressive quality of well-used HD than Slumdog Millionaire, where flash and lightness stand in for any delicacy of mood.

Slumdog is a fitting point of comparison on another front.  In a sense, they take polar approaches to defining culture and character: whereas Slumdog is a film about indigenous people made by outsiders, Goodbye Solo is a cultural testament made by a second-generation immigrant, and that distinction – at least in this case – seems to make all the difference.  Unfettered by cultural identification, Danny Boyle uses stereotypes as an artificial means of uniting escapist fantasies.  He undermines our identification with his characters on their terms by appealing directly to what we think we know, what pop culture tells us we ought to know.  A child of immigrants who lived for a time in Iran, his parents’ birthplace, Bahrani instead paints a portrait of willfully uprooted culture – and, with the character of William, willfully uprooted identity – understood through his characters alone.  No quantity of pop awareness prepares us for identifying with these men.  There is no magnificent, universal commonality among us beyond our need to self-identify by bouncing off each other, often with no perceptible change.  It’s a much tougher thing to say, full of the illogical contradictions found in wayward human behavior, and a far more mature artistic endeavor on Bahrani’s part.

If he falters, and I think he does, Bahrani fails by attrition, eventually allowing his film to settle into narrative predictability (for a while).  The demands of satisfying certain raised questions – why does William keep going to the movie theater? – drains Goodbye Solo of a bit of its mysterious elegance.  And I was happy to find out why, but the answer is not unique, nor does it complicate William; I would rather not know.  It could be too that Bahrani lingers too long in the film’s final moments, and I’m torn between feeling that he must, for rhythm’s sake, and wishing that he’d found another beautiful beat to justify it.  But these are small quibbles in his writing, and Bahrani is a composer of whole films.  His greatest strength is his intuitiveness, his perception of subsurface tides among people as well as in the flow of a film.  He may rely too much on a shooting style of following his characters around a room on a tight long lens, but I would argue that Bahrani’s a searcher, and the act of looking is more expressive than telling us what he’s looking for.