tongue-tied lightning

Taste of Bahrani
September 19, 2009, 5:35 AM
Filed under: film

Solo and Alex cliff

Earlier this year, as I was tidying up my top ten of 2008, I considered writing an essay on the films of Kelly Reichardt and Ramin Bahrani.  I played around with it a bit but couldn’t come up with anything I was really satisfied with.  Since then A.O. Scott has penned an article on ‘Neo-Neorealism’ (I was going to title mine ‘A New American Realism’) and Roger Ebert has called Ramin Bahrani ‘the new great American director.’  So maybe it appears I’m hitching my apple wagon to their stars, but that’s beside the point.  As someone who watches around 250 films for the first time each year, the vast majority of them disappear from my memory without a trace.  However, even Man Push Cart, which I wasn’t sure I liked after my first viewing, stuck with me, improved in my mind over time, and colored my perception of the world.  That is something special.

It was with Chop Shop that Ramin Bahrani went from someone I was interested in to someone I admired.  It may have just been my difference in age, but it connected with me in a way Man Push Cart didn’t.  Both films are similar in both style and substance, utilizing verite camerawork and unprofessional actors to create a documentary feel, focusing on the Sisyphean efforts of the impoverished to maintain happiness and optimism in a world seemingly tilted against them.  The difference, I believe, lies in the main characters.  Ale is joyful and infectious whereas Ahmad comes off as more than a little cold.  It’s still a wonderfully assured debut, but in each of Bahrani’s films the performances have improved, and so, perhaps coincidentally, have the films.

Which brings us to Goodbye Solo.  It is undeniably a Ramin Bahrani film, but in many ways serves as a departure from his first two films.  We’re not in New York anymore, and while Solo is still an immigrant and far from wealthy, he is a step up the ladder from Ahmad and Ale, but those are just cosmetic differences. Solo features professional actors in the leading roles and makes use of conventional filmmaking devices like shot/reverse shot.  There are also thematic differences, here instead of a man vs. society, Bahrani is examining the relationship between two men.  And perhaps most startlingly, there is the presence of a linear plot.

Given the lyrical beauty of Chop Shop, it would be possible to view some of these developments as negatives, but as the last 15 minutes of Goodbye Solo prove, Bahrani has not lost his knack for poetry.  Far from ‘selling out’ (as the trailer may have suggested) Goodbye Solo is Bahrani being Bahrani, but  adding some new tricks to his bag.  He still utilizes months of rehearsal (for Bahrani rehearsal involves two actors going out for ice cream, or an actor working the job his character will have) and absurd numbers of takes to capture the naturalistic feel present in his earlier films.  The more conventional additions to Solo only benefit the film, flourishes highlighting what is already present.

Bahrani’s next film is purported to be a Western set in the 19th century, an even more dramatic departure (coincidentally Kelly Reichardt has revealed her next project to be a Western as well).  With Chop Shop he made one of the best films of 2008, and with Goodbye Solo he has one-upped himself and made one of the best films of 2009.  It’s been about three years since I saw Man Push Cart and in that time Ramin Bahrani has proved himself to be, if not the “new great American director,” one of the most interesting young filmmakers working in an era seemingly dominated by the giants of the 90s.


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