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October 27, 2015


Ramin Bahrani may be our sharpest cinematic critic of the capitalist machine that is the present-day United States. His characters work hard within a system designed to crush them; then they compromise their ethics to survive in a world dictated by the almighty dollar. Bahrani's vision is cynical, but, in a different way, Hollywood's tendency to edit out the disenfranchised is cynical, too. In movies not exclusive to Nancy Meyers- and Judd Apatow-esque vehicles, and in television series like The Good Wife, Madam Secretary, House of Cards, etc., affluent characters inhabit sprawling, well-appointed homes with no hint as to how they get dusted and vacuumed, how toilets get cleaned, how beds get made, laundry washed, yards manicured. Where are the housekeepers, the gardeners?
Set for Nancy Meyers's 2003 Something's Gotta Give
We see the servants in old movies on TCM, in period pieces like the eponymous The Help, and in depictions of ridiculously rich people like multimillionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher, but affluent characters in present-day Southern California, New York City, Washington, D.C., et al., despite their tacit claim to "middle class," betray their upper class status through pretentious set-dressing alone. A willing suspension of disbelief, especially in the week-in/week-out of serial television, where we feel more intimate with characters than we might in a two-hour feature film, is required to never once wonder who cleans the house. For some reason, the entertainment industry is loath to be honest about the domestic workers necessary to make wealthy fictional lives realistically hum. Bahrani's characters are the invisible people -- taxi drivers, cart vendors, salvagers, farmers, carpenters. Many are immigrants. All yearn for the American Dream yet vary in their vision of the grail.

Bahrani's first full-length feature, Man Push Cart (2005), is a painfully literal Sisyphean tale. We meet Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi) before dawn as he carries an airtank to a food cart depot, wrangles his cart up streets and down -- but mostly up and up and up -- to a corner in midtown Manhattan. He exchanges greetings with fellow vendors, preps coffee filters with grounds, sets out muffins and bagels, arranges tea bags in paper cups stacked for efficiency. Customers begin to arrive, friendly regulars, impatient passers-by, and a suit who recognizes Ahmad as Pakistani. "Yeah, from Lahore," Ahmad acknowledges. "Me, too," the suit says in a sort of solidarity. Those are the first 5 minutes, and the routine will play itself out over and over and over in a metronomic cadence for the next hour and a quarter, each rotation accompanied by a short musical phrase reminiscent of tolling Islamic calls to prayer.
Ahmad Razvi as Ahmad in Man Push Cart
Ahmad lives an hour's subway ride away in a Muslim immigrant, Brooklyn neighborhood. His day starts at 3:00 a.m. and ends after dark in the depot where he washes the cart down for the night before the subway ride home. For reasons we never discover, he has immigrated to the United States. We do learn he is a widower with a son in the custody of his mother-in-law. The fellow Pakistani customer, Mohammad, hires Ahmad in Ahmad's off hours to paint his loft apartment, where Mohammad recognizes Ahmad as the Pakistani rock star who recorded a CD in Lahore. When Mohammad lends Ahmad $500 to pay off his cart, the moment seems it should feel propitious but feels ominous instead. As Ahmad makes the final payment, the seller tells him to insure the cart first thing, foreshadowing the story's denouement.

Ahmad is the first in a line of characters who, as Roger Ebert, an early champion of Bahrani's work and the dedicatee of 99 Homes, said: "Like so many Americans who work low-wage jobs...his work essentially subsidizes his ability to keep on working."

In The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald called the 20 blocks of junkyards that comprise Willet's Point, Queens, "The Valley of the Ashes." In Chop Shop (2007), Alejandro (Ale), a Latino street orphan, lives there, scraping by on the good graces of Rob, the owner of the auto-body shop where Ale works. Rob lets Ale (Alejandro Polanco) live in the shop's corner nook, and when Ale finds a job for his sister Isamar (Isamar Gonzales) at a neighborhood food truck, he gets her to stay with him. She's 16, he's 12; she's finished 7th grade, he's never been to school -- but he is street-wise and wary beyond his years.

When Ale's friend tells him about an old food van his uncle is selling, Ale's dreams open to the possibility of a new life. Yet, it doesn't take long for Ale to realize it will take more than he makes to come up with the $4,500 to buy the van. He takes up a second job in a chop shop owned by Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi of Man Push Cart). Izzy, too, needs money, and when Ale inadvertently sees her with a trick, the knowledge saddens him, but survival does not admit the luxury of sentimentality or judgment.

Ale buys the van before Ahmad can explain it will cost $10,000 to pass inspection. Ale's world closes in again. For Ahmad in Man Push Cart, insurance is beyond reach; for Ale in Chop Shop, bringing the van up to code is beyond reach. Bahrani shows us only a slice of his characters' lives. We can only imagine how they have been tested before we meet them, what their journeys have involved, what obstacles they have overcome to reach what seems will be the turning point, the grail they have worked and worked and worked to find until it is just within reach, only to be snatched away.
Alejandro Polanco as Ale and Isamar Gonzales as Izzy in Chop Shop
Bahrani's characters are not blameless, but their guilt derives more from naïveté than willful villainy. They are burdened not only with the cost of the means to make a living, but with a dearth of time. The structure of the classic quest narrative allows the hero interludes of rest to regain strength between trials. Because Ahmad and Ale are always working, they can never revive, as much because they have no time as because they have no money. They are prevented from playing by the rules: filing for business certificates; applying for employee ID numbers, certificates of authority to collect sales tax, mobile food vending permits, insurance coverage; passing food protection exams ($114 in Queens); registering as self-haulers with the DMV; acquiring the required equipment for commercial vehicles, etc. Like Sisyphus, they wake up to the same ordeal day after day as though trapped in some cruel cosmic joke.

That indifferent cosmos pervades the Piedmont plateau of the Appalachian range midway between the Blue Ridge and Great Smoky Mountains where Goodbye Solo (2008) is set. The man in the taxi, a curmudgeonly 70-year-old named William (Red West), asks the cabbie, a garrulous Senegalese immigrant named Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) who likes to address people as Big Dog, if he, Solo, will take him, William, to a place called Blowing Rock in two-weeks time for $1,000.

Solo takes an irrepressible pleasure in life, but his usual exuberance is tested when his wizened passenger poses this bargain for a one-way fare. The implication transgresses the foundations of Solo's world-view centered around family and mutual support. He determines to change the course of the old man's resolve, dragging the reluctant William into his daily rounds and his own dysfunctional family -- that is, into life. In contrast to William's resignation, Solo is studying for airline steward certification, a challenge he faces with resolute optimism. What unfolds between this odd couple is an unlikely bond, and a meditation on the moral commitments genuine friendship entails.

That a suicide constitutes the most hopeful of Bahrani's films seems ironic on its face, but Bahrani says, "Solo is...a complex man, full of flaws, who comes to learn...from his encounter with William. Ultimately Solo must find the courage and strength to love his new friend selflessly in order to help him do something seemingly horrible, or leave him to face it alone."

Souleymane Sy Savane as Solo and Diana Franco Galindo
as his stepdaughter Alex in Goodbye Solo
Just as the pre-dawn labyrinthine streets through which Ahmad wrangles his cart, the chop shop jungle of Willet's Point, and the mist-filled atmosphere of Blowing Rock are all silent, ambient characters in Bahrani's first three films, so the rolling Iowa plains become part of the dramatis personae in At Any Price (2013), an allegory of the shifting American ethos through the mirror of three generations of Iowa farmers. The first three films peeked into immigrant lives on the fringes. At Any Price brings hypocrisy home to roost.

At Any Price trains its lens not on immigrants, but on the rural people we romantically like to think "made America great" alongside their urban manufacturing counterparts. For those not engaged in the agriculture economy, the popular imagination limns "corporate farming" and "family farming" as morally antithetical. Though it is true that "Large farms with over $1 million in sales account for only 4 percent of all farms" in the U.S., the balance mostly functions in a hybrid system of contract farming: the farm is family owned but operates under powerful corporate authority. Many state laws prohibit corporate farming, but the fuzzy distinction between "corporate" and "contract" creates a legal gray area that effectively allows corporations to farm in those states through contracts with local farm owners.

With the exception of Red West in Goodbye Solo, Bahrani cast nonprofessional actors in his first three features, but for At Any Price, he turned to professional actors with Dennis Quaid in an outstanding performance in the central role of Henry Whipple. Henry has spent a lifetime working the land. His aging father Cliff (West again) has handed the reins of the family farm to Henry, who has been trying to bring the operation into the 21st century and preserve it in the face of what contemporary agribusiness has become. Henry's son Dean (Zac Effron), hoping to escape the farm for good, has fantasies of a life of celebrity and reckless excitement as a racecar driver.

The 1966 Farmall 1206D Tractor was International Harvester's
first U.S.turbocharged diesel engine and the first two-wheel drive
to exceed 100 horsepower.
Cliff is wont to remind his son of the hard physical work farming used to be, yet Henry faces challenges of his own. Unlike his father, for whom a Farmall 1206 would have been state of the art technology, Henry stables air conditioned, self-steering combines with electronic sensors, GPS, and computer monitoring systems and foots the mortgages for the upwards of $250,000 each costs. Additionally, he and his neighbors are contracted to agri-business corporations and are bound by the laws that protect the corporate patents. Henry subsidizes his farming income by working as the local sales rep for one of those corporations (a stand-in for Monsanto/DuPont/Syngenta) that genetically engineers the seed he and his neighbors plant. What his customers don't know is that while Henry sells them the new strain for planting each spring, he has stashed last year's harvested seed and saved himself a small fortune in the bargain. Trying to explain to his son's girlfriend the Catch-22 big agri has created by manipulating the law to its profit advantage, Henry simply says, "They've patented life."

Speaking with Mark Olsen of the Los Angeles Times, Bahrani explained his desire to focus on Iowa corn farmers and debunk the romantic myth of the bucolic family farm: "These are not small farmers getting crushed by the banks, these are multimillion-dollar farms destroying each other, because they have to, to stay alive. And that was very different from what we think about farms. I found it very telling about where we are." Truth is thorny, and we share culpability for refusing to understand it in its complexity.
Dennis Quaid as Henry Whipple in At Any Price
With 99 Homes, Bahrani takes his examination of the American Dream into the foreclosure mania that swept pockets of United States suburbs. Some places were particularly hard hit, one of which was Orlando, Florida. Bahrani structures this film as a tightly wound suspense thriller. Real estate broker Rick Carver -- embodied in Michael Shannon's nuanced performance -- needs 100 foreclosure deals to go down on 100 homes before he can make an even bigger haul on 1,000. The final showdown takes place at the metaphorical 99th, a house not owned by Frank Green but mortgaged to Frank Green, for the bank, not Frank, owns the house. It is a critical distinction that 99 Homes dispassionately makes. "Home ownership" is a signal part of that woolly American Dream. As ubiquitous as credit card debt is in the U.S., some stigma attaches to excessive credit balances. A mortgage, on the other hand, has typically been considered desirable (e.g., tax code favors a mortgage deduction).

Rick Carver is based on David J. Stern, the now disbarred real estate attorney who came to be dubbed the "foreclosure king." In 2010, the relentless investigative reporters Matt Tiabbi of Rolling Stone and Andy Kroll of Mother Jones broke the story of Stern and Florida real estate fraud. "The foreclosure lawyers down in Jacksonville had warned me," Tiabbi begins, "but I was skeptical. They told me the state of Florida had created a special super-high-speed housing court with a specific mandate to rubber-stamp the legally dicey foreclosures by corporate mortgage pushers like Deutsche Bank and JP Morgan Chase. This 'rocket docket,' as it is called in town, is presided over by retired judges who seem to have no clue about the insanely complex financial instruments they are ruling on — securitized mortgages and labyrinthine derivative deals of a type that didn't even exist when most of them were active members of the bench. Their stated mission isn't to decide right and wrong, but to clear cases and blast human beings out of their homes with ultimate velocity."
Michael Shannon as Rick Carver in 99 Homes
Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a single father supporting his young son as well as his mother (Laura Dern). After being evicted by Carver, Nash goes to work for him. Despite his better angels, Nash gets sucked into Carver's scheme for the same reason Carver has pursued his ruthless line of work -- he needs to survive and support a family. Carver's father, a carpenter, scraped by until he died; Carver has no intention of following in those footsteps.

In preparation for his films, Bahrani immerses himself in his subjects' lives and milieus, sometimes over a span of several years in what sociocultural anthropologists call participant-observation. For 99 Homes, he, Shannon and Garfield all spent extended periods of time in Florida -- day after day in the rocket docket courts and nights in cheap motels populated by "gangbangers, prostitutes, day-laborers and normal middle class families.... [families who are] not broke but with part-time jobs, living in motels, and so many kids...that school buses have to get diverted to take them to school," Bahrani told Candid Magazine. "[O]ne night [Garfield] told me he'd met a day-laborer in a Home Depot parking lot who practically [told] him the story of the film although we'd already written the script." Because the real estate scandal became the only game in town, the day-laborer, after being evicted, himself became an evictor. His story was not unique, a fact that made framing the film in black and white, good vs. evil impossible, even irresponsible. As Bahrani warns, "[I]t's important to remember that despite [Carver] being the devil, the actual villain in the movie is the system. [Carver] is just the child of the system...." When he went to Florida, Bahrani says, he thought he was going to make a social drama, but the world he found said, "No, you're not. You will make a thriller, you will make this Faustian story with a social heart because that's what it is. We all carry guns, there's danger at every corner, every door we knock on has danger, every place we turn to has opportunity for corruption and scams." That's the real American story.
Andrew Garfiield as Dennis Nash and Michael Shannon as
Rick Carver in 99 Homes

October 20, 2015


It's that time of year when the Steven Spielberg contender is released to adoration. This year it's Bridge of Spies, the 17th Spielberg movie I've suffered out of the 30 he's directed to date. I have only seen the first in the Indiana Jones franchise, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). I have not seen Jaws (1975); Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983) of which Spielberg's segment is #2; Jurassic Park (1993) or its sequel (1997);  A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) – I took issue with Spielberg being handed a Stanley Kubrick-conceived film; Minority Report (2002); War of the Worlds (2005); two I've never heard of: 1941 (1979) and Always (1989); and 2002's Catch Me If You Can, the only one I might consider seeking out. I have (groan) seen all the rest. Why? So I can defend my position against Spielberg as the worst highly acclaimed director of all time.

Let's take The Color Purple (1985) as an arbitrary starting point. Good god, man – it takes more than a bucket, a mop and a good cinematographer to turn a hovel into a bucolic cottage set amidst billowing fields of sun-dappled wildflowers. Then there's the requisite, manipulative John Williams score. Midway through, as I heaved yet another sob, sinuses swollen, I was ready to strangle the both of them for so artificially wrenching emotion out of the audience. Schindler's List (1993)? What's with that fleeting little girl in the red coat who keeps showing up in the frame? Is she a metaphor? If so, a metaphor for what? Then in 1998, the inaugural film in what we might call "Spielberg's Tom Hanks Era," Saving Private Ryan: Quit telling me it is the most realistic depiction of war ever captured on film, because anyone who makes such a claim has not bothered to see Bernhard Wicki's 1959 The Bridge, Elem Klimov's 1985 Come and See, or Patrick Sheane Duncan's 1989 84 Charlie MoPic.

In 2011, I subjected myself to both Spielberg holiday movies. The Adventures of Tintin starts out remarkably true to the wonderful Hergé creation, but instead of using one Tintin story, Spielberg proceeds to mash up three (“The Crab With the Golden Claws” [1941], “The Secret of the Unicorn” [1943] and “Red Rackham’s Treasure” [also 1943]). Tintin is a child journalist who, attended by his Wire Fox Terrier Snowy, is forever finding himself called to distant shores to solve inscrutable mysteries. Spielberg makes no attempt to mine the sharp geopolitical parody that was the raison d'etre for many of the Tintin stories. Instead, Hergé's intrepid character and the graphic charm of the ligne claire (clean line) style he pioneered are soon mauled when, no longer able to contain himself, Spielberg lets loose an endless animated CGI orgy. The youngsters in my audience began to crawl out of their seats and into the aisles to tune Spielberg out altogether and lose themselves in their own imaginations. Usually scornful of restless audiences, I sympathized while trying to stifle one sigh of annoyance after another. Writing in London's The Guardian, literary critic Nicholas Lezard rued, "Coming out of, I found myself, for a few seconds, too stunned and sickened to speak; for I had been obliged to watch two hours of literally senseless violence being perpetrated on something I loved dearly. In fact, the sense of violation was so strong that it felt as though I had witnessed a rape."
Young reporter Tintin and his dog Snowy come to the rescue
of Professor Calculus, who has invented a machine that destroys
objects with sound waves. He is the subject of kidnapping attempts
by the competing European countries of Borduria and Syldavia.
Published in 1956, the story reflects the Cold War tensions of the 1950s. 

Then came War Horse right on Tintin's heels, with yet another John Williams score and good actors playing caricatures for Hallmark-Hall-of-Fame-tear-jerker effect. The horse is about the only player in the film Spielberg was unable to turn into a stock character. His sentimental nostalgia for overwrought Hollywood epics is almost as gratuitous as his addiction to CGI.

Daniel-Day Lewis, David Strathairn, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, Tommy Lee Jones, John Hawkes... distracted, I started to wonder which big-name actors would NOT appear in Lincoln (2012). I was also annoyed that virtually every African American in the film was expected to look supplicatingly at all the nice white people. (In all fairness, for once I liked John Williams' score.) I was gratified, therefore, when, after the torrent of laudatory reviews, I ran across a critical opinion in The New York Times editorial pages (not the Movies Section, mind you) by Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern and the author of An Example for All the Land: Emancipation and the Struggle Over Equality in Washington, D.C. Lincoln is determined, Masur argues, "to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role."
Almost 180,000 African Americans fought in the Civil War,
constituting about one-tenth of the manpower of the Union Army.
Source: William A. Gladstone. United States Colored Troops, 1863-1867 (1996) 
So this weekend, it was Bridge of Spies, in which Spielberg moves from World War II (Empire of the Sun, Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan) to the Cold War and turns again to Tom Hanks (because, as NPR's Bob Mondello pointed out, Jimmy Stewart wasn't available). Hanks plays James B. Donovan, the attorney appointed to defend Rudolph Abel, the Soviet KGB spy captured in 1957. (Mark Rylance's performance as Abel is reason enough to see the film. It is masterful.) Donovan is then saddled with effecting Abel's trade for Gary Powers, the young U-2 espionage pilot shot down over the USSR (which occurred in 1960, but the film compresses the historical events). Into the bargain, Donovan works to include an American graduate student enrolled at the Free University of West Berlin who, caught in the eastern sector just as the first stones for the wall are being laid (which historically was 1961), is being held without charges by East German police. It's the Cold War and no one but no one believes a Soviet spy should be handed the luxury of a trial. The film is built around the flag-waving premise that what has become the U.S. "justice" system is restored to the U.S. Justice system by the Stewart/Hanks patriot. Flouting attorney/client privilege, an FBI agent insists that Donovan reveal whatever Abel has said to him:
FBI Agent Hoffman (Scott Shepherd): We need to know what the Russian was telling you. Don't go all boy scout on me. We don't have a rule book here... 
Donovan: You're Agent Hoffman, yeah? You're German extraction. My name's Donovan. Irish. Both sides. Mother and father. I'm Irish, you're German. But what makes us both Americans? Just one thing. One, only one. The rule book. We call it the Constitution. We agree to the rules, and that's what makes us Americans. It's all that makes us Americans so don't tell me there's no rule book and don't nod at me like that, you son of a bitch. [I don't think the violins soared, but this little speech certainly gives the cue.]
Center: Tom Hanks as James B. Donovan and
Amy Ryan as his wife Mary in Bridge of Spies
On the positive side, when it came time to score the film, John Williams was in the hospital so the score was composed by Thomas Newman – serviceable and it spared the sinuses. On the set direction, let me admit that I criticize directors who overdo period set-dressing. Take Clint Eastwood's Changeling, for example, which takes place in eve-of-Depression 1928. The streets are filled with overly restored vehicles sleeker than they looked coming off the factory floor; the costumes are straight out of wardrobe undistressed; and all of the office and domestic accoutrements are just so. In Bridge of Spies, Spielberg errs in the opposite direction. A veritable army must have been deployed to comb every prop shop, flea market and hoarder's attic for authenticating decor and accessories: Vernon Ward/Paul Jones-esque botanical prints and period knickknacks abound as do cigarette packs, ashtrays and advertising matchbooks. There are atomic saucer desk lamps, a Bakelite radio, pastel plastic snap-on hair curlers – and in the final sequence, the children in front of the black and white television set eat TV dinners. There must have been a checklist. Let's see, what might we have forgotten? The Swanson TV dinners are not sitting on folding TV trays. Missed that one! The filmmaker is so anxious for us to notice these details that we keep getting pan or cut shots to close-up, but the close-ups are a problem because everything is in as-found condition when it all would have all been brand new in post-war 1957 America. The motel room where the young U-2 pilots are given their secret mission would not have looked like a flea bag. The Danish modern knock-off furniture would not have been chipped and the vinyl upholstery would not have been sagging.

Spielberg has clearly modeled Donovan's family on Father Knows Best. The son (Noah Schnapp) is all Leave It to Beaver earnestness; the daughters (Jillian Lebling and Eve Hewson) suitably vulnerable; and Donovan, a jovial and tolerant dad à la Ozzie, is protective of his indulgent and devoted wife Mary à la Harriet. Mary (Amy Ryan) dons the same string of pearls June Cleaver, Donna Reed and Margaret Anderson were never without. She wears eyeglasses in one scene only, presumably to establish that the prop manager was able to come up with period spectacles.

Bridge of Spies is designed to tap our nostalgia – at least the heartstrings of those of us who are boomers – while at the same time suggesting how bad the Soviet "evil empire" was. Yet it never penetrates its veneer to convey the ubiquity of the fear the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation provoked (despite a scene of tearful youngsters as their teacher shows them a "Survival Under Attack" type government film). If it wants to establish some sort of parallel between the Cold War and Putin's recent annexation of Crimea in Ukraine and his interventionist tactics in Syria, it misses the mark and merely drapes itself in superficial patriotism and family values rather than confront difficult questions posed by the realities of the contemporary world.

Writing about Lincoln in the February 2013 issue of Harper's Magazine, Thomas Frank called Spielberg out in no uncertain terms. I will confine myself to the last two paragraphs here but recommend the entirety:

"Lincoln is a movie that makes viewers feel noble at first, but on reflection the sentiment proves hollow. This is not only a hackneyed film but a mendacious one. Like other Spielberg productions, it drops you into a world where all the great moral judgments have been made for you already  – Lincoln is as absolutely good as the Nazis in Raiders of the Lost Ark are absolutely bad – and then it smuggles its tendentious political payload through amid those comfortable stereotypes.

"If you really want to explore compromise, corruption, and the ideology of money-in-politics, don't stack the deck with aces of unquestionable goodness like the Thirteenth Amendment. Look the monster in the eyes. Make a movie about the Grant Administration, in which several of the same characters who figure in Lincoln played a role in the most corrupt era in American history. Or show us the people who pushed banking deregulation through in the compromise-worshipping Clinton years. And then, after ninety minutes of that, try to sell us on the merry japes of those lovable lobbyists – that's a task for a real auteur."

Substitute "Bridge of Spies" for "Lincoln," and Frank's is an excellent review of Spielberg's latest "historical" effort. What Bridge of Spies says about the political zeitgeist – about prisoners at Guantánamo Bay who, unlike Abel who served just over four years of his sentence, will never see a trial; about the deleterious effects of recent Acts of Congress like the Patriot Act (2001) and Supreme Court rulings like Citizens United (2010) –  what the movie says about the current moment in relationship to that Constitution Spielberg is so eager to romanticize, is zip.