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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

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