|Set for Nancy Meyers's 2003 Something's Gotta Give|
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 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|
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
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.
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|
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|
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