Saturday, September 5, 2009

Goodbye Solo

In the commentary track for their new film Goodbye Solo, director Ramin Bahrani and cinematographer Michael Simmonds note enthusiastically that this, Bahrani's third film, features their first use of a shot/reverse shot setup. Most would scoff at the glee with which they report using in the director's third feature what is generally taught within the first few weeks of film school, but to me it only proves Roger Ebert's assertion that Bahrani is "new great American director." Though it may lack that thoroughly verité feel of Man Push Cart or Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo feels every bit as real and vital as those other two triumphs.

It opens in the middle of a conversation between Solo (Souléymane Sy Savané), an ever-smiling Senegalese cabbie, and his old white passenger William (Red West). William offers Solo $1,000 to take him to the top of a mountain in two weeks and leave him. Solo jokes at first, then asks if the man is going to kill himself up there. William doesn't answer. Concerned, Solo decides to be the old man's personal driver for the next two weeks in an attempt to talk William out of it. All of this is established within the first two minutes, as Bahrani posited that people would read a description of the film before going to see it or on a festival program anyway, so why draw it out? Besides, Goodbye Solo is not about whether William will commit suicide, or how, but the strange bond the two leads form.

And what leads they are! For the first time, the director hired professional actors -- though all but the two leads are still locals -- and what's impressive is how both men are every it as natural in their environment as those who genuinely live in the area. Savané's Solo dreams of becoming a flight attendant -- the real Solo actually worked for Air Afrique -- and he sees his polite and charming interactions with his customers as training for his dream job. Solo gives his personal number to "preferred clients," for whom he will do anything. Need some drugs or some "company"? Solo's your man. He's not some sinister pusher, mind you; he just wants his friends to be happy.

William is another matter entirely. Gruff and impersonal, he rarely even bothers to look at Solo when he speaks. As Solo attempts to strike up a friendship to reach the old man, William rebuffs him. I can think of no other person who could have pulled off the role like Red West. West was one of Elvis' childhood friends, and later his bodyguard. The two had a falling out when Red broke the foot of Elvis' cousin for trying to bring the King some dope, then told the poor sod that he was going to slowly work his way up to the face. Afterward, he became a stuntman and country singer as well as a character actor. Now, at age 72, he at last has his first leading role, and he commands it. Much rides on the simple nature of his face, which is a work of art unto itself. Sporting thinning red hair, a gray moustache and a leather hide, every wrinkle has a story to tell. West looks like Jeff Foxworthy, if Foxworthy had run the Hell's Angels instead of gone into comedy, and despite his age he still has a forceful presence. But there is also a kindness in his eyes, which may explain why he only looks at people when they impress him enough to warrant consideration.

On a surface level, the promise of an "unlikely friendship" between the two might smack of good ol' buddy film generics, but Bahrani has a far gentler and subtler touch than the typical "buddy" movie. West perfectly calibrates his performance, right down to when he chooses to look at Solo. When he lets the younger man in, he does so gently, never once acknowledging the gesture with anything other than a curt remark that barely hints at a deeper kindness. He never lets down the barrier, but he does open up enough to let Solo slip in.

As Solo scrambles to find something to convince William that life is worth living, Bahrani brilliantly juxtaposes Solo's conflict with William against Solo's relationship with his pregnant wife. She tells Solo that his dream job is just that, that he needs to stay so he can take care of his child. Solo re-assures her over and over that he will never leave them, but that he needs the freedom to make his own choices. In another film, the character of Solo's wife would be nothing more than a nagging shrew, written in solely to be mocked and reviled by the audience. But Bahrani stealthily contrasts Quiera's valid concerns with Solo's own intrusive desire to help William; as Solo rifles through his friend's possessions and even contemplates reaching out to a potential relative of William's, how can we sit there and judge Quiera for checking her husband's mail to make sure he's not applying to become a flight attendant again?

Bahrani's strength as a director, which Simmonds effortlessly bolsters, is the ability to use impressive camera movements and framing without ever calling our attention away from the action. Every pan, track and reverse shot aids what is happening on-screen, and when Bahrani lingers on a shot, it's not simply because he's seen Tokyo Story. The climax of the film takes place on Blowing Rock, a cliff where wind currents blast up into the sky like an airy geyser. Solo's stepdaughter, Alex (Diana Franco Galindo, in one of the best child performances since, well, Alejandro Polanco in Chop Shop), wants to test a rumor she heard that a stick thrown into the gale will fly right back into the hands of the person who tossed it. As Solo shuffles carefully toward the edge, the camera moves in front of him, almost reaching the edge and peering over, and I actually found myself leaning forward to see if somehow I could see over the rock that only just blocked the camera's view. Not many films can so immerse me that I attempt to see outside of the frame.

Goodbye Solo ends on a tragic note, yes, and one that offers little message of hope, yet it's unfair to call it a cynical film. Bahrani's movie has a profoundly realistic, humanist feel, and I don't say that because I believe that "sad" endings are more true to life than happy ones. This, like the director's other two films, is the work of a true independent, whose characters are always American but see themselves (and the audience sees them) as outsiders. Bahrani was born American but raised in an Iranian family in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where everyone else was, according to him, white or black. In that sense Bahrani can easily tap into the "American as foreign observer of America" vibe that Jarmusch shoots for, though they're styles are far removed. A certain kinship can also be drawn to that other great modern director from N.C., David Gordon Green, though where Green approaches his clear-headed depictions of human interaction through the filter of Terrence Malick's tone poetry, Bahrani works through the ecstatic truth of Werner Herzog. Make no mistake: Bahrani's on a roll, and this quietly devastating, truly independent drama is as moving a film as you're likely to see this year.

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