William (Red West) and Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane) become friends one night.
Sometimes I cannot help but pontificate (all credit to Woody Allen for conjuring up such lovable cinematic doublespeak) and I also tend to have a love and hate relationship with lists and canons yet part of me is feeling very tired this week so why not simply condense what would have been a lengthy essay on the Iranian American Ramin Bahrani’s new film ‘Goodbye Solo’ into a series of neat bullet points. So here are a few reasons or considerations (yes, this is a list) why ‘Goodbye Solo’ is perhaps the finest American film I have seen this year:
(I had to import this on DVD from stateside as I simply got tired of waiting – when and if Bahrani’s new film arrives in the UK remains unclear)
Bahrani has perfected a natural capacity to trust his characters and more importantly his actors. The refusal to give anything away leaves the spectator in a demanding position – why people behave and act in the way that they do is an aspect of reality which Bahrani deliberately leaves ambiguous, relying on the elucidation of a discontinuous, elliptical narrative style.
Ideologically and aesthetically ‘Goodbye Solo’ remains close to the traditions of neo realism. The humble struggles faced by the Senegalese Taxi Driver, ‘Solo’, (Souleymane Sy Savane) in the film is a continuation of neo realism’s edifying representation of the forgotten and dispossessed of our chaotic world. The young Argentine Poet, Fernando Birri was right to label it as the ‘cinema of the humble’.
IRANIAN NEW WAVE
The poetic realism ingrained by the masters of Iranian cinema into the fabric of contemporary Art cinema has arguably influenced a generation of emerging American auteurs. The effortless and unpretentious cinematic language of Kiarostami, Panahi and Makhmalbaf rises and pulsates through cinema with an unclouded precision, urging us to respond with a similar artistic inclination. Bahrani does such a feat, carving out a space in American independent cinema which is reflected in the uncomplicated structure of William’s dilemma (Red West) in ‘Goodbye Solo’.
You never question the authenticity of Bahrani’s characters. They are an organic part of our reality. Though they are invisible to us, race and age act as the plausible reasons why this is the case. Solo’s personal aspiration to elevate himself out of the underclass strata of American society is warily juxtaposed to the nothingness of William. Characters and their relationships with those around them is what propels the delicate narrative of ‘Goodbye Solo’.
Would it be appropriate to declare Bahrani’s interest in the lives of those inhabiting the margins of American society as a noble trait in the authorial backdrop of his career as a neo realist? It’s the margins of society that can give cinematic reality a vitality and clarity absent from much of mainstream film making. A concerted and continuous interest in the marginal lives of those traditionally denied a voice is what makes Bahrani’s cinema so transparent especially when exploring the dilemma of having nothing to hold on to and to hope for. Yet for all the cynicism that marginal representations may bring, Bahrani is no defeatist. Similarly like De Sica, Kiarostami and The Dardennes, the cinema of Bahrani and in particular ‘Goodbye Solo’ is one that embraces the humanist spirit to resist, preserve and evolve.
The sophisticated self reflexive nature of today’s post modern cinema means the notion of minimal intrusion has become all but impossible. It would be naïve and perhaps a little glib to suggest Bahrani’s style is somewhat invisible as he tends to deal in an absolute realism, yet the observational approach that characterises his body of work has an impressive lineage to documentary. The disjunctive flow of the film is accentuated in the opening shot of ‘Goodbye Solo’ in which we find ourselves in the immediate presence of our main characters, Solo and William. The rejection of zooms, tracking shots and any kind of noticeable camera movement would of course mean a deliberately, manufactured intrusion. Observing and not intervening makes the cinema of Bahrani altogether more real.
Boetticher’s westerns are full of them and so is Wong Kar Wai’s ‘In The Mood for Love’. A glance, not a gaze, can be a powerful thing in cinema. Gazing is an aspect of the human condition that we tend to associate with voyeurism, especially in cinema. At the end of ‘Goodbye Solo’ as Solo and William prepare to go their separate ways, Bahrani constructs their separation through a series of carefully edited glances which fatefully turn into an extended, metaphysical stare. Everything seems to build up to this moment and as they turn to walk away from each other, aperture becomes the order of the day.
The debate regarding digital vs. film continues to perplex film makers and critics alike. Though shooting on film is a complex Hollywood tradition, the advent of digital has opened up the parameters of independent cinema for a multitude of other voices that were simply standing on the sidelines. Bahrani continues to shoot in the digital format, allowing him to keep the budgets to a minimal for his films. I doubt he could have made the films he has so far had he been ruthlessly uncompromising when it came to the decision regarding digital vs. film. The most important thing is that Bahrani is making films.
Sentimentality can be a terrible affliction, a default for making up lost ground with the audience, a form of demagoguery even. For all its neo realist principles, the cinema of De Sica was a very sentimental one, echoing the manipulative chords of Chaplin. One could say the same about Spielberg – sentimentality that goes unchecked in his films usually tends to be the ones that are most manipulative and perhaps childlike in their final outcome. Sentimentalise an emotion and it loses its value, unveiling a fantasy construct. However, suppressing sentimentality is not an easy aspect of the film making process to control especially when working in the constraints of mainstream cinema. Of course, the same is not the case for independent film makers like Bahrani who suppresses sentimentality with envious confidence in a film like ‘Goodbye Solo’. The strategy is quite simple; less sentimentality equals more realism.
Souleymane Sy Savane as the Senegalese taxi driver, Solo, harbours a dream of becoming a flight attendant.
Tokenism continues to rear its ugly head in many aspects of Hollywood mainstream cinema with Black and Asian characters lingering in the background as reactionary fodder for superficial liberalism. It’s refreshing to see a black character being treated with such dignity and being given ample screen time. It’s not surprising that such an honest and realist representation of an African migrant living on the margins of America has emerged from an Iranian American film maker. Equally remarkable is the performance by Souleymane Sy Savane who was cast in the lead role, having had very little acting experience. It is a performance that blends together autobiographical traits of Savane’s own life and Bahrani’s realist screenplay, creating a character that longs to fit into society yet who also feels disappointed by the economic and class struggle.
Much has written about this film and it is likely to turn up on end of year lists. The website for the film has an excellent range of resources including detailed press notes and some valuable video links. I think Bahrani’s work has so far alluded the UK mainstream press for reasons to do with the poor distribution of his first two feature films; ‘Man Push Cart’ and ‘Chop Shop’. Though ‘Man Push Cart’ is available on DVD, ‘Chop Shop’ like ‘Goodbye Solo’ is still waiting to be picked up by a willing UK distributor.