Ramin Bahrani is indie darling du jour. The opening of his new film, Goodbye Solo, in LA and NYC led to an onslaught of press and positive reviews. Even though the indie baton was ceremoniously passed to Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, in Minneapolis we got to sustain the basking glow of Bahrani and his contributions to Neo Neo-Realism. In a series that couldn't be more timely, the Walker Art Center hosted Bahrani and his three films last week. Starting with a free double feature of Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, the series was capped off by a mid-day master class and area premiere of Goodbye Solo in the evening.
Bahrani is not only a filmmaker by trade but also a teacher, working adjunct at Columbia University. In lieu of my failed attempt to attend Columbia, going to Bahrani's master class seemed like the second best thing. The experience did not disappoint with Bahrani throwing out references like an encyclopedia of film as I attempted to keep up. Although he focused his talk on structural aspects of Chop Shop, he often gave way to lively digressions about how Taxi Driver would not exist without Pickpocket and how the Dardenne Brothers would not exist without Dostoyevsky. The two hour session left me wishing I had a whole semester of logical digressions with Bahrani.
Although the class was formatted for filmmakers, it was equally informative for those of us who aspire to be more than just popcorn eaters. Bahrani was quick to point out that statements such as 'that film was 10 minutes too long' or 'that film was boring' belong to the popcorn eaters (his term.) Unless you can describe the structural components that make a film flawed, these statements mean nothing. Touché. I'll speak for myself when I admit that elemental structure gets hopelessly lost in the gloss or the who's who in Hollywood. How can you talk about Duplicity without being blinded by Julia Roberts, Clive Own and Tony Gilroy? And how can you critique Watchmen outside of the overwhelming presence of special effects? (To my defense, I will say this is understandable.) Although the structure lies embedded in these films, we are 'wowed' out of seeing it.
With pared down casts and minimal gloss, the magic of Bahrani's films rely on the fundamentals. Treating us like the students we wanted to be, Bahrani recommended two books: John Howard Lawson's Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Alexander Mackendrick's On Filmmaking. In Bahrani's opinion, a good film is made by mastering the formal techniques of filmmaking and storytelling, and, by extension, understanding a film is understanding its anatomy. Through a series of clips from Chop Shop, he illustrated not only the finer points of dramatic storytelling but also the finer, if not hidden, points of editing and cinematography.
One of the most interesting scenes he walk us through was where Isamar confronts Ale about her money which is missing. It's a key scene in which we know that Ale knows Isamar is prostituting herself, but Isamar doesn't know that Ale knows. (Dramatic irony, as Bahrani points out.) In asking us to identify the dramatic turning point, Bahrani confirms that the moment Ale catches Isamar in a small white lie and completely drops the issue of the money is the turning point. It's moments like these that not only propel the storyline, but keep the film engaging.
Another structural point to this scene is that even though it is shot as one continuous scene, there are two cleverly hidden points in camera movement that allow Bahrani to make edits. If you are able to watch the scene, the camera swings twice following the action of the characters. It is within these moments that edits were made, but remain totally unnoticeable. There is also some very consciously choreographed movements between the two characters and the camera. The amazing thing about this scene, like so many other scenes in Chop Shop, is that despite all the planning and rigorous structure, it couldn't come off more natural or unrehearsed. If process is important to Bahrani, so is discarding directorial norms to find that process. "'Action' is the end of reality, and 'cut' is the beginning." This is the craft that Bahrani was sharing with us.
Chop Shop is set apart by the performances that Bahrani gets from his two young leads. If Ale and Isamar seem perfect in their roles, it is because Bahrani interviewed around 2,000 kids and filmed nearly 450. Finding these two and getting them aclimated to one another was a huge part of Bahrani's process, and Chop Shop will forever shine because of it. Chop Shop is about as 'realistic' as you are going to get in a fictional film. I'm not about to define Neo-Realism or even Neo Neo-Realism, but in getting a taste for what non-popcorn eaters see in a film, I feel I can better understand just what A.O. Scott was talking about.
If the web was overflowing with interviews with Bahrani a couple weeks ago, it is because he is the kind of filmmaker that film lovers love. Far from the esoteric theorists who don't watch films, Bahrani not only watches films, but also grounds them in the cultural and social landscape of the world. Representing and aspiring to unconditional love is an atypical ambition for a filmmaker, but this is exactly what Bahrani eluded to twice. Unique in so many ways, Ramin Bahrani sets himself apart as not only a 'filmmaker to watch' but also a filmmaker that may be equally important to listen to.
Your next chance to be a non-popcorn eater comes May 1 when Goodbye Solo opens in the Twin Cities at the Lagoon.