It’s one of those strange accidents of moviegoing: the Landmark Century Center, one of two cinemas in the country currently playing Goodbye Solo, has put the movie in their leftmost wing, a shadowy little nook with two theaters—the other playing Valentino: The Last Emperor, a dull movie with a better trailer. The theaters are the exact same size, but there are obvious differences: Theater 1, playing Valentino, is home to a state-of-the-art HD projection system; Theater 2, playing Goodbye Solo, is the one with the disclaimer warning patrons that, due to a mistake on the part of the architects, their theater absorbs the shocks of the parking lot and the adjacent Bally’s gym and will therefore occasionally shake and shudder. So people going to either movie must take the same path down the same bit of hallway and then turn their respective theaters: they to see the world of glamour in Paris, Venice and New York; we to see a cab driver in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Valentino’s crowd is much larger—the film promises “Europe,” but it gives only images, flat as a computer screen; Goodbye Solo promises nothing, and gives you the world.
We know what Goodbye Solo’s got that Valentino doesn’t: doors and windows (Valentino is nothing but cars and hotels and dressing rooms). But the few us that are there to watch Goodbye Solo (and there are very few of us) probably didn’t come because we wanted to see a movie about a cab driver and a suicide; we came to see a “Ramin Bahrani movie,” even if we’d never seen one before. You can be as certain of that as of the fact that the Valentino crowd didn’t come to see “a Matt Tyrnauer movie.” Every Bahrani inspires a certain excitement in me. Why? What is it that’s in a Bahrani that isn’t, for instance, in a Reichardt? Why do I admire a Bahrani in a way I wouldn’t a Katz or a Tully (aside from the presence of a certain conscience)? Maybe because he makes films for a purpose without reducing cinema to that purpose. What’s so admirable about him is his lack of totality, his disdain for the iconic. Too many filmmakers with sociological interests reduce their films to being “illustrative” parables where everything becomes symbolic. What establishes Bahrani as a truly “sociological” filmmaker is that he maintains a researcher’s position: that the film is only one of many studies, and that it is only a segment of something larger—a society.
Bahrani’s cinema is the medium shot (the most uncertain of all framings) as a pure idea. His close-ups have a feeling about them that suggests not only that we’re only seeing part of something, but that it is, in fact, possible to get closer—that beyond this image, there’s skin, bones. His wide shots never feel like the “big picture”—they’re always reminders of not only the details that we’re not seeing completely, but of the larger world that exists outside (I’m thinking of a long take early in Chop Shop where an anonymous stretch of highway looks less like a wide shot of a truck than an extreme close-up of New York). Every location suggests a larger city. Every character suggests both other characters (children suggest parents, employees suggest employers) and the idea that there is an inner world to them, an absolute close-up that we’ll never be able to see—but every character is also exclusively him or herself (a far cry from Lance Hammer’s cinema of William Wilson, where everyone, including the director, is a doppelganger). The image for Bahrani is always a surface, an idea reinforced in projections of Goodbye Solo by the tactile grain of the 35mm print, rippling like a pond. Below that surface are culture and experience, as deep as the audience is willing to let them be. .
Goodbye Solo is Bahrani’s best film so far, better even than Chop Shop. The images produced by Michael Simmonds, his regular cinematographer, are more definitive, more miniature. We’re never “beholding” anything here; there’s no profundity in a film like Goodbye Solo. The camera and the microphone make ordinary observations, the kind any of us could make: “the room is dark,” “the mountainside is foggy,” “the motel is a little rundown.” There’s a simple story: a Senegalese immigrant who drives a cab for a living is hired by an older man to take him to Blowing Rock, North Carolina on October 20th and not bring him back. The cab driver assumes (correctly) that the man intends to commit suicide. The film is shaped by this inevitability (the future influences the present just as much as the past); it’s a road movie—road movies are always about death. There’s another inevitability here: that culture doesn’t provide us an answer to every question, especially in the case of our responsibility to others. The cab driver, Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), is both intruded upon (by the man’s upsetting request) and an intruder (into the man’s life). What shapes human experience as a whole is the way we react to intrusions—how we either do or don’t accept the problems introduced by others.
Let’s change gears and talk a little about Godard, because, when you’re talking about cinema in general he’s one of those figures—like Hitchcock or Griffith or Chaplin or Rossellini or Denis or Bresson—that you can draw on, even if just a little. We’re still in the Dark Ages of cinema, so we need an Aristotle to help back up our claims. So: regardless of what people will tell you, the great break in Godard’s cinema wasn’t his Maoist “cinema of ideas”—which, after all, was the product of the same mindset as his early films—but something that happened in the 1970s, when he realized there was no clear division between thinking and feeling: every idea is somewhat emotional, and every emotional response has an ideological undercurrent. A dialectic is not necessary to make a film about a culture (anyway, every film is about culture); a segment can suggest a whole, a feeling can suggest a reason, a problem allows an audience to think of solutions (or Godard’s beloved lack thereof).
Bahrani, a good cinephile, knows this. His films present emotions so that we can, within ourselves, realize both the ideas (social, economic, national) and the hidden feelings behind them. The purpose of the camera and the edit, to him, is to draw from the audience something unspoken or unarticulatable; the line of dialogue that makes up the film’s title is never said, but somehow it is felt in a long shot of a face, two shoulders, and some trees.