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Goodbye Solo

Not too long ago, the friend who insisted that I see Ramin Bahrani's Goodbye Solo was asking me what I liked about opera. I had told her that I didn't care about elaborate sets or costumes, or exciting ballets, or sophisticated stage directions, or really anything at all that the Metropolitan Opera specializes in (aside from its great orchestra which ought to have been the tip-off). What did I like, then? The question floored me. It was only the next day that I saw the obvious answer: music. (No wonder I hadn't thought of it.) That's what I love about opera: the music. That's what I love about chamber music, and symphonic music, and organ recitals, and lieder recitals, and Broadway shows, and even disco. If I like the music, the genre doesn't matter. At the same time, I am notorious among friends, all of whom adore him, for disallowing that Stephen Sondheim is a composer of music. "Musical effects" would be more like it. Ditto everything heard on pop radio since 1985.

It did not take me very long to learn from Goodbye Solo that what I like about the movies is pretty much the very sort of thing that I can do without in the opera house. At the movies, there has to be a strong dramatic justification for poor production values; and you should know that I'm very disinclined to accept justifications. I could see the ingredients of a great film in Goodbye Solo, but I hated watching it right up to it final sequence, the drive to Blowing Rock, which hit me immediately as a "drive into paradise." Not a drive into paradise for the characters, but one for me.

You could argue that the preceding bulk of Mr Bahrani's movie is about the ugliness, or at least the lack of prettiness, in the lives of immigrants and other marginal people in our recklessly capitalist nation. But what's ugly about Goodbye Solo isn't its setting, which heavily features the inside of a taxi and a dumpy motel room. I'm all for the lack of prettiness. I just want to see it clearly. I want to know where the sounds are coming from. I ask of film, most of all, that it be lucid; which is another way of saying that I want never to be asked to strain to perceive. To strain to understand I don't much care for that, either, but I grasp the moral validity of demanding it. But that's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about seeing and hearing. Difficult to do while trying to watch Goodbye Solo.

Another production value that I find essential is the use of actors in films as distinct from the training of amateurs. Everybody has to start somewhere, but Trevor Metscher, Carmen Leyva, and, especially, Diana Franco Galindo would have read their lines more effectively if they had played smaller roles in other films first. Mr Metscher's part is not very big, but it's emotionally important, and perhaps it would have been better not to hear him speak at all. I don't know where a movie director gets the idea that amateurs sound natural on film. They never do.

I certainly don't mean to raise a bar against cheaply-made cinema. The argument from budget, so to speak, that excused the things that I'm complaining about, in the interest of getting talented filmmakers started, lost its plausibility when Shane Carruth made Primer for a fraction of what it later cost just to have his digital production transferred to film so that it could be exhibited at Sundance. And everybody knows that the Merchant/Ivory canon, so widely but wrongheadedly faulted for opulence, was produced on a box of shoestrings.

In short, I really dislike Mr Bahrani's way of making movies, which is a great pain, because Goodbye Solo does indeed partake of greatness. The story, which is oblique from the outset, engages a hopeful young immigrant (from Senegal) with a despairing old native (from Marlboro Country). Why the young man, with a lot on his plate already, should be so determined to convince the old man, about whom he knows absolutely nothing (neither do we), that life is wonderful and worth living, &c, is a question that can be answered only by positing a saintly good nature that, while hardly implausible, threatens to hijack the story. Is the movie about what exactly will happen to the old man? Or is it about what a generally great guy the young man is?

Goodbye Solo is carried entirely on the shoulders of its two principals' performances. Souleymane Sy Savane (who happens to be playing in an off-Broadway show as I write) has the wide, warm, and openly friendly smile that has gone the way, in the West, of splayed toes. There is something almost demented about the cheerfulness that his Solo projects, but perhaps what we don't understand is that optimism starts at home. If you think that you can make the world your oyster by starting out driving taxis in Winston-Salem, you'd better look the part.

Playing William, the old man, is screen veteran Red West. Mr West tends to overdeliver his lines a bit, but he so completely looks the part of an old man at the end of his hope that you itch with the belief that you've seen him in other movies. As, indeed, you may have done: his IMDb page lists eighty-three credits. I shall certainly be on the lookout when I'm watching older movies. I want to know if he was half as handsome once upon a time as his magnificently ruined good looks suggest. The pleasure of looking at Mr West makes up for a lot of the irritation of looking at the rest of Goodbye Solo.

At the end of the movie, as I say, the characters get in a car and leave Winston-Salem for the fall-tinged hills of North Carolina's Blue Ridge. The very fact that Solo is driving indicates that he has given up on changing William's mind about the future, and that, instead, he wants only to help the man to do what he thinks he needs to do. As if Mr Bahrani, too, had had a change of heart, the film becomes lucid. The views of misting hills from Blowing Rock are softly but insistently majestic. One can almost smell the autumnal chill. This is much nicer than the synesthetic smells that fill the motel room that Solo and William somewhat implausibly share for a few days. I will be thought to exaggerate when I complain that familiarity transformed the drabness of that room into revolting squalor. There have been a lot of dumpy motel rooms in the movies, but what sets this one apart is Mr Bahrani's visual impatience: he can't wait to get out of it, either.

No, I'm afraid that I don't like his tone. (May 2009)

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