Political art is forever hostage to its questionable standing as a legitimate work of art, and for good reason. The bulk of political works harbor no separation between its creator and its characters, and usually, they are endowed with a character to vilify, one to extol, a principle to champion, and a vice to condemn. Strength of feeling is just as fervent in works like these, but at the same time, the emotions they engender feel contrived, the audience having been force-fed an ideology they did not necessary ask for. Necessary or not, this act often leaves the viewer with embittered impressions, or, if the work possesses merit beyond its message, it stirs guilt bordering on satisfaction (owing to the viewer having become aware of a certain “issue” that they will soon forget). It is documentary veiled in fiction, and by its very definition, it plods the mud of trickery. This is not to say that works of this type are not necessary, and admittedly, it is rather vague to merely categorize a work as “political,” as there is hardly any form of art or expression that does not weave toward a particular ideology. On many occasions as well, even the most didactic and ideologically-slanted of works can prove to be excellent, but their excellence isn’t necessarily tied to their subject matter, but the veiled, human elements that the exceptional work illuminates, in contrast to the archetypes offered by the conventional political piece.
A film like Ramin Bahrani’s 99 Homes is filled to the brim with archetypes, from the lower middle-class adult Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield), to his too-young, having-slipped-into-motherhood mother played by Laura Dern, and most excessively, to the prototype of greed that is Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), a man with no emotional center, in love with only money, and present throughout the film to either subliminally peddle the film’s product placements (in one scene, he describes the exact model of the Range Rover he suddenly traded his Acura in for) or expound upon his love of profit, stirring the distaste of the audience for his avarice.
Carver is a real-estate agent that has evicted the Nash family from their home, and through a string of events, Dennis Nash ends up working for Carver, gradually progressing from doing his dirty work to becoming his partner. The film is fraught with tension, brought out by Garfield and Shannon’s first-rate performances and the subject matter itself, asking itself how Nash will be viewed upon by his neighbors at the motel he is settled in – a motel exclusive to the foreclosed – and wondering whether he will become Rick Carver or ultimately defy the bourgeoisie.
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As noble as it is, it’s trite – a clear, true-to-life reflection of a reality that many middle class Americans had to deal with in the wake of the Great Recession, but politically motivated documentary disguised as creativity no less. Throughout centuries, long before the age of film itself, enough reasons had been provided as to why one should scorn the bourgeois for its hunger for excess, and Bahrani is merely repeating centuries-worth of clichés in slightly modernistic garb, using his camera as a weapon rather than for what it is: an extra set of eyes, unhindered by penchants or sentiments, simply eying the subjects it is capturing.
Oddly, as tired and unimaginative as it may be, 99 Homes is a finely made film, marked with elaborate storytelling and a multitude of immensely heart-wrenching moments. A masterful scene in particular comes to mind when Bahrani’s camera coldly glares into the home of the Nash family as they are being evicted. That scene, in the midst of all its crying, cursing, and hollering, is the one truly quiet moment of the film – quiet in words, but brimming with emotions. Completely unadulterated by any outside kneading of the heartstrings, it is the situation itself that disturbs the viewer, and that is precisely why the scene is powerful.
In fact, the most mesmerizing moments in the film occur when the characters don’t talk, and when Bahrani cannot speak through them. When emptied of its inclinations, Bahrani’s film soars, each quiet scene allowing the audience to take in the situation without the need for an authorial hand to tell them who to root for on account of who it has chosen to develop into full characters, and who it has merely relegated to sketches. Sometimes, when a piece of art ventures toward the didactic, it forgets that empathy, as well as education, is best stirred in moments of spontaneous realization. Though no art is ever truly free of its own politics, the best of works have learned this truth by heart, and that is why they have communicated their views so well, without ever needing to make use of words.
That’s precisely what Jean-Luc Godard signals to throughout his curious and transcendent Goodbye to Language. It is a film solely composed of images, and the words said throughout it are words better left unsaid: They are unnecessary, and they mean very little. A dog is romanticized instead; a creature that, according to Godard, loves man more than it loves itself, a creature without concrete linguistics and unburdened by words in carrying out its love. In his own way, Godard is comparing that dog to humans, observing both, speaking of both, but never explicitly differentiating between the two. Among Godard’s most enjoyable characteristics is indeed the trust he gives to his audience to think for themselves. He never feeds his viewers with thought, allowing them to see for themselves and privately unravel the images he presents. Sometimes and beyond question, Godard’s work hinges on conceit, but his films and the implicit methods by which he expresses himself are never not thought provoking.
In the midst of his quiet comparison, he opens his film with a scene where humans forage through second-hand books on the street, never once saying a word to another, and instead communicating through the images on their phones, as we do now. The film may be implying that humanity too is moving to a world without language, a world of images and expressions, and a world where even film needn’t words to be lucid. And despite the fact that it swoons over an unwavering pup, Goodbye to Language also seems eager for the future: that man too may transform into loyal dogs when deprived of language, and that solidarity can be found again, in images instead of words.
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No better contemporary directors communicate the complexities of humanity with so little words as the Dardenne brothers do. Their film Two Days, One Night transmits the intricacies of humanity without the need for over-explicated language. As minimalistic as this tale is – about a woman trying to save her job by appealing to her fellow factory workers to give up their bonuses so that the factory can afford to keep her – it is wrapped in hushed mystery. Through her uncomplicated conversations with each of her co-workers, more is revealed about Sandra’s (Marion Cotillard) private life – about her depression and how it has made her superiors lose faith in her.
On the surface, one can easily construe the film as political, as an admonition of capitalism and bureaucracy and the collapse of solidarity within it, but the straightforward film hints more than it pronounces. It never explains the root of Sandra’s depression, asking the audience to instead see her fight her way out of it, toward a reason to keep a job, and as a result, a reason to press on living.
The job itself or the politicking behind it is only a front for a more complicated narrative that the Dardennes only let unfold without tampering. Each co-worker she meets has a different motive for why they chose their bonus over her, and the majority of them earn both Sandra’s empathy as well as the audience’s, and each segment of the film offers a brief but insightful look into the life of every one of them. In turn, the film transforms into a narrative about capital and the middle-class without ever aspiring to, all because it is presented naturally, in an unrefined manner, and so quietly as well.
At no better occasion does the human spirit unravel as it does in moments of quietude, and the Dardennes manage to capture that stillness faultlessly, creating a film that is a labyrinth of intricate insights and emotions, while at first sight conveying a mere, forgettable affair. But that is only because simplicity is deceptive, and without doubt, the greatest weapon of all.
Watch a clip from 99 Homes here:
Watch the trailer for Goodbye to Language here:
Watch the trailer for Two Days, One Night, here: