When Cinema meets ‘The Grapes of Wrath’

Ramin Bahrani’s lyrical films are grounded in a love of literature

Ramin Bahrani creates quiet, intimate movies that honor high literary aspirations. They’re sensitive, nuanced, rich with mystery and figurative imagery. His films are eager to examine questions of morality and justice and fate.

Bahrani’s films feel writerly. No surprise: The director’s first love, growing up in North Carolina, was literature.

“I love film. It’s an important part of my of my life,” says Bahrani, whose first big-budget movie, “At Any Price,” opens in Austin on Friday. “But I must confess I was attracted first — and more — to literature … to Steinbeck, to ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ to ‘Death of a Salesman.’ To Twain and Faulkner, among American writers. And also to the Russians, big time.

“Dostoevsky is my favorite. But I would fight someone if they said Tolstoy wasn’t better. He is better … the best fiction writer in history. Then, of course, there’s Gogol and Camus and …”

Bahrani’s taste in literature reflects his own values as a director. His movies are interested in humanity, social justice, the plight of the individual in a demeaning, impersonal world. His protagonists tend to be people of strong will, trying to manipulate a positive outcome, even as they work against forces — or fates — that won’t allow it.

Bahrani was heralded as the “director of the decade” by the late Roger Ebert a few years ago. His first three films — “Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo” — had virtually no Hollywood sheen. They were built around the lives of ordinary people living in the shadows of modern American life: a Pakistani immigrant running a food cart in Manhattan; a Latino orphan living a street life in Queens; a Senegalese cab driver working a night shift in North Carolina.

Bahrani’s first films rarely featured “professional” actors. He accentuated setting to the point that it became a character in the film. He favors settings of darkness, the theme of a secret past, and a gentle lyricism in which humanity — and dignity — struggle to triumph.

“Man Push Cart,” Bahrani’s debut film, plays with the themes of Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” In darkness, before the dawn, Ahmed the food vendor hauls his push cart — he has no car — through the heart of midtown Manhattan each morning. He dodges trucks and taxis that come at him like monsters in the night. The sign on the front of his cart says “Good morning.” The paper tea cups he distributes bear the words: “We are here to serve you.”

Haunting? Heartbreaking? You bet. Literary? Symbolic? Absolutely.

Bahrani’s latest film, “At Any Price,” set in the heart of American corn country, wears its social consciousness on its sleeve. It’s about the corruptive power of largeness and corporate consolidation, about the moral price of playing along with a “get big or die” corporate ethos in American life.

“I don’t want to keep making the same kind of film. But I do want to ask the same questions — about characters, about the world, about society, about the economics, about the social political pressures,” Bahrani said recently, during an American-Statesman interview during South by Southwest. “There’s a moment in the film when Dennis Quaid (as corrupted farmer Henry Whipple) asks, ‘Am I happy man?’ It’s as if he’s saying, please tell me that I’m not. Please tell me there’s something wrong with what I’ve done. But the crowd shouts back that he IS a happy man. And that’s kind of what’s going on in the world right now. Should we steal and cheat? Should we give loans to people who shouldn’t have them? Should we get away with it? Should everyone say yes to this stuff?

“The new generation can change this. I’m not (advocating) total equality (in society). It doesn’t work. But Adam Smith wasn’t talking about this level of inequality. He talked about capitalism AND understanding. Even de Tocqueville talked about a pragmatic nature in America: ‘What’s good for me means it’s got to be kind of good for you, too.’ But we’ve gone in a different direction, which is ‘What’s in good for me — and I can destroy you.’ Ultimately, this is going to destroy the whole country.”

Bahrani doesn’t look — or talk — like a man beholden to Hollywood. He’s humble, down to earth, full of enthusiasm. Although he admires Austin directors Terrence Malick and Richard Linklater, he’s just as comfortable talking about the wonder of “The Grapes of Wrath” — and how he might someday live up to Steinbeck’s literary example in the world of film.

“It’s amazing what Steinbeck did in that novel, mixing in landscape chapters, which is so radical. After a few chapters: This description of a turtle crossing the road. You talk about the need to grow: I’ve never done anything so radical in my own work.

“That book should have been a flop. It was so left wing, so subversive. It’s amazing it became such a huge success — especially since Steinbeck was terrified that it was going to be a failure. Maybe you’ve read his journals? I’m so impressed with the way he did his research — how he lived with people, went with them, traveled with them, heard their stories.”

Following the Steinbeck example, Bahrani spent six months in the Midwest researching “At Any Price” — familiarizing himself with the intensely technological and competitive world of modern agribusiness. Yet he’s clearly conscious of the larger American story as well. There’s a harrowing moment in “At Any Price” in which a character strikes against a rival — in the name of fear, feeling threatened — without establishing that the rival has really done him wrong. The consequence of presuming evil before establishing facts is symbolically resonant in the context of the American response to the terrorist attacks of September 2001.

“I feel the biggest issue of my generation, right now, is the environment,” says Bahrani. “The next one, for me, is the work of Joseph Stiglitz — and wealth inequality, and the systems at play that have made this inequality, and how that’s destroying families and societies and communities. That’s what we see in this film. And that’s something I’m pushing even harder in my next film project.”

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