The art and irony of The Salesman

Taraneh Alidoosti and Shahab Hosseini in The SalesmanOutside of cinephiles who have seen his Oscar-winning A Separation, Asghar Farhadi is not well known among Americans. But his name was thrust into the news over the last few weeks because of President Trump’s executive order banning travel of most anyone, but particularly Muslims, from seven majority Muslim countries. (The list does not include any majority Muslim country where Trump and his family have business dealings. Of course.) Because of the ban, Farhadi, who is from Iran, cannot travel to the United States for the Academy Awards, where his newest film The Salesman is up for Best Foreign Language Film; even if the stay of that order allows his visit, Farhadi is boycotting in protest.

There is a great deal of irony in preventing the director of The Salesman from attending the Oscars. By setting a suspenseful revenge drama among the cast of a Farsi-language production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Farhadi entwines Iranian and American emotional and moral experience. That such a tale comes from Iran, described as part of the Axis of Evil by George W. Bush and repeatedly threatened with destruction by Trump, is situationally ironic in that it is the opposite of what many people expect from our supposed enemy. It’s dramatically ironic in that Trump seems to have no clue whatsoever that Farhadi exists, that our most human complexities are universal or that both Iranians and Muslims are humans. (There are also the weird similarities between Miller’s Willy Loman and Donald Trump, both delusion narcissists, but since Trump doesn’t read, watch anything by Fox News or have the capacity for self-reflection, it’s unlikely he could have made that connection.)

However, even if Farhadi is not attending the Oscars, The Salesman is in theaters across the country. (Trump will probably be unable to ban films made by Muslims, women or scientists, but no one should think he’s not going to try.) Emad (Shahab Hosseini) is a high school teacher and actor who is playing Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman; his wife Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) is playing Linda, Willy’s wife. After their apartment building becomes physically unstable and is evacuated, they move into an apartment owned by one of their fellow actors. The owner neglects to tell them that the previous tenant was a prostitute, and shortly after Emad and Rana have set up house, one of her former clients attacks Rana while she is taking a shower and Emad is out buying groceries. At first Emad thinks she had just fallen, and then the neighbors who took her to the hospital tell him she was attacked. It’s implied but never clear that she was raped, and Rana is too ashamed and traumatized to fully explain everything to Emad. All of this weighs on Emad as he seeks out the perpetrator and tries to keep calm while he is portraying Willy Loman each night.

The film is ingenious in its pacing and its use of Arthur Miller. The tension is slowly increased through misdirection, ambiguities and a smart lack of a score that would indicate what emotion we’re supposed to feel or expect. I had no idea what was about to happen at any point in the film, particularly in the last act when Emad seems to have found Rana’s attacker. In an American film, the revenge would be brutal (see: Prisoners, Kill Bill, Enough), but Farhadi flips the genre on its back and makes the emotions, but not the action, violent.

Taraneh Alidoosti in The SalesmanDeath of Salesman seems to have no clear connection to the film’s plot until the last 20 minutes. Then, Miller’s commentary on obligation, illusion, sacrifice and failure are reimagined through Emad and Rana’s acting out of their moral duties as well as an American play. If there is any justice, publicity over Farhadi’s absence from the Academy Awards will lead American audiences to experience his art and his insight into America’s greatest drama.

The Salesman (original title: Forushande)
Written and Directed by Asghar Farhadi
Starring Shahab Hosseini, Taraneh Alidoosti and Babak Karimi
Rated PG-13
In Farsi with subtitles

Originally published in LGBT Weekly

It took me ten years, but I finally wrote something about September 11th. And then I made a little movie.

I knew I had to do it eventually, and I had to do it by today. When I saw that the VAMP theme for August was “Alternate Endings,” I knew exactly what to do. I wrote it in two hours; it exploded out of me. I’m sure it could be honed here and there, but I like the raw weirdness of it. What follows are my remarks as prepared for delivery. In the video, the last word is “possibility,” and I swallowed it for some reason. Also, I apologize for the sound quality; I don’t really know what I’m doing. Anyway:

When I can’t sleep, when I’m lying in bed hyped from caffeine or excitement or anxiety, instead of counting sheep – which I must admit I’ve tried doing, and it can work, but it’s rather dull, which is probably the point, but still – instead of counting sheep, I list the top ten things I would do if I won or inherited or successfully stole $10 billion dollars, or I list the top ten superpowers I would want if I could manage to become a character in the Marvel Universe, or I list my top ten wishes.

I usually feel guilty about wishing things just for myself, so I tend to wish for stuff like a cure for all viral diseases, the end to population growth, completely clean energy, and the ability to go back in time and stop Hitler’s holocaust or Stalin’s purges or Reagan’s inaction on AIDS.

Or stopping September 11.

Because, really, everything bad that has happened in the last ten years is directly or indirectly caused by 9/11.

The wars, the hate, the killing, the Tea Party, Casey Anthony, the Real Housewives; I could even find a way to blame 9/11 for Mondo losing to Gretchen on Project Runway if you give me enough time. Call it Six Degrees of of 9/11.

(Mondo, a gay HIV+ Mexican-American made exuberant clothes that would be worn by the more fabulous character in an Almodovar film. This makes him scary on what, at least five levels. And Gretchen’s ready to be sold at Anthropology, Ladies in the Canyon blandness won because it was more “of the moment” and safe. Bland and brown and non-threatening is the moment, because the national mood is full of fear and ennui and the broken promise of America, and this was created by the recession caused, in part, by Bush’s terrible not-paying-attention to anything but war and stopping gay marriage, which he was allowed to do because he got reelected using Jingoism and lies to win a second term, which never would have worked if not for 9/11. See? It totally works.)

All of the bad things would never have happened if not September 11, and I wouldn’t have the dreams anymore. While it’s not as often as it was, I still have nightmares. I never dream in reality; I don’t relive past events, so I don’t dream about standing on the corner of West 12th and 7th Avenue and watching the tower on the right, red and white ulcer in its side, trying my cell, running to the payphone and calling, in tears, my friend Rachel, who worked downtown who I imagined being crushed by rubble or enveloped in flames.

I don’t dream about crying on the subway, going to work as if it was the right thing to do, then walking home, south from the Time-Life Building, against the masses creeping north, the now-cliched perfect day still totally perfect, 80 and sunny and slightly breezy, perfect except for the billowing white nothingness emanating from the tip of the island, which is what I was walking into, towards.

I don’t dream about buying a sandwich and sitting on a park bench with my friend Matthew, watching roller bladers weaving down Hudson, going the wrong way carelessly down the car-less street, just to gawk at the surviving firemen and tons of rubble. I don’t dream about the nightmares I had for weeks and months and years later. I don’t relive or redream.

I do dream about the smell. My dreams are like documentaries of parallel universes; instead of planes flying into skyscrapers, it’s Imperial Star Destroyers stabbing the streets of the West Village, actual, not CGI-ed explosions eradicating my neighbors and the cars and Two Boots Pizza and the White Horse Tavern and the perfect townhouses owned by Sara Jessica Parker and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The dreams are like the more chaotic scenes of Titanic, except a lot less ridiculous and focus-grouped, and I was there, and so were my boyfriend or my brother or my mom or my dad’s dog. The memes, or the themes, whichever: running, falling, fire, crashes, epic, epic crashes, and all through it the distinct feeling of colossal malevolence and doom and that horrible stink, a mix of burning oil, melting plastic, plaster dust, and ineffable sadness of things falling apart.

When I tell myself the story, of the wish, to go back in time and stop 9/11, I can’t just leave it there. It’s not like, Poof! and it didn’t happen. No grief, no missing posters, no smell. No Poof!

There needs to be a logical, or at least narratively logical way for it to happen. For the time travel, I use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trek physics to get where I’m going.

Then there are a number of scenarios. Sometimes, I go to each house of all 19 hijackers and I assassinate them one-by-one, sort of like in the last season of Buffy, when the minions of the First Evil offed all of the potential slayers. Except I’d be on the side of the righteous.

But murder, even in the service of saving the world, even in the vision of me as Jason Bourne-like, Jason Statham-like hero, which would be so super-awesome, well, murder would probably be very hard for me. I doubt I could do it.

So, there are a series of police-tip scenarios: In which I send copies of the 9/11 Commission Report to every police station in the United States in 1999. This probably would end up making me seem like a nut, and the book would just be treated as the Turner Diaries, Part 2. And we all know that warning the authorities didn’t seem to do much good.

Unless, of course, it’s a direct warning. So, another scenario had me calling all the airports that the planes originated from and telling them that, “Dude, there are four guys on United 93 who are carrying exacto knives and box cutters and they’re going to use them to hijack the plane.” A credible-sounding bomb threat could stop an airport from functioning for just long enough ruin those impeccable plans of Mr. Bin Laden.

Then there’s the point where I realize that if I was going to use Dr. Strange-like magic or Star Trekky technology to going back in time, I could probably use said speculative forces to stop the planes, the crashing, and the death, and the smell.

And make it all rather comic book fabulous, like a cross between the X-Men and Planet Unicorn.

Why not start with pulling an army of super-smart apes, a la Planet of the, from a distant dimension and use them to clear the southern tip of Manhattan.

Why not provide some of the apes with the best eye-hand coordination some 29th century fighter planes with super-sonic, even light-speed abilities to chase and catch the hijacked planes in tractor beams, lower them to meadows of sunflowers and where passengers can escape and the hijackers can be cuffed and chained by my simian minions.

And if my chimped-out space ships aren’t fast enough, why don’t I just conjure up a super-spell to turn a plane or two into giant soap bubbles, give the passengers jetpacks, and use a flock of crimson winged unicorns to pop the bubbles and the dreams of the jihadists.
Then there would be rainbows and jelly beans and the world would be saved, the next decade would be saved, and New York would never have stopping smelling like bagels and garbage and dry-cleaning and overpriced everything.

And the world, or rather, just the United States, or maybe just New York, or maybe just me – I would never have stopped feeling the sometimes cuddly, sometimes sexy, sometimes enveloping embrace of possibility.

I used to be a storyteller; I’m a storyteller again.

poverty-strikesA few weeks ago, after a long day at the beach, after I’d already settled into the couch and the Tivo, Rob reminded me that we’d promised to go to a story slam.

As it seems that not everyone knows what a “story slam” is, it’s sort of like a poetry slam, but instead of poems, the slammers tell stories. If you don’t know what a poetry slam is, then, well, gee. Read this nice Wiki entry. And for every “poem,” insert “story” and you’ll get a what a story slam is. Or read this recent Times story about the Moth, a story slam that has been around since 1997 but was finally noticed by the Times, you know, last week.

(Last week, The Paper of Record also ran a story about how pot bellies are trendy. It’s as if no one noticed that Americans are fat until last week. That story should have run in the Onion. Guy Trebay is going to end up in the same special level of Hell reserved for hack Styles writers that was originally created especially for Alex Witchell but now has numerous already predestined denizens.)

Rob reminded me that we promised to go, and since I’m always griping about how there is no culture in San Diego, I should probably get off my ass to go see the culture that is actually here. And we should support the folks pouring their sweat and tears (and occasionally blood, if there’s an accident) into such ventures. Through our friend Jess, we met such folks, and they’re responsible for So Say We All, which is San Diego’s version of the Moth… minus the professional actors and arrogance. And they’re also responsible for VAMP, which is a video, art, music, and performance event that complements So Say We All. They’re each monthly, and they usually share a theme. Because Rob and I were going to be part of the first VAMP, we went to see a So Say We All story slam.

It was at Cream, a coffee shop in University Heights that I used to frequent because it has big tables you can stack a lot of books on and because their salads were good. Then I discovered that Twiggs had much better coffee and all my friends were usually there. Also, Cream has weird ventilation problems: When we arrived at So Say We All, it was hot. Damn hot. And crowded. Really, really, really crowded. I couldn’t believe that there were 200 people in San Diego who wanted to hear amateur strangers (or mostly strangers, since I’m sure every storyteller brought 10 or 20 friends) tell five-minute stories about “When Disaster Strikes!” which was the theme that month. But there they were. It made me feel, I dunno, warm and fuzzy inside. San Diego!

[youtube:]The stories started out okay and then got very good. Of course, it was after two beers and only a few okay stories that I put my name in the hat, thinking, “Heck, I can do that!” Then the really good folks got on stage, and I got nervous. I went second to last. And I won! Well, there was a three-way tie for 1st place, but the lady had won in a previous month and the guy worked at the place from where the prize came from, La Jolla Playhouse. So, I won the prize, which was two tickets for Herringbone, a new musical starring BD Wong. The video of my story is above. It’s about debt, Williamsburg, lawsuits and the evil that is Patenaude & Felix. Remember what those asshats did to me? Now there’s video!

The event was inspiring. It’s made me write again. For realz. For VAMP, I got dirty. For the next slam, I’m going to be sentimental. And next Thursday. I start a poetry class. And… AND… I’ve started working on my novel again. W00t.

“Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

[youtube:]At last! I finally saw “Southland Tales,” Richard Kelly’s much-maligned, barely released, long-awaited follow-up to “Donnie Darko” (which is one of my favorite movies ever). I had been a bit desperate to see the movie, but, alas, it wasn’t even released in San Diego during the week or so that 18 theaters were allowed to show it. So, I spent a weekend or two back in December trying to BitTorrent pirated versions, hoping someone had stuck an Academy screener DVD on the Interweb. But, alas, all that was available was a pretty shitty shot-in-the-theater-with-a-handicam version. (I guess there weren’t any Academy screeners. Natch.) Still, I downloaded it. And watched about 15 minutes. And I couldn’t stand how bad the video quality was. It was like watching a 20-year-old VHS tape during an earthquake. So, I chucked the file and waited. I was wasting some time (procrastinating like a mo-fo) on Netflix, and I saw that the DVD was coming out on the 18th. I had it in my mailbox on the 19th. How many ways I can say that I love Netflix? Anyhoo, after I finally finished writing my first qual paper (Woohoo! And more on that later…) I set about to watch the film that made all of $227,365 and Richard Roeper called “one of the most confusing, ridiculous, pretentious and disastrous cinematic train wrecks I’ve ever seen.” (For more critics trying to out-nasty each other, check out the Rotten Tomatoes site here.)

I think this would be a perfect moment to cite, in a Fisk-y but not really Fisk-y way, the wonderful essay by Joe Queenen in last week’s Guardian about what really makes a truly terrible movie:

To qualify as one of the worst films of all time, several strict requirements must be met.

Agreed. Too many people will simply state, as Queenen complains, that such-and-such is one of the all-time worst movies without thinking deeply about what really makes some awful.

For starters, a truly awful movie must have started out with some expectation of not being awful. That is why making a horrific, cheapo motion picture that stars Hilton or Jessica Simpson is not really much of an accomplishment. Did anyone seriously expect a film called The Hottie and The Nottie not to suck?

Totes! That’s why, say, “Bad Love,” a Jenny McCarthy vehicle for Chrissake, which scored all those Razzies a couple years ago, doesn’t count for me. Neither, really, does “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” which was God-awful, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be any much better than the first movie, which was pretty near-God-awful. But, yes, after making “Donnie Darko,” Richard Kelly was expected to make another truly great film. He had a cast of thousands, and he had a lot of money, and he had heaps and heaps of ambition. It seems as if he wanted to make something like a cross between “Nashville” and “Dr. Strangelove,” which is pretty ambitious.