“99 Homes”—And the Other One Percent

 

99 Homes

It is no longer possible to have a serious discussion about poverty and the income gap without having a serious discussion about housing. “99 Homes” dramatizes this tragic social ill. [Last week’s publication of Evicted by Matthew Desmond, a Harvard sociologist, demonstrates through statistics how eviction feeds the cycle of poverty.]

In this country the human cost and callous treatment of those evicted is not publicized until now. “99Homes” is a vivid portrayal of the humiliation, greed, and perversion of the legal system which allows eviction without recourse or appeal. Directed by newcomer Ramin Bahrani (producer of “Man Push Cart”), “99 Homes” opens with a scene of the pending eviction of unpaid and now a recently unemployed construction worker Dennis Nash (the gifted Andrew Garfield).   The fabulously wealthy but ruthless real-estate dealer, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), fully realizes the dangers of eviction. The desperate, angry and now homeless residents he deals with have lost everything and therefore have nothing to lose. Soon jobless Dennis Nash unexpectedly ends up working for Carver as a server of eviction notices himself. What choice does he have—homelessness or serving the agent responsible for his situation?

As the working middle class and poor sometimes pay as much as 88% of their take home pay for their housing, we understand the vulnerability, anger, and life-threatening behavior they resort to in moments of utter hopelessness. Clear-eyed and nonjudgmental in tone, “99 Homes” portrays the desperation and panic of people who are rendered homeless in the blink of an eye for failure to pay a few months’ mortgage or rent. “99 Homes” highlights the vulnerability of single mothers, the elderly, and people of color. There are no easy answers.

“Death of a Salesman”–Trapped by the American Dream

Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.   One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen.   Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly.  Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely.  His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health.   She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.

But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff.  The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.

But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless.   All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds.   Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands:   “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”

There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy.  The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions.  Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.

Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing.  We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.