INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.

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FEATURE: Bad Apples Up On Top

20 01 2013

NOTE: This post was originally published on Dead Politics Society, a blog for my Political Sociology class in the spring of 2012, as my final paper.

“Let me tell you about the very rich,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, “they are different from you and me.” If you look at eight movies that specifically tackle economic malaise following the 2008 recession, you would find that Fitzgerald rings true still today. They have Degas paintings in their office (The Company Men), expensive sports cars in their garage (Margin Call), and pools with a $100 bill painted on the bottom above their penthouse (Tower Heist).

Never mind that hundreds of feet below their offices and miles from their mansions, the unemployment rate swelled to 10% and 2.3 million Americans had their homes foreclosed. These films depict the fat cats of corporate America thriving off the misery of the middle-class, setting up two powerful frames for moviegoers to view the tough times. To borrow terms from Diana Kendall (2011), the upper crust is repeatedly portrayed through “bad apples framing” while the middle-class is seen through “victimization framing,” a clash which sets up audiences to view the post-recessional landscape as a class conflict.

Each of these films represents a frame that is episodic in nature since they are limited, unrelated narratives dealing with the financial crisis in some way; these reports attribute individual responsibility to large societal problems (Iyengar 1996). So rather than closely scrutinizing how capitalism itself might be responsible for middle-class woes, post-recessional cinema endorsed a theory of “bad apples capitalism.” This belief, rooted in the idea that a few people who refuse to play by the rules can ruin an entire system (Baum 2011), allows viewers to direct their anger at a person rather than an abstract concept (Kendall 2011).

Indeed, it is much easier to blame Gordon Gekko, the banker who refers to money as a “b*tch who never sleeps” (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), and John Tuld, the CEO who calls money “made up” (Margin Call) than to find the entire capitalistic system guilty for the current American misery. The “bad apples” emphasis allows the movies to rile cages and stir anger without inciting revolutionary sentiment. They villainize the products of corporate America without actually attacking corporate America. (Corporate profits make these movies happen, so “bad apples” is about as close as they can get to critiquing the system.)

To emphasize the corruption of the rich corporate moguls, the movies shower us with lavish descriptions of their lifestyles. They chat about their million-dollar paychecks while the financial system teeters on the verge of collapse (Margin Call), and we hear about their private islands in Belize (Tower Heist) as well as how they make 700 times the salary of the average worker in their company (The Company Men). And all of this has blinded them to the plight of their workers – they claim to work for their shareholders instead of their employees (The Company Men), rob hardworking staff of their pensions (Tower Heist), and claim that massive layoffs present an “opportunity” for those left at the company (Margin Call).

Meanwhile, the middle class, out of their sight and most definitely out of their minds, is shown as trying to preserve their virtues and lifestyles amidst the turmoil. They have to sell their car to get by (Larry Crowne), take on a bartending job at night to put food on the table (Win Win), and move back in with their parents out of necessity (The Company Men). Jason Reitman’s Up in the Air takes the most wrenching look at their economic woes, putting real downsized workers in front of the camera to reenact their firings and rehash their financial fears. Current cinema has, in other words, provided a fresh set of faces to fit the bill for the “new poor” archetype that first came to prominence during recessions in the 1980s (Gilens 1999).

(NOTE: Both of these clips show firing scenes with staged actors, but they echo the general sentiment of the truly unemployed.)

However, the middle class is normally defined by their values rather than income (Kendall 2011), and post-recessional cinema makes its depiction go further than just merely downward mobility: the crisis threatens to break the country’s moral backbone. The economy forces them to contemplate taking money unethically from the elderly (Win Win), relapse into alcoholism (Everything Must Go), and launches them into depression that ultimately proves suicidal for some (Up in the Air and The Company Men). In the extreme case of Tower Heist, a comedy that borders on farce, fired workers even hire a convicted felon to help them steal $20 million from a rich man who conned them. Sadly, Hollywood showed through this recession that the squeeze forced them to budge on their values.

Ultimately, a hopeful Hollywood ending comes for the middle-class that allows them to reconnect with their values and inherent goodness (Kinkle and Toscano 2011). Yet most films provide a pass to the people who caused the suffering as well. They make over a billion dollars off the crisis (Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), walk out the door with a $90 million severance check (The Company Men), and giddily look forward to profiting from the meltdown (Margin Call). So why do they get off easy? Honesty.

In real life, these executives not only escaped punishment but also saw their fortunes grow. The filmmakers want us to be angry when the movie ends. So far, it has worked. Polls show that 60% of Americans supported cutting payroll taxes, and over half support raising taxes only on people who make more than $250,000 a year. If Obama ever gets the Buffet rule passed, he owes Hollywood a debt of gratitude.

For full bibliography, see the original post on Dead Politics Society.





(Kinda Belated) Weekend Update – August 21, 2011

21 08 2011

“How much does your life weigh? Imagine for a second that you’re carrying a backpack. I want you to pack it with all the stuff that you have in your life… you start with the little things. The shelves, the drawers, the knickknacks, then you start adding larger stuff. Clothes, tabletop appliances, lamps, your TV… the backpack should be getting pretty heavy now.

You go bigger. Your couch, your car, your home… I want you to stuff it all into that backpack. Now I want you to fill it with people. Start with casual acquaintances, friends of friends, folks around the office… and then you move into the people you trust with your most intimate secrets.

Your brothers, your sisters, your children, your parents and finally your husband, your wife, your boyfriend, your girlfriend. You get them into that backpack, feel the weight of that bag. Make no mistake your relationships are the heaviest components in your life.”

– George Clooney as Ryan Bingham in 2009’s “Up in the Air

“For what it’s worth: it’s never too late or, in my case, too early to be whoever you want to be. There’s no time limit, stop whenever you want. You can change or stay the same, there are no rules to this thing. We can make the best or the worst of it. I hope you make the best of it. And I hope you see things that startle you. I hope you feel things you never felt before. I hope you meet people with a different point of view. I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you’re not, I hope you have the strength to start all over again.”

– Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button in 2008’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

In case you missed it…

It was a pretty slow week as I was incredibly preoccupied running last second errands before leaving for college on Wednesday.  Hopefully I won’t fall off the map too precipitously, but things might be running slow for a while – especially in terms of reviewing new releases.

I took this as an opportunity to run reviews for some older movies that tied into other releases this week.  With Jessica Alba headlining the new “Spy Kids” movie, I reviewed her “Machete” and “Little Fockers” from 2010.  James McAvoy’s “The Conspirator” hit video this week, so I took the opportunity to review “Gnomeo & Juliet,” the animated Shakespearean tale to which he lent his voice.

I also took a look at the September crop of releases, which has a few gems shining amidst the trash heap.  Kris Tapley of “In Contention” just updated his Oscar predictions to include “Moneyball” as a probable nominee for Best Picture, Actor, and Supporting Actor.  More reason to get excited.  Click on the picture below to see the September preview post.

And the end of the week saw a lot of emphasis on Anne Hathaway as “One Day” opened in theaters.  On Friday, the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” was “Rachel Getting Married,” Oscar-nominated because of her performance.  On Saturday, I reviewed “One Day” and for the most part liked what I saw.  Click the picture below to read the review.

Recommended Reading

Save a tree, read a blog. Unless you want to print out a review … in which case, you aren’t saving trees.

And Vulture asks the question we are all pondering: Why Do Studios Think There’s So Much Value in Old Titles?  After the flop of “Conan the Barbarian” and “Fright Night,” here was their best conclusion.

“‘Studios remake these movies because they often already own the title,’ says Ammer. But it’s more than that. After all, it wouldn’t cost a studio any more money to hire a writer to write an original screenplay than it would to have him or her write one based on an older film. The real appeal of an old title is more superstitious: The studios use them, says Ammer, because ‘they know it’s worked in the past.’ Even though it’s an entirely different movie made by different people for a different generation, the idea is, hey, the title worked before, why not give it another shot? For all of Hollywood’s supposed liberalism, studios, like their audiences, are quite conservative. Genre is the most predictive aspect of a film’s future results, and then title, so why not double down? A remake of a successful genre film allows a studio the greatest possible risk reduction.”

The Tree of Death

/Film said it best when they broke the story: Even Sean Penn did not care for Sean Penn in “The Tree of Life.”  However, I’ll give credit to where I saw this first, Guy Lodge of “In Contention.”

Sean Penn moping about in my hometown.

In an interview with the French magazine Le Figaro, Sean Penn had this to say about Terrence Malick’s enigmatic film:

“I didn’t at all find on the screen the emotion of the script, which is the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read. A clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact. Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context! What’s more, Terry himself never managed to explain it to me clearly.”

I’ll go ahead and add this disclaimer to those that love the movie or the fact-checking Gestapo that yes, I realize that’s not the full quote.  But for the sake of this post, it’s easier to just analyze this part.

Where to begin?  The fact that a two-time Academy Award winner would bash his own movie would be shocking even if it was a total sellout, but even I as a non-impressed watcher see “The Tree of Life” as anything but a sellout.  It’s high art, just not the kind of art that was to my taste.  He doesn’t exactly mince his words there, pretty openly stating his distaste for how his role in the movie turned out.

This is nothing new, of course.  Adrien Brody complained when he was largely cut out of Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” – while I don’t like when whiners get their way, he certainly got it with Roman Polanski’s “The Pianist” in 2002.  But Penn’s statement goes far beyond just a diva fit, although I do think it dabbles in a sort of self-centered sensibility.  He questions the very way that the movie was made!  Keep in mind that Sean Penn has stepped behind the camera before, even turning out an all-time favorite of mine with “Into the Wild.”

Penn gets to the core of my issues with the movie.  I’m even a little bit more flexible – I’d be fine without a conventional narrative.  But Penn points out that the movie was incredibly disjointed.  I’m sure that the movie was beautiful in Terence Malick’s head, just as Penn says it was beautiful on the page.  Interestingly enough, I’ve heard from industry insiders that Malick shot the script with the dialogue, even allowing Jessica Chastain to speak.  Then he would cut, walk over, and tell her to emote all of the dialogue just with her eyes.  An interesting philosophy that produced an interesting end product.

Still moping...

Yet when everyone on set is not working in sync with the same vision towards a final product, the movie inevitably suffers.  If an actor doesn’t understand his purpose on screen, how can he do a decent job?  Moreover, how can he contribute anything to the movie?  If a director can’t even articulate his vision to the people he entrusts to help him create art, how can he articulate it to an audience?  I’ll inevitably be hit with the “it’s subjective” argument, but give it up here.  You can’t honestly argue that Malick is such a visionary that he can’t even be on the same page with his fellow artists.

Even those that I’ve talked to who LOVE the film can at least admit that the Sean Penn segments were the weakest parts of the film, and the actor’s statements shed some light on why that is.  An actor just existing on screen because a character exists on the page doesn’t make for compelling cinema if he doesn’t understand the basic objectives and motivations.  It’s just … boring.

I guess my biggest question here is why didn’t Penn make a bigger fuss on the set?  It seems kind of cowardly to whip out these harsh words now, potentially even in “too little, too late” territory for those who feel they’ve wasted their life watching the movie.  I get the whole mindset that Malick is a genius and you don’t question him, but for such primal acting concerns as these, why wouldn’t you demand more from the master during production?  If he was really that dissatisfied, why not walk off the movie?  These problems Penn has should have been settled a long time ago, and by just bringing them up now, he’s either searching for attention or absolution for being the worst part of the movie.

Penn did close with this statement about the movie, something that I’d say I basically espouse:

“But it’s a film I recommend, as long as you go in without any preconceived ideas. It’s up to each person to find their own personal, emotional or spiritual connection to it. Those that do generally emerge very moved.”

 





Random Factoid #461

1 11 2010

I sure have had a lot to say about “Up in the Air” in the past year, largely because so much of my life has been up in the air.  In particular, my future come this May – in other words, college – has been something particularly up in the air.

While I don’t think it’s possible for anyone’s life to be entirely not up in the air, a very large part of mine has come down to earth.  The burden that is my future education has been decided.  When I got home from school today, I received a very large packet from Wake Forest University.

Inside the package was my acceptance letter to the university.  So come next August, I will be a Demon Deacon in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and I couldn’t be happier or prouder.  While my access to independent film will be significantly diminished, I look forward to continuing to provide the same great quality from my new hub.

COLLEGE! (Maybe it’s time for me to watch “Animal House.”)





Random Factoid #383

15 08 2010

Yesterday, I went to my first wedding in well over a decade.  That being said, I don’t really remember much, if anything, about those holy matrimonies.  If I recall correctly, I was a ringbearer at one of my aunt’s weddings…

But while at the ceremony, I felt like I had been going to them my whole life.  As I thought about it more clearly, a thought hit me – I had been going to weddings, just at the movies!  They are a dime a dozen at the cinema nowadays, the blessed sacrament so commonplace that we rarely stop to think about the importance of it.

Really, everything I know about weddings comes from the movies.  Is it a horrible fault when all we know about something comes from a movie?  I’ve learned plenty from cinema – how to make up after cold feet (“Up in the Air”), how to be a good bridesmaid (“27 Dresses”), how to be a good father of the bride (“Father of the Bride”), how to deal with bridezillas (“Bride Wars”), how to break up a wedding (“The Graduate”), how to shine all the attention away from the bride (“Rachel Getting Married”), and how to fit in at any wedding (“Wedding Crashers”).  And that’s just a fraction of what I could say.

Are there any fields of knowledge wonderfully filled in by movies for you?

P.S. – Life’s better with company.





Random Factoid #317

10 06 2010

Yesterday, I totally had what M. Carter calls a “Real-Life Movie Moment.” She has a whole template for describing them, so I’ll follow it.

The movie: “Up in the Air”

The moment: While at my dad’s birthday dinner last night, we were waited on by a team of waiters.  The first was an older, more experienced man, perhaps not just a waiter but even a manager.  The second was a younger woman, clearly a trainee.  I assume it was one of her preliminary days on the job because he was walking her through the motions and giving her little tips throughout our meal.  While serving me a cup of gumbo, I could hear him whispering to her, “The spoon goes on the right.  Now reach around him and put it down.”  She did a fine job, but she was clearly flustered and nervous.  She offered cookie-cutter courtesy and was so business oriented that she was more of a robot than a waitress.

The correlation: Ryan and Natalie, duh!  Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) takes neophyte Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick) with him on an aerial adventure of lay-offs.  He understands the art of offering these people some sort of sympathy and respect.  She, on the other hand, feels that the firings could go more efficiently if they are performed mechanically and are desensitized.

I just see movies everywhere.  Life imitating art.





Random Factoid #298

22 05 2010

I’ve got a lot of soundtracks in my iTunes library, and I won’t try to hide it.  What I haven’t revealed yet is that I buy a whole lot of songs because I hear them in the trailer of a movie.  I’ll hear a tune and Google it to find out what the song is called.  Click, click, it’s in my library.

Here are some of the songs that are now proudly stored in Marshall’s iTunes library thanks to movie trailers.

“Help Yourself” by Sad Brad Smith, trailer for “Up in the Air”

“You’ve Got Me Wrapped Around Your Little Finger” by Beth Rowley, trailer for “An Education”

“Photograph” by Ringo Starr, trailer for “Funny People”

“The Beginning is the End is the Beginning” by Smashing Pumpkins, trailer for “Watchmen”

“Wild is the Wind” by Nina Simone, trailer for “Revolutionary Road”

“Rock Me Sexy Jesus” by The Ralph Sall Experience, trailer for “Hamlet 2”

“Paper Planes” by M.I.A., trailer for “Pineapple Express”

“Iron Man” by Black Sabbath, trailer for “Iron Man”

“Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love)” by Jay-Z, trailer for “American Gangster”

And probably countless others than I can’t remember.