Chop Shop * * * *
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani / 2007
The name Ramin Bahrani has been receiving a lot of praise in movie circles the past few years. Roger Ebert even dedicated a whole writing to him recently called “The New Great American Director”. It cites, “After three films, each a master work, he has established himself as a gifted, confident filmmaker with ideas that involve who and where we are at this time.” I’m not so easily convinced. I understand what Ebert is saying yet find myself appreciating what Bahrani is doing, more than actually liking his films. But, I’m starting to warm up. I’ve only seen two out of three and see something special brewing in a similar way David Gordon Green’s first few movies affected me. However, I’m not prompted to re-watch Bahrani’s work over and over, as I am Green’s, at least not quite yet.
“Chop Shop” features a brother and sister (Ale and Isamar) who can’t be much more than 13 and 16. Each has certainly seen, experienced and worked harder in their young years than I in twice the time. These kids are tough and street smart. They can also count money and do math better than me. Neither are they shy. And I believe in them on screen. I believe in them off screen. I refuse to believe that they are actors. On screen I assume they are orphans even though nothing, that I recall, is mentioned of their past or parents. I also assume they are immigrants, or at least their parents immigrated to America at one time. Their dialog/language is unique English to where I needed subtitled just to get it quickly straightened. They live together in a makeshift room in the upstairs of an auto body repair shop they also work at. The shop is housed in a grimy, crowded strip of many likeminded shops in the murky shadows of Shea Stadium (where baseball’s Mets called home until this year) in what seems to be the wastelands of Queens, New York. These are the kind of shops and people that most of us would be scared or at least intimidated to deal business with. A lot of the shops specialize in “shady”, after-hours business, stripping stolen cars for cash (aka: “chop shops”) The shop that Ale works at and Isamar vends food near seems like a legitimate enterprise, whose owner is stern but seemingly fair, putting a lot of trust and faith to give them keys to the shop and a place to live. He seems to pay them decent, as well as teaching skills to the trade. It’s an odd relationship as it seems like a no questions asked kind of thing. And these kids are surprisingly grown-up, ambitious and responsible, though there are flashes of child-like play and naivete, resulting in some of the film’s best moments. We aren’t told Ale and Isamar’s past, yet we’re told their future, or at least their dream. This is to make enough cash ($4,500) in order to purchase a dilapidated vending truck, the key to brighten their lives and a possible path to honest earnings/decent living. But, sometimes money is money, no matter your approach to getting it and always the bonds of blood run thick.
A year ago I became intrigued by Bahrani’s acclaimed “Man Push Cart”, a movie that hinted at some great things, in a “Taxi Driver” sort of way, but ultimately left me wanting more movie. It was a good story, but I was more wowed of the great difficulty the film must have been to make, especially for a first feature. I enjoyed Bahrani’s second feature “Chop Shop” a little more, but again was left a bit stumped and thirsting for more movie. It ended very abrupt to me, yet I can’t think of a better way to end it. Although I was left wanting more, I can’t stop thinking about it and am now thinking about “Man Push Cart” again. And I think that is Bahrani’s intent and strength. He gives just enough to let you chew-on and carry-over what’s on screen to that place where the characters live and breathe in the mind, out of the frame. That is the sign of a great artist at work. Though, here I’m coming back for more of the movie in my mind, and after this rekindling, I’m interested in a second viewing of each. Bahrani’s characters seem to be real people in real situations. And I’m curious at his writing approach and more importantly his relationships and life. Are these people, situations and circumstances he knows or has spent time around, even in simple observation? What makes him tick? On an artistic level, what film voices does he admire? So far his characters I’ve been involved have been immigrant Americans working hard, all-hours, seemingly bottom rung jobs and facing even harsher, complicated hours off the clock. I don’t necessarily relate to them, maybe in a working man way? But, it’s the little things in-between that are shining through to me. Something important that Bahrani is doing is paying attention, which causes me to pay attention, even after the fact. More young directors need to take note, so do audiences. Actually, people in general life need to. I think this is where his voice is really shining and where he has my interest. Paying attention is his “style”. Instead of tricking the audience or letting us fall prey to cliché, over-indulgence, awkward, arty-farty, forced or flashy filmmaking and falsely swelled emotions, he’s opening us up with eyes and soul. Ramin Bahrani is speaking with fluent honesty. It’s a uniquely-familiar de-layering process that he has conjured up and surprisingly fresh and foreign. Evidence in my poor writing…I can’t really explain it. Hmmmmmmm. I have now talked myself into getting to know Bahrani a little better and coming to realize the importance of the work he is showing me. I look forward to watching his third film “Goodbye Solo”. I look forward to watching myself grow with him. -djg