Today The Criterion Collection is releasing Ramin Bahrani’s first two feature films, 2005’s Man Push Cart and 2007’s Chop Shop. I had not seen these fascinating, heart wrenching looks at hard work on the streets of New York City until I got the two films a few weeks ago. I wish I had seen them years ago. I worked in New York City at about the time these films were made, and I would have benefited from their quiet looks at the lives of so many of the people I passed every day.
After his third film, Goodbye Solo, came out in 2008, Bahrani was dubbed “the new great American director” by none other than Roger Ebert. Bahrani has continued to work and a few weeks ago his adaptation of Aravind Adiga’s Booker winning The White Tiger debuted on Netflix. I have not seen any of his work other than these first two films here, but I’m interested to see how his career has developed.
To be honest, though, I’m not sure I can see him reaching the heights he does in his first film. Man Push Cart is, I think, a subtle masterpiece. Ahmad, our protagonist, is an immigrant from Pakistan. Based somewhat on life of the actor who plays him — Ahmad Razvi — Ahmad is barely making ends meet in New York City as a sells breakfast from a food car, though in the 1990s in Pakistan he was a relatively famous rock star. We don’t know this until later on in the film, though. First we see him pulling his food cart from its storage to make sure it is ready early in the morning to serve coffee and bagels the Midtown Manhattan commuters.
The film spends quite a bit of time showing Ahmad working. He pulls his cart, he fires up the burners, he gets out the cups and puts in the tea bags, he arranges the bagels and donuts. This realist bent led Bahrani to be called a worthy follow of Italian neo-realism, and I see no problems with that. He manages to follow this character’s routine in a way that lets us in, shows us his attention as well as the fact that this is hard work he’s been doing long enough to have an efficient routine.
He works hard, but he does not have money to do more than survive to the next day. In an effort to get ahead, he works odd jobs in the evening, and one particularly promising one comes from a wealthy Pakistani who recognizes Ahmad as the rock star he once admired. He still has Ahmad fixing up his apartment, but they do talk a bit and become, kind of, friends.
Another friend who enters the mix is the Spanish newstand employee, Noemi, played by Leticia Dolera.
Ahmad and Noemi have dreams of better days. They also have nightmares about their past.
While the film continues to present itself mostly as a work of neorealism, the frequent early morning haul of the cart bring to mind Sisyphus, so there is also an underlying poetic, existentialist element that works beautifully with the rest of the film.
This was my favorite of the two, and I heartily recommend you find it if you, like me, have missed it so far.
Bahrani’s second feature, Chop Shop, stays in New York City, but it takes place far away from the Midtown Manhattan corners of Man Push Cart. We move to Willets Point, Queens. This section of Queens sat in the shadow of Shae Stadium, before it was demolished in 2009, and is known as the Iron Triangle due to all of the auto repair stores and junk yards in the area.
As I mentioned, I liked Chop Shop less than Man Push Cart, but I think that may just be me. I liked the lonelier tone of the debut. I liked the more thorough examination of the work itself. But that’s not to say that Chop Shop isn’t as good as Man Push Cart. I’m sure there are many who prefer it for its stronger attitude and its grittier sense of the characters’ poverty.
The protagonist of this film is twelve-year-old Alejandro “Ale,” played by Alejandro Polanco. Like Ahmad above, Ale is a hard worker. When we first meet him, he is standing among a group of adult men who are all waiting to be called in for a job. When the pickup shows up to pick up some laborers (only a couple from the group get selected), Ale jumps in the back in hopes that even though he was not selected he can, nevertheless, earn some money. The supervisor notices him a ways into the drive and gets out to help him out. Clearly the man knows Ale, because Ale is clearly someone who never quits. Still, at only twelve, he is still not going to go out on this job so he is left to make his way back home.
But his home is the street. In particular, the bustling Iron Triangle.
There he works and acts like he knows everything there is to know about cars, tearing them down, harvesting their parts, etc. He has to be optimistic to survive and push on. There’s never a question that Ale could do whatever work is presented to him. The question is whether that work can help him take a step out of abject poverty.
Ale is an orphan, but he does still have his older sister Isamar, played by Isamar Gonzales. She’s trying to get by, too, and is grateful when Ale finds a tiny room they can use for a home. She also thrilled when Ale seems to have struck gold in finding a food truck they can use to get to the next step.
The setting of this story hearkens back to the Valley of Ashes in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and that tragic tale of the American Dream must be in the background of Chop Shop.
These are two fantastic features, and I’m coming to know and appreciate them more every minute I think about them. It’s definitely time for me to move on to Bahrani’s third feature, Goodbye Solo. In the meantime, I’m so happy to have these available.