Saturday, December 11, 2010

Bahrani blitz


In the space of just over three months, I have watched and reviewed all three of Ramin Bahrani's films.

It's unusual to get such concentrated exposure to a filmmaker -- watching his entire body of work in a short period of time, and then giving extra thought to that work by writing reviews of it.

I'm not really sure how I did.

I really thought that seeing them all together would give extra dimension to each piece I wrote. In fact, I'd been approved to review Goodbye Solo for nearly two months before I wrote the review -- precisely because I wanted to watch (and review) his debut, Man Push Cart, before I wrote it, to give me additional perspective. I'd watched Chop Shop first (back on paternity leave) and wrote the review not long after I received the approval. In retrospect it would have been cool to watch all three before I wrote any of the reviews, but hindsight is 20/20.

The Chop Shop review came out rather easily, since I hadn't put much forethought into a strategy for reviewing it. I just wrote it, which is always your safest bet. But with the other two I became overwhelmed with the idea of contextualizing each film in terms of his career goals, such that I became mentally paralyzed at different spots -- in fact, my review of Goodbye Solo sat for nearly three days, basically finished, because I didn't feel satisfied enough with it but had come too far to go back and rework it. I finally submitted it last night.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Who the hell is Ramin Bahrani anyway?

Hopefully some of you already know, but for those who don't, he's an Iranian-American director who's part of what's loosely being referred to as the "neo-neorealist movement." This movement, if it really is a movement, involves uncompromisingly realistic stories involving unremarkable people living around the poverty line. The films star non-professional actors, or at least actors who are very much unknown, so they can slip right into their roles. Other directors working in the "neo-neorealist movement" include Debra Granik (Down to the Bone, Winter's Bone) and Lance Hammer (Ballast). Thanks Don for providing me the name of this movement and contextualizing it within film history -- you excel at that.

Bahrani exemplifies the movement pretty perfectly. Man Push Cart is very much truth in advertising -- it's about a former Pakistani rock star living in New York and operating a cart that sells donuts and coffee, which he pushes around the city as he tries to save up enough money to buy it. Don't let the fact that he was a rock star fool you -- nothing like that is seen here. Then Bahrani directed Chop Shop, which follows a 10-year-old boy Latino living above a chop shop in Queens with his 16-year-old sister, who works about five different odd jobs while he tries to save up enough money to buy a food truck -- slightly more than a cart, but there's a definite theme going here. Goodbye Solo finally takes him out of New York to Winstom-Salem, North Carolina, where the protagonist du jour is a Senegalese cab driver who wants to become a flight attendant. In each film, a non-American tries to rise above his current station in life; in each film, there's either a non-traditional family unit or a person who is estranged from his family.

Accumulating these observations about Bahrani and his career, I thought I was armed to write intelligent pieces that showed I'd done my homework. Instead, I found myself wasting significant quantities of my 300 words talking about the films' similarities to (and differences from) each other, when most readers would probably just prefer to find out whether this film is any good.

So why not scrap all the attempts at intellectualizing and just dissect each film for what it's worth? Yeah, that might have been best. But the Man Push Cart review is already up, and I just couldn't mess with Goodbye Solo any longer. (The Chop Shop review, which has been up for awhile, is the one I stand by most.) It's just frustrating when you love a film -- I got to the level of love with Goodbye Solo, as Bahrani finally realized it was okay to embrace the idea of catharsis -- but you lack the words to properly express that love. I mean, the review is fine -- it's just not my best work. But it's not worth it for this amount of money to agonize excessively, so you just accept it and move on.

I will say what I haven't quite said so far in this piece: Bahrani is a talented filmmaker who's worth watching, even if (or perhaps because) he doesn't tend to favor having a distinct beginning, middle and end to his movies. Each of his endings is sort of perfect in its own way, but each could also leave a viewer scratching his/her head, if he/she comes in with different expectations. More importantly, each film captures something essential and heartbreaking about the human condition, and each is shot with a care and professionalism that belies the meager budget. Oh, and the novice actors? Spot on.

So if you want to set up your own "Bahrani blitz," Man Push Cart, Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo are all currently available for streaming on Netflix.

While you're doing that, I'll move on to Winter's Bone, so I can complete the Debra Granik collection.

And lookee here. It hasn't been reviewed.

Which means I can spend 300 words talking about its similarities to Down to the Bone -- another film I reviewed.

Hey, tendencies toward intellectual grandstanding aren't easily cured.

1 comment:

Mike Lippert said...

I don't know if I buy that this dude is the next great American filmmaker the way Ebert toutes him but these are indeed three very good movies. It'll be interesting to see how he, if he ever does, breaks into the mainstream with a bigger flick. I'll always remember when Ben Lyons gave it thumbs down. Of course he also recommended Twilight before it was even out and then put it on his list of the year's worst movies. No wonder no one takes criticism serious anymore.

Regardless, where are your reviews posted? I want to read them.