Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A New Master (Chop Shop)

In Roger’s new book on Scorsese, he talks about seeing the director’s Who’s That Knocking At My Door at a Chicago film festival when they were both 25. Even from that first film, Roger says he knew he was viewing the work of one of the most important filmmakers of his generation.

I love stories like that, and have always lamented that I might not get to say the same about any director of my own generation. At least until I first saw Ramin Bahrani’s Man Push Cart back in 2006, and got that crazy shiver. Bahrani had emailed me several times while I was running a Sundance blog for Flavorpill to ask me to screen his film, and though I’d wanted to — especially when I realized he also lived in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — I didn’t get a chance to see it until New Directors/New Films that year, where I was totally floored.

Muscular and emotive without ever dipping into sentimentality, this was the kind of film about one of the “unseen” characters who populate contemporary cities that I wished people made but never saw. More to the point, it was clearly made by someone who not only could craft tremendous stories but fiercely loved and respected the medium in which he’d chosen to tell them. I met Ramin at that year's Ebertfest, and was struck not only by his intelligence but by his generalism, a quality I’ve found actually cements a more informed focus in the right minds. (Roger’s among them.) During one conversation, Ramin accurately quoted Rumi and Camus and statistics about immigrant populations in various New York neighborhoods and the budgets of a surprising range of films. When, in 2008, we sat down to discuss his second feature Chop Shop, which screened at Ebertfest this year, he beamed the same bright light, now burnished by a savvy granted by his two film’s positive buzz — which he was immediately funneling back into his work. His third film, Goodbye Solo, released earlier this spring, has only validated my belief that Bahrani’s the real deal: the filmmaker I will be proud to say I spotted early on, even if he had to remind politely alert me to his existence.

So it was great to see him in the more leisurely setting of Ebertfest this year but it was almost even greater to watch Chop Shop in the scope it deserves rather that in a small screening room or, worse, on an actual DVD screener (which is how I saw Solo). Here’s the short Flavorpill synopsis I wrote at the time of its release:

Director Ramin Bahrani may be as "true indie" as the directors loosely clumped into the mumblecore movement, but that's where all similarities stop. Rather than middle-class white kids who struggle to complete their sentences, the subjects of Bahrani's films are outsiders who matter-of-factly eke out existences the average American couldn't imagine. In his latest, Chop Shop, a homeless teenager and her little brother hustle in every sense of the word to keep a tin roof over their heads, clothes on their backs, and rice and beans in their guts. Blunt and beautiful, this film pulls no punches as it articulates the hard-won joy that often accompanies struggle.

What struck me most this viewing was what a relief it was to watch. A funny thing to say about a film that has its core such a potentially sobering subject — two virtual orphans doing whatever it takes to stay off the streets and stay together — but Bahrani’s willingness to present them as subjects rather than objects of pity is infectious. More to the point, it was great to watch a film I embrace so unreservedly. Too often, I find myself in the awkward position of recognizing a film’s good qualities and earnest intent but just feeling like it doesn't quite cut it — doesn't demonstrate the mastery and foresight that distinguishes the truly worthy. (I’ve seen a few such ventures that shalt remain unnamed at Tribeca Film Festival this year thus far.) All of Bahrani’s films remind me of what I can still allow myself to expect.

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