Sunday, November 2, 2008

Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani is no Rossellini. But even if he were, his dry aping of the signature neo-realist aesthetic - location shooting, skittery camerawork, use of non-actors, a certain foretold sense of doom - seems regressive, an attempt to revive dead forms through slavish copying. Filmmakers as diverse as Abbas Kiarostami and the Dardenne Brothers may make pointed use of some of the central features of the form, but with Bahrani it never amounts to more than an act of uncritical appropriation. Whereas the neo-realism of the former directors is always complicated either by a self-conscious reflexivity or impressive technical refinements that go some ways toward invigorating the genre, Bahrani, by contrast, films as if he invented the approach, as if cinema hadn't developed much beyond 1945.

Which is not to suggest that Bahrani's films are unpleasant to watch. If anything, given their grimy milieus, they go down too easy. 2005's Man Push Cart may have suffered from the introduction of some melodramatic bits of plotting - itself a staple of neo-realism - but 2007's Chop Shop wisely pares the exposition down to narrative essentials. Set amid the semi-legal garages and trash heaps of Queens' soon-to-be-demolished Willets Point neighborhood, the film follows 12-year old Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) as he ekes out a living for himself and his older sister, a part-time prostitute. A bustle of activity, Ale always has his eye on the next hustle, belying his scant frame with his ecstatic motion and his relative success in turning a buck. Saving up with his sister for their own food truck, he supplements his income as an auto-garage gopher by trying every scam in the book: shopping bootleg DVDs, selling candy in the subway (with that well-worn refrain familiar to any New Yorker: "I'm not gonna lie to you. I'm not trying to raise money for my school basketball team..."), even robbing purses at the U.S. Open.

In his unflappable energy, endless capacity for work, and single-minded pursuit of the profit motive, Ale would seem to be some sort of prototype of the up-by-your-bootstraps American. Locked into decidedly unpromising circumstances - emphasized by Bahrani's occasional long-shot framings of his protag dwarfed by the distant Manhattan skyline, that other New York standing as simultaneous goal and reproach - Ale's opportunities for advancement are notably limited. There's a certain inevitability to the boy's defeat, as if, like with the Pakistani street vendor in the director's earlier picture, Bahrani had foreordained his failure from the start. And indeed, amid the film's self-contained world of one-room squats, rusty junkyards and forty dollar blowjobs, Ale never had a chance.

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