March 26, 2009

Ramin Bahrani: "Under the Radar", Approaching Fast

I'm not sure where I first heard about Man Push Cart, Ramin Bahrani's breakthrough feature film, but whatever positive buzz I'd read led me to the "old" Parkway Theater in the fall of 2006. It was a weeknight, cold, quiet. I might have been the only person in the theater.

Man Push Cart didn't bowl me over as I left the Parkway that night, but after it marinated for a few days my initial appreciation for it developed into a lasting admiration. It's a disarmingly simple film, enough so that most people probably think, "What was that about? Did I miss something?" (and I can't deny those thoughts occurred to me as well) upon first seeing it.

Fast forward to the spring of 2008, a couple weeks after MSPIFF wrapped. Again, I'd heard quite buzz about Bahrani's next film, Chop Shop, and again I found myself at the Parkway Theater (by now the "new" Parkway) at a weekday afternoon screening with no more than four people in the theater. This time, I think I got it. From my May 2008 review of Chop Shop:

"There's no way to really qualify this statement, but I want to call Ramin Bahrani one of the most daring filmmakers currently working. He pulls out stories and characters that we have no way of identifying with and inexplicably puts them into situations we've never come close to experiencing. He doesn't use musical scores. His films don't really have a beginning or an end. He doesn't even use actors. Yet somehow, and perhaps as a consequence of his method, his films come together as honest, beautiful, neoreal glimpses into the lives of Americans that most of us haven't - and probably won't - ever get to know."

That's what I love about Bahrani's films: how he allows me to see the world through the perspectives of others. Chop Shop came and went and it was one my favorite movies of last year. I thought it would be another couple of years before Bahrani returned with a new movie, and again I expected to have to seek out a limited screening to see it.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago. I'm scanning through the Walker Art Center's calendar looking to update my sidebar/release schedule, and along pops up Under the Radar: The Films of Ramin Bahrani. "That's cool," I thought, "people can check out Man Push Cart and Chop Shop. But wait, what's this - a new movie? And he's going to be here to give a master class about his filmmaking?!"

I immediately made a mental note to keep April 3rd open on my calendar.

Then Matt Lucas said Goodbye Solo was the best movie he's seen in 2009. Then A.O. Scott gushed about Bahrani and Goodbye Solo in the NYT essay that I discussed earlier this week. Then, today, none other than Roger Ebert declared Bahrani "the new great American director" in a long profile piece on his blog (from my memory it's the first-ever post he's devoted to a working filmmaker). So in less than a year, Bahrani has gone from indie film obscurity and empty screenings at the Parkway to being a critical darling on the rise, filling theaters and auditoriums everywhere he goes.

I have no filmmaking experience whatsoever, but I'm still crushed that I'll miss the master class he's giving at 1:00 PM that afternoon. Hopefully he'll stick around to introduce Goodbye Solo at 7:30 PM. Here's the full schedule for the series, which is worth your attention especially since the first two screenings you say? FREE:

Thursday, April 2: Man Push Cart 7:00 PM (FREE)

"Bahrani’s debut feature film shows how economic struggle can cause one to lose direction. After his career as a Pakistani pop star has dried up, Ahmad leads an anonymous life as a bagel seller in New York. Two strangers he meets may be the key to changing his grim circumstances. The film made Roger Ebert’s Top 10 list for 2006 and was selected for his Overlooked Film Festival. 2005, 35mm, 87 minutes."

Thursday, April 2: Chop Shop 8:45 PM (FREE)

"Delivering a fresh and charismatic performance, first-time actor Alejandro Planco embodies the entrepreneurial homeless 12-year-old who hustles his way into a job at an auto body shop. Streetwise, but desperate to be part of a family, he is preyed upon by his troubled sister and his sidekick, who see him as their meal ticket. The New York Times praised the film’s “lyricism at its heart, [the] unsentimental, soulful appreciation of the grace that resides in even the meanest struggle for survival.” Bahrani was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for his direction of this film. 2007, U.S., 84 minutes."

Friday, April 3: (Lecture) Master Class with Ramin Bahrani 1:00 PM ($10/$12 - Buy tickets)

"Columbia University professor Bahrani leads a breakdown of key scenes in Chop Shop, providing details about his role as director, operating on a shoestring budget, and the complications of working with child actors and realworld locations."

Friday, April 3: Goodbye Solo 7:30 PM ($6/$8 - Buy tickets)

"The differences in age and family culture create an interesting conflict in Bahrani’s latest film. While Senegalese taxi driver Solo’s winning joie de vivre is embraced by everyone he meets, he can’t charm 70-year-old William, a mysterious fare he picks up late one night in Winston-Salem. When he asks to be taken to a location where many suicides have taken place, Solo attempts to discover why the man is so troubled. 2008, 35mm, 91 minutes."

The lecture and all three screenings take place in the Cinema theater at the Walker Art Center. Parking is available in the underground heated garage (still necessary in April, of course), but you can usually find free street parking on the street or up the hill.

P.S. Also note that Steve McQueen's critically acclaimed Hunger is also going to have an exclusive engagement at the Walker on select dates, April 10-26. Showtimes and tickets here.


  1. Wow! That Walker Art Center venue is worth taking a flight for!
    In any case, I'm grounded on that front, but I'll admit there's little excuse for Minny natives to pass up. Oddly, Daniel I wasn't a big fan of MAN PUSH CART either. It left me cold. (I do understand you've warmed up to it though) I did like CHOP SHOP, which was a Top 10 runner-up, and I also have been reading Matthew Lucas's effusive praise for GOODBYE SALO! Looks like we have a serious artist emerging.

    Great, intricate post.

  2. Hey Daniel,

    Bahrani is indeed going to be at the Walker for the Goodbye Solo intro and a Q&A. Enjoy!

  3. Well, Sam, don't forget that Goodbye Solo is opening in your neck of the woods tomorrow anyway, and in fact lead actor Souleymane Sy Savane and Bahrani are going to be doing Q & A sessions throughout the weekend. So yeah, it's a must-see, and I would agree Bahrani seems about ready to hit the big time.

    Thanks for confirming, Roadside - I'm looking forward to it!

  4. Thanks for the shout-out Daniel!

    "Goodbye Solo" truly is a wonderful film. Bahrani will also be on hand to accept a master of cinema award at this year's River Run Film Festival in Winston-Salem, where most of the film was shot. I'll be covering the festival for The Dispatch and I hope to be able to attend the screening with Bahrani.

    I don't want to overhype it, one must remember that it is a small, unassuming film. But it's my favorite of the year so far.

  5. Well I'm officially expecting it to be the greatest film of 2009 so far and one of the best I've ever seen in my entire life.

    But no, you haven't overhyped it, haha. I'd be pretty excited if a movie that's apparently this good was filmed in my backyard, too. Fortunately, my distance from New York did nothing to take away from my enjoyment of MPC or CS.

  6. I dare say Matt Lucas was the first to call this out and I gleefully line up behind him on this film. Everything he says is dead-on, methinks! GOODBYE SOLO is extraordinary.

  7. Thanks for making my expectations impossible to achieve, Sam. This thing better blow my hair back. And I would love it if it did.

    I'm pretty shocked that this screening with Bahrani in attendance on Friday night hasn't sold out yet. People don't know what they're going to miss, especially if he really breaks out over the next few years.

  8. Just watched Man Push Cart, my second Bahrani film after Goodbye Solo. In both, you have slow build, amazing amazing subtlety of storytelling, fascinating characters we start to learn about and grow close to. Then, when the climax should be around the corner and the denouement and resolution following--instead we have only a falling action to close, stripped of resolution.

    In another way, we learn about the character until we think we know what will happen (because what must happen is what will answer the thing we really want to know about the character--this is the rules of narrative), and it's at that point that we start to unlearn about the characters--they begin to move back into fog of the elements from which they arose--beautiful cinematography, unique setting, spare music, possibility. Then it's over.

    This is realistic. Except, it isn't realism. The stories are highly narrative--they are story, not slice of life. What I am left wondering is what this technique accomplishes within one.

    I would like to say I end up feeling sad--this is fine, catharsis, useful. Or that I end up feeling a greater kinship for the characters who are different from me, such as the Pakistani or Senegalese characters--but this could be accomplished with a tidy ending equally well. Really what I feel is disappointment. A very peculiar and vivid disappointment. I guess it is like waking in the midst of a very pleasant or powerful dream. You might like to go back to sleep, but there really isn't any way to get it back.

  9. I love your description of the end of those two films, Will, and I think you might find Chop Shop to have the best ending of them all, or at least my favorite.

    Your other thoughts...kind of depress me! If you've read my reviews of either Chop Shop or Goodbye Solo, you can see that I view his films in a much more hopeful, possibly naive light. After this event at the Walker I actually had the opportunity to chat with Bahrani for a few minutes, and, this being only a few months into the Obama presidency, he was really hopeful about the America that he was born and raised in, and described his films as reflecting that optimism, at least in terms of differences between people fading. Perhaps no one is that naive these days, but that's maybe beside the point...

    In any event, if you want to talk about a vivid, dream-like film, you can't better describe Bahrani's last film, a short featuring Werner Herzog:

  10. Daniel, thanks for your reply. I'm very sorry to think that you found my thoughts depressing--and, please, if hopefulness is naive, it is worth the price, surely.

    I find the fact that I wrote of the "Pakistani and Senegalese characters," without referring as well to their American-ness, to be unfortunate and I apologize. Please know on the one hand that I consider immigrants to the U.S. to be as fully American as anyone else and on the other that considering them to be American isn't like some priceless gift I bestow upon them--they are fellow humans engaged in the struggle to feel love, find meaning, and, yes, believe in hope, and that is what matters more to me.

    I saw Chop Shop as well a few days ago. I completely agree that the closing scene is striking and beautiful (and actually the film's narrative structure is more traditional than the other two I've seen). I believe it was in your review of that film that you mention the blending of film and documentary feel. It is almost like the films at times are documentary subverting drama (the inverse, I suspect, of a tendency that can crop up in a documentary).

    I still can't quite decide to what extent and in what way the films work structurally and within the viewer. Thinking of the films within the context of the evolution of the responsiveness of our culture to a diversity of peoples gives the openness of the ending a dimension I hand't quite considered.

  11. Ha, no need to qualify your statements on the immigrant identities, though I appreciate you laying out the underlying meaning for consideration. I don't think Bahrani tries to drill the American-ness of his characters into the minds of audiences either; that their struggles and dreams are universal is kind of the point. I think.

    As you say, it's not really easy to define how these movies work for each person. I actually had a healthy debate about Bahrani's films at another blog (which has sadly since folded). Indeed, Bahrani's "hipness" factor works against him; other filmmakers create similar films and don't face nearly as much criticism. Go figure.

    In any case, I'm glad you were able to see his entire filmography!


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