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 are...how 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.