tongue-tied lightning

Chop Shop (Bahrani, 2007)
January 4, 2009, 10:13 PM
Filed under: film


Ramin Bahrani is an interesting filmmaker.  I liked, but didn’t quite “get”, his first film, Man Push Cart.  It could be that I was younger and had a more incomplete view of the world.  Whatever the reason, I kind of shrugged it off, and aside from some striking imagery, forget much of that film.  Chop Shop however, connected with me.

I can hardly claim to be knowledgable when it comes to Italian Neorealism.  Bicycle Theives is the extent of my experience with it.  I saw it around the same time I saw Bahrani’s first film, and had a similar reaction to it.  I liked it, but that was about the extent of it.  Nonetheless, it seems Bahrani is channeling the Italian Neorealists.  In both of his films he has viewed the plight of immigrants in New York City through a similar lens, using vérité camerawork and, like the neorealists, unprofessional actors.

His camera is unjudging.  The film is not uplifting, it’s not depressing, it just is.  He doesn’t tell you how to feel about the characters or the situations.  He presents them to you as they are, and you are free to interpret them as you will.  You could see the film as an elegy to the American dream arguing immigrants today don’t have the same opportunities their European forebearers had.  You could just as easily see the film as a young man’s triumph over diversity as he struggles to stay afloat in a world that seems to have cast him aside.  My interpretation of the film lies somewhere in the middle.

What plot there is concerns a 12 year old boy named Alejandro, played by a 12 year old boy named Alejandro.  He is parentless, and lives in a room over the bodyshop he works in during the day.  The film takes place in New York’s “Iron Triangle.”  The street is lined with bodyshops and as cars come down the road, looking to have dents fixed or mirrors replaced, workers from the various shops are on the street trying to convince people to come to theirs instead of the one next door.  It’s an image one would associate with Mexico or India but not America, and it’s made all the more striking by the figure of Shea Stadium looming in the distance, for what is more American than baseball?

When Ale isn’t rubbing out scratches or fixing dents at the bodyshop he is out hustling.  Selling candy on the subway, selling pirated DVDs, even, at times, resorting to theft.  His sister comes to live with him, and she finds ways to make money as well.  Bahrani takes us into this world effortlessly and as we watch, we learn how these people survive.  He finds meaning and creates interest in seemingly insignificant things, at times it is like watching a documentary.

I recently watched another indie-film garnering alot of buzz.  Courtney Hunt’s Frozen River, which is an auspicious debut, but what it gets wrong is exactly what Chop Shop gets right.  Frozen River begins as a minimalistic drama about impoverished people, but in the third act it loses its realism, and drowning under a cascade of major plot events that feel forced, I felt I was being manipulated and told what to think. Chop Shop not only allows you to make your own judgements, but nothing ever feels forced, it’s completely natural.

This is Bahrani’s second film and he has my ear.  There seem to be alot of these minimalistic dramas about impoverished Americans springing up lately.  Given the state of the economy I’m sure there will continue to be more of them.   Bahrani’s films join Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy as the best of the current crop.  He has a unique visual sense that is accented by his talented cinematographer Michael Simmonds, and his ability to sit back and observe without judging is extremely impressive for a 32 year-old.  I am very interested to see how his talent develops with his age.


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I’m so glad you dug ‘Chop Shop.’ Be sure to check out Bahrani’s latest film ‘Goodbye Solo’ when it opens in theaters on March 27th. Roger Ebert calls it “a force of nature” and The New York Times’ A.O. Scott says it has “an uncanny ability to enlarge your perception of the world.” You can check out the trailer and theater listings at

Comment by Dusty

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