FILM MARCH 12, 2008
Chop Shop (Koch Lorber)
Paranoid Park (IFC First Take)
Laments about the decline of cinephilia are familiar, and in the main they are just. Little is left of the film frenzy that embroiled college generations through the 1960s. But that is the view from the audience side; there is a different view that contests the decline. Cinephilia is not declining at its roots, because new film-makers of quality continue to appear. The waning of the so-called Film Generation has not affected them. These people, usually young, absolutely cling to film as the nearest and best means of responding to their experience and exalting in their imaginations. Here, for an extraordinary instance, is Ramin Bahrani with Chop Shop.
Bahrani is of Iranian stock and has lived for a few years in Iran, but he is a New Yorker (educated at Columbia). His new film, which is his second feature, is about Willets Point in Queens, a sizable district of grimy automobile repair shops: an acreage of hustle, of grab and anger, of dealings on the sly. Cars of all kinds keep flooding through the picture like incessant threats and boasts.
Willets Point itself is to that metallic horde like a dump of detritus along the way. "Chop shop" is argot there for a supposed repair place that disassembles stolen cars and sells the parts. The men who do the work are, in a sense, part of the coursing landscape behind them. Their skill at what they do, their brawling, their triumphs and aggressions, their complete disregard of anything but themselves, suggest that they consider themselves damned anyway and might as well go whole hog.
When Bahrani discovered Willets Point, sometimes called the Iron Triangle, he was captivated. (I'm using the press notes as fact, which in this case are close to what we would infer anyway.) His response, he obviously felt, could be conveyed only in a film. Good dramatists view their experience through a theatrical frame; good painters view it as the stuff of painting. Film-makers, and Bahrani is a born one, transmute their waking and dreaming minutes into film: every experience important to them is prime to be transmuted into light and shadow and frame, into a kinesis that will not only clarify its being but complete it. Bahrani's response to Willets Point is that response in essence. What Dziga Vertov did for Moscow in his documentary Man with a Movie Camera, Bahrani does for this section of Queens--except that he chose a more difficult method.
Chop Shop is not a documentary: it is fiction of a dangerous kind. All the while that the film is telling its story, fulfilling it intrinsically, making it much more than an armature, it is also saying that the story is not the prime concern. The setting in a real sense formed the characters we are watching. The setting is the picture's basic reason for being. The screenplay by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi tells a story that holds us, but--in a helpful sense--only minimally. It provides a ground plan for Bahrani as the filmic discoverer of Willets Point.
That story features Alejandro, known as Ale, a twelve-year-old Latino--many of the people in the film are Latino--who works in a chop shop owned by gray-haired Rob, who treats him as a tolerable, useful nuisance. Ale knows the ins and outs of the car-chopping trade and runs a few small scams of his own. (Peddling stolen DVDs is one of them.) He saves money, hiding cash in a can that he buries secretly. His sixteen-year-old sister turns up, having left her previous place (a questionable one is suggested), and bunks with Ale in the small room that he has in the back of Rob's chop shop. She gets a job as a waitress in a food van, but she has another source of income, too. The central action is Ale's discovery that his sister is a hooker. (In this auto-mad story, her assignations take place in the driver's cab of a truck.) Ale's eventual reaction to the fact is, in its way, a confirmation of Willets Pointism.
One of Bahrani's triumphs in this picture is the performance of Ale, drawn from a boy named Alejandro Polanco. Bahrani obviously worked with him to eliminate any sense of performance, to make him feel and behave like an animal in its native habitat. The boy lives there. Yet when Ale spends his well- scrounged cash on a decrepit food van that he hopes to refurbish, it seems just the sort of sentimental flaw that might sucker a generally smart kid. (Bahrani's first feature, Man Push Cart, is about a Pakistani who has a food cart in New York.) Polanco may have a future as an actor, but we can remember that film history is full of amazing performances by children who were little seen thereafter. The fact that a film performance can be assembled bit by bit like a mosaic may have something to do with this oddity. In any case, young Polanco verifies this picture as he goes.
His sister is played by Isamar Gonzales, and her acceptance of her situation is done with an air of "this is what comes with the territory"--not just Willets Point but her social status. Rob is played gruffly by Rob Sowulski, who actually owns the chop shop where Ale works. Sowulski, too, manages to forget the camera completely, doing what is far from easy: being himself.
Bahrani was his own editor, excellently so. The visual effect is a series of images swiveling past with a few figures who are in them constantly. The purpose is not in the details but in the overall effect--life in this way-stop of cars in motion. For instance, twice in the film we see a fist fight between two men--two different pairs--but each fight is left unfinished. The point is not to find a cause or a victor in these fights but to show us more of the texture of Willets Point. Bahrani's visionary union of writing and directing and editing lifts the picture out of facile naturalism into a shadowy species of ode.
There is no point in trying to fix Gus Van Sant's place in the film spectrum: one of his aims is to remain unfixed. He makes relatively conventional films like Good Will Hunting and Drugstore Cowboy and sprinkles them (so to speak) among his unconventional work, such as Elephant and Last Days. This has made his career highly interesting to some, but his avant-garde work always seems doggedly so, as if fulfilling obligations to himself.
Here is the latest Van Sant, called Paranoid Park. He adapted the screenplay from a novel by Blake Nelson, which deals with a teenage skateboarder named Alex who spends most of his time at a park in Portland, Oregon, that the city has provided for skateboarders. (The film's title is the usual tag for the place.) Large concrete waves and runways give them the chance virtually to fly. So, again, as in Chop Shop, motion is the mother. It is quickly clear that the people who hang out there take the sport very seriously. Skateboarding apparently provides a high that lifts the skater out of the everyday and into an elite. When a death occurs near the park, a detective investigating the case gets a lot of the park people together so that he can speak to "the skateboard community." Alex, we soon see, was accidentally responsible for that death, which we view twice from different perspectives, and the point of the film, one may hazard, is that being a member of the skateboard community--which, in turn, means an intensified member of a hedonistic generation--frees him from any moral obligation.
This is not a novel theme, but it is a vital one. Van Sant does his best to let it lie limp. He doesn't want to be so square as to actually dramatize the idea or even hint at it, in speech or otherwise. Instead he sprays his picture with whirling photography, theatrical changes of light within a shot, and a musical score that, along with pop, treats serious music offhandedly. At one point we hear a bit of the Choral Finale of Beethoven's Ninth, in another place some quotations from Nino Rota's music for two Fellini films. In neither case does the music have anything to do with what is going on, which is precisely Van Sant's point. He wants to hurtle past traditional relevance to a new view of the subject.
What is especially abrasive about Van Sant is not this view but a larger one that includes it. At bottom his avant-garde pictures are smug and egotistical. Ramin Bahrani burst into film because he wanted to convey his perceptions to a viewer. Van Sant is only issuing invitations to a cult--considerable in number by now. "Don't be a nerd," this picture says. "Get real. Admire me." Always there are viewers and listeners in any art who want that kind of elitism and cheerily accept its denial of standards as a standard in itself.
Every art has its Van Sants, who have their devotees. In the long run this is healthy, I guess; but in the short run--eighty-four minutes this time--it is wearying. (Well, maybe his next film will be un-avant-garde.)
Great Homer nodded, said Horace, a line I have quoted before when I made a slip.So here it is again to excuse a somewhat lesser figure, me. A few weeks ago, reviewing Woman on the Beach, I said I had never seen any other of Hong Sang-soo's films. Error, pointed out by a flatteringly constant reader. Two years ago, on April 3, 2006, I reviewed Woman Is the Future of Man. Anyway, it's pleasant to share anything with Homer.
Stanley Kauffmann is The New Republic's film critic.
By Stanley Kauffmann