Sunday, February 26, 2017

Ramin Bahrani | Chop Shop

valley of ashes
by Douglas Messerli

Ramin Bahrani (writer and director) Chop Shop / 2007

American born Ramin Bahrani, of Iranian descent, has become one of our country’s most noted film directors, devoting most of his brilliant works to the poor immigrants who, despite their magnificent displays of epic ambition and attempts at assimilating into American culture, are outsiders who have a near impossible time at being allowed “in” or simply given any open opportunity. 
     His first film, Man Push Cart presented a near Sisyphean struggle simply for daily survival. His second film, Chop Shop, presents with a much youngerand amazingly tougher—young  man, Ale (performed by the startling fresh,  Alejandro Polanco)—a street kid “find” who cannot be matched, who survives through nearly any job he can take on, including daily labor jobs, selling candy on subways, dealing out pirated DVDs, and, throughout most of the film, working for Rob Sowulski, a somewhat sympathetic owner of an auto repair shop in the Willets Point area of Queens, once, as Roger Ebert reminds, described by F. Scott Fitzgerald as “The Valley of the Ashes.”

Here, for a cheap and quick fix, anyone with the money can get a quick paint job for their car, or have a broken mirror, bumper, or front window fixed. The material used is mostly stolen from other autos subject to overnight chop-ups. But daily, hundreds of desiring drivers enter the zone to find the right shop to fix up their cars. Ale gets $5.00 for every car he steers to Rob’s chop, and further money for helping run for materials and actually working with the professionals on the repairs. It is a Dickensian world in which there are utterly no questions about the use of child labor.

      Yet, Rob is kinder than most, providing his young uneducated laborer a small room for both himself, and, when she arrives, after having temporarily left the country, his sister, Isamar  (Isamar Gonzales). If Ale is already a street-wise kid, Isamar is a dreamer, under the influence of her always promising friend, Lila, who, to keep Isamar in her loop, provides her with cheap fake jewelry and equally fake shoes, which Ale, who knows the territory, demeans. He hates his sister’s friend, and attempts to steer her away from her influence, arranging for a job for the somewhat lazy Isamar on a nearby food truck.

      But Ale is more than the tough exterior he exudes. He is a true dreamer who, quite amazingly, and secretly, is saving every cent he makes to buy a run-down food truck so that he and his sister can create their own lives through a magic restaurant on wheels. 
     Through his young friend Carlos, he meets a man who is willing to sell a dilapidated truck for only $4,500—a sum almost unimaginable for a young boy, but which he is utterly determined to raise. Yes, he too reverts to what some might describe as criminal behavior, loosing the rims off of tires of the cars parked at nearby Shea stadium, peeling off bumpers, and reselling them to other chop shops. He works nights to help in quick breakdowns of stolen cars  with the oily next door owner, Ahmad Razvi as Ahmad. He even robs a stadium event-attending woman of her purse, and steals from his own sister, who—in what is clearly the most painful of his recognitions in this film—he has observed working at nights as a prostitute. Almost in tears, he still says nothing; his world is one of desperation, and he is determined despite his total outside status, to change it.
       As in all of Bahrani’s films I’ve seen, any hope that these endlessly-hoping figures might have is done in by the dominant society. Carlo’s uncle has been willing even to cheat a young boy, as Ahmad reveals that the truck, even if it were able to be refurbished on the outside, would cost more than $10,000 to transform into a permit-passing food truck. 
      The totally believing boy has been duped, and has no choice but to offer it, too, up to the chop shop for $1,000. He has almost nothing to show for his months of sacrifices. And he cannot possibly offer his sister a way out of her distillatory life.

       Yet, even then, we cannot help believing in Ale. Just watching him in his very few moments of pleasure, a simple bicycle ride, an outside view of a baseball game with his friend Carlos, a simple meal at a nearby restaurant, we cannot help but recognize the popcorn-eating child his resilience. This is the kind of person we need in our culture if it is to survive. While so many seek to keep out these “criminal” types, Bahrani reveals that they represent the heart and bone of American culture. These are not dead salesmen; these young smart, if uneducated people, are our future. And if we cannot recognize that fact, we will be part of a dead future, even as we destroy them also in the process of our dying.

      Over the years, Bahrani has become a major voice of the American conscience; and I only wish that all of our leaders might see and feel for his films the way I do.

Los Angeles, February 26, 2017

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