The Black Hole of the Camera

Me And You and Memento and Fargo


Chop Shop

Ramin Bahrani’s first feature Man Push Cart (2005), which played opening night at last year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, explores the world of a Pakistani pop musician, whose immigrant status has forced him to operate a push cart in Manhattan. More than anything, it’s a meditation on the streets of New York City at night, as Bahrani emphasizes the cinematic details of this milieu over plot in order to create a kind of poetic realism. His lead actor from Man Push Cart, Ahmad Razvi, now operates an auto body shop in the Willets Point section of Queens, right near Shea Stadium, where the New York Mets play. But Bahrani’s second feature, Chop Shop (2007), which premiered at Cannes and will also play at this year’s Wisconsin Film Festival, focuses not on Razvi, but on a scrawny twelve-year-old Latino kid, Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco), who works at another chop shop where the owner allows him to live upstairs. Bahrani eschews expository background information about Alejandro, or Ale, as he’s called in the film. Suffice to say that Ale’s a survivor, the type of kid who can’t be held down, no matter what obstacles life hurls in his path.

Ale concocts a scheme to buy a lunch truck, so that he and his sixteen-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), can control their own destinies. It represents his ticket out of the chop shops and her escape from having to turn tricks with truckers, a painful discovery that Ale makes one night during the course of the film. Whereas some plot elements are initiated and not necessarily developed in Man Push Cart, Bahrani does the same in Chop Shop – the broken lock on the door, Ale’s hiding place for the money, Ale’s suspicions of Lilah – in order to build a sense of impending catastrophe. Ale attempts to navigate a treacherous world with an optimism that – as might be expected of someone so young – is also remarkably naive. Ale is only a youngster after all, even if he races around the neighborhood with the bravado of an ultimate fighter.

Ale moves from day laborer, to hawking candy on the subway, to steady work in the chop shops, to selling DVDs, to stealing hub caps from the stadium parking lot, to more serious crime. As a result, the film moves forward with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy, but Bahrani wisely ends his film on a metaphor that’s similar to one that Charles Burnett used throughout his film of a South Central family under siege, To Sleep With Anger. Bahrani, who is Iranian American, grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina and went to film school at Columbia, collaborates with cinematographer, Michael Simmonds, to make a film that never lapses into sentimentality. The two of them are much more interested in capturing the look and texture of this underground economy with closely observed poetic images, such as a blue rubber sandal floating down a flooded street or a black pit bull attacking a car jack with menacing ferocity.

Much of the film involves Ale’s relationship with Isamar. Although he’s much younger, Ale is the one who gets her a job and a place to stay above Rob’s chop shop. Isamar complains about the cramped quarters, but Ale counters that it has a bed, microwave, and refrigerator, which is stocked with bottles of grape soda. When Ale observes Isamar struggling at her job – she’s lazy rather than ambitious like him – he also comes up with a master plan. What’s interesting about their relationship is the role reversal. Although he loves her intensely, Ale acts very much like a jealous boyfriend or husband, trying hard to manage and control every aspect of his sister’s life. Despite his young age, he’s the pragmatic and responsible one in the family. Ale knows that he can’t afford to be kicked out of the auto repair shop for having parties. There are also certain things that are left unsaid in their relationship. Blood trumps friendship. When Ale discovers how his sister spends her nights, and his pint-sized friend Carlos (Carlos Zapata) makes the mistake of verbalizing what they have both witnessed, Ale storms off and refuses to acknowledge his friend, who has crossed that mysterious line we all draw with invisible ink when it comes to personal boundaries.

The most interesting aspect about Chop Shop is the film’s naturalism, which is enhanced by Bahrani’s use of non-professional actors, fluid camera work, and, in particular, how he deals with the script. Like so many recent independent films films, such as Aaron Katz’s Quiet City and Ronald Bronstein’s Frownland, the script, which was written by Bahrani and Bahareh Azimi, became altered in the process of making the film. In an interview in Filmmaker, Bahrani told Nick Dawson:

There was a very detailed script which was never shown to the actors. We would rehearse with them for months in advance, so I would tell Ale and Izzy, “Alright, in this scene this happens. This scene is about this” and I would tell each of them separately what I thought the scene would be about for them, not in intellectual terms, but in the most fundamental terms. They remember enough of it to get the point and then they say it the way they want to say it. I’d record all the rehearsals and I’d transcribe the best of what they’d changed. If they forgot things that were important, I’d remind them, because they don’t read the words, they say it in their own language. “Those shoes are fake.” “No, they’re real.” That’s what it says in the script, but Izzy says, “No, they official.” That’s fuckin’ great, man. I don’t talk like that and I don’t know about it, but whenever she didn’t say “No, they official,” I’d say “Whoa, whoa, whoa, you said ‘No, they official.’ I like that. You have to say that from now on.”

Bahrani’s method of working benefits from improvisation. The scenes are transformed by the actors, so that the resulting changes then become incorporated into the script. Although Chop Shop appears to have a documentary-like spontaneity, the film was very carefully blocked and shot. Its sense of realism is the result of a familiarity built up with the film’s various participants over an extended period of time.

If there are things about Chop Shop that feel a bit deja vu, it has to do with the fact that we’ve seen this story countless times before – the poor orphan kid who struggles to get out of poverty against impossible odds. What’s unusual, however, is that even though the story has become a staple of art cinema – from Italian neo-realism to recent Iranian cinema – Bahrani chooses to focus on the multiethnic underclass within this country. Bahrani shows us a world that’s not untypical, but rather one that most Americans choose to ignore, because it neither matches our national self-image, nor gets represented on our movie screens. As Bahrani puts it: “I bring you to these places that no one wants to accept that they exist. These movies aren’t about marginal characters, despite what people say. These movies are about how most people in the world live: check to check, month to month, day to day.”

Chop Shop will screen at the festival on Saturday, April 5 at 1 PM and Sunday, April 6 at 5:15PM at MMoCA. For further information about the Wisconsin Film Festival, please click here.

Posted 24 March, 2008

Adapting Paranoid Park

In a recent interview in the New York Times, Gus Van Sant discusses his adaptation of Blake Nelson’s teen novel into the film version of Paranoid Park. According to Van Sant: “I wrote it quickly, in two days. I outlined the parts I wanted, wrote it out script style, transposing in some ways, not even rewriting. I would take the descriptions and make those scene headings, and then I would take dialogue and make it dialogue. It was almost like Xeroxing the story. Then I shifted it around and got rid of some of the parts.”

I was intrigued enough by Van Sant’s comments that I decided to read the novel in order to better understand its transposition to the screen. It turns out that Van Sant’s description of the process is pretty accurate. As one might imagine, the novel provides a great deal more exposition, especially about the interior panic of its unnamed protagonist once he accidentally kills a train guard. In the book, he’s sixteen or slightly older than the actor (Gabe Nevins) who plays him, as well as a lot more forthcoming and articulate about his feelings. In Nelson’s novel, the teenager has a revelation about himself while lying in bed one night: “I was a bad person.” He explains: “Character is fate. My English teacher had written it on the board at the beginning of school. I had a bad character, I was a bad person, and now my fate had caught up to me.”

The book follows a diary-like format. Although I was somewhat confused by scenes of Alex at the beach in the film, the novel makes it clear that he’s at his Uncle Tommy’s beach house, where he’s writing the story over winter break. We learn more about the other characters as well, especially Macy. Nelson’s protagonist describes her as having had a crush on him in sixth grade. In one scene that’s not in the film, she wants him to help her friend buy a skateboard for her boyfriend – an idea that he finds idiotic. The narrator comments: “It was so ridiculous about girls. They get these schoolgirl crushes on you, and you can do no wrong. Then they stop liking you and they want to boss you around, like you were once their boyfriend, which you never were. You never even liked them.” He changes his mind, however, and helps them buy a skateboard at a store downtown. He and Macy eventually get closer, especially when she intuits that he harbors a dark secret. In fact, he starts to fall in love with her by the end.

Even though Van Sant’s film is decidedly non-linear, he also takes the liberty of shifting scenes around. In the film, for instance, the sex scene with Jennifer does not occur after they go ice skating, but actually happens earlier. The order of the interrogation scenes are also reversed in the film. Van Sant has Detective Lu interview Alex first, then later as part of a larger group of skateboarders. In the novel, Detective Brady pushes his individual questioning much further than in the film by asking the teenager to imagine what he would do if he had committed the crime. Detective Brady shows up a third time and drives the narrator downtown. He discusses his breakup with Jennifer with the detective, and spots Scratch’s friend, Paisley, among a group of street kids Brady asks him to identify.

Van Sant also eliminates still another scene in which the protagonist returns to Paranoid Park with several friends, including Jared. He’s recognized by Paisley, who confronts him about Scratch and the police crackdown. A group of her street friends then chase after him and start to beat him up, before the narrator gets rescued by Detective Brady. He decides to bare his soul to Brady, but discovers that the detective has lied to him about his own parents being divorced.

Like the work of Dreyer, Van Sant’s elliptical rendering of the novel benefits from subtraction – less somehow ends up being more. Alex becomes more inscrutable as a result of Van Sant choosing to remove exposition as well as certain suspenseful and dramatic scenes, while sticking to the surface. Even the breakup between Alex and Jennifer is presented without dialogue. In my previous post, I suggested that Van Sant focuses on the face of Alex throughout Paranoid Park. The real surprise, for me, has to do with the fact that this idea derives from the book’s epigraph. It’s from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment: “Young man,” he went on, raising his head again, “in your face I seem to read some trouble of mind.” Because Gabe Nevins’s face is not transparent, Van Sant’s close scrutiny of it, and its lack of disclosure, only serves to imbue the teenage protagonist with an even greater sense of mystery.

Posted 17 March, 2008

Paranoid Park

Paranoid Park (2007) confirms Gus Van Sant’s status as one of the top American independent filmmakers working today. If his last two films, Elephant (2003) and Last Days (2005) were loosely based on already well-known figures and events – the Columbine shootings and the demise of rock star Kurt Cobain – Van Sant’s superb new film, adapted from Blake Nelson’s novel, focuses on a shy and disaffected teenage skateboarder named Alex (Gabe Nevins), who accidentally kills a security guard while hitching trains one night. In this latest film, Van Sant moves even further away from the dialogue-driven script – he completed the adaptation in a mere two days – toward a film that relies heavily on visual storytelling

Paranoid Park is more boldly free-form than Van Sant’s previous trilogy, but it borrows some of the same strategies for a somewhat different effect. Van Sant still plays with temporality by scrambling time as the film shifts the chronology of events to explore the guilt-ridden psyche of its teenage protagonist, who’s clearly gotten himself into a situation that’s way over his head. Alex is barely able to negotiate everyday life, never mind a crisis of this magnitude. Van Sant creates an impressionistic look at this introverted kid’s world – his relationships with his estranged parents, friends, and his jealous and demanding girlfriend, Jennifer (Taylor Momsen). Van Sant speeds up and slows down time, giving equal weight to long lyrical passages of kids skateboarding. Sounds of birds once again suggest the inner turmoil of Alex, connecting him to the troubled shooter of the same name in Elephant.

On a surface level, Van Sant shows the same fascination with the world of teenage outcasts as Larry Clark. Whereas Clark’s Wassup Rockers (2005) and his subsequent photo show of its lead actor, Jonathan Velasquez, felt voyeuristic and ultimately exploitative, Van Sant avoids fixating on teenage bodies in the same leering way. Instead, cinematographer Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li’s camera focuses more heavily on the light that illuminates the protagonist’s angelic face, linking Alex – with his eyes raised toward heaven – more directly to the history of painting.

Paranoid Park opens with a shot of the massive steel bridge straddling the river in the city of Portland, as we watch cars in fast motion traverse the expanse, with the city in the background and gray clouds in the sky. Alex writes the words “Paranoid Park” in a lined notebook. We see him walking in a field with a dog. As Van Sant does so often in Elephant, Van Sant follows his subject from behind as Alex strides toward the beach, where he sits on a bench with his notebook and reflects. In voiceover, he describes Jared (Jake Miller) and the skateboard haven known as Paranoid Park. Alex doesn’t believe he’s ready to go there, but Jared convinces him otherwise. About a month later, Alex gets called out of class at school.

Once inside the main office, Detective Richard Lu (Daniel Liu) questions Alex about his whereabouts on a particular September evening. Alex is more articulate in describing the contents of a Subway sandwich than in providing other details of the night in question. Lu’s line of questioning suggest a shared rapport with the teenager, when, in fact, there’s an enormous chasm between them. In a subsequent scene, Lu calls in the various skateboarders. He suggests that they can call him “Rich,” and discusses his desire to make contact with this particular “community” – a concept that completely eludes these kids. When Alex later wonders about Lu’s suspicions, one of his friends remarks that cops are paid “the same as a janitor.”

In the first scene with Lu, we learn certain background information about Alex, namely, that his parents are in the process of getting a divorce, as well as the fact that he has a younger brother and girlfriend. When Lu indicates that a skateboarder from Paranoid Park was most likely at the scene of a horrific crime, the camera slowly moves in closer toward Alex, eventually framing the blank reaction on his face, as we hear the sound of a loud scream from offscreen.

After Alex returns to class in a slow-motion tracking shot down the school hallway, we see documentary shots of skateboarders and other people, whose faces have been blacked out. Jared announces his desire to go to Paranoid Park the next day. Alex also explains the issues with his cheerleader girlfriend. He claims that Jennifer is nice, but she’s still a virgin. Alex knows that sooner of later they’ll have sex and things will get a lot more complicated as a result.

Alex borrows his mother’s car and heads to Paranoid Park, where he meets a hardcore skateboarder named Scratch (Scott Patrick Green). Alex thinks the park is great, but he also worries about his parents and the stress their impending divorce is having on his younger brother. He also wishes that he and Jennifer had more in common, but he really wants to ride the freight trains with the other train hoppers from Paranoid Park.

We learn from a female neighbor friend named Macy (Lauren McKinney) that Alex has broken up with Jennifer. Macy also suspects that he harbors a dark secret. She flat out asks him, “Did something happen to you?” Alex does end up acknowledging that something has happened. It is only at the end of the film that we realize that Macy is the one who has convinced Alex to write down the events that he narrates as a way of purging himself of what’s weighing on him. She tells him, “Write it to me.” He does, but burns the evidence.

The weight of the crime causes Alex to lie on a number of occasions – to Detective Lu, his mother, Jared, and even to Macy, who seems to know when he’s being untruthful. There’s a scene where Alex’s mother asks him about a phone call to his Uncle Tommy, with whom his father is staying. When it turns out that the call was made at 4:35 in the morning, Alex suggests that he was “half-asleep” or “maybe even sleepwalking.” It’s the kind of preposterous lie that teenagers continually tell, as if most adults are completely stupid. His mother doesn’t call him on it, which makes its own sad statement.

Alex says of the crime, “I tried to put that part out of my mind,” but Lu’s pictures of the victim’s severed body bring it vividly back to mind. We see Scratch and Alex hopping the freight train and the security guard running after them. After the gruesome accident occurs, Van Sant cuts from the victim’s face as he crawls toward them, to two different shots of Alex, to Detective Lu, then back to the security guard and Alex’s startled reaction. As Alex flees the train yard afterwards, we hear his confused internal monologue – the rationalizations and jumble of thoughts flooding his mind. In the film’s most spectacular visual sequence, Alex showers in an attempt to wash away the crime. We see his lowered face as water spills over his hair. As a result of Van Sant changing the camera speed, narrowing the shutter angle, and moving a hand-held 2K light, the scene darkens and brightens. Images of birds decorate the wallpaper in the background as Alex slowly slides down in the shower and the sounds of birds keep getting louder.

After ice skating one afternoon, Jennifer seduces Alex. He lies there impassively in a lovemaking scene that’s rendered as light reflected off her blond hair and his deadpan face. Afterwards, she suggests getting more condoms. At school the next day, she asks whether Alex has gotten them. When he indicates that it was her idea, this elicits an angry response, but Alex appeases her by suggesting that he thought they would get them together. Alex later breaks up with Jennifer in a scene in which the diegetic sound of their argument has been replaced by music.

Paranoid Park explores the strange confusion of being a teenager, compounded by the burden of guilt and hidden secrets. Van Sant’s elliptical storytelling reflects Alex’s fragmentary attempts to tell his story, while managing somehow to render this transitional period of being a teenager with more depth and complexity than would seem possible. The scrambled subjective narration and use of repetition prevents Paranoid Park from ever becoming predictable, while the broad range of tonal shifts – the abstract interplay between image and sound – show Van Sant to be able to make a great work with an economy of means.

Posted 9 March, 2008