Thursday, October 22, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Ramin Bahrani

Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. Glad to see the first installment generated lots of conversation and debate. Sticking with my promise to feature young talent along with legends, this weeks subject is Ramin Bahrani.

Number of Films:
Modern Masterpieces: You could make a case for any of them and I’d be inclined to agree with you.For my money, Chop Shop is the winner.
Total Disasters: None.The term “disaster” seems so intertwined with excesses.
Better than you remember: none, unless you remember any as being bad.
Awards: A handful of awards from small film festivals and a little Independent Spirit recognition.
Box Office: Keeps improving though don’t expect any of his films to make a lot of money.Goodbye Solo is the current champ with just over $800,000
Critical Consensus: Critics love him.Chop Shop and Goodbye Solo duke it out for his best reviewed.
Favorite Actor: Ahmad Razvi from Man Push Cart showing up in Chop Shop (in support) is the only overlap.

Let's talk about:
The American Dream. Ramin Bahrani seems like a fitting director to discuss following Martin Scorsese, as the two have a lot in common.Both are first-generation Americans whose directorial sensibilities are deeply rooted in the classic cinema of their heritage. And while their films aren’t always about the “immigrant experience,” they deal regularly in the lives of outsiders, those with seemingly no place in the world. But here’s where the similarities end: Scorsese loves his outsiders conflicted, alienated, angry. Bahrani’s outsiders are well meaning, hard working, and headed directly for the brick wall of reality. Which brings us back to the “American Dream,” which despite being a cliché and a loaded term, still has enough people aiming for it, that it’s worth exploring. And Bahrani’s films never feel cliché, contrived, or even manipulative. Starting with Man Push Cart, we know relatively soon that Ahmad’s future won’t be bright and joyous. It seems like such a natural assumption, even though it’s based off little else other than the fact that he seems like a nice guy (oh cinematic nice guys, neorealist films be your doom).

Ramin Bahrani

Ahmad is literally an immigrant though Ale, the boy at the center of Chop Shop, may not be (it hardly matters). Ale is far further out of place among the slums of New York’s Iron Triangle (more than a few critics noted how closely it resembles a third-world country). Here Bahrani seems further intent on drawing a line between the hope, represented by Ale who’s saving up money to buy a food cart, and the sad practicality (Ale’s teenage sister, who’s method of making money is more fatalistic) of the American Dream. Their ability, or inability to coexist takes us into another realm of the dream (it’s not all economics, you know), love, familial, or otherwise. It’s almost too much to ask: love and money. But don’t despair. Even though we spend the film hopelessly rooting for Ale and sister Isamar, it’s not a masochistic endeavor.

Finally with Goodbye Solo, Bahrani again separates the hope and despair, this time represented by immigrant Senegalese cab driver Solo and disgruntled senior William who strike up a unique friendship (doesn’t that just sound Hollywood-esque… it’s not). Solo’s future looks brighter than any Bahrani character thus far but he’s naturally headed up against a brick wall, courtesy end-of-his-rope William. Solo is a great character, optimistic, full of life. When, half way through the film, something goes well for him, you might find yourself shocked (considering Bahrani’s record). But as he comes the recognize the inevitable existence of impossible demons near the end of the film, I couldn’t help but ponder how much William represents Solo plus time. Now there’s a depressing thought.

I don’t want to end on a depressing thought, so here’s some good news for you: There’s this young director named Ramin Bahrani who proves that the future of cinema isn’t as bleak as you’re led to believe. Roger Ebert calls him “the new great American director.” He’s right.

Oh and a quick pet peeve. When researching this article, I came across the phrase “Iranian director” more than a few times. Though there’s little doubt that Bahrani has been influenced by the great Iranian New Wave films of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf (who in turn were influenced by the great Neorealists of Italy who, of course were vital in shaping the work of that other great American director, Martin Scorsese) Mr. Bahrani was born in North Carolina.


Ryan T. said...

I recently saw Goodbye Solo which may be the only film he has directed that I've seen, but I thought it was simply wonderful. I really should check out his other works, I suppose.

Anonymous said...

Great to see him listed. Definitely one of this decade's greats and I can't wait to see what he does next.

Is he a blindspot for Nathaniel? I can't remember him making any mention of having seen any of his films.



brian he is indeed a blind spot for me. well, i can SEE him. I mean I know of him since that's my job but i've been remiss in actually watching something.

must make effort.

Anonymous said...

Yes!!! Thank you for this. Probably the best new director this decade.

Ben said...

Yes! "Chop Shop" made my top 10 last year and "Goodbye Solo" is easily in my top 2 this year (with "The Hurt Locker"). I love his style, which the NYTimes dubbed "the neo-neorealism).

Arkaan said...

I've only seen Chop Shop, and was unimpressed.

Robert said...

neo-neorealism.... I love it!

Jeff GP said...

He's great, and I agree that CHOP SHOP is his best, an unsanitized, more heartfelt and altogether superior picture to its more popular cousin, SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE. They really are quite similar narratively, though couldn't be more different tonally. A boy and his buddy struggle to make ends in one of the biggest cities in the world by any means necessary, navigating the unpredictable adult population all for the hope of providing for the girl he loves. Rather than a silly movie romantic love, it's for the love of his older sister, who suffers much the same fate as Latika in SLUMDOG. No slight to the entertaining enough SLUMDOG, but watching this movie really puts things into perspective.

Anonymous said...

Great review and happy to see his listing. However, I am uneasy about the term of "awards from a handful of smaller festivals", considering all of his films have premiered at either Cannes or Venice! (Not to mention the Fipresci International Critics Award for MPC in London and for Goodbye Solo at Venice).

Anonymous said...

Oh, also Bahrani has also made a new 18min short film PLASTIC BAG which premiered in Venice, Telluride and New York FF 2009 and features the voice of Werner Herzog in the leading role.

Robert said...

Hooman - you're right about his films premiering in big festivals. But they often go on to smaller festivals where, quite understandably, they're found to be the best film there.

Will said...

very surprised as well as many others to see him listed. but i see him doing big things in the future; i felt goodbye solo was a big jump up from chop shop and man push cart

Anonymous said...

Robert - Oh , ok, I see, thanks for clearing that up! Great write up!

Johnny said...

Whoa. Never heard of this guy in my life. Off to IMDB now.

Eric Kimberly said...

I watched all of his films over the summer. I would say Goodbye Solo > Man Push Cart > Chop Shop. I loved them all though.

Goodbye Solo is my favorite film of 2009 so far, by a lot.

Jenny K. said...

Very nice write up. I met Mr. Bahrani and Mr. Razvi at, wait for it, a small Asian film festival in Pittsburgh a few years back when they were doing the circuit for Man Push Cart. I remember liking them both very much and having an interesting conversation with them on the film. It is rare to have the opportunity to pick the brains of "the talent" like that, and I did appreciate their generosity. I am sorry to say, I haven't followed up watching any other of their films yet, but plan to do so now that you've reminded me. Thanks so much!