I am beginning to feel a bit like a latter-day Diogenes wandering around with a lamp looking for a honest movie. Following up on my unhappy encounter with “Little Miss Sunshine,” I took in “Man Push Cart” last Friday night. These are two independent American films that have garnered rave reviews. I guess that when it comes to movies and politics, I obey some kind of strange compulsion to think for myself.
“Man Push Cart” sounds like my kind of movie. It is a study of a Pakistani operator of one of those ubiquitous stainless steel coffee and donut carts all over New York, mostly run by recent immigrants from Asia. As someone with a long-standing curiosity about the hidden economic life of this city, I was anxious to see if the film revealed any deep secrets.
Unfortunately, the director Ramin Bahrani, a 30 year old Iranian-American graduate of Columbia University, had very little interest in the underlying social reality. The push cart vendor was merely a convenient symbol for his own existential outlook, borrowed liberally from Albert Camus. In an interview with New York Magazine, Bahrani explained what inspired him to make “Man Push Cart”: “When Bush began to bomb Afghanistan, I realized that all the Afghans I’d ever known were pushcart vendors in New York City. Then I began to think of Camus’s Myth of Sisyphus, and pushing these carts seemed like a modern-day version.”
For those unfamiliar with Camus’s pop philosophy, Sisyphus is mythical Greek King who pushes a huge boulder up a hill only to find that it rolls back down on him as soon as he has reached the top. That is his punishment in hell. For Camus, this was an apt symbol for what he considered to be the futility of radical political change. The 1950s mixed liberal politics with “hip” existential posturing and Camus’s tract could be found next to “Catcher in the Rye” on the bookshelves of millions of undergraduates, including mine.
The best that can be said about Bahrani’s films is that it kept me in my seat 10 minutes longer than “Little Miss Sunshine.” Given my impatience with crap, this is an achievement of sorts, I suppose.
There are two fundamental problems with this overhyped movie. The first has to do with the main character. The second has to do with verisimilitude, a necessity for any film that even begins to base itself on the lives of ordinary people. It is one thing for a Quentin Tarantino film to come up with implausible twists. For a would-be neorealist film aspiring toward heartfelt sympathy for the downtrodden after “The Bicycle Thief,” it is a strategic error.
The vendor, named Ahmad, is played by Ahmad Razvi, an actual coffee cart vendor who Bahrani met out in Queens in a pastry shop. Razvi, who is from Pakistan originally, operated a cart 8 years earlier. In the film, the character is a former pop singer who came to America with his wife and son in order to start a new life. They are separated when the film begins. His economic hardship and his family woes have left Ahmad utterly disconsolate and incommunicative. This is, of course, not a problem for real people in real life, but it subverts the artistic goal of the director by making a cipher the pivotal character of his film.
Ultimately, all good drama is character driven. When you start with a compelling character, like Travis Bickle in “Taxi Driver,” the plot unfolds through his or her contradictions with other characters and with society as a whole. (Bahrani claims that Scorcese’s masterpiece is a major influence. It doesn’t show in my opinion.) It also generates memorable dialog because the exceptional character has exceptional things to say. When you elect to build your story around a taciturn and passive individual like Ahmad, there is no momentum to keep the narrative going.
Shortly after the film begins, Ahmad takes a job moonlighting as an apartment painter for a successful Pakistani businessman named Mohammad (Charles Daniel Sandoval). During a break, Mohammad tells him that he recognizes him from a CD he owned back in Lahore, and then asks him how he ended up as a pushcart operator. That, of course, is an opening for what could have been a powerful scene if Ahmad would have been permitted to recount his sorry descent. Instead, he shrugs his shoulders and states that it is too complicated a story to get into.
Bahrani much prefers to tell his story in visual terms. Rather than wasting 5 minutes allowing his character to fill in the audience on what it means to be a recent immigrant to New York City, he trains his camera on Ahmad pushing his cart silently through the downtown streets or trudging home with a propane tank under his arm. Admittedly, these images have some power when you first see them, but after the fifth iteration they get tiresome.
I walked out before an abortive romance develops between Ahmad and a fellow street vendor for the simple reason that she lacks crediblity. He meets Noemi (Leticia Dolera) running a newsstand one day and strikes up a conversation. She informs Ahmad that she is a college-educated translator from Spain who is betwixt and between. To get straight to the point, it is virtually excluded that such a person would be behind a newsstand counter in New York. These newsstands are always owned and operated by Arabs, Indians or Pakistanis just as barber shops (as opposed to hair salons) are run by Bukharan Jews and dry cleaning shops and fruit-stands are the property of Koreans. The trades and small businesses have historically been the bailiwick of recent immigrants who open up the doors for countrymen. If I were making such a film, I would have opted to explore this subculture rather than create a alternative, fictional reality. Whether Ramin Bahrani was consciously aware that he was defying the laws of New York society is another question. My guess is that he was so preoccupied with making philosophical observations that he never bothered to think in these terms.
If I were teaching film, I’d have my class sit through screenings of Bahrani’s film and “Crimson Gold,” an Iranian film directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Abbas Kiarostami. “Crimson Gold” also features an impassive central character existing on the margins of the urban economy–specifically a pizza pie deliveryman named Hussein who is suffering from shellshock brought on during the Iran-Iraq war. The character is played by the late Hossain Emadeddin, a schizophrenic who Panahi discovered on the streets of Tehran.
There’s a key scene that brings Hussein together with a wealthy countryman, just as occurs in “Man Push Cart.” He delivers a pie to a palatial apartment occupied by a character identified in the cast credits as “The Rich Man” and played by Pourang Nakhael. The rich man proceeds to spell out his frustration with life in Tehran, brags about his sexual conquests and showers hospitality on Hussein who remains silent the entire time. Despite his silence, he remains a powerful dramatic contrast to the utterly narcissistic rich man and as such reminds us of the class divide in current-day Iran. As one might expect, Kiarostami puts powerful words in the rich man’s mouth.
If Bahrani wanted to say something about how the bombing of Afghanistan resonated with pushcart vendors in New York City, it was certainly lost on me. If I were to write such a screenplay, I would have included scenes that reflect the sense of looming victimization that must afflict a Pakistani like Ahmad. That story still remains to be written.