Our Troubled Youth

Our Troubled Youth

Exploring the unexpected: Chop Shop, Paranoid Park, Vantage Point.

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It is a mark of Ramin Bahrani’s integrity that his new film does more than transport you to an unexpected world, as movies often claim to do. Chop Shop specifies how it gets you there: by a hike along an elevated section of New York City highway and a ride on the subway’s G line.

This attention to infrastructure is only fitting, given the setting to which you’re delivered. Chop Shop was shot in the Willets Point section of Queens: the Iron Triangle, as it’s called, where rows of auto body shops stand shoulder to shoulder along the almost-paved streets behind Shea Stadium, home of the New York Mets. In August (when Chop Shop was filmed) the heat-struck road is choked with two solid lanes of cars inching their way into one- and two-story garages that stretch into the distance as far as the eye can see. So it seems, anyway, given the choice of lens that cinematographer Michael Simmonds sometimes makes for establishing shots, to compress the factual into the mind-boggling. But, again, it’s a mark of integrity that the film doesn’t often add such visual emphasis. It doesn’t need to. Straight-on views of corrugated metal gates and flaking Dumpsters, pools of wastewater and heaps of tires, the highway bridge and elevated train and jet airliners roaring overhead give you something that’s as essential to the movies as any flight of fantasy: the eloquence of the real.

By stages, along the highway bridge and through the subway tunnel, Chop Shop brings into the Iron Triangle a slightly fictionalized element: 12-year-old Ale (Alejandro Polanco), a spindly, T-shirted bundle of self-assurance who has received no schooling but figures he knows everything anyhow. Ale is sufficiently wised-up to scam a day-labor contractor into paying him to go away. He understands how to hawk candy bars successfully in the subway, without even a pretense of raising money for a charity. Most promising of all, he’s figured out how to obtain a position with Rob, the owner of a body shop (played by Rob Sowulski, the owner of the garage where Chop Shop was filmed). In exchange for walking down the middle of the street to wave customers into Rob’s shop–plus some work sanding and priming, repairing side-view mirrors, sweeping and locking up–Ale gets a cash salary and permission to live in an upstairs room. This housing is no more than a box of unfinished plywood, furnished with a platform bed, a microwave oven and a single window with a view onto the shop floor below. To Ale, though, it’s the place where he can bring his 16-year-old sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), and make a home.

How did these kids get loose on the street? Where is the rest of their family? The screenplay, written by Bahrani with Bahareh Azimi, leaves the answers to such questions obscure, preferring to adopt a present-tense, matter-of-fact worldview much like Ale’s. Incidents of low drama abound–a disillusionment, a quarrel, a plan gone wrong–but no reversals beyond what you’d expect of an ordinary day or night in Queens. The rhythm is similarly mundane, in the best sense. Chop Shop is the kind of movie that doesn’t cut to an image of people boarding a subway car but instead makes its characters stand on the platform, waiting for the train to emerge from the tunnel and pull to a stop. Despite the astonishment of the setting–do Mets fans suspect this place exists?–the film depends for its effect on Bahrani’s taking time to observe humble details and emotional nuances. He pauses for a close-up of a blue flip-flop sandal as it floats down the street during a rainstorm. He trains his hand-held camera on Ale and Isamar in their room and lets them say nothing for a long time, except for jocular insults that of course say everything.

They share needs and love and also, for lack of any better arrangement, a bed, which accounts for a certain push-and-pull in their relationship. Ale, for all his swagger, still teeters on the verge of puberty, whereas Isamar is conspicuously over the line. Two kids, one of them nubile, on the scuffle in a rough part of town: you can predict the plot turn but not, I think, its emotional resolution, which turns out to be as matter-of-fact, and as satisfying, as the rest of Chop Shop.

If Chop Shop didn’t have the grandeur of its setting, I would call it a miniature. If it lacked the deep, unforced flow of feeling between Ale and Isamar, I might say it was precooked social protest in a can. As it is, though, the film is at once harsh and tender, moral and nonjudgmental, and so surprising that you wonder how anyone could have brought it off. But then, despite the director’s being a New Yorker and the co-writer’s living in France, their names give evidence of an influence from farther east. Chop Shop belongs to a small but fascinating group of Iranian-flavored movies made in New York City–pictures that include films by Amir Naderi and Bahrani’s own first feature, Man Push Cart. To my mind, Chop Shop is the best of the lot, and easily one of the best films released so far this year. If you’re in the city of its origin, you can catch it at Film Forum through March 11.

Except for the occasional Bad Seed or Damien, Spawn of Satan, child characters show us the world of a movie through wide-open, innocent eyes. (Ale does so in Chop Shop, despite the likelihood that a juvenile court judge would call him a hardened criminal.) Adolescent protagonists, by contrast, tend to offer a warped and squinting perspective, since they specialize in two kinds of regard: low and self. They are painfully aware that their view of the world is incomplete, since it does not yet incorporate themselves in settled form. They are also at the point of fearing–or hoping–that a bit of the rot they see everywhere might seep into them.

Gus Van Sant has lingered for decades within this adolescent worldview. Part of the reason, no doubt, is that he finds teenagers to be irresistibly beautiful subjects. Witness Gabe Nevins, a boy with the face and hair of a Pre-Raphaelite angel, who makes his acting debut in Van Sant’s latest film, Paranoid Park. But beyond the attractions of youth, teenagers provide a necessary outlet for a filmmaker with Van Sant’s talent for the porous, the shifting, the willfully uneasy and achingly unfinished. Among all the contrasts between Chop Shop and Paranoid Park–East Coast versus West Coast, poor milieu versus affluent setting, world of work versus world of recreation, straightforward style versus constant artifice–the biggest difference may be one of boundaries. Paranoid Park takes place where perception and emotion leak into each other.

Based on a novel for young adults by Blake Nelson but unfolding more like a story by Virginia Woolf, Paranoid Park takes the form of an associative jumble, scratched into a notebook without regard for chronology by a Portland, Oregon, lad named Alex. It would be a disservice to the movie to straighten out his confession; but you may as well know that he spends the film brooding over a recent, horrible misdeed, which he may or may not keep secret. A police detective suspects; a dryly clever girl in his high school seems to know; but only Alex can decide how much guilt to go on bearing for the event, which happened one night near a rough skateboarders’ park under a downtown bridge.

What did Alex do? It’s easy for Van Sant to address that question, though hard to watch the answer. (I do not recommend Paranoid Park to the squeamish.) But why doesn’t Alex do more? What keeps him from confessing? That’s the challenging question, the one that incites Van Sant to commit cinema, and it can be answered only by watching. The most you can hang on to by way of narrative content is Alex’s voiceover explanation of why he liked the skateboarders’ park: however bad he had it, the street kids there had it worse. The rest of the solution–or, rather, of the mystery–lies in mood, atmosphere, weather.

This may be just a polite way of saying that you spend a lot of time watching Alex walk along the corridors of his high school, to the accompaniment of a collage soundtrack, and a lot of time studying the way the light changes on his face, which it often does for no apparent reason. (The effects may be arbitrary, but since the cinematographer is Christopher Doyle, they’re also splendid to look at.) Enough of this, and you may be tempted to consign Paranoid Park to Andrew Sarris’s category of “Less Than Meets the Eye.”

But as suspense builds in the film–not about the catastrophe but about its aftermath for Alex–an organizing tension also begins to reveal itself. Everything works by contradiction. The scenes of skateboarding, which by rights ought to zoom along giddily, are made slow and weightless. The bloodiest, most nightmarish image is scored to the highest strains of the “Ode to Joy.” Ultimately, the very existence of the movie becomes a study in contradiction, since Paranoid Park presents itself as a realization of Alex’s confessional scribblings–and these turn out to be self-canceling.

Paradox Park, then. It’s not so much a story as an experience: of having the good life (complete with cheerleader girlfriend) but wanting to lose it; of needing your parents but watching them go; of knowing you should think about Iraq and “starving children in Africa” but dwelling on troubles of your own. Above all, the film lets you experience the contradiction that many adolescents feel but that few people can show as well as Van Sant: everything, absolutely everything, is too beautiful to bear.

Short Take: If national tragedies have taught us anything, from the Zapruder film to the videos of the Twin Towers falling, it’s that people love to rewind disaster and watch it again. And so, by way of giving the public what it wants, the producers of Vantage Point have made the Groundhog Day of terrorist thrillers. You see the American President caught up in a shooting and bombing in Spain; and then you see the attack from another character’s viewpoint, and another’s, and another’s, with the action continually starting over from the same moment. I can imagine Brian De Palma using this conceit to mock Americans for their obsessive-compulsive viewing habits. But Vantage Point is the work of screenwriter Barry Levy and director Pete Travis–mark those names–and so you get not a critique but an indulgence. Something swarthy and Islamic this way comes, and comes, and comes; and the character best suited to stop it–Secret Service agent Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid)–is the one terrorists have already unnerved.

An armed nation that feels proud to have the jitters, its eyes fixed perpetually on the very thing that spooks it most–now that’s entertainment!

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