Monday, October 20, 2008

Cecilia Boateng: Response to Ramin Bahrani's Chop Shop

(A student response to a BFS film)

I want to talk about a couple of characters in Chop Shop. I think the director (Ramin Bahrani) used the right characters to get his message across.

Before I talk about the characters, I first want to say something about some of the cinematographic techniques the filmmakers employed. The film is non-narrative and the style is informal. The characters speak vulgar street language. However, Bahrani used very interesting backgrounds to bring out an irony which is worth discussing. Alejandro (Ale), the protagonist, lives in a cluster of shanty auto shops where the people hustle and sometimes steal to make ends meet. The streets are untarred with potholes filled with rain water and most of them do not have good places to sleep. Just across the street, however, is a baseball stadium where everything looks alright with the spectators as they enjoy the games.

I think Bahrani wants to tell us that while some people are well-to-do and enjoying life, unfortunately others are suffering just a few yards away, in the same city. The main characters are Alejandro, Isamar, Carlos, and Ahmad. Coupled with background music like reggae and merengue songs, it clearly appears that the filmmakers want to portray an underdeveloped and impoverished Latino community.

Ramin did something which I think was quite interesting. No narrator mentioned the venue for the movie but the editors used a couple of scenes to tell us that. One is the Mets stadium, but even then it is not a direct message since there are many stadiums in the world. What really confirms the location is the shout of “Let’s go Mets!” from the spectators. Another scene is at the beginning of the movie when the truck driver told Ale to get off his truck. Just as the truck stopped a white van passed by and an inscription “NYPD” was on its side. Also, in the backdrop of this scene I can see the top of the Empire Building. Indirectly editors are telling us that the movie was made in New York.

To say that the whole story took place in a single day would be a lie and impractical. To convey the message that it occurred over a period of time the editors applied some cinematographic techniques that show this passage of time. There are scenes of morning where frames are toned with light bluish color making them relatively fussy. For afternoons, the characters and objects are captured in their natural colors and they appear very clear. There is even a scene where somebody remarks, “It’s hot!” and Ale replies, “Yeah, it’s really hot!” I think the editors added this to imply an afternoon time. There is also a scene of a rainy morning yet the pictures were clear. Metaphorically, I think Bahrani wants to say that all days are not equal. When a night scene comes you can really see it is night time in the movie. They did a good job with the night scenes.

In most movies, night scenes are shot in day light and toned brownish black. In this case, I think they captured the scenes in natural night time, but used the street lights as backdrop to put the characters in focus. With close-up shots I even see the angry facial expressions of Ale as he chances upon what Isi is doing with a man in a car. I think those are brilliant shots.

Speaking of the Ale, he is a child who has been thrown into adulthood prematurely. He is deprived of natural childhood experiences and at such a tender age he has do what adults do to survive. He speaks vulgar language like them, drinks alcohol like them, and discusses adult issues like such as sex. Movies, they say, are a reflection of life in the society. Based on that, I think the director of this movie is telling us what is going on in the deprived communities in America. Some people do not care if children go to school or not. The adults themselves are mostly illiterates and kids are made to hold more responsibilities than their age requires. Such kids never grow past this obstacle because the environment does not permit it.

Nevertheless, Ale is a character with a strong-willed personality. Even the betrayal of Carlos’ uncle cannot stop him. This trait makes him appear “stubborn,” as his sister describes him. His determination is driven by the love for his sister, Isamar (Isi), and his desire to see to it that her needs are met. He loves her so much that not even his close friend, Carlos, can stand in his way. Ale is poor but poverty does not stop him from loving and caring for those in his life. The message here is, where there is a will there is way.

Granted, stealing is not right, but in order not to see her engaged in prostitution he engages in all sort of thievery. I can also say Ale is very forgiving. He trusted his sister but she betrayed his trust. He is devastated after knowing what the sister does at night around the neighborhood. From then on his sense of humor dissipates and he becomes intolerable, but he sees it is wise to forgive her in the end. I think that is how it should be: people close to us can, and will, offend us but if we are able to forgive them happiness will return.

For the character Isamar, what I see is a teenage girl who has potential but the odds are against her. I do not see their parents in the movie, I presume they are dead or have left them. Whatever it is I think there are many girls out there in America who are very caring and want to do the right thing but such difficulties in life do not give them a chance.

Also, in such deprived communities, there are some who have a little or a lot of power over others in terms of money and social status such as Ahmad. As Ramin portrayed him, such people use their position to abuse others as young as Ale. They use kids to perform their evil acts, and can go to the extent of “pimping” teenage girls like Isamar for their personal gain.

The movie’s ending is abrupt and still has some suspense. It makes me wonder what is going happen to Ale and Isi. Other viewers like me will yearn for more.
The most important thing is Ale and Isi are more relaxed now after forgiving each other and life must go on. I also think that Ale has come to terms with reality that he cannot overcome his poverty overnight. It is something that he must wrestle with for the rest of his life.The ending encourages further thinking, which is good.

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