Get your coffee, bagels, and magazines here! If you do, Judge Clark Douglas will be able to own his own push cart.
An authentic New York slice of an authentic New York life.
Writer/director Ramin Bahrani's Man Push Cart is yet another one of those little slice-of-life independent films that seems to have divided its viewers. Roger Ebert has proclaimed the film to be one of the top ten films of 2006, but other critics have complained that the tale is poorly directed, poorly acted, and generally not very interesting. Is Man Push Cart a brilliant look at the life of an ordinary human being, or a mundane cataloguing of the boring and the banal? Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I urge you to consider the details as we examine the case.
Facts of the Case
Ahmad (Ahmad Ravzi) leads a difficult and challenging life. Each night, he goes to a garage and pulls out his heavy cart. He restocks the cart with coffee, bagels, magazines, bootleg DVDs, and other odds and ends, and trudges through the streets of New York City, trying to make a decent day's wages. Ahmad was once a very popular singer in his native country of Pakistan, and most of his fellow Pakistanis in New York seem to recognize him. In the gap between Ahmad's 1995 hit album and his current 2006 job, Ahmad lost his wife in a tragic accident, and had his young son taken away from him. How did this man's life fall apart so drastically?
One day, while doing some carpentry work on the side, Ahmad meets one of his fans from Pakistan. "I can get you some singing work," the new friend promises, "You shouldn't have to be doing this." Things start looking up even more when Ahmad meets Noemi (Letecia Dolera), a charming young woman from Barcelona who works in a small convenience store. Ahmad is also close, so very close, to being able to make his last payment on his cart; it will soon be his very own, and he can start pocketing the profits. For the first time in what surely must be a long time, a small spark can be found in Ahmad's eyes. Is a chance at redemption and a new life just around the corner?
Man Push Cart is the rare independent film that truly feels independent. Perhaps that seems like a strange statement, but let me explain. First, obviously, there are the conventional films that are made by committee, test-audience-built Hollywood creations. But there are also many independent films out there that simply seem to be independent for the sake of being independent. The general rule of thumb is, "Whatever Hollywood does, this movie isn't going to do." Man Push Cart does not conform to the predictable rebel moves of indie cinema or to the standards of modern Hollywood. It exists in its own world, and tells its own story, precisely the way it feels it can tell the story most effectively.
There's a lot of subtle craftsmanship in this movie, and many well-executed moments that seem very natural. If I had to compare Bahrani to another director on the basis of this film, it would be Robert Altman. No, the characters don't talk nearly as much here as they would in an Altman film. However, there's that same sense of eavesdropping here, the feeling that the scenes in the film are being captured rather than staged. Some of the most revealing lines are mumbled in the background, some of the most powerful moments nearly lost in the dark shadows of the night. Combine this skillful direction with the very natural and low-key performance from Razvi (who was once a cart pusher himself), and you have a movie that actually does feel very much like a "slice of life." There's a wonderful scene where Ahmad attempts to sell a couple of bootleg DVDs to some teens. The teens ask for a price. "Two for fifteen dollars," Ahmad replies. The kids decline, and one declares that "I know a guy in Brooklyn who'll give us two for eight bucks." This scene involved a couple of real kids, unaware that they were in a movie. It flows perfectly with the rest of the film, offering an indication with just how realistic everything feels.
As with many of Altman's films, some viewers may grow a little frustrated. That's because Man Push Cart isn't as interested in events or plot developments as it is in human behavior, the way people respond to events in their lives. The film also vaguely resembles some of Werner Herzog's "documentaries," in the way it blends dramatic fiction with actual truth. While Herzog calls a film like Little Dieter Needs to Fly a documentary, and Razvi calls Man Push Cart a fictional film, there's about an equal level of truth and reality in both. It's what Herzog calls an "ecstatic truth," the melding of fictional elements and reality to create a "deeper, more meaningful truth." All that to say, we probably learn more about the life of an immigrant push cart owner from watching this film than we would from watching a 100 percent realistic documentary on an actual immigrant push cart owner.
There are a few extras on the disc, the most notable being a commentary from Bahrani, Razvi, the assistant director, and the cinematographer. The track is generally informal and conversational, as these four film buffs share stories, technical info, and ponder whether they can get free tickets to film festival screenings. There's some interesting stuff here, particularly the unique challenges of the film's production (apparently quite a few people idiotically mistook the crew for a group of terrorists). Two of Bahrani's short films are included on the disc, "Bad Reception" and "Dogs." "Bad Reception" is very brief (under two minutes), and features Razvi and Lisa Bonet chatting in an elevator. "Dogs" is only six minutes, and presents some footage of stray dogs at a film festival. Both of these are modestly interesting experiments, but I doubt you'll feel a desire to give either short a repeat viewing. Finally, the film's theatrical trailer is included, along with trailers for six other indie films.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Despite its many attributes, Man Push Cart certainly isn't flawless. While the acting of the two main actors is exemplary, many of the smaller supporting characters stick out like sore thumbs due to their poor acting skills. I realize that Man Push Cart is a low-budget film, and Bahrani probably couldn't afford to hire "proper" actors, but there are a handful of scenes that feel a little bit forced due to the performances of some of the supporting players. Also, the technical aspects of this release are a little bit lacking. The movie isn't much fun to look at, with the dark of night obscuring a lot of what's going on in certain scenes. It would have been particularly nice to have slightly better audio on this release, too; Man Push Cart falls a little short when it comes to capturing the sound of New York City at night.
Lest you think that I'm about to call Bahrani the next Herzog or Altman, I'm not. However, I think he's got that kind of potential. Man Push Cart hints at an ability to capture the extraordinary elements in ordinary things, and I hope that we get to see Bahrani grow and develop as a director in the years to come. If he can find a way to meld the significant gifts he all ready has with some stronger skills in a few technical departments, Bahrani could become a truly great director. As for Man Push Cart, it certainly warrants a recommendation. If you're the sort of viewer who is tired of all the superheroes and fantasy characters, and you'd like to see a thoughtful and quiet movie about a real human being, this one should be near the top of your list.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Lorber
• Audio Commentary with Director Ramin Bahrani, Cinematographer Michael Simmons, Assistant Director Nicholas Elliot, and Actor Ahmad Razvi
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