Ghostly trajectories: neorealism
and urban movement in Ramin Bahrani's "American Dream" trilogy

by Kyle Miner

Iranian American director Ramin Bahrani's first three U.S. films—Man Push Cart (2005), Chop Shop (2007), and Goodbye Solo (2008)—have in the years since their release been dubbed his "American Dream Trilogy." Small-scale, economically independent productions made in quick succession, the films tell distinct but narratively and aesthetically similar stories about immigrant characters striving for economic success and security in a post-9/11, pre-financial crisis United States. Man Push Cart follows Ahmad, an Iranian immigrant who operates a small food cart in Manhattan with hopes of paying off the loan on his cart and saving up for a larger apartment that will enable his young son to come live with him. Ale, the young protagonist of Chop Shop, lives in a small office above the titular Willets Point auto shop where he works off the books, saving his cash earnings in order to buy a food truck to operate with his sister Isamar. Goodbye Solo's lead is a Senegalese immigrant (named Solo) who drives a taxi in Winston-Salem, saving up for his own cab while he prepares to take the exam to become a flight attendant. All three films have similar, minimalist narrative structures. The protagonists repeatedly perform the same respective routines of menial, service-oriented labor with the promise that it will propel them to a stage of economic stability and security, but that advancement is instead perpetually delayed through various obstacles, both social and economic.

To represent the tension between a (failing) struggle for social mobility and perpetual forward motion in the face of defeat, Bahrani develops this figurative running-in-place through formal techniques that emphasize routine and repetition. Of his characters, Bahrani notes that "all of them, in a way, can be connected to the myth of Sisyphus," a fitting comparison given that Ahmad, Ale, and Solo are depicted ever moving toward the same illusory goal (Scott). Ultimately, the spaces of commercial agency that the characters rely on to propel them to their intended next social and economic stages—and importantly, the spaces that provide most, but not all, of the capital through which they hope to attain this mobility—end up being spaces they cannot leave: Ahmad's cart is stolen just after he makes his final loan payment; Ale discovers the food truck he eventually purchases will require thousands of extra dollars to get up to code; and Solo fails his flight attendant exam.

In conceiving of Ahmad, Ale, and Solo as forever trapped by U.S. capitalist structures and economic forces, Bahrani in part refuses to yield to the Hollywood imperative that such narratives of struggle must result in cathartic deliverance from poverty. The narrative emphasis on the futility of the characters' repetitive work cycles challenges the traditional U.S. "rags-to-riches" stories that are so often the predominant vehicles for cinematic representations of the culturally and economically disenfranchised. In this way the films disrupt viewers’ orientation toward more popular, commercially motivated “American Dream” narratives, in which traditional "bootstrap" myths are conveniently and neatly confirmed by the end of the film, when the characters ultimately achieve feel-good, hard-fought success just in time for audiences to leave the theater.

In emphasizing flat, repetitive routines of work and mundane details of characters' daily lives, Bahrani's common narrative and formal structure has prompted comparisons with neorealism.[1] [open endnotes in new window] While I'm hesitant to label the films "neorealist"—discussed in more detail below—it is helpful to think about how some of their thematic and aesthetic affinities with neorealism and other "realist" movements can help further illuminate the sociopolitical function of certain narrative patterns and practices. I specifically want to look at the way movement—both physical and socio-economic—is represented through some of the formal and aesthetic sensibilities of neorealism. Indeed Bahrani's characters are almost always in motion. Chop Shop's Ale and Carlos are consistently moving through New York streets and subway tunnels peddling candy, DVDs, and other quasi-legal goods. In Man Push Cart, Ahmad weaves through dark, pre-rush hour streets and alleys to get a coffee cart positioned for the morning rush in downtown Manhattan. And we follow Solo as he drives passengers through the streets of Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Yet in their perpetual motion Bahrani’s protagonists chart trajectories through and around what Marc Auge calls "non-places"—those (mostly) ahistorical places of transit and flow that "cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity" and that thus "are not themselves anthropological places" (63). That the characters rely on such ahistorical and transitional spaces for most of their work and earnings (both commercially sanctioned and illicit) is especially important in understanding how Bahrani's trilogy offers a criticism of the American Dream mythos. We see Ahmad, Ale, and Solo performing various types of non-licensed work in the non-places through which they are constantly moving—selling pirated DVDs and other goods on the street, breaking down cars for parts, Solo using his cab to transport a drug-dealer friend—utilizing their access to these spaces as a means to secure the financial resources they need to move into the more traditional commercial spaces from which they've been excluded. I want to argue that in deploying what Michel de Certeau terms "tactics" in their negotiations of these non-places, Bahrani's characters reintroduce and maintain traces of cultural and economic history that in turn resignify them as (distinctly American) anthropological spaces. In acting both as reminders of capitalism's failures and neglects as well as commercial agents on their own terms, Bahrani's characters simultaneously manifest traces of exclusionary and oppressive capitalist systems in Auge's flattened non-places and also reintroduce the contingency and possibility for subversion that de Certeau terms necessary for "making do."

While it's tempting to read the films as narratives of heartbreaking failure—social immobility rendered in the harsh terms of cold realism and held up as a mirror to U.S. audiences—the tone at the end of each is inflected with subtle hints of hope. Ahmad's interaction with a final pre-dawn customer returns the rhythm of the film to the procedural, self-propelled calm of the opening sequence. The camera makes an uncharacteristically swift movement upward and away from Ale and Isamar to follow birds taking flight. Solo's somber drive down from Blowing Rock is filmed in a tranquil, meditative long shot. In returning to Bahrani's comparison with the myth of Sisyphus, the films suggest that it may be an error to ever expect the characters to move beyond a certain socio-economic point in the first place. Far from a troubling acceptance of the characters’ socio-economic immobility, the films' repetitive structures suggest that for many of those like Ahmad, Ale, and Solo, the "American Dream" may be more an engine of movement than a real destination. In keeping with this reality Bahrani is able to find real sites of struggle (and sometimes temporary victories) as opposed to escapist wish fulfillment.

Some kind of (neo)realism

Bahrani's early work is so often discussed in relation to various neorealist movements[2] in part due to a broad and historically non-specific affinity with neorealism's perceived social function. The "American Dream" films are easy to dub neorealist because of their aesthetic and formal focus on the "quotidian rhythms" of marginalized individuals' daily lives in the pursuit of dreams rendered "cruelly untenable" in a more grounded socio-economic reality (Scott). The specific question of whether Bahrani's American Dream Trilogy can be situated at the recent end of a lineage tracing back to Italian neorealism, with its heavy postwar influence and often debatable canon, strikes me as unimportant outside the context of a strictly historiographic exercise. Bahrani himself even notes the inconsistency with which neorealism is applied as an aesthetic or generic title to two directors of so-called "Iranian neorealism," Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whom he nevertheless acknowledges as important influences (Porton 47). What can be agreed upon, I think, by most who have seen Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, or Goodbye Solo is that these films share certain qualities of aesthetic minimalism, improvisation, and pseudo-documentary connections to the "real world." I want to quickly discuss some of these characteristics as a way of introducing (in addition to the films themselves) certain key structural moves to be discussed later.[3]

Concerned with the experiences of immigrants pursuing their individual versions of the American Dream, Bahrani's characters are played by predominantly non-professional actors whose own lives and experiences often exercise a shaping influence on the story. (Taking a page from one of his Iranian influences, Abbas Kiarostami, many characters share their corresponding actor's real name.) Bahrani often puts his actors into "real" settings in which bystanders don't realize they're in a film—as in the scenes showing Ahmad's daily interactions with customers in Man Push Cart, or in Chop Shop when the boys try to sell DVDs and candy on the streets and in subway cars. Fernando Canet notes in his discussion of the latter film that Bahrani was so devoted to maintaining the uncertainty of such unstaged scenes that "[he] would avoid saying 'action' or 'cut,' in order to capture spontaneous footage of both the actors and the location. Sometimes even the crew could not distinguish between the script and the improvisations" (163). This intentional blurring of the boundary between documentary and fiction works to pull the "objective" reality of recognizable contemporary spaces into the diegetic narrative, with Bahrani asking "is it documentary or fiction? It doesn't matter. What matters is the basic truthfulness of the premise" (Porton46). Importantly, people's reactions to the characters are for this reason often genuine, offering an (arguably) more accurate mirror of the subjective reality of the characters and by implication the many individuals for whom they act as narrative stand-ins.

In other instances, Bahrani utilizes the "reality" of a public space by co-opting it entirely, as with the Willets Point repair shop actually run by the character of Rob Sowulski (his real name) in Chop Shop. The director even went so far as to have 12-year-old Alejandro Polanco spend six months working in and around Sowulski's shop so that his ostensible knowledge of mechanics, parts, pricing, and lingo would appear genuine on screen, noting that later Willets Point occupants were so familiar with Ale they thought Bahrani and his crew were filming a documentary (Canet 159). Bahrani says that, as with his characters, the locations and ideas for his films often emerge out of his interactions with real places, noting,

"I usually have the locations before I start writing or while I've started writing. I write while I'm coming back and forth between locations. So the locations become truly integral to how the story is told and how it's being envisioned from the script stage" (Porton 44).

Chop Shop continues to be especially useful here for the way it functions as a distinct, fixed intersection of various cultural and commercial flows. While Winston-Salem (and later Blowing Rock) serves as a character in itself in Goodbye Solo, the majority of the action takes place inside Solo's roaming cab. And while Ahmad navigates through a web of Manhattan streets in Man Push Cart, his exact location of operation varies based on the other odd jobs he's performing. However, while Ale's ventures take him to several different parts of the city as well, he always winds up back at Rob's shop, where an office doubles as his sleeping quarters. Bahrani says he was instantly fascinated with Willets Point when his long-time cinematographer Michael Simmonds brought him there in 2004, remarking, "My God, this place is the world, the world in 20 blocks" (Canet 158).[4]

This mix of careful planning and staging alongside improvisation, uncontrolled environments, and makeshift documentary-style (i.e., handheld) production techniques culminates in an aesthetic Bahrani describes as "complicated although seemingly accidental" (Porton 47). Combined with the drive to capture a degree of "real life" at street level, it is in fact easy enough to make the connection with the films of Rosellini and de Sica, in which "the dramas were found on the streets of a Europe destroyed after the war" (Canet 155). While few would question the ways this "taking the camera to the streets" approach aesthetically recalls Italian neorealism, the social engagement and context seems a sticking point even for Bahrani himself. The director questioned the connection in a 2008 interview, asking,

"What does neorealism even mean in America in 2008? After all, I don't live in wartime, or postwar, Italy… [W]hat is neorealist Iranian cinema? … And how does one make an Italian neorealist film in Iran or America?" (Porton 47).

He gestures to an answer later in the interview by paraphrasing a review of Man Push Cart from The Village Voice that claimed, "Bahrani gives us a guy with donuts in a pushcart whereas an Italian neorealist film would have given us the character's social context in a post-9/11 world" (48). I would argue the films do provide this context, if not always overtly. We are reminded of the various characters' social stations not only through the city spaces they inhabit, but also through Bahrani's formal engagement with their daily rhythms and routines and through the repetitive and circular role these routines play in the narratives. Ahmad, Ale, and Solo are always moving before our eyes, but they never come any closer to reaching their (socio-economic) destinations.

Citi Field looms in the background of many shots in Chop Shop, sometimes as a subtle reminder of the economic disparity between Ale's life in Willets Point and the broader prosperity of the city. Much of Goodbye Solo features shots of Solo driving his cab through spaces that exemplify commercial failure and economic despair, from Winston-Salem's housing projects to lifeless industrial districts.

Repetition and routine

In discussing another of Bahrani's U.S. realist contemporaries—David Gordon Green and his debut feature George Washington—Justin Horton provides a useful way to consider the role of mundane repetition and routine in Bahrani's American Dream Trilogy. Horton starts by pointing to Deleuze's discussion of the cinematic shift from the "movement-image" to the "time-image," marked by the emergence of Italian neorealism. Deleuze argued that neorealism was distinguished by a shift away from characters' subjective agency to "move" the narrative forward, becoming "a cinema of the seer and no longer of the agent" (2). This shift marked a key aspect of neorealism: the "incapacitation" of characters, which were contained and rendered immobile in the spaces in which they were observed.

For Deleuze the action-image was characterized by a "sensory-motor image in which [the viewer] took a greater or lesser part by identification with the characters" (3). As the characters exercised some level of control over or against their environment (in turn moving the narrative forward), their subjectivity was rendered sensorily and in part embodied by the viewer. In neorealism's shift to the mode of the time-image, characters cease to become actors in their environments—instead, "[h]e shifts, runs and becomes animated in vain, the situation he is in outstrips his motor capacities on all sides, and makes him see and hear what is no longer subject to the rules of a response or an action" (3). Where the movement-image unfolds in "a setting which is already specified and presupposes an action which discloses it, or prompts a reaction which adapts to or modifies it," the arena of action (or inaction) for the time-image is an "any-space-whatever"—a space not determined by or subject to modification from character agency (5). This lack of direct agency within seemingly indifferent or indeterminate spaces prompts Horton to observe that "[n]eorealism, then, is defined not by its social content but by the incapacitation of its characters" (31).

In Bahrani's films, this incapacitation takes the form of containment and immobility both spatial and social. Ahmad and Solo work and move through the city in enclosures—a small food cart and a cab, respectively. In addition to their entire livelihoods being attached to these vehicles, the vehicles do grant them a degree of movement throughout the urban spaces in which they operate—Solo uses his cab for his and others' transportation, whereas Ahmad's cart (which, without owning a car, he has to push by hand) grants him access to a streetside space of commerce downtown. Within these enclosures the characters can achieve a kind of commercial agency and authority, but even this is limited by the larger socio-economic environment in which they operate. For example, Ahmad's cart affords him some commercial agency—he's saving up to, among other things, get a larger apartment so his son can move back in with him—but only so long as it's anchored and occupied at his specific, licensed spot during predetermined hours. Furthermore, he doesn't own the cart or the license to his location, which he must also buy from another character bit by bit.

Ahmad's coffee and bagel cart becomes a space of commercial agency and figurative upward mobility when he's anchored in his licensed spot downtown. (Man Push Cart, 2005) But the cart becomes yet another (quite burdensome) vehicle on the street when he's not open for business. (Man Push Cart, 2005)

Solo's cab affords him mobility but it is also not his own. (He is working to restore another cab to use in the start-up of his own fleet, but this second vehicle must be repaired with the profits he makes from his fares, which in turn he can only collect in accordance with the proper licenses and regulations.) In a sense, Ahmad's cart and Solo's cab act as distinct spaces of individual agency that can be temporarily established (something I want to revisit later) within Deleuze's indifferent any-spaces-whatever. And these spaces are indifferent—despite many knowing him by name, Ahmad's Manhattan customers would go to another food cart or coffee shop if he didn't show up one day, and most of Solo's fares could just as easily find another cab.

If Bahrani's characters can claim small, temporary spaces of commercial agency contingent on their surroundings, then moving in and out of these surroundings continually (re)imposes evidence of their own social stratification. Ahmad's customers are overwhelmingly well-dressed, apparently wealthy New Yorkers on their way to high-paying jobs in the high rises looming just outside his cart window. When one of them, a fellow Pakistani named Mohammad, invites him to do some painting and repair work on his (seemingly expensive) 6th Street apartment, it's clear that the bond they formed over shared cultural origins is overshadowed by their distinctly different socio-economic classes. When Mohammad finally recognizes Ahmad as a famous singer from Pakistan—a past that haunts him throughout the film—his first reaction is to excitedly grab his old CD and ask,

"What the hell are you doing peeling tape off my windows?... If I'd known who you were I wouldn't have asked you up here to paint my apartment."

Despite extending gestures of hospitality and sociability that suggest he views them as equals, Mohammad's actions toward Ahmad consistently emphasize their distinctly different socioeconomic standings. (Man Push Cart, 2005) Even the interior of Mohammad's apartment is coded as a space of social and economic exclusion—an indifferent "any-space-whatever" in which Ahmad has no real agency. Bahrani often places him within several layers of framing, and always performing some kind of service work. (Man Push Cart, 2005)

In calling attention to the disparity between Ahmad's previous status in Pakistan and his current status in the United States,  Mohammad also subtly reinforces his own socio-economic status over Ahmad, rooted in their respective current orientations to the space of his apartment (owner and service worker). Furthermore, he doesn't stop providing subservient work for Ahmad, who returns to his apartment often to paint, sand and lacquer furniture, and perform other manual labor. Though Mohammad projects an attitude of friendliness and camaraderie—offering Ahmad beers, ordering them Thai food, and offering his couch when Ahmad works late and has a long train ride back to Brooklyn—he maintains a tone of subtle condescension that underscores Ahmad's role within the space as that of a worker. (When Ahmad tries to wash his dishes after they eat, Mohammad says faux-casually "No don't worry about it, I've got someone else to do that.")