Narrative Cinema in a Minor Vein
What do we mean by proposing that Man Push Cart is a fine example of minor cinema? It is of course a critical judgement, but it is also a statement of critical intent, taking into account Colin McArthur’s notion of Poor Cinema, Kafka’s idea of a minor literature, and the ambition in American writing to produce the Great American novel. It is as though in certain American films of recent years the filmmakers want to make not at all the great American film, but the opposite: a work of hushed presence, a film that is more a whisper than a bellow. Often these films will be made on a small budget and with friends, and with characters who are in low-paid work or unemployed. The film is poor both in its financial resources, and through the economic limitations imposed upon the characters: it is poor cinema indeed. It also has elements of what Kafka would describe as minor when saying in a Diary entry: “a literature not penetrated by a great talent has no gap through which the irrelevant might force its way”. It is perhaps in part a return to late fifties/early sixties American independent cinema (Shirley Clarke, John Cassavetes), rather than related to the Indie no wave of the early eighties (Jim Jarmusch, Susan Seidelman, Sara Driver, Amos Poe) and has nothing to do with early nineties films from talents as disparate as Hal Hartley and Quentin Tarantino, Kevin Smith and Steven Soderbergh, It is often ethnographic in its concerns and sensitive in its means, with a dictum closer to neo-realism than to the post-modern. It is about giving dignity to the common man rather than putting unreal bullet holes into his body. Though Tom Gunning has adopted the term in an article ‘Towards a Minor Cinema’, he does so not for the purposes of enquring into narrative film, but more to explore recent experimental cinema; we’re more interested in how minoritarianism plays out narratively.
Ramin Bahrani’s first three films are all examples (Man Push Cart, Goodbye Solo, Chop Shop), but other directors functioning similarly would include Kelly Reichardt (with Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy) and the Safdie Bros (The Pleasure of Being Robbed and Daddy Longlegs), and in a more comedic vein Andrew Bujalski (Funny Ha Ha, Mutual Appreciation), Lynne Shelton (Humpday, Your Sister’s Sister), and director Ronald Bronstein, who made Frownland. This seems less a calling card aesthetics by directors angling at the mainstream, than positional filmmaking working on the margins of a major cinema. When Kafka couched his argument within a literature of minorities he was talking more socio-specifically, and his ideas have been picked up and explored in areas like post-colonial fiction in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari’s book, ‘Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature’. But what interests us here, and specifically through Bahrani, is something closer to a film aesthetic working within the US as an opposition to the dominant mode. As Bahrani says of Hollywood: “People with money and marketing power, they think they know what people want, and then they spend billions of dollars making people want those things.”
Colin McArthur’s modest proposal in the early nineties asked not that filmmakers spend fortunes making big films, but that they work with small budgets and hope to expand out of this low cost position. As he says, “Getting budgets below £300,00 would not only make profitability more likely for individual films, but would see many more specifically Scottish features emerging, perhaps eventually reaching the critical mass of ten features a year which the SFC [Scottish Film Council] is fond of canvassing.” (‘In Praise of a Poor Cinema’, Sight and Sound, August, 1993) Such an approach allows the director to make the films they want without mass audience expectation breathing down their neck, and thus instead allows for something closer to a gentle breeze of pleasant expectation. UK films like The Bill Douglas Trilogy and The Terence Davies Trilogy were autobiographical, formally innovative, socio-specific and cheap. Are mainstream productions often none of the above?
Now of course when we use the term minor we do so advisedly, because it isn’t that important cinema cannot come from the minor; more that there is nothing in the material that announces itself as major. At the same time, the quiet exploration of its area of interest can open it up into a work of significance, even magnificence, as we feel is true of the Douglas and Davies trilogies. Man Push Cart is not quite that sort of film, with its dialogue perhaps both too expositional and awkwardly delivered, its story too indebted to Bicycle Thieves and the sympathies of neo-realism, its burgeoning love story both too obvious and too tentative. But it is minor in a major way in its attention to the details of dull, dirty, and arduous labour, to the nuances of humiliation, and to the feelings of exile. It also finds not a radical form but at least an appropriate one for this exploration. The lighting levels are so low that the DVD warns us to adjust our television accordingly, the audio centrifugally suggests city sounds far beyond the central character’s immediate screen space, the use of long-lenses captures an everyman aspect that focuses on one character but that gives us a sense that it could have focused on someone else, and the film is very good on the ritualised aspect of routine work.
The film’s opening shot focuses not on central character Ahmad’s (Ahmad Razvi) face, but the gas bottle he carries. He is on his way to owning a coffee stand, working from three thirty in the morning to sell coffee and bagels, and the film announces the centrality of his labour over the importance of his life. While we later find out that his wife died, and that he has minimum access to his son, we are in no doubt, straight away, about what he does and the arduousness of the activity. It makes sense that we start on the gas bottle rather than his face and part of the film’s achievement is to move between close ups of objects and long shots of Ahmad in the city. Shortly after the scene with the bottle we see Ahmad pulling the cart along the street in long shot; this is clearly exhausting labour even before his shift has properly started. Yet Bahrani refuses to underscore the work, with no reaction shots, no cue music, nothing to indicate that this is anything but the normal routine for many low income street workers. By refusing to make Ahmad central but the work the focus, Bahrani doesn’t individuate the labour making it a metaphor of Bahrani’s general pain – his exile and his emotional loss – but shows first and foremost that this is labour as rule rather than exception. When we see Mark Walhberg tending the bar at the beginning of Boogie Nights, the shot that has introduced us to all the other leading characters having fun before alighting on the disconsolate looking Dirk Diggler (Wahlberg) attends not at all to the work but instead to the boredom and ego-deflation of the job. The work disappears under the hyperbolic concerns of a film about the glamour of the porn industry. We needn’t condemn director Paul Thomas Anderson for this, but we can see that Anderson (an increasingly fascinating filmmaker) has a dimension of the great American auteur as he pushes the grandness of his rise and fall theme in Boogie Nights to the detriment of the quotidian.
The reference to Boogie Nights isn’t as arbitrary as it might sound – after all, not only does Ahmad sell coffee, he also moonlights selling porn films – “two for fifteen dollars”. If Dirk is the ironic character of the great American film, a tragic hero not as gangster, as critic Robert Warshow once insightfully explored, but porn star, then nevertheless Dirk suffers the great arc: a figure who rises high and falls steeply. Though Ahmad happened to be a star in Pakistan – a pop star – who gave it up to move to the States for the love of his now late wife, the film’s approach to celebrity is rather like the character’s: it would prefer not to talk about it. When a wealthy Pakistani working in New York finally recalls where he remembers the face, Ahmad is less flattered than mildly distressed. The film accepts this is an event in the past, and the present is what counts as it seeks no special alibi in his earlier fame, playing up instead Ahmad as another immigrant scraping by in the US. Part of the film’s minor dimension lies in this refusal to hyperbolize Ahmad as a great figure down on his luck, when what matters is that he is no more down on it than many a person who happens to be doing low-paid, difficult work. For most it isn’t a tragedy but a fact, and Behrani’s purpose is to create an aesthetic based not on the tragic but on the factual.
But how can we differentiate between the tragic and the factual, between the tragic that incorporates the broad approach, hinting at the great American film, and the factual that refuses this dimension? One way would be to compare Bahrani’s film with The Wrestler, made by another director, like Anderson, whose work contains within it the claim for greatness. In Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan and even his low-budget debut Pi, Darren Aronofsky seeks the great through the hyperbolizing of the film’s subject matter. Whether it happens to be the enormous celebratory cake Barbara Hershey’s mum offers her daughter, played by Natalie Portman, in Black Swan, or the conclusion to Requiem for a Dream that cross-cuts between three horrible conclusions for its three characters, Aronofsky is a filmmaker of great ambition. Even The Wrestler suggests in its use of the definite article that it wants to aspire to the definitive: the film isn’t about any wrestler, but the wrestler. In its aesthetic choices (evident in the hand-held camera following Mickey Rourke’s character at the beginning that echoes the Dardennes), the film suggests an approach that is more lower case, but Aronofsky presents Rourke again as a tragic hero. When he fails to make an appointment with his daughter, we know this is a man with a self-destructive streak greater than any reconstructive possibilities. Just when he most wants to make amends he will make even greater mistakes. In minor cinema like Man Push Cart the character is less inclined to be tragic than unfortunate. The tragic figure as Aristotle explained was someone possessed of a flaw, ‘hamartia’, which translates as error, and that this flaw of character should come about not through vice or depravity, but through an error of judgement, hubris, ambition, arrogance. In this sense the characters in Requiem for a Dream who all end up drug-addicted are not tragic characters, but the wrestler, the mathematician in Pi and the ballet dancer in Black Swan would be. In all of Aronofsky’s films, though, there is the attempt to show self-destructive personalities at work, and opening them up to suggest a tragic dimension.
In minor cinema this is usually not the case, and whether the films are comedies (Funny Ha Ha, Your Sister’s Sister) or dramas (Man Push Cart, Wendy and Lucy) or even films where the character acts stupidly (the father in Daddy Longlegs giving his kids sleeping pills so that they won’t wake up early and find him absent), the films refuse to expand the problem into the higher case. Rearranged, Man Push Cart could be such a story. Here we have a man well-known in Pakistan who moves to the US for love, and whose wife dies, and who has minimum access to his son as he works the coffee stall, sells pornos and at one stage helps the fellow Pakistani he meets, Mohammad, in decorating the latter’s apartment. But instead of detailing his success and love affair, these details become parenthetical back story, as if to say this isn’t a major figure who has fallen on hard times, but another minor figure who has a past like everybody else. It is the everyman dimension the film insistently focuses upon, as if to exaggerate his gifts or delineate too clearly his personal tragedy would elevate the film beyond the plane of the everyday, when it is the quotidian that counts.
Now to bring out this contrast between the tragic hero and the everyman we might usefully talk of the notion of status. Often the tragic figure possesses qualities of what we might call visibility: they are frequently gangsters, generals, kings: people to whom the masses focus upon. The everyman however is a figure who is invisible, invisible in the sense that James Kelman astutely discusses in an essay in Some Recent Attacks. “The concept of invisibility. I was reminded of it, standing between two so-called artists in a lift, me balancing a painting while they had a smoke and a blether…They saw themselves as ‘artists’, the chap who transports their work is the chap who transports their work. They have an inner spiritual life. But the chap doesn’t, the chap is a pleb, a servant, brutalised.” The everyman is the subject of invisibility, known for the qualities that make him a face in the crowd, a figure of necessity often but not of focus. This is Ahmad for the film’s purposes, though there could be another Ahmad if the director were given to the higher case rather than the lower. When Mohammad eventually recognizes him as the well-known pop star, his attitude shifts slightly whilst Ahmad’s remains the same. As the friend asks him to take a break from the work he is doing in the flat, so Ahmad looks wary. “if I had known who you were I wouldn’t have asked you to come up and clean my apartment”, the friend says, but this doesn’t change anything since Ahmad needs the money. Or perhaps it does change something: since rather than securing the friendship between Ahmad and Mohammad, Ahmad realizes how important status happens to be to Mohammad, and thus feels bitter-sweetness over this acknowledgement on his friend’s part of his former status. Ahmad becomes visible but for his past actions and not for his present deeds, and Mohammad in acknowledging how impressed he is by the past deeds can’t help but see Ahmad’s present life as a failure.
The misalignment between Ahmad and Mohammad rests in this past visibility of Ahmad, and Mohammad’s desire to see him as a musical phoenix capable of rising from the ashes: Mohammad tries to push Ahmad into pursuing a musical career again. But what happens if invisibility reflects much better one’s thoughts and feelings than visibility, and is this not partly what the film is fascinated by, and partly why it couldn’t possibly adopt a rise and fall narrative without losing an aspect of its thematic thrust? There is a dimension to Ahmad here that appears to be seeking penance, as if his hefty work load isn’t only about earning enough to support his son (who is being taken care of by his in-laws), but also self-torture over the death of his wife. In one scene at the beginning of the film Ahmad’s asked if he needs help as he pulls his coffee box along the street. He insists he is okay, and we might later wonder whether this is less because he has the physical strength to do so without assistance, or whether he feels an emotional loss that means he has to punish himself.
Thus while the film is good on invisibility, it is also insightful on a certain type of retreat from the world that contains within it a dimension beyond the everyman. There are everymen who want to become much more than that: figures like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Shelley Levine in Glengarry Glen Ross, even perhaps William Macy’s character in The Cooler. These are amongst the world’s anonymous, characters who could say, along with Kevin Spacey’s in American Beauty, when someone doesn’t recognize him, that he wouldn’t remember himself either. But then there are those who seek the shadows after a moment of tragedy, crisis or despair. They seek anonymity rather than having it thrust upon them and we might wonder if Ahmad is such a figure.
In this sense Ahmad is a complex character, complex less in the sense that he is complicated; more that he is several figures at once: the former star seeking anonymity, the everyman, the invisible, the immigrant. He isn’t so much a type but several types at the same time. If in Bicycle Thieves (a film often name checked in relation to Bahrani’s film) the central character Ricci serves as everyman by being specifically one post-war Italian, Ahmad is a man of manifold roles, yet a figure held together by the work Bahrani so insistently focuses upon. When we see him near the beginning and the end of the film placing donuts on top of each other in the coffee stand, we are witnessing the reality of casual labour, but, of course, narratively, a situation that has become worse instead of better. The gestures are the same but the difference is that on this second occasion Ahmad is looking after his friend’s coffee stall after his own is stolen. That this event (the stolen cart) takes place very late in the film (within the last ten minutes) could indicate slack dramaturgy, but Bahrani would seem to want less the tension cranking possibilities in the search, than the pathos of lives lived in quiet desperation. When early in the film the director cuts to people hosing down the street and binmen throwing garbage into the lorry, this is the work that allows a city to exist, but done by people who representationally rarely get a mention. If the film played up too keenly the loss, Ahmad would be Ricci, an exceptional everyman rather than a combination of the everyman, the immigrant and the former success, but most especially the invisible. It is important we feel that Bahrani shows Ahmad as if he could have been someone else, but that the invisibility is paramount.
This is perhaps an important aspect of minor cinema: a face in the crowd picked out not because they or their story is exceptional but because it is not. Where Sean Penn’s Into the Wild picks a character with unusual qualities who takes off to Alaska and concludes on an image of a martyred figure trying to escape the material dictates of the world, in Wendy and Lucy, Wendy tries to survive within that material dictate as best she can, fretting over her car, her dog and her safety. Where Penn’s film could not have concentrated on anybody else as he searched out the special, Reichardt wanted the ordinary, as though she could just as easily focus upon another character with a few hopes and something she is running away from. This need not to hyperbolize also extends to the plot, with Daddy Longlegs, for example, containing horrible suspense in the drugging of the children, but where the delineation of irresponsible parenting is more important than tragic outcomes. This notion of the face in the crowd is often well caught in the cinematography, with the directors frequently picking the character out of the urban hubbub. Bahrani and cinematographer Michael Simmonds here often show Ahmad in telephoto shots indicating he is a figure pulled out of the milieu rather than the centre of attention. In one scene early in the film we see him in daylight pulling his cart along the street amidst the flow of traffic, with the traffic often blocking the view as Ahmad is lost in its momentum. Sometimes the traffic becomes a fast moving blur in front of him as the film picks him out.
On other occasions, it is as though he has the city almost to himself: a city orphan not held firmly to its breast, but cast aside in its night. Here the framing is sometimes the antithesis of the daytime shots, with Bahrani capturing Ahmad as small not against the city’s flux but small against its emptiness, evident when Ahmad walks along the street before he is picked up by friends. If during the day one’s anonymity is guaranteed by the streaming masses, at night the anonymous comes through isolation and separation: frenetic indifference against melancholy solitude. When, in a beautiful short essay by Maurice Blanchot, ‘Sleep, Night’, the writer intriguingly proposes, “Nocturnal wandering, the tendency to stray when the world is attenuated and grows distant, and even the honest professions which are necessarily practised at night attract suspicion…People who sleep badly always appear more or less guilty”, we might think of Ahmad, concerned that he can’t see his child, devastated by his late wife’s death, as we later discover, and alienated from most of the people around him.
Yet Ahmad remains a minor figure next to a character like that great nocturnal wanderer, Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver. Where Scorsese, like Aronofsky and Anderson demand hyperbole, Bahrani is more given to cinematic litotes: the understatement of character and form rather than the pushy forcefulness of Scorsese’s marvellous exaggeration. One says this not to undermine Scorsese or Bahrani, but to try and locate the difference between a filmmaker interested in making the great American film, and another director who wants to work a minor vein inside a larger body. Scorsese aims to be a major cinematic artery, Bahrani working as a vein less obviously linked to the heart of Hollywood. There are of course advantages and disadvantages in each approach: Scorsese isn’t interested in taxi driving for its vocational revelation, while Bahrani very much wants to show us low paid, low status work in the US. Any invisibility Scorsese shows is absorbed into the film’s mythic, existential exploration of the warrior in an urban environment, the misplaced cowboy, the American samurai. But Scorsese’s ambition, whilst losing the specifics, gains in grandeur, and it remains a key text on American alienation.
Yet to offer a work of minor cinema is not at all to arrive a priori at insignificance; more that Man Push Cart has searched a small truth over a large one. This lower case filmmaking can allow for much attention to be paid to a dead cat and how it should be buried, to a tentative affair that might never go anywhere, and to a complicated past that gets only the briefest of flashbacks. Maybe a healthy art form needs both minor and major works, needs films like Taxi Driver, There Will be Blood, The Godfather, Red River, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Wild Bunch, Bonnie and Clyde to sum up a nation and push forward the form, and others that offer small solace: in our labour, in our obscurity and our love lives. Of course apparently minor films can become major works (Terence Davies and Bill Douglas, as we’ve noted, and Charles Burnett and John Cassavetes in the American context), but maybe Man Push Cart exemplifies what we have been talking about because it is minor. Its use of flashback, its revelation of back story, its use of music, all indicate a filmmaker who has a sensitivity not quite matched by sensibility, but a sensibility nevertheless.