If like me you are a diehard lover of cities and the sidewalk, where democracy is formed, you’ll love Chop Shop, now streaming at Netflix. Ebert says it’s one of the best movies of the oughties. I wouldn’t know, but it has many virtues.
First, it is neo-Marxist. Modernity, it is argued, began in public space with the uprooting of the cobblestones people used to throw at the Bastille. And democracy itself was invented in the plazas of Athens, where citizens gathered to vote on civic matters. Willets Point is not a planned city – so far from being planned it overlooks Rikers Island, the nexus of New York City chaos – and has no sewage system or streetlights. It is an organic, Systeme D — the back channel economy in which half the world’s workers now labor — explosion of auto parts and repair shops where there used to be junk yards. Visually, cinematically, it is the opposite of the planned, organized, civilized city and much more in the realm of the visual chaos Robert Venturi first discovered in Las Vegas, and Rem Koolhaas celebrates in Lagos.
Willets Point is the urban version of the vast parking lot in which most suburban Americans live, and which academic architecture, who fancy themselves the avatars of modernity, are just beginning to address. It is not the architecture of reassurance symbolized by Disneyland and everything else Hollywood builds into a set.
The suburbs – I suppose Queens could be considered a suburb of Manhattan – are where all the entry level immigrants now live. The outer boroughs are no longer for white people only, and that clash and ascendancy of cultures is what Chop Shop is partly about. Shea Stadium is right there; the kids sneak into baseball games; everyone in the world wants to own an American muscle car and comes to Willets Point to get one.
Second, the neo-realist story idea arose from reality. No member of the chattering classes has ever laid eyes on Willets Point, Queens. No Spielberg or Bruckheimer has the nerve to emerge from un-air-conditioned space to regard actuality.
The Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani, guided there by a roadie who’d had his own car chopped there, spent months hanging out in Willets Point. He didn’t know what his story was going to be. He waited for the neighborhood to tell him. In the visual chaos, he slowly began to see that there were children who lived and worked there.* That children in America live and work in junk yards is something you’d never know unless you just quietly hung around a place, not re-conforming the reality to make it videogenic. Apprehending, I don’t know, reality.
Third, he had no casting director and basically no lines to memorize, only a carefully rehearsed and diligently pre-shot, shot and re-shot improv script. He found the lumniscent young actors who play the orphaned brother and sister himself. Alejandro Polanco and Isamar Gonzales epitomize the lure of British television and movies to me – indeed Bollywood, Australian, Spanish movies and movies everywhere else but America – they are real faces. Uncut, unBotoxed, shining out light the way no Hollywood mask can.
Polanco looks, walks, speaks, and acts everything that is good about boys of all ages, and the poignancy of his being 12 years old, a little man — sometimes trudging like a tiny pigeon-toed old man — is the heart of the story of the working child. Gonzales has the more unsympathetic part, more difficult, perhaps to play than the beautiful boy, but her face in the scene in which she embraces her little brother and swings his legs around in a kickball game is one I will never forget. Then there’s the pigeon scene at the end. Oh me.
Finally, there are scenes in the movie, notably one in the subway where Polanco and his much shorter sidekick sell candy, in which there are no actors whatever. Every candy buyer in the subway cars – mostly hard-looking young African-American men – is a real New Yorker caught by Bahrani’s hand-held camera. Bahrani says, “That’s the great thing about New Yorkers is, they’ve seen so many cameras they don’t really care. (Laughter) I’m amazed still. Like, that woman who—not even once does she look into the camera, or even care! No one asked any questions, either, like, “Why is there a camera and five people following?” They just bought their candy and went… It’s amazing, you know? Thank you, because that was like New Yorkers; they allow these things to happen.”
Totally open, and totally cool. The new Jerusalem, the city on the hill for which we left so much behind. Run, comrade. The old world is behind you.
*The NYT has a wonderful piece about the single, lone legal resident of Willets Point, Joseph Ardizzone,of the auto repair ghetto where so much life goes down.