It’s amazing to contemplate, but world cinema didn’t really make serious feature films about children until after WWII; Vittorio De Sica’s “Shoeshine” (1946) might’ve been the first. (You could stretch and consider Hal Roach’s vivid and roughhewn “Our Gang” shorts as qualifying, and I wouldn’t argue.) After the New Waves got rolling, of course, juveniles proliferated like rabbits on screen, but prior to that nearly the first half of cinema history had little or nothing to say about the bedeviled, often neglected, wide-eyed life of the pre-adult. Did cinema change with the war, or did we? Two new movies to DVD, Reha Erdem’s “Times and Winds” (2006) and Ramin Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” (2007), make their individual cases that little outside of the movie dynamic has changed at all, and that life as a 12-year-old in any corner of the globe is still subject to the grinding, merciless self-involvement of the adult world.
Erdem’s movie is a native Turkish art film, more elliptical and allusively observant even than the recent films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The setting is a remote Pontic Mountain village, the time is unspecified, the cultural climate is post-medieval and Muslim (the hamlet has little, but possesses its own minaret), the characters are two preteen boys who live out their lives in a state of embittered, anticipatory stasis. They watch animals copulate, they steal cigarettes, they work, but they also hate their parents: the sickly imam’s son relentlessly plots all manner of surreptitious patricide, while his friend, entranced by a crush on their young and serene schoolteacher, is revolted to find his righteous father spying on her. Other fathers beat and humiliate other sons and daughters and orphans; “shithead” is the label passed down from each generation to the next. But the action of Erdem’s film belongs to the quotidian, to the relationship between moon and clouds, to the unrolling of each day (and its prayer cycle) and of the seasonal process. Sure, there’s a coming-of-age primal scene, but the girl in question retreats to her bed and weeps after seeing her parents in flagrante. Aching with the GÃ³recki-like symphonic throbs of Estonian composer Arvo PÃ¤rt, the film suggests a version of Victor Erice’s “The Spirit of the Beehive” for the new millennium, even if its poetry outpaces Erice’s — Erdem punctuates his semi-narrative with surreal tableaux of his cast of children slumbering (or dead?) buried in pine needles, covered with the debris of a demolished house, in leaves, nearly subsumed by undergrowth, etc. You’re never sure what’s going on in these enigmatic images, or, really, between them (the characters do not express themselves openly), you’re just sure you’ve never quite seen this particular brand of mysterious poetry before.
Bahrani’s “Chop Shop” takes place in the unmistakable present, but its setting exudes sociopolitical commentary without anyone saying a word: it’s the hunk of Flushing, Queens known as Willets Point, a resident-free neighborhood that floods routinely and is comprised entirely of auto repair shops, junk dealers and the titular stolen-car-processing outfits. Seen from the orphaned 12-year-old hero’s perspective, it’s a lawless frontier of make-it-on-your-own American Dreamism; for us, it’s the asshole of the global economy, a squalid proto-slum that’s indistinguishable from unremarkable slices of Bombay or Rio, thriving on manufactured leftovers and cannibalized industry. But there’s Shea Stadium looming in the near distance, and there are the airliners flying out of LaGuardia overhead — this is an America we don’t see in movies, and Bahrani, whose “Man Push Cart” (2005) had a similar torque to it, knows how to make his semi-doc ultra-realism jump out at you as neo-Kafka-esque metaphor.
We’re in the tradition of Satyajit Ray and Ken Loach, but we’re in New York, and for that overdue transplantation, we should be thankful. It’s unfortunate, then, that Alejandro (Alejandro Polanco) is a relatively simple character — bullet-headed and ambitious, but still only a kid, wrestling with his love and shame for his older sister (Isamar Gonzales), who moonlights blowjobbing at night, and becoming obsessive about his own get-rich schemes. (We never learn what became of their parents.) How could Alejandro’s dreams, and his coffee can of cash, end up except in anti-climactic disappointment? Chin-deep in convincing texture, Bahrani never takes the daring next step for which his symbolic realism cries out — into a realm (epic, absurdist, satiric, visionary, what have you) where the broader meaning of his narratives overtakes his oppressive everyday details. When he does, he might make a masterpiece.
[Photo: “Times and Winds,” Kino, 2007; “Chop Shop,” Koch Lorber, 2007]
“Times and Winds” (Kino Video) and “Chop Shop” (Koch Lorber Films) are now available on DVD.