Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Cinema: Man Push Cart (2005) / dir Ramin Bahrani

I just saw this film for the first time, and I was very impressed by it, so I present my thoughts here...

The title is a very simple one. It gives us a mental image of a man pushing a cart. But it is also a primitive title - the construction is naïve, as though written by a non-native English speaker. So, in some vague way, the story begins to form in our mind before we see the film.

From the beginning and throughout the film we see the central character, Ahmad, pulling his stainless steel bagel push cart through the dark, early-morning streets of New York City. He pulls the cart by hand. He is small and fragile as the mass of cars, trucks, taxis, and buses buzz around him, threatening to sideswipe him.

This physically demanding and laborious task is shown to us repeatedly. Much of Ahmad's life, and the screen time, is taken up with tasks involving the cart. He loads it, takes it on the road, parks it, prepares the hot water, coffee, tea, bagels, danish - all in darkness - then sells his wares to his regular customers, some of whom know his name. The day ends with him packing up, pulling the cart back to the lockup, washing it, and then making his way back to Brooklyn, asleep on the train. (Although there are elements of Neorealism, and perhaps Robert Bresson, in these scenes, their length and repetition remind me most of the fetching and distribution of fresh water in Kaneto Shindo's The Naked Island (1961))

The all-encompassing schedule of his work means that there is little or no time for Admad to develop a life outside of work. On the way home, he hawks porn DVDs to workmen, or trades them for cigarettes with another vendor. The focus of his life is to make enough money to pay for his cart. And when he has paid for the cart, he must then get it insured, and pay for his corner, and so on. It seems that this cycle will have no end, in keeping with the director's stated intention to echo Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, the story of a man who rolls a giant boulder uphill, only to find another at the bottom waiting for him, ad infinitum.

Ahmad is trying to build a stable life of certainty. From this base, he hopes to regain custody of his son, currently kept from him by his in-laws. His past is unclear. He was a rock star in Pakistan, but left that life to be with the woman he loved in America. (His wife died, but we do not know how.) He no longer sings, but during this long period of steady work, he begins to listen to music, and is encouraged to dream of a more prosperous life by Mohammad, a rich Pakistani man he becomes acquainted with. Admad even contemplates a relationship with Noemi, a Spanish girl manning a nearby newspaper stand. As a sign of this new optimism - or perhaps the end of his depression - Admad begins to nurture it a newborn kitten he found on the sidewalk.

The film is called 'Man Push Cart', yet with each viewing of the man pulling the cart, it seems that the cart is pushing the man. In one instance, it does push him over and it begins to roll along the street out of control. The cart is Admad's burden, a burden he must carry through life. It overshadows him, controls him. Perhaps it represents his past, or his inner self. Perhaps it was a shared dream with his wife, or a commitment that they both made - in her sole appearance, in a flashback, she places a sticker on the cart, which he washes around so that it is not displaced.

Even after Admad has parked his cart for the night, he carries its gas cylinder around - a part of the cart always remains with him. Only when he visits Mohammad does his relinquish the cylinder, and it is then that the prospect of a future without the cart arises.

The man and the cart seem inseparable - one cannot imagine one without the other. So perhaps 'Man Push Cart' refers to a single entity, a beast with a man in front and a push cart behind. It trundles through the streets of New York, unseen, untouched, uncared-for, only touching the lives of others, only visible, when it is on a street corner dispensing coffee and bagels.

Near the end of the movie, when the cart is stolen, it is tragic because all of Admad's past, and all of his future is invested in it. He has nothing tangible invested in the girl Noemi (she feels affection for him, kisses him, but is leaving for Barcelona) and has no use for potential music investor Mohammad (who is only interested in making money out of Admad, and bedding Noemi). He is lost without his cart, his other half.

As chance would have it, he helps another vendor pull a cart into a more lucrative corner uptown. There, left on his own, waiting, uncertain of the future, having to start again at the bottom, Admad seems strangely content. This is the way things should be for him. As if to illustrate his contentment, the trees around him light up. Perhaps it is only natural for a man to have a burden, to be driven by it, to be consumed by it, to control it. Perhaps, in the end, it is the only thing he can call his own.

I watched the UK DVD distributed by Dogwoof Pictures (www.dogwoof.com), which I bought on Ebay because it was unavailable from www.play.com.

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