Man Push Cart
A modest miracle of twenty-first-century neorealism, the acclaimed debut feature by Ramin Bahrani speaks quietly but profoundly to the experiences of those living on the margins of the American dream. Back in his home country of Pakistan, Ahmad (Ahmad Razvi, elements of whose own life story were woven into the script) was a famous rock star. Now a widower separated from his son and adrift in New York, he works long hours selling coffee and bagels from a midtown Manhattan food cart, engaged in a Sisyphean search for human connection and a sense of purpose that seems perpetually just out of reach. A rare immigrant’s-eye view of a post-9/11 city suffused with subtle paranoia and xenophobia, Man Push Cart gives at once empathetic and clear-eyed expression to the everyday drama of human endurance.
Ramin Bahrani’s debut feature Man Push Cart receives a new Blu-ray edition from The Criterion Collection, presenting the film on a dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The film was completed through a fully digital workflow.
Since the film was shot in high-definition digital the final presentation will ultimately come down to those original source files and, despite the film’s limited budget and Bahrani learning-as-he-went (as he admits to throughout the features) it comes out looking really good. I was surprised by how clean the final picture ends up being; it rarely has a noticeably digital look, even the darker nighttime/early morning sequences looking good. I was expecting these moments to look extremely noisy yet they rarely do, the black levels even looking solid, delivering a decent amount of shadow detail in the process.
The image is sharp, motion is clean, and colours also look nicely saturated (I assume some colour correction has been done). There are a handful of digital anomalies (the occasional jaggy, some minor banding) but I I’m sure this comes down more to the original photography. All things considered, this looks incredibly good.
The film comes with a 5.1 surround soundtrack (made for this edition), delivered in DTS-HD Master Audio. It’s a subtle film but it does use the surround environment to decent effect. Most of the audio is pushed to the front center speaker, but some of the music and some of the street noises expand to the rears. Overall clarity is solid, some indoor sequences sounding a bit muffled. Dialogue is also clear, and the mix (which probably used a lot of on-location sound) manages to keep it all front and center, never drowning it out. Not overly showy but it works.
The film was previously released on DVD by Koch Lorber and Criterion has, at the very least, ported over the audio commentary recorded for that edition. Featuring Bahrani, director of photography Michael Simmonds, assistant director Nicholas Elliott, and actor Ahmad Razvi, the four explain the lengthy history and numerous difficulties behind getting the film made, Bahrani going into detail around how he came up with the idea of making the film and the level of research that went behind it, following around a number of cart vendors, Razvi included. They share stories around particular scenes and talk about the people that appear. Names like Antonioni and Bresson get thrown around a lot as well, and at times there are these odd moments where it sounds like a couple of the participants are trying to one-up each other on who admires those particular filmmakers more (starting with who is going to make it to a Bresson retrospective that was going on at the time), but outside of those odd moments it’s a solid production track, further aided by the fact that the film’s production is incredibly fascinating.
Criterion then delivers two new interview features, one between Bahrani and scholar Hamid Dabshi and a group discussion (socially distanced) between Bahrani, Elliott, and Razvi, running 19-minutes and 25-minutes respectively. Bahrani and Dabshi (who was Bahrani’s teacher in 1994) talk about his upbringing and his eventual draw to film and a desire to make them (with his influences ranging from Robert Altman to Abbas Kiarostami), getting into his early short film, Backgammon, and his unsuccessful attempt at getting a film made in Iran.
That failed endeavor eventually led to production of Man Push Cart, which is then covered in more detail in the new group interview. This group discussion can feel a bit like a summation of the commentary, though it touches on areas that surprisingly enough don’t get mentioned in the commentary, or are only touched on briefly, like how they got funding, more about the editing of the film, getting it out to festivals (Bahrani barely able to afford the cost of sending DVDs of the film to festivals), and the post-9/11 atmosphere in New York, which led to all sorts of issues despite Bahrani actually having the required permits (I honestly thought this film would have been gone guerilla style, but that's not the case, and the same went for Chop Shop). Though it’s shorter, I actually preferred this discussion to the commentary as I almost felt everyone was more open here, maybe because of the 15-year gap in between. The best part, though: Bahrani recalling having to track down online videos for Final Cut Pro because he had no idea how to edit the film.
The disc then includes the short film discussed in the Bahrani/Dabshi interview, Backgammon. The 12-minute short—shot on film and made in 1998—centers on a family gathering at a household and a little girl who just wants to play a game of backgammon with her grandfather, who is visiting from Iran. The grandfather seems annoyed that members of his family felt the need to move to the States, and he ends up taking his frustrations out on his granddaughter. It’s a really charming short, impressively done, and the girl is amazing in it. I also liked what I assume is a little nod to Kirarostami’s Where is the Friend’s House (a film that gets mentioned often the Bahrani/Dabshi interview) when a schoolmate shows up to drop off a notebook.
The film is presented in high-definition and comes from a very good scan, though it doesn’t appear any restoration has been done. Still, damage is fairly minimal. The Koch Lorber DVD included a couple of different films, neither of which are found here.
The disc then closes with the film’s original trailer, while the included insert features an excellent essay on the film by Bilge Ebiri, filling in the lack of other academic material. That lack of academic material is pretty much the only short coming to the supplements; they otherwise cover the film’s production and Bahrani’s development as a filmmaker rather well.
Criterion’s special edition provides great material around the film’s production and an excellent high-def presentation for the film itself.