Friday, April 25, 2008

American Pictures

I saw the remarkable film Chop Shop at the Northwest Film Forum last night. The movie follows main character Alejandro, a pre-adolescent street orphan in Queens, New York, as he hustles for work and finally scores a job and a room with a bed at an auto body repair shop in an industrial neighborhood. With a great deal of effort, Alejandro locates his sister Isamar, and the two of them obsessively save money in a doomed effort to buy a taco truck.

The story isn't as important as the accomplishment of creating a beautiful and positive portrait of some of America's poorest people. The film doesn't romanticize the personal qualities of its characters. Often they are petty, suspicious, hateful, callous and vicious. However, the film is so well made and so subtle that we never interpret these traits as suggesting that any of the characters are bad or inferior people. Rather, these are people who are simply acting, thinking, and feeling in ways consistent with trying to survive or being successful in an inhumane system which distorts and mangles so much of what is otherwise truly warm and good in people.

Interestingly, the entire film takes place within spitting distance of New York's Shea Stadium, a playground for some of the wealthiest, most famous, and most powerful people in America. We only hear the echoes of the crowds, but it's enough to provide a stark contrast between the extremes of oppression and privilege which the film says are inextricably intertwined.

The film put me in mind of several other documents that I've been reintroduced to recently. Charles Burnett's film Killer of Sheep and Jacob Holdt's book and slideshow "American Pictures." All of these works skirt the line between fiction and documentary, and all serve to document the immoral and ever-present squalor of the communities that live in the shadows of American wealth. Each of these works, created over a 30-year span, retains its power to shock and surprise. However aware we may be about poverty, few of us ever expect to see the level of pain, fear, and violence that these films, and Holdt's pictures, reveal as an everyday reality for a sizable number of Americans.

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