Monday, January 19, 2009

Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers

Manhattan By Numbers
Directed by Amir Naderi
Pathfinder Pictures

Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris works to the extent it does in large measure thanks to Gato Barbieri’s passionate music. His lush themes and dervish-like tenor saxophone brilliantly suggest the roiling emotions subsumed beneath the acts of on-screen debasement. It is a different city and different emotions, but Barbieri’s soundtrack for Amir Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers (now available on DVD) is equally adept at expressing inner turmoil.

Out of work and six months in arrears, George Murphy has one day to pay his back rent or face certain eviction. With Christmas fast approaching, Murphy pounds the pavement with his address book in tow, hitting up every former colleague he can reach out to, but his fellow journalists are either unable, or as he increasingly suspects, unwilling to help. The one name that keeps coming up is Tom Ryan, an estranged friend who was also laid off from his newspaper job.

At first, Murphy hopes that Ryan might be willing to help, if he could only find him. However, as he follows leads to Ryan’s whereabouts, it becomes apparent that if anything, Ryan is in worse condition than Murphy, both financially and emotionally. However, Murphy foregoes other potential courses of action, to continue his search, almost out of compulsion. Feeling guilt for turning his back on Ryan, Murphy seems to fear a similar fate will befall him if he cannot find his friend and make amends.

While all bets are off in the Village, most of Midtown and Uptown Manhattan is organized in a very logical grid format of conveniently numbered streets running across the borough and avenues running up and down. Murphy starts his day in his Inwood apartment on 215th Street and proceeds to work his down the numbers to Wall Street. Along the way he takes numerous detours, which provide a photographic time-capsule of New York some fifteen years ago. While most landmarks remain, much has changed. In most cases for the best, (but briefly seeing the late, lamented Dojo’s restaurant on St. Mark’s will certainly make some nostalgic for their cheap reliable eats).

As Murphy, John Wojda has a distinct Stephen Collins vibe, but is very convincing as the desperate everyman trying to hold his home and family together. Numbers was Iranian director Amir Naderi’s first American film after expatriating to New York for greater artistic freedom. While the film’s simple, uncomplicated plot arguably reflects a sensibility foreign to American mainstream cinema it is a perfectly accessible, linear story, nicely underscored by Barbieri’s music. Clearly, the studio agreed, because as a DVD bonus, they included behind-the-scenes footage of the Argentinean musician in the studio with Teo Macero (Miles Davis’s longtime producer), recording the Numbers score.

Unique as a film that will interest fans of Barbieri, movies set in New York, and Iranian cinema, Numbers is much like the city in which it is set. It can be cold and naturalistic, but it also holds some surprising charms.