Manhattan By Numbers: True Grit And An Orwellian Spirit

Posted by By at 21 November, at 14 : 05 PM Print

New York- Amir Naderi’s Manhattan By Numbers manages to become a mesmerizing quest for meaning simply by projecting Manhattan into the foreground and its narrative in the background. Is this the city (or, rather, the borough) that launched a thousand dreams? Hardly. Mr. Naderi is closer in spirit to the George Orwell of Down and Out in Paris and London. Mr. Naderi has been living on the Lower East Side since 1987, and has been walking around Manhattan much of that time with his movie camera. Before that, in his native Iran, he had written and directed 11 feature films since 1970, seven of which found their way into festivals around the world. I am familiar with only two: The Runner (1984) and Water, Wind, Sand (1985). Both works reflect their creator’s recurring concerns with poverty, struggle and survival, concerns that are reiterated in Manhattan by Numbers.

Bahman Maghsoudlou profiled the director in 1991 in The Asian Film Magazine, writing, “Naderi was born in the port city of Abadan. Orphaned at the age of five, he grew up as a street urchin, struggling to support himself and survive in an impoverished society by selling iced water to passers-by, shining shoes and gathering and selling empty beer bottles that had been dumped into the sea by passing ships.”

This could serve as a synopsis of The Runner, which suggests that Mr. Naderi has remained faithful to his rootless angle of vision throughout his career, all the way to a Manhattan that is far from being a tourist’s mecca. Indeed, Manhattan By Numbers seems to reinforce the many grim forecasts of New York degenerating into a Third World city, and America belching its way to the status of a banana republic where the rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and the middle class barks louder and louder as it gets fewer and fewer crumbs off the tables of the self-satisfied CEOs.

The initial premise of Manhattan By Numbers is as much geographical as existential, placing an unemployed newspaperman, George Murphy (John Wojda), in a dingy Washington Heights apartment he will lose at the end of the day unless he can come up with $1,200 in back rent. His wife and daughter have moved in with his father-in-law in Queens. Through a series of expositional telephone calls, we learn that Murphy has used up all his friends and contacts as sources of financial aid, and is down to the last frail reed, a fellow unemployed journalist named Tom Ryan who seems to have mysteriously disappeared. By foot and public transit, Murphy descends diagonally through Manhattan from Washington Heights to the Lower East Side, the closest thing we have to hell in this city, except possibly Wall Street, where a sculpted bull provides Mr. Naderi with the final ironic visual coup for an odyssey that is too transparently serendipitous too early on.

Though in my old-fashioned way I would have preferred more narrative and more psychology in Murphy’s journey, I am indebted to Mr. Naderi for plunging into the gritty experience of Manhattan without an airbrush on his lens. Of course, he couldn’t afford one, but he has made a virtue of necessity all the same.

The New York Observer, November 1994
by Andrew Sarris


also see:
Naderi On Naderi
Manhattan By Numbers
Amir Naderi’s Filmography
Bahman Maghsoudlou’s Amir Naderi: Images Bitter and Sweet
Andrew Sarris’ Manhattan By Numbers: True Grit and an Orwellian Spirit




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