Monday, February 06, 2006

The Oscar Race, Part the First: All Racism, All the Time

Perhaps piggybacking on the success of Fahrenheit 9/11, political movies, particularly those with a liberal slant, have had tremendous success this year. A decent number of them, in fact, have been nominated for Oscars. I'm going to devote at least part of this month to looking at the five films nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. I've only seen three of them thus far, but that's better than I'm normally doing at this time of year, and this will motivate me to see both Capote and Brokeback Mountain. This posts, and the others in the series, will be utterly spoilertastic; you've been warned.

Today's film: Crash.

At midnight a few months ago, my friend Talia left me a message saying she had just seen Crash and hated it so vociferously that she needed me to see it, so that we could complain together. I was to hear several subsequent negative reviews, such that I came to mistrust the positive. When I finally rented it last night, Crash was not quite so horrible as I was expecting it to be. But ultimately, most of the negative assessments were correct.

Crash is what might be called an ensemble film; there is no main character, but rather about fourteen intersecting stories that we follow through two days in Los Angeles. Given the suburban sprawl of which Los Angeles is composed, these stories should by all realistic standards intersect much less than they do. Also, because the movie runs less than two hours and yet intends to take us on fourteen journeys, most of the characters are not characters but situations. All of the characters are scripted that way; only a few actors (Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, Ludacris) manage to transcend the lack of development and the overwrought and/or hackneyed dialogue. (Sadly, Don Cheadle, one of the best actors going today and one of the movie's producers, did not manage to do so.) The film is all racism, all the time--it's clear exactly how each character's racial identity will figure into the plot the moment one sees them in contact with a person of another race (generally within seconds of their introduction). The stories do not support or lend clarity to one another, as they would in a true ensemble film, but rather overlap in a series of inconceivable coincidences all of which are intended to show us that good people think and do horrible things and horrible people think and do good things, such that we can't judge anyone as actually horrible or actually good. While I'm as eager as the next person to get beyond the dichotomy of good and evil, I can't say I'm for neutralization either. And neutralization is the ultimate outcome of Crash's mishmash. It would like to consider itself merciless, unflinching in its portrayal of social hatred, and that would indeed be the case if the film had characters. If all these horrible things were happening to fully drawn people, we might care. As it is, Crash has no more effect than one person casually relating these stories to a co-worker. By skimping on the character development, Haggis avoids truly confronting the issues he wants the film to be about. A little more focus could have honed the film; perhaps the blurriness of the stories combined with the blurry opening credits was intended to make a point about the melting pot, but one can only stare at fondue for so long without wanting to know what it actually tastes like. Haggis intends to show us how many different kinds (races, classes) of people are racist, but there are so many that he ends up showing us only *kinds* of people: he doesn't show us people at all.

According to Crash, there are two sides to every story, but only two. Everybody (except for Michael Pena's Daniel, because his child is young, rather than an adult who's part of this horrible universe) is a horrible racist; that racism is complicated/counteracted by the fact that each character has one person he or she deeply and genuinely loves, but only one person. That one person, more often than not, is manipulated later in the film as the character's vulnerability. Redemptions and falls from grace are the spine of the movie, and more often than not are precise examples of counterbalance, having to do with the same race in a similar scenario: the black man who ran over one Asian man with an SUV he stole the next day releases Vietnamese slaves from a van he stole; the white cop who molested a woman he pulled over the next day saves the same woman from a burning car; the black man who allowed his black wife to be molested by said cop the next day saves a black man from the LAPD; the white cop who saved one black man from unjust arrest the same day unjustly shoots another black man; so on and so forth. Each weight has almost an exact counterweight, so apparently the world is ultimately in balance. It's not warm and fuzzy, per se, but again no one action is worse than another, so we can always make up for the bad we've done.

The scoring is, in a word, godawful. I'm starting to believe that no one other than Thomas Newman is capable of scoring movies, but certainly Haggis should not have done any of the music on his own (five people, including Haggis, are listed as responsible for the music on IMdB). Like much of the film, it's embarrassingly overwrought, heightening the melodrama to a fever pitch. The same can be said of most of the cinematography: every blurry shot or zoom-out is meant to emphasize a moment whose purpose is obvious or a concept that has already become abundantly clear. Yes, there is good and bad in everyone. This is a point that one could also make without a sledgehammer.

The movie does have its decent aspects, certainly. For the most part, even the actors who don't transcend the painful limitations of the script are well-cast, and those that do manage to do so are extremely impressive. I have special admiration for Pena, such that I dearly wish I could type his name properly in HTML, because he makes some of the worst writing in the film into one of Crash's few moments of actual, compelling (in this case, paternal) love. It doesn't use voice-overs and still trusts us, as an audience, to make sense of complicated scenarios (it's a shame that today's film climate is such that something so obvious counts as a good point, but there we are). The cinematography does have its moments, particularly in the scene where Matt Dillon molests Thandie Newton and Terence Howard and Ryan Phillippe stand idly and conflictedly by. There are several moments of actual acting and contact within individual storylines that are, in fact, very nice. I'll also give the movie some credit for not ending on a saccharine note, which I assumed it would, though its full circle of racism, judgment and car accidents is as close to saccharine as hatred can be. But the movie cannot allow real questions to linger; everything has exactly two sides, and they're tied into a neat knot. Paul Haggis may be able to hold a number of things in his head at once, but he is neither a complex nor an interesting thinker. He tells us how we're supposed to feel, and once we've recognized that the redemption-or-fall-from-grace pattern belongs to all the characters, predicting everyone's outcome and journey becomes easy and unmoving.

Racism's never going to end; this would be true even if Crash had not so laborioiusly endeavored to make it clear. But nor is the world composed of racism, all racism and nothing but racism. Though this film may indeed generate discussions about race, they will be short, simplistic and not terribly useful discussions, and I'm disappointed at the vast number of viewers and reviewers who seem to think the oversimplified dichotomies in Crash are honest reflections of the world in which we live.


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