Crash (2005) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)
Is it a biopic of Ray Corrigan?
It's "Short Cuts" meets "Two Days in the Valley" meets "Grand Canyon" meets "Pulp Fiction" meets "Magnolia" - which is to say it is an episodic ensemble drama which takes place over a short period of time and features unrelated lives which are somehow mysteriously and fortuitously interconnected.
Yes, this technique has been overused. And, yes, the concept can lack credibility when everyone keeps running into everyone else in a metropolitan area of ten million people. But you have to realize that this is no longer a trope or a device, but merely a screen convention. Is it believable that two Nazi officers speak to one another in English? Of course not. We accept it because it is an accepted convention of English language films. There are several ways to do it, and we accept all of them. In some movies they speak German with subtitles. In other movies, they speak English with German accents. In other movies, they simply speak the English of native English speakers. Neither of the last two options is believable, but we accept those choices because they are conventional. The same is true of the coincidences in these ensemble dramas. We just accept the fact that any given dozen people in L.A. will not only run into one of the other twelve, but possibly several of them. Face it, dude, if I choose you as one of my twelve people to focus on, there is nothing you can do to avoid meeting the other eleven. It works just like in that Final Destination movie - your destiny is sealed. Even if you decide to stay home in bed all day, one of the twelve will come to the door to sell you Grit Magazine; another will fly a private plane through your second story window; a third will arrive with the paramedics who respond to the plane crash; and so forth. It is also noteworthy that the other eleven will not only run into you, but into one another as well. The kid selling Grit will be the nephew of the pilot, and will sell a subscription to the paramedic.
That's a wacky ol' thang I like to call Karakter Kismet.
I blame Thonton Wilder for this convention.
"Thornton Wilder? There's a blast from the past! Wasn't he a great playwright and novelist from many decades ago?"
Yup, but he's the man to blame. Last week I blamed Eugene O'Neill and his play Strange Interlude for all the unnecessary gimmicks used in "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers" to reveal the thoughts of the characters. This time I blame Thornton Wilder and "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" for all the mysterious interconnections that permeate ensemble dramas. That book featured a humble monk who decided to investigate the lives of some people killed together while crossing a collapsing bridge. He wanted to determine why God had chosen those particular people to die that day. He spent five years researching five people who were crossing a bridge on the same day and found the highly dreaded "mysterious interconnections." Since Wilder was a great writer, he was able to use the technique to create a Pulitzer winning novel, and in the end the interconnections really meant nothing at all. The monk abandoned his quest for the link between them, set aside all thoughts of the meaning of their deaths, and decided to write about the meaning of their lives: "Almost no one remembers Esteban and Pepita but myself. Soon we shall die and all memory of those five will have left the earth, and we ourselves should be loved for awhile and forgotten. But the love will have been enough."
Unfortunately, very few of us remember the beauty and depth of Wilder's story, but the goddamned mysterious interconnections live on.
This is yet further proof of my hypothesis that great playwrights can be blamed for everything which can not be blamed on the Bossa Nova. It always boils down to that choice. Let's say you get fired from your cushy job as a drawbridge oiler. Maybe your wife ran away with her tango instructor, a guy named Raoul with a pencil-thin moustache. You could blame yourself, but you should not. The culprit is either George Bernard Shaw or the Bossa Nova.
In defense of Crash, it does earn the right to use the much despised mysterious interconnections because there is actually a point to it. The film posits that we seem to hate one another all too often, and yet we depend on one another. Sophisticated Thandie Newton hates the racist white cop who once felt her up under the flimsy pretense of a weapon pat-down, and yet the same cop later saves her life after an auto accident, by willingly assuming a risk to his own life that he might have avoided. How should she feel about him then? She hated him. She needed him. Perhaps she later hated the fact that she needed him.
Crash is about racism, but not about the kind of racism that causes us to jail or even hang strangers for their skin color, but about the kind of racism that permeates the everyday lives of most of us. What small, unarmed white woman, no matter how liberal and sophisticated her thinking, has not felt fear at walking alone on a deserted city street directly toward two large young black men? Would she feel the same fear if they were white? If the answer is no, it's racism, and most of us are guilty of it. Oh, don't act blameless. You are guilty of it as well, no matter who you are. Yesterday I was in a convenience store, expecting to have to explain a complicated request to the clerk in words he would understand. I didn't know the guy, but my mind worked in that direction because he had an Asian face. As it turns out, he was a Japanese-American college student who spoke English approximately as well as William F. Buckley Jr, but that isn't really germane. He might have turned out to be incapable of understanding me, just as I anticipated, but my point would still be the same. I assumed he would be unable to speak English only because he looked Asian. If he had been a blond guy in the same job, I would have assumed no such problem. That's what prejudice is all about. The word itself means "to judge in advance" - to assume that an individual will behave a certain way because he or she is a member of a certain group.
This kind of racism is an important part of our social conditioning. How many times in high school were you reminded that your school was better than Such-and-such Academy? How many times did you start a sentence with "kids from that school are ..." This social conditioning is nothing uniquely American. As an American expatriate for many years, I can't tell you how many times I heard how "you Yanks" or "you Americans" think. What the hell is that all about, anyway? Am I supposed to think like Darth Cheney or Good Time Ralphie Nader? We seem to want to validate ourselves by believing that the group we belong to is the best one. Not merely "as good as" the others, but better. Perhaps it is because we are unhappy with our personal accomplishments and need the vicarious superiority of the group we belong to or would like to belong to. Or not. What the hell do I know? Ask Dr. Phucking Phil.
At any rate, Crash is about that kind of racism, the kind of assumptions we make about individuals. Ryan Phillippe plays a liberal cop who ends up shooting a black hitchhiker because a situation escalates from a simple misunderstanding - he gets irritated and distrustful because the black man says he loves ice hockey and country music. Phillippe assumes that he's being ridiculed, and an atmosphere of antagonism develops. As it turns out, the black guy was speaking without irony, but who would have guessed? We make assumptions. Even good people. The film goes to great pains to establish that Phillippe is a compassionate liberal man, then ends up turning him into a murderer for having made the wrong assumptions about a black man. The film goes to great pains to establish that even the "bad cop" (Matt Dillon) is a good man deep inside, a guy who risks his life for people and cares tenderly for his dad. Yet he is filled with racist assumptions which in his case are very close to the surface. Those assumptions are a part of our lives, not because we are evil, but because, as the old song goes, "you've got to be carefully taught" to be a racist, and our society teaches us well.
Critics were split on the film. Some loved it, but others found it mediocre, and it scores only 69 at Metacritic, a weak score for a future Oscar nominee. That fact notwithstanding, many people have taken it into their hearts. It is currently rated the #56 movie of all time at IMDb. I don't love this movie the way some people do (Ebert: ★★★★), but I like it. Assuming you have no problem accepting the much abhorred "mysterious interconnections" convention, it packs a lot of emotional punch, and I liked the fact that it used humor to lighten the load of the ongoing ominous music and Greek Tragedy plotting. I really enjoyed the banter between Ludacris and Larenz Tate as two intelligent black carjackers who are always bickering about how black males fit into society. They function as kind of a Greek chorus for the film, and provide the kind of funny, everyday insights that Travolta and Jackson provided in Pulp Fiction. The film could have used more of that humor, especially from the non-black characters. Are black people the only Americans with a sense of humor?
The director is named Haggis, so Crash is without a doubt the best film ever directed by a man named after a Scottish specialty food, and also best among all animal offal food theme films of the past year. The Haggis film is rated 8.4 at IMDb, edging out last year's Scrapple (7.6).
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