Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:43 pm 
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Screenwriter Paul Haggis' American directorial debut, Crash, is over-ambitious, but so are Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia and Robert Altman's Short Cuts, two films Crash resembles in being set in L.A. and spinning out multiple story lines interwoven in a complex and thought-provoking way over the course of a few intense days of screen action. Haggis's ambition isn't limited to his involving us in a couple dozen characters. It's also seen in the way he tackles the topics of identity, alienation and racism in American cities (or is it just L.A.?).

Where Short Cuts was based on the quirky, specific short stories of Raymond Carver and Magnolia goes into rich emotional depth in exploring its main characters (even the shallow ones like Tom Cruise's Frank T.J. Mackey are devastatingly laid bare), Haggis' characters in Crash tend to be generic and two-dimensional. The two dimensions do, however, provide the rounding effect of contrast. As one character's remark suggests, these people don't know who they are; they have to "crash" to be jolted into knowing, and the movie shocks and jolts us too with opposing qualities that are schematic, but also quite thought-provoking.

The inhabitants of Haggis' L.A. are both racists and victims of racism, and most of them have some other major opposing aspect. The racist Officer Ryan--Matt Dillon, for once using his Irishness in a blunt, unflattering way -- humiliates and abuses a well-off, accomplished black man and his wife, Cameron and Christine (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton), but he tenderly cares for his ailing father at night, and later rescues a black woman in mortal danger. Graham (Don Cheadle), the bookend and stage manager of the movie, is quick to spot the racism of others, yet crudely stereotypes his Latina girlfriend. Another character is first pathetically self abasing, then later suicidally aggressive. Ryan's unwilling partner, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillippe), gets reassigned to avoid the racism, but himself commits an act of racist violence. A young black man with corn rows named Anthony (Ludacris) chatters on perceptively with his pal Peter (Larenz Tate) about how they're stereotyped as ghetto toughs when they really look like UCLA students; but in fact they're car-jackers. And so on. However simplistically, the characters are all given dimensionality through having opposing characteristics. Even the endlessly bitchy wife Jean (Sandra Bullock) of D.A. Rick (Brendan Fraser), who seems without a single redeeming feature, is finally jolted into the arms of her Latina housekeeper and thereby gains an air of humanity.

None of this has the depth of Magnolia or the specificity of Short Cuts, but it has undeniable power. Crash is relentless in pouring out calamity after calamity and isn't much fun to watch. The racist clashes, the slurs, the name-calling, the hostility are in your face from the first scene, where Graham and his girlfriend Ria (Jennifer Esposito) are rear-ended on a highway by a car full of Asians, and Ria and an Asian lady immediately get out and start yelling epithets at each other. Oddly, since he seems to be both a peacemaker and a cop, Graham does nothing to mitigate this disaster and merely wanders off to examine a crime scene by the side of the road, which perhaps is what they're there for. From here the movie goes back over the events that led up to this moment.

Crash's stereotypes can be grating, particularly a mean Iranian man called Farhad (Shaun Toub) with a pathetic little convenience store who is bent on shooting somebody and calls everybody he meets up with a "cheater." He isn't any better than the prejudiced (and probably frightened) gun shop owner who calls him "Osama" and throws 9/11 in his face, unaware that an Iranian isn't an Arab.

One of the most appealing characters is the Mexican-American repairman Daniel (Michael Peña) who's called in to fix the Iranian's door. He points out that the new lock won't provide any protection till the whole door is replaced, whereupon the shopkeeper calls him a "cheater." The Iranian's mistrust leads to his shop being broken into and trashed, and when the insurers won't pay, he tries to take out his revenge on the repairman. The resulting shock sequence has been condemned by viewers and critics for being tricky and exploitive. It is, but an earlier scene between Daniel and his little daughter is the movie's sweetest moment and the only time when a resonant metaphor is born.

There are other good things. Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton are fine together as the affluent black couple, even if their action seems pushed to the breaking point. Ludacris and Larenz Tate have a good rhythm as the young, not-really-ghetto carjackers. In fact the black actors are more convincing and rich in their portrayals than the white ones. Maybe that's because they're the ones who know best what racism is all about. You can argue endlessly about whether Haggis' screenplay is too schematic or doctrinaire. He obviously is not the filmmaking talent Altman and Anderson are. But Crash is a pretty original, striking piece of work nonetheless. It's provocative and causes extreme reactions, so people tend to say it's a masterpiece or pure junk, but the fact is that it's simply a good, but imperfect movie. 8/10

©Chris Knipp 2005

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