Thursday, February 02, 2006

Drawing swords...

On the Oscars...

"Crash," Paul Haggis' visceral dissection of racial discord in Los Angeles, has been frequently appearing on the "Best of 2005" lists of critics and IMDB rats alike. It was even awarded an Oscar nomination for Best Picture of the Year. Given this mountain of praise, someone who hasn't seen the movie would probably be led to believe that "Crash" must immediately be Netflix-ed, discussed, and cherished. I can't bring myself to agree.

Watching this mediocre mosaic piece felt like being walloped upside the head with a flaming brick and then being forced to solve a calculus equation. Its caricatured multiethnic characters abrade each other to the point of unbelievability, propelling into the stratosphere our anger with their bigoted actions, until we are compelled to wonder why their hatred dissolves when they discover each other in perilous situations or discover themselves friendless.

The message was astonishingly superficial - people of all ethnicities in LA are angry, anger leads to hate and then suffering, but instead of suffering leading to the dark side, it sometimes leads to self-reflection and a fleeting change of heart. But all it takes is one day, one harmonious, beneficial, or even non-threatening encounter with a member of your targeted outgroup, to foment that change. And yet, sometimes, the anger or prejudice at our cores is so strong, so wildly aflame and irrepressible, that we revert to bigotry instinctively (see: Ryan Phillippe's character). In other words, we're bound to act just about any which way in any given combination of circumstances. Gee, that sort of sounds like...human nature, no? Mail letters of gratitude for this revelation to:

Paul Haggis
Somewhere in Canada

Here is an example: embittered cop who nurses his UTI-afflicted father molests black woman in front of her black husband, then rescues her from a car wreck days later because...he's just Mr. Magnanimous? No, it's because it's his job and there are dozens of witnesses. Yes, you could argue the other way - that his reprehensible actions during the traffic stop were spawned not by malice but stress. But even assuming that he was in fact a "good guy" under the astronomical level of pressure required to drive such a "good guy" to sexually molest a woman in front of her husband on the side of the road, the question remains: what's the point? That we should forgive people who intentionally traumatize us? That racists aren't really such bad guys at heart?

Very little more than self-interest and instinct lurk in the hearts of "Crash's" characters. The truth (or, as a former social psychology student, the truth as I see it) that prejudice is instinctive may be "Crash's" most trenchant point, even if it beats that point into our heads with enough brute force to crush an elephant skull. The difference between stereotyping and racism, however, lies in the persistence of prejudice - whether or not that initial, evolutionary tendency to group and generalize is overcome by consciously acknowledging that you are in fact stereotyping and should open your mind to possibilities. If the mind remains closed, it eventually becomes afraid and the seeds of racism are sown. Lecture over.

As it turns out, the most racist character in the film (as I remember) was also the only character who really changed - Sandra Bullock's Jean. And the shedding of her racist skin was brought about by a truly soulful epiphany: being racist sure makes it tough to make friends.

"Crash" is such a great film because "it makes you think," or so I've been told...frequently. Sure the movie inspires one to reflect on its material. But any idiot can film a movie dealing with abortion, gun control, or racism and inspire someone to discuss the topic with a viewing buddy after exiting the theater. "Crash" is slightly more accomplished than that, but its duel with the issue of racism amounts to two parries before it reaches for its machete and goes for the thematic kill.

The ensemble cast in "Crash" has also attracted raves, but again I'm mostly unmoved. Matt Dillon was a perfectly fine creep, but his performance just wasn't memorable enough to rise above any of his fellow cast members, namely Don Cheadle or Ryan Phillippe. If anything, either of those two gentlemen deserved the Best Supporting Actor nod ahead of Dally Winston (while all three bow to Ed Harris in "A History of Violence"). Lastly, the meddling with the saturation of reds and blues in the photography was uninspired and fashionable (see: Tony Scott). But at least Haggis didn't go for the greater insult and use black-and-white photography.

What irks me most of all is that "Crash's" nomination for Best Picture of the Year comes at the expense of an Oscar nod for my favorite film of the year, "A History of Violence." Ironically, in 1996 "Violence" director David Cronenberg made a movie called "Crash" that was way fucking better than this one.

I'd have to see "Crash" again to truly qualify my opinions of it, perhaps even alter or change them, but I'm afraid a second viewing would compel me to punch my TV screen out of sheer frustration with its caveman-like treatment of as complex a social psychological issue as racism.

(photo courtesy of

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