Monday, March 06, 2006

Crash (Reprise)

I hate to beat a dead Best Picture choice, but the response to the Oscars has been such that I feel a need to clarify my stance.

Crash sucked.

No, no, not that much clarification. Let's zoom back a bit...

Matt Zoller Seitz was a writer for the Dallas Observer when I lived down that way, and he's now writing film criticism for New York Press and making his own films. He is also, as anyone with a shred of dignity is, blogging. I bring it up because he has strong feelings about Crash, which he vents at considerable length here. I want to draw particular attention to one part of this post, where he writes:
"We're all racist," the movie proclaims, "except when we're not."
Exactly. The movie wants to say everything about racism -- it certainly wants to make everything about racism -- and thus ends up, cliche of cliches, saying nothing about it.

That's my problem with the movie's intentions (they're absurd). My problem with its method is that it meticulously engineers neat situational reversals for every one of its seemingly thousands of characters. Do you think Matt Dillon's character is a racist asshole? Don't worry, he loves his ailing father. Plus, he'll save a black person from a fiery car wreck. Think Ryan Phillippe's character is too naive and idealistic? Don't worry, he'll be held up at gunpoint by a crazed black man. Think black men who wave guns are all nihilistic thugs? Nope, this one, played by Terrence Howard, is a model of success by any of society's standards. (SPOILER ALERT: OK, I didn't want to do this, because it covers the end of the movie, but I have to. If you haven't seen it, make your way to the end of the parentheses in an orderly fashion. Phillippe's character also wrongfully kills a character played by Larenz Tate, thinking that he's pulling a gun when he's actually reaching for a religious token. This is the apotheosis of the movie's perverted vision for us, causing one deeply decent character to off another simply to convince us that there's a little bloodthirsty racist in all of us.) On and on it goes. If you've seen it, you know this procession also features an Iranian, a Latino, the rapper Ludacris, a tony white couple, and Tony Danza.

Dezmond, who performs nightly in ASWOBA's Comments Lounge, argues that these neatly tied packages are necessary to reflect the movie's themes. I've argued to him in the past that an inveterately racist cop saving a black woman from a fire is no different, in terms of character-building, than the hooker with the heart of gold, the oldest trick in the book (terrible, terrible pun intended). Those building blocks are trite enough, but when they're utilized for Every Character Without Mercy, they become even more Utterly Predictable, and where's the Artistry in that?



Blogger Dezmond said...

Not surprisingly: I disagree. I don't think the movie attempts to make "everything" about racism. That happens to be the area that the film focuses on. That's like saying, "man, 'Goodfellas' wants to make everything about the mafia". No shit, that is what the film is about.

Some of the more extreme characters (like Dillon) are blatant racists. But one of the good things about the film is that it shows all shades of racism. From an inocuous joke (Cheadle's comment about Latinos parking cars in their lawn) to Dillon's extreme racism of molesting a black motorist because he can. How perceptions of the "other" when dealing with someone from a different background, at some level, always effects that exchange. It can be a subtle attitude within your own mind or if you are Dillon's character, it can fundamentally alter the exchange. (By the way, Dillon's cop was in many ways an asshole, period. He might have molested a white chick too, given the opportunity).

And yes, the films major flaw is the trite "coincidences" it uses to make every character's racial perceptions come back on them in some way and how he tries to pull an Altman and weave lots of stories together (but not as adept as Altman at doing an Altman). Fine, but I can honestly say few films I've seen have made me think about my own attitudes more than 'Crash' did. Like I said before, I saw it with an interesting mix of friends, and we had a fantastic hours long conversation afterwards as a direct result of the film. You focus on the obvious stuff (Dillon's scene is the one you cite over and over and over again for example of the film's flaws), but what about all of the rest? I found the more interesting comments to be on the more subtle racism or perceptions (I hate to even call all of it "racism", I call it perceptions) shown throughout. Like the Danza scene. I thought that was great where Danza tells Howard he wants the other black actor to speak more "black", as in, bad grammar and jive and swearing.

Some flaws aside, I feel that the film gets you thinking about all levels of perception and racism, even the "harmless" kind, and how it effects peoples' worldview and attitudes and how they even deal with others. That more than makes up for the structural flaws in the film, and it accomplishes more in an hour and half than most other flicks do.

10:58 AM  
Anonymous lfw said...

ASWOBA, you've got to chill with this Crash obsession. It's an Oscar. WHAT DOES IT MEAN?? Haven't we already been over the fact that bad movies win Oscars?

I'm with dezmond, though. You're focusing your entire critique of the film on the structure that was consciously employed by the writer. It comes down to the aesthetic. You happen to not like overly theatrical choices to be made (what you call contrived) because you prefer subtler stories. There's no problem with that. But I, and other intelligent people whose judgment I trust, bought into the premise (suspension of disbelief is more of a default position for theatre people, perhaps) and felt that the film succeeded.

And Matt Dillon's character is not supposed to be redeemed by his one heroic act! That is so far from the point.

12:07 PM  
Blogger JMW said...

It's not that Dillon's character is "redeemed." And it's not that I only like subtle movies (far from it). It's only this, and I'll say it again: Each character is methodically put through the paces of experiencing two neatly divided sides of racial interaction. This, to me, is not overly theatrical; it's heavy-handed and unskilled. Look at Brokeback: What if every character in that movie reacted vehemently to Jack and Ennis in either a stereotypically pro-gay or anti-gay way. The fact is, Ang Lee got more about the human condition out of one silent look from Jack's mother to Ennis at the end of the movie than Paul Haggis got from all his TV-movie-of-the-week plot contraptions. Crash was entertaining on many levels; but to argue that it's meaningful about race just because it sets out to be is like saying the next Rob Schneider movie is going to be funny for the same reason.

12:46 PM  
Anonymous lfw said...

ahhhh!!!! who said that it's 'meaningful about race just because it sets out to be'???? i didn't. first, i actually don't think it set out to "be meaningful about race." i'm not even sure what that means. i think the movie, if it set out to do anything, wanted to reveal the complexity of every individual's prejudice on a number of levels--with regards to race and ethnicity, yes, but also with regards to sex and class, for example. but that's beside the point. i actually don't care about the filmmakers' intent because i found the final product both emotionally moving and thought-provoking.

but arguing about these things is silly. we each had a response to the film, and our responses happen to differ. expounding on the validity of our response in order to get the other's approval becomes, as anyone who's actually reading these comments can attest, kind of boring. so: truce?

2:04 PM  
Blogger Dezmond said...

No. My response was the only authentic and valid one, while John's was false and misguided. I can prove this scientifically.

4:09 PM  

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