Monday, June 24, 2013

CRASH (2005)


The televised Oscar broadcast on March 5th. 2006 presented one of the few truly dramatic and exciting Oscar races ever:when Paul Haggis's CRASH was announced, there was an audible gasp from the audience, and presenter Jack Nicholson looked positively stunned.  Haggis's film was a controversial choice not only for its subject matter (the always tricky issue of race in modern day America), but also because of  the film that  it beat, Ang Lee's BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN.  Even before its release, Lee's film had been both lionized by liberals and attacked by conservatives because it was an epic love story between two men (and not just any men, cowboys, who had always been seen as the ultimate in American masculinity). And the fact that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was a box office and critical success that  was nominated by the Academy for 8 Oscars seemed to be more than just a reflection of its quality; it also felt like an open defiance of the presidency of George W Bush, who had, just one year earlier, won reelection partly on the strength of his stated desire to add an anti-gay marriage amendment to the constitution.  So, for once there was genuine tension (and a decidedly political tone)  on Oscar night, as the question was raised; would the mostly older Oscar voters actually call a  gay love story the best film of the year?  The political tone of the awards was set almost right away, when SYRIANA star and best supporting actor winner George Clooney gave an acceptance speech in which he eloquently defended Hollywood's progressive views, a veiled reference to Lee's film.  At first it looked like it was BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN's night, as it won three awards, including one for its script and another for director Lee.  But then CRASH  snuck in and "stole" the award, which lead to a strong backlash against the film, and to this day it's often called the worst best picture choice ever (which is way over the top, did these people see 1956's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH?!).  Also, another reason that CRASH won may simply be that the Los Angeles setting of the film struck a chord with the Academy voters who mostly reside there.
Forgetting all the controversy and just looking at CRASH by itself, I think the film is actually very good.  It's use of interlocking stories is always interesting (if sometimes implausible), and Haggis is to be applauded for tackling such difficult subject matter.   While I don't think it was the best film of that year, it deserves far more credit than its poor reputation gets.

Haggis first had the idea for the movie after he was carjacked while returning some movies to a video store.  He later wondered what the carjackers would think of the videotapes  of European art films that they stole with the car.  This eventually led him to write a script with Bobby Moresco about the different ways that people of different ethnicities interact in Los Angeles.  Bringing in respected actors like Sandra Bullock and Don Cheadle (who also co-produced) help him raise the money for the film, which was made on a tiny budget (by Hollywood standards)  of around  $6,000,000, and shot in a brisk 36 days. Haggis even  sometimes shot scenes in his own home and car  to help reduce costs.  The film went on to make over $53,000,000, and while that was certainly an impressive return on its investment, it was also the lowest money making best picture winner since THE LAST EMPEROR IN 1987.

Terence Howard

CRASH's ambitious script attempts to tell multiple stories in a specific place and time to try to catch the tenor of that place as a whole; it's a style similar to excellent films like Spike Lee's DO THE RIGHT THING(1989), Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS (1991), P T Anderson's MAGNOLIA(1999) (which, much like this film, linked disparate characters together through moody musical montages) , and when done well, as I think it is here, viewing this kind of film can be a thought provoking and innervating experience, one that does not fall into the usual predictable Hollywood formula. For a film like this to work, casting is essential; because no one in the film is a lead character, we have to accept them all right away and see them as well rounded people in just a few short scenes.  Thankfully, Haggis's cast are solid down the line; Mat Dillon, playing bigoted cop turned hero John,  was the only cast member to be nominated for best supporting actor, but really any of them could have been. Terence Howard is a real standout as Cameron, a successful TV director who suffers a series of racially motivated injustices and slights that slowly push him to the edge.  Sandra Bullock is also very good, as a high strung rich woman who can't control her prejudices.  And I really enjoy the interplay between rapper Ludacris and Laurenz Tate playing thieves and best friends Anthony and Peter; Anthony's long winded discussions about race are equal parts truth and paranoia,  giving him some of the film's most thoughtful and funny lines (and in a great in joke, he refers to rappers as "mumbling idiots"!).  Occasionally the dialogue feels too didactic, especially when, late in the film,  political figure Flanagan (William Fitchner) launches into a racial speech in front of a cop that only pertains slightly to what they're talking about.  But for the most part, the actors are all right on the mark, and Haggis even gets a good serious performance from Tony Danza as a TV producer who has an uncomfortable conversation with Cameron.

 The film opens with Cheadle, playing police detective Graham,  who has just gotten in a car accident, talking aloud about the unique nature of LA, and he ends with the words "we crash into each other, just so we can feel something", and while the poetic nature of his speech seems a heavy handed way to start a film, it does  hit on a harsh truth about a city where many residents only interact with people they don't know during car accidents,  and where, despite its enormous diversity, people live in mostly segregated communities.  As the film shows, this segregation makes nearly every interaction with people of other ethnicities difficult; it's often hard to begin without making assumptions about others, and sometimes those assumptions are true.  This is effectively shown early in the film when Bullock's character is clearly intimidated by Anthony and Peter,  two young black men walking towards her.  Moments later the two men car jack her.  Later, she assumes that a Latino locksmith (Micheal Pena) working at her house is a gang member, but he turns out to be a perfectly nice guy.  The world of the film is peopled with characters who are neither entirely good or bad, and even when bad things are done, there's always some reason behind the actions.  And while the film does have some uplifting moments, and shows that even the most prejudiced of people can overcome those prejudices, there are still no easy answers.  This is clearly shown by the juxtaposition of images at the film's end: first we see a young Asian man, who has never seen America before, awed at the number of choices available to him in a store, reminding us how, even with all its flaws, the US is still a desirable destination for people all around the world.  But this idyllic sight is quickly followed by yet another car accident, which results in people spewing racial sterotypes at each other as the film fades out.  The best and the worst of America fully displayed.

Larenz Tate & Ludacris

I mentioned earlier than no one in the film is entirely bad, but actually, that's not completely true; the only Asian people we see for any length of time is a married couple (Alexis Rhee and Greg Joung Paik)who turn out to be part of a human trafficking operation.  This caused some anger, given that  in a film that strives so hard to show even handed, complicated characters of different ethnicities (even including  mostly positive portrayals of Middle Eastern people), would allow Asians to only be represented by criminals.  I think this is a good point, and that Haggis should have found some way to work in another  Asian character or two to provide some balance.  This leads to a broader problem I have with the film; I think it's too short.  While just under two hours is plenty of time for most movies, here the film's broad canvas leads to some parts of it feeling under developed.  For example, Cheadle's character investigates a possible racially motivated shooting that becomes far more complicated than it would first appear to be; there's enough meat in this story for an entire film of its own, and here its resolution feels too quick and neat.  Still, criticizing a film for being too ambitious seems unfair, and I imagine its length has something to do with its low budget,  so I don't consider that much of a failing.

Many people have criticized the film's use of coincidence to link the characters together; this appears mostly in the connection between Dillon's cop character  John and Cameron's wife Christine (Thandie Newton).  Early in the film, after seeing Christine and Cameron engaging in a sex act while driving, John pulls them over and molests Christine while frisking her.  The very next day, John comes to the rescue at a car accident, and finds himself saving Christine from a burning car.  The notion that these two people could run into each other twice in such a short period of time in a city as big as Los Angeles
is hard to swallow, but so what?  Although CRASH is often realistic, it's clearly not intended to be taken as a documentary; as with almost all movies, some suspension of disbelief is necessary.  And the scene works as an extension of one of the main themes of the film: that people can surprise you.  That a stereotypically racist LA cop can also be the kind of guy who will bravely dive back into a burning car to save the life of a black woman. Furthermore, along with fitting into the film's larger point, I find the scene exciting, dramatic and extremely well played by both actors.
The other almost inevitable criticism of the film was that, despite its attempts at taking a harsh look at racism, it is itself racist.  Things get even tricky because Haggis himself is caucasian, which may make his writing and directing of non white characters in racially charged situations suspect in some people's eyes.   Generally, I don't think it's fair to say that writers and directors can't create characters of different ethnicities  than their own, not to mention that actors can always put their own spin on the characters, as the cast does in this film.  As for CRASH,  I think that the film hits at some hard truths, showing that race relations in America are indeed often difficult and that stereotypes persist because they sometimes have a grain of truth to them.  So what if many of the nonwhite characters in the film have flawed or outright criminal  behavior, the white characters suffer from the same kind of flaws, nobody in the film is perfect.  So, excepting the aforementioned Asian characters, I think Haggis's film is honest in its portrayals and well intentioned in its message that race is an inescapable factor in America today.


I think it's clear that I'm a fan of this film, and in fact I do think it's a better film than BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN (although I did enjoy that too). But I think the best film of the year was yet another film that was controversial: Steven Speilberg's outstanding MUNICH, one of his more underrated but better films.