Monday, July 04, 2005

Crash Into Me, Babe

I saw the movie Crash this week. It is the sort of film that it’s hard not to discuss after it’s over. The cast of Paul Haggis’s Crash is chock-full of all-stars, and it was playing this week at our local, independent movie house in Montpelier, The Savoy. My two most likely movie buddies were unavailable, so I saw it alone. The only disadvantage was being unable to process its intensity with anyone afterwards. Here are some of the ideas that have lingered since my viewing.

Crash seems to be driven by three main elements. The first is the premise: a number of Los Angeles residents, generally living in a state of alienation, crash into each other, physically and figuratively. A plethora of subplots are provided by a host of characters: the district attorney and his wife, two carjackers, a movie producer and his wife, two police officers and a father, a health care worker, a smuggler, a detective and his mother, a locksmith and his family, and a shopkeeper and his family. While such arrangements in other films may leave me lost and confused, Crash makes no such mistakes. Each story intertwines with several others, showing how, in the absence of understanding, people from disparate backgrounds continue to have profound effects on one another.

A second element is race in America. The characterizations only begin to take shape if I mention that it’s a white D.A., a black car jacker, a light-complexioned black movie producer, a Persian shopkeeper, a Latina housekeeper, an Asian... you get the picture. The show includes racially-based statements of all sorts, from mild epithets to both subtle and direct insults that provoke a varying degree of cringes. Crash jumps headlong into racial issues, at times providing parodies of both itself and the challenges of tolerance and political correctness. It was a bit irritating, in a theater stocked with aging hippies, to hear audience members hissing and commenting on some of the initial slurs. As their relevance to the show and the depth of characterizations became clear, however, pithy expressions of tolerance gave way to the silence earned by the complexity of the film.

Without the third element of violence–or really, the fragility of life– would not move as it does, with constant immediacy. The show begins with a car accident and the discovery of a dead body. Then, the setting returns to the previous day, and nearly the rest of the film builds to the scene where the movie started. While it’s clear that at least one person has to die, it’s entirely unclear as to whom that will be. Guns, accidents (both vehicular and individual), and homocidal intentions permeate the lives of the characters. While the plot can be an emotional roller coaster, sometimes dancing on the edge of Hollywood artificiality and feeling free to tinker with our emotions, each turn of events is ultimately rooted in the motivation of the individual characters.

The only exception is that one character, a health care worker played by Loretta Devine, seems to derive all of her motivation from an aggregate frustration with racism in America, and is set off by a caller telling her that her name, Shanequa, explains her attitude. Unfortunately, she lacks a personal story and the depth of other characters, and when she weaves back into the story at the end, it’s random in a way that is disappointing in light of the way the rest of the film comes together. This would be the fault of the writers, however, as Devine’s performance is as articulate and evocative as ever.

It is the complexity of nearly every character in Crash, however, that makes this story so gripping and worthwhile. There are no good guys and no bad guys. The best-intentioned characters take the most ill-considered actions, and the worst-intentioned are fully developed and can elicit sympathy as they become tangled in the ironies and contradictions of their own circumstances.

This movie doesn’t rest. It pulls the audience along as it carefully threads each character’s story into those of the others, and it jars us into sudden awareness with the kind of moral and ethical conflicts we face every day. Crash is well-written and tells an important story. It is open, non-didactic, and unwilling to make judgments on the issues of race and violence. Go see it, and take umbrage in a film that gives each member of the audience enough grist to come to individual conclusions, and better yet, that encourages the observer to dwell in complexity and avoid simplistic conclusions about what are, literally and figuratively, too often seen as black and white issues.