Sunday, June 05, 2005

Crash (a/k/a Crap)

So last night, after listening to the fulsome praise of a few friends and acquaintances, and viewing a variety of critical bouquets by film critics, I went with my partner C. to see Oscar winner Paul Haggis's new movie, Crash, the new ensemble piece set in contemporary Los Angeles. Not far into the film, I think we both concluded: it's awful!

Or, to put it another way, this car wreck of a movie is pure sentimental, overwrought ridiculous Hollywood liberal (or conservative, depending upon where in the film you are) garbage being pawned off as a meaningful and artistic portrayal of racial and ethnic interaction at the dawn of the 21st century. People in the City of Angels (and perhaps if we extrapolate further, in "War on Terror" riven America?) are so lacking in intimate interactions that they need crashes of various sorts, including racial outbursts, to provide the means for "touching" each other, for connecting, being honest, keeping it real. Or, as Cheadle's character narrates: "Violent contact—in word or on wheels—is the only way left to reach out and touch somebody." Uh, okay, and if you buy this nonsense, I've got a few insurances policies on land in Atlantis I'd like to sell you as well. As Shakespeare might have put it in one of his own fulsome moments of epizeuxis, Crash is crap, crap, crap, crap, crap!

I kept thinking as I watched it that this contrived claptrap may reflect how some upper-middle-class, privileged White people like Haggis and producer Sandra Bullock--and maybe even some deluded Black--view the world, but it was such an implausible, hole-ridden, poorly constructed fantasy world so far from anything I or anyone I know knows that I couldn't buy into it for more than a moment. Now, I'm all for outrageousness, fantasy, and so forth. But the point of this film is supposed to be its clever realism and authenticity. Yet it was mostly so false it gave new definition to the word "fiction." As critic Armond White noted in his harsh New York Press review (which unfortunately confuses Jennifer Esposito and favorite-Latino-paired-with-Negro-male lead Eva Mendes), the Black folks in this film are "caricatures," the white folks are "tragic," and almost none of it reflects the reality of contemporary Los Angeles or America. Only one lone characterization rung true: that of the Latino locksmith, played by Miguel Peña, whose personal story would have made a very interesting film all by itself.

But back to Crap: I mean, where to begin?
  • If you've just been pulled from a burning car wreck, do you think you'd still have your three-inch pumps on? Your clothes only barely torn, your face only lightly bruised? And if you did survive a burning car wreck and were able to walk away and talk about it, don't you think your very first action--I mean, it could be just me here--would be to call your loved one or loved ones or some close family member as soon as possible, or have someone else do it for you? Even if you've had a bad argument--you've just survived a burning car wreck, for God's sake!!!
  • Only in a Hollywood movie could a white rookie cop--yes, even a blond-haired, blue-eyed do gooder like Ryan Phillippe--persuade two other officers (veteran? rookie? etc.), with their guns trained on a Black carjacking suspect, who'd led them on a highspeed chase and who subsequently decided to curse them out, to let said suspect walk away with a citation. Oh yeah, right. Maybe Haggis has missed the frequent video captures of Negroes being beaten up after police pursuits, whether they're guilty or not (hey Paul, why not check out Cops while you're at it, they rough up white folks too), but then again, we're talking about the product of America's liberal "dream factory," so....
  • And only in a Hollywood movie would a Black man jump out of a car screaming at and walking towards police and not be shot, let alone blown away. Seriously. Try and if it works for you, well, I don't know, send me a sign via a Ouija board or something. Or some other kind of sign. No, on second thought, don't try it. We lose enough Black men every day--no need to lose even one more.
  • And only in a Hollywood movie would a Black man--or anyone--who's been carjacked, after surviving a totally implausible confrontation with liberally armed policepeople and a liberal do-gooder cop ride around with his carjacker (of whatever race, mind you!!!) and as he's dropping him off (dropping him off!!!), utter such drivel as "You embarrass me." (You embarrass me!!!) Okay, maybe Black Christ on his return would do this or something, but anyone else even halfway sane....
  • Why does Hollywood always feel the need to redeem white racists? Don't people like Haggis realize that many such people are unredeemable? The whole Matt Dillon-is-an-avowed-racist-but-saves-the-hightoned-Negress-who-glances-up -thankfully-into-his-eyes scenario made me want to vomit. Weren't all those adaptation of Kyle Onstott's novels, let alone Monster's Ball, etc. enough? Come on!
  • Also, from what planet were Haggis's strange upper-middle-class Black people teleported? I've known more a few members of the Black haute bourgeoisie, and they sure in the hell don't act anything like the characters portrayed by Thandie Newton and Terrence Dashon Howard. Now, there are hanky heads running around out there, like Clarence Thomas and Ward Connerly (neither of whom grew up as "equestrians" or among the Black upper classes), but then would these folks really have Howard's outburst, particularly with police guns trained...oh well, see above. And would an entitled, upper-middle-class Black woman, of all people, have allowed a white cop to molest her as Newton's character did, and not be on the phone right away with a phalanx of lawyers? Seriously? (I won't even go into Newton's bursting-into-tears histrionics on the TV set....)
  • And, after your wife called to say she'd survived a burning car wreck (yep, I'm back to that) and you'd just survived a carjacking, would you possibly just drive around like a fool and then participate in a bonfire? I ask again, what planet was this strange upper-middle-class Negro teleported from???
  • You're in an interracial or interethnic relationship. So you regularly a) show some semblance of respect for your beloved's background or b) pop off insulting, ignorant remarks that show you don't have a goddamned clue about the other person's ethnicity? According to Haggis, if you're Black, it's definitely b. And of course despite the fact that you're an intelligent Black detective who's about to be appointed to an important post, you're actually too stupid, being a Black caricature, to tell the difference between different Latino ethnicities, so you're fucking person who's half Puerto Rican (I can remember what the other nationality Jennifer Esposito claimed to be), but you tell your mother on the phone that you're fucking a "white woman" and you then you assume this "white" woman you've been fucking is actually "Mexican." Which means you get to toss out a hateful slur against Mexicans. Yep, sure. I know, "race play," etc. Happens all the time. All. The. Time....
  • Does anyone on earth believe that Sandra Bullock's character would actually tell her Latina housekeeper-qua-Mammy-cita, who of course is there to provide her with that necessary comfort, that Mammy-cita is her only and best "friend"? After she's yelled at the woman and is ranting about people of color in general? But of course, because you know, she has an epiphany after her ass slides down the stairs; it knocks some sense into her upper-middle-class head. Her egotism and paranoia, as White says, were believable. But the rest wasn't at all. Her best friend of ten years can't come comfort her because she's getting a massage--but she also doesn't call the police or someone else. And Bullock only has this one friend, you know, unfortunately. But fortunately, of course there's always some person of color to help such people out, preferably a subserviant one brown-skinned one. Why does Hollywood keep pushing this particular fantasy? Seriously?
  • Shaun Toub, who plays the Iranian(-American) father, totally loses his accent at one point. It just vanishes. Oops. And in fact the whole Iranian-mistaken-as-Arab-and-gets-store-vandalized storyline just felt, oh, I don't know, a bit much. Yes, I know after 9/11 (and before) Iranians and other non-Arab people (no matter what their religion, Muslim, Christian, Zoroastrian, perhaps even Jewish) from the Middle East, as well as South Asians (Sikhs especially) were mistaken for Arabs and attacked, but there's a large, well integrated Iranian-American community in Los Angeles that has been there since before the fall of the Shah, yet these particular Iranians seemed completely cut off, untethered, and of course, Toub's response to the vandalization of his store was to go after the Latino, which, you know, just makes so much sense outside of a filmic geneology that, as White points out, derives from Falling Down and House of Sand and Fog...
  • If you're dragged beneath a van as the "Chinaman" was, and then roughly dragged out from under the van, and then dumped outside a hospital, is it humanly possible--school me, folks--for you lying in bed after this extremely traumatic experience, and to be chatting with your wife (girlfriend, who knows, the Asian folks in the film were barely dealt with except in broad stereotypic strokes) and directing her to look in a locker and cash a check, because of course you're involved in transporting illegal aliens, and the person paying you to do so would write you a check (which of course would be so easy for the INS to trace...).

Why does Don Cheadle's mother have to be a heroin addict? What purpose does that serve? Did "racial preferences" really destroy Dillon's father's business, because from what I can see, across America, white people still own and run most of everything, including small businesses, so whose racist, conservative fantasy is this "history" reinforcing? What purpose was Keith David's grinning minstrel supposed to serve, and couldn't there have been even one Black male character who wasn't a weak head-bowing, embodiment of shame? Would Ryan Phillippe's character, who just happens to be listening to country music (you know, authentic "White" music or something), really pick up some random Black hitchhiker and then turn defensive and fearful on a dime, leading to yet another unnecessary tragedy in the film, which of course just works perfectly for its crappy, interwoven plot structure? Why the need to descend into sentimentality with the "I love you's" when the filmmaker demonstrated that he could portray something approaching true emotional resonance clearly enough in the Latino locksmith's storyline? What exactly was the point of Ludacris's character, really? Irony is one thing, but Haggis's point, that this pro-Black-rhetoric-spouting pseudo-philosopher buffoon would eventually experience his own epiphany of sorts was just beyond believable. Who on earth believed the scene where Ludracis lets the Chinese (I suppose) immigrants out onto the streets of Chinatown? And why does he have to utter yet another gratuitous racial remark at the end of the scene (nigga just cain't help hisself...)?

Other than the Peña character, about the only other true moment I witnessed was when the white lawyer chatting with Don Cheadle's character spouted off hateful remarks about Black men. I've actually experienced such a moment, more than once. That wasn't fiction, I felt, so much as Haggis and Hollywood just getting their hateration off their chests. What's wrong with the nigger male? Can't they (you) get their (your) acts together? We aren't to blame, you know--well, some of us, but not all of us. In fact, had Haggis delved a bit more deeply he might have come up with a far more engaging film about racial--and human--interactions that actually mirrored the painful realities so many of us live every day. A film of greater subtlety, that actually interrogated the sources of so many of our society's problems, that probed the complexity of a liberal or conservative worldview (from the viewpoint of anyone, but particularly those at the top and bottom), that truthfully looked at race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, class, religion, and above all the regimes of power, to use Foucault's term, that aren't so easily localized but reinforced by an overall white supremacist power structure--that is, a film that actually went beyond trying to make upper-middle-class, White liberal people feel comfortable, once again, and Black people feel, well, like the impotent minstrels we're viewed as, might have been worth however many millions this shit cost to make.

I think J. G. Ballard and David Cronenberg should sue for having this dreck potentially confuse viewers into thinking there's more than one decent contemporary film with Crash as its title.


  1. Damn, John...tell us how you and C *really* feel! Wow...I will say, however, that sometimes movies like this truly show how out of touch with reality most whites are...and increases the sadness I feel at how difficult it is for filmmakers of color to get funded while white dreck gets the green light all the time...

  2. I agree with you completely John. I too went to see the movie after several of my friends and associates raved on and on about it. And found it contrived, painfully sentimental, and such a fucking production of liberal white folks patting themselves on the back. I do like Terrance Howard a lot, despite this film, and I am curious to see him in Hustle and Flow. Thandie Newton is growing on me too. Though everytime I see her now, I can only think of Beloved and well, it at times destroys the moment. It's interesting that Lorenz Tate would use this film as being part of his comeback. Wasn't he on the verge in the 90s or something? I don't think this film will be a high point in his career. Oh yeah and I did think that shit with Lorreta Divine was kind of funny.

  3. hey john...

    i actually agree with you..i saw crash again, because i was one of the friends who raved about it...

    the first time..i was more or less moved by the performances in the case..specifically, the black actors....

    but watching it again...not only did i see what you saw, it was angering to me...

    why does hollywood redeem white racists?
    why are black men who are in positions of power extreme stereotypes ( "almost" white or very pro black, etc.) and never fully realized human beings?
    why are black women most always sexually molested/assaulted? and whyare the perps usually white men?

    why do i fear that if a black writer or writer of colored wanted to explore race relations in a similar fashion OR just explore the topic in a film...he OR she OR they would be shut out, i.e. not get funding for the film?

    though i did think the performances were very good (and yes, i was quite annoyed by christine's histronics at the TV set {after you berate your husband, you dot hat quick of a 180 at his job begging for him to come back? a more realistic scene would have been for her to still feel as she does yet CONSIDER his feelings, etc.), i now feel like somehow i'vebeen duped of a good film...

    i do believe there is a potentially deep and intense film that could have prodded me to THINK about race relations and how it was presented on film and an intelligently written script which detailed this very subject expertly...

    but, i will admit that CRASH isn't it....and i don't see one coming anytime soon...

  4. I'm thinking that I need to see Crash again myself. While I was moved by the acting more or less, I didn't allow myself to go deep into the analysis of the film.

    Since Don Cheadle was instrumental in the development of this movie, I'd really like to know what his reaction would be to the questions you and Ryan raised. It's true - these questions should be raised.

  5. Reggie: I'd heard and read so many enthusiastic comments about this movie that I was eager to like it, but everything just I admit that my tolerance for Hollywood's bullshit is very low these days, but I do actually like some films that come out of its studios. But this thing is just getting praised to the high heavens, and I don't get it. I agree with you about Black filmmakers and the lack of opportunities, but I think this goes for filmmakers of ALL backgrounds, including poor and working-class white people. I actually asked my students how often they saw on screen or in the media people like most of the folks running around Chicago--or even in downtown Evanston, and they admitted that they rarely did. The power structure and writing system in Hollywood makes such depictions very difficult; everything gets filtered through a particularly narrow perspective. Many of these folks mean well, but they just cannot imagine a world outside the one they've been acculturated in--their habitus frames their aesthetic vision.

    I should have posted that late in the film, after I'd started whispering to C. about all kinds of stuff, this crackhead came into the theater, walks up the stairs to our row, steps in front of us and crosses all the way over to the other side, goes up one row, then crosses back before walking back down the stairs and heading out. That was more interesting than what was happening on screen.

    Charles: I like Terrence Dashon Howard as well, though I wish they (somebody) would stop making him conk his hair, which it appears he does in HUSTLE AND FLOW. (Sigh, another movie about black pimps...). Let us see that nappy, reddish-brown head of hair! Even hanky heads wear fros these days. Thandie Newton's turn in BELOVED doesn't mar my appreciation of her, though I hear where you're coming from. I think she's really talented, but often gets bad roles, and truthfully, had Haggis handled her and Howard's horrible interaction with the police and the subsequent turn of events with more honesty and subtlety, it might have been really powerful. Larenz Tate, who is still so cute, just wasn't given much to work with, but I doubt the role will harm him. Hell, he got blown away, so that probably scored him some points with future film execs. Loretta Divine always plays the same part, but I did find her moment with Dillon comical. I just wish the writers had kept with the racial epithet program and let her go off on Dillon the way everyone else was just spewing his or her barely suppressed hate. She at least had good cause.

    Ryan: Please don't think that my review was aimed at you. I know you liked the film the first time you saw it, and you weren't alone, so as with SIN CITY I'm quite willing to accept mine may be the minority viewpoint. I do think most of the actors did very decent jobs with the roles they were given. Miguel Peña, in addition to being sexy, Ludacris, Larenz, Dillon, Sandra Bullock, and Cheadle were pretty good. Brendan Fraser simply cannot act, he's a total cipher. Ryan Phillippe's about on equal footing. Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard were hamstrung by the roles. I'm not sure what to make of Esposito, or the woman who played Cheadle's mother. They didn't even let her play a realistic heroin user.

    It must be very hard for someone like Haggis to imagine the complexity of certain types of Black people, particularly the Black middle-class and upper-middle-class people in the film, since he does depict Ludacris's character ironically and with more complexity than almost any other Black person's in the movie. I think the mother's being a heroin addict was an attempt to structure this complexity into the plot, but it just felt gratuitous; and with Howard, I wanted to buy his silence, his complicity, but then I thought to myself, even the people I know LIKE HIM, the brothas and sistas who DO play the game COMPLAIN when in the sanctity of their homes, especially if they're with other brothas and sistas; they may grin and jive when on the plantation, but when they step off it, even if they're damaged, something else often comes out--that is, if they've held onto some shred of who they are (and I'm not saying that's one sole thing, or some kind of fixed essence, but you get where I'm coming from, right?). Haggis basically turned every one of the Black folks into caricatures, though, and this pissed me off, because I'm tired of seeing this happen again and again. I'm not saying Black or Latino or Asian etc. directors always get it right either, but I'd like to see their takes more often. And sometimes a White director can capture something pretty fresh: tink of Chiwetel Ejiofor's character in DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, which IS complex, even as it plays on longstanding notions of African immigrants, or the very powerful (and rarely screened) movie NOTHING BUT A MAN, whose director was white.

    I agree that the film you describe may be out there, and it could be made, but probably not greenlighted and bankrolled the way this one was. But it's not totally inconceivable. Think about a film like THE GLASS SHIELD, by Charles Burnett. It's a lot more stylized, but also so much truer than this one ever will be, but it got no play, no promotion, nothing. I know, I know, most people don't want to see that kind of film, or most of the films I really admire, and I acknowledge this, but let's meet halfway. IN THE BEDROOM, for example, or YOU CAN COUNT ON ME, or CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS, or something that matches artistic depth with a more popular approach. It doesn't all or always have to be THE KILLER OF SHEEP or DAUGHTERS OF THE DUST or SOPHIE'S CHOICE or A TOUCH OF EVIL or ALI, FEAR EATS THE SOUL or L'ECLISSE, etc. Or even GHOST DOG--that is one of my favorite films! LOL

    EJ, I think I started into tallying all the nonsense after the first few scenes; I would much rather have just sat and enjoyed the film. There's so much deeper analysis that White gets into in his review, too. As I noted to Ryan above, I do believe people may sincerely enjoy the film, especially the acting, but what it was enacting onscreen kept me from focusing on it. I also wonder what Cheadle would think, given that he starred with Jeffrey Wright in Suzan-Lori Park's TOPDOG, UNDERDOG, which like all of her work is full of considerable nuance, and in the case of that particular play, a much more direct structure and realistic template. It was very moving, and despite its evident artifice, still much truer to life than this movie.

    Thanks to all of you for reading and dialoguing!

  6. john: oh no, i know that what your review wasn't directed at me and we are in agreement..i.e. YOU CAN COUNT ON ME was such a great film, no? Laura Linney is so ridiculously underrated it's tragic...and IN THE BEDROOM should have gotten sissy spacek the best actress oscar, not that white man's masturbation watching a black women done doggiestyle by billy bob thornton in MONSTER'S BALL (you know what, though i've read a few articles that N'bushe Wright was the one that originally had the role, fought to make it WAY more three dimensional than it ended up {im sure once the script left N'bushe's managers hands and went through other folk, the realness was stripped of it, etc.}, and could have really BROUGHT it--and she was basically passed over for Halle Berry because she was too dark for the role...

    you know, im kinda glad that N'bushe didnt do it after all...

    but, digression aside, i expected A LOT out of CRASH and really was disappointed after all was said and done...

    and YES, Brendan Fraser AND Ryan Phillippe are like this --><-- for me in terms of acting to NONE...

  7. THANK YOU! I came out of the movie all full of ranting energy for the stupidity of virtually everything about it. I assumed it was by a very young first time director with some kind of connection in Hollywood. When I realized who the director was I was even more disgusted with the whole thing. I couldn't stop ranting at dinner but you outdid me. Feels very good to read your piece.

  8. I would also want to point out that Matt Dillon is also a sexual molester. And being a cop, that made him doubly unforgivable.

  9. Actually I read a comment somewhere that summed up the whole movie very succintly. In its core, Crash is still a white supremacy movie. Also, The Latino Locksmith wasn't treated realistically as well. What kind of father wouldn't at least call a cop when some maniac just pulled a trigger at your daughter? Even if it's empty shell?

  10. As a part time aspiring rally driver, here is the best advice i have to offer on how to avoid a serious spinal injury should the worst happen when you are driving. As you can imagine, i have the odd accident at work, and my co-pilot told be that if i am seated with my bum right in the corner of seat and my back against the back rest from bum to shoulders (i.e with the spine in an upright, supported position, then should we have a crash, or have to stop suddenly, the damage to my spine will be minimal. I haven't had another accident at work since he told me this, but next time i do i promise to update you guys and let you know how the spine was after!