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Crash – racism as product



Crash – Director Paul Haggis

Art and Architecture have one key thing in common: both need foundations. The bigger the building, the deeper and stronger the foundations it needs. Crash is like a complex set of card houses: eight overlapping linked structures are fashioned with great skill into a neatly integrated whole. But it has no foundations and therefore no real substance: all that it is, is visible, above ground. There is nothing in it that reaches down to give it depth and a solid base in reality. Many films are like this and it creates no problem. The trouble with Crash is that the socially conscious heart it wears on its promotional sleeve, is supposed to be its serious minded raison d’etre. It offers and promotes itself as a slice of real-life LA, if that is not an oxymoron, that addresses issues of endemic and institutionalised racism towards ethnic groups of all colours and races (except as always, Native Americans – the invisible wronged). There is enough talent and apparent sincerity of purpose in Crash to treat these claims seriously and examine whether they stack up. For me they don’t, but Crash is still a well made movie worth seeing.

Parallels with Altman’s Short Cuts are understandably being drawn. They share many similarities: a linked episodic structure; an urban LA setting; and a sombre visual tone. But, though I am not a great fan of Short Cuts, not only is the unreality of Hollywood at the aesthetic heart of Altman’s film, but typically, his stories precisely use this as counterpoint to the ugly, ragged, open-endedness of non-Hollywood LA. Crash ties all its ends into a neat little narrative bundle and parades its essentially stereotyped Hollywood values, as unflinching, in-your-face social and racial realism.

The sheer quality and style of the writing and direction almost bring this off. But the fatal flaw of plot driving character sends warning signals quite early on. This is most blatant when Ryan Phillippe’s idealistic young cop, Officer Hanson, intersects with another of the story lines and proceeds to behave in ways that contradict the picture drawn of him up to that point. Plot necessities have him commit a stupid, totally unconvincing murder in order to set up a carefully fashioned ironic denouement. Such jarring notes recur throughout the film and squander the credibility engendered by some excellent, frequently very funny, writing.

Truth be told, the so-called, in-your-face unflinching social and racial realism of Crash is deeply sentimental. These are cleverly drawn stereotypes attacking the practice of stereotyping racial and social groups, in snappy, witty dialogue that flatters to deceive. It seems perverse that with Hollywood, except unconsciously, usually an ‘irony-free’ zone, Crash piles irony upon irony to the point where it implodes on its own pretensions. This is social and racial conflict as product. Powerful emotional impact sells. Curiously, the worst stereotypes in the movie are the most subtle and probably unintentional – the women. They are in turns passive aggressive, submissive, bored, whinging, and manipulative. It’s as if racism is a testosterone-fuelled man’s game where the woman’s role is to wind her man up from the sidelines and then cheer him to victory.

Steadicam specialist cinematographer James Munro creates a consistently brooding, sinister visual tone and a prowling sense of movement and pace. Haggis’s own screenplay creates a stylish apparent credibility one would expect from the writer of Million Dollar Baby. Technically, the film is beautifully put together with an evocative, plangent musical soundtrack.

Playing cards each have their distinct identity and place within a conventional general hierarchy. They can be shuffled into different roles, groups and significance according to the rules of different games. The variations are infinite and absorbing. But a card house, is still a card house, however painstakingly and intricately it is put together. The slightest real shake of the hand or actual breath of a draught, and the whole edifice falls. In the end it is just a game. Judged by the claims of its own pretensions, Crash has no more substance than a neatly constructed whodunit, despite its strenuous efforts to convince us otherwise. It has Oscars written all over it.

(Before Oscar Awards – 2006)

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