Sunday, February 26, 2006

Quick notes on Crash

It’s been a couple of years since I stopped reviewing films professionally, and in that time I haven’t watched too many movies on their initial release. (Actually, not having got into the DVD-rental habit, I haven’t watched many of them at all.) But around this time of year (pre-Oscars), Delhi’s multiplexes show films of a marginally higher quality than usual, and I’m looking forward to next week: Brokeback Mountain, Munich and especially the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line.

Watched Crash yesterday, Paul Haggis’s debut feature about a couple of days in the racial conflict-ridden life of Los Angeles. Enjoyed it on the whole, though parts were simplistic. Overall I was more impressed by the film’s structure, the attention given to nuances of character, the editing and the performances than by its pat handling of the racial-discrimination theme. (If a movie’s deepest insight into the subject is that the best of us carry the potential for racism within us, and that conversely even the most bigoted people have good sides to them, well, that isn’t an earthshaking revelation where I’m concerned.)

There are quite a few powerful scenes. My favourite is the only genuine gun-shooting that takes place in the film (though it threatens them all the time). It’s based on a split-second decision that goes tragically wrong (the flip side of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink) and what makes it so effective is that it’s done by the character you’d least expect it from – it’s the movie’s strongest demonstration of how our hidden prejudices can come to the surface in high-stress situations.

One of the unfavourable reviews I read recently (it was from either or NYT) remarked that the film’s chosen method of showing how complex people are is to show exactly two sides to each of its characters: the Very Bad and the Very Good. I don’t think that’s quite fair – at least 3-4 of the protagonists (notably the rich black man played by Terrence Howard, and the two thieves who double up as commentators on the city’s race politics) were more complexly depicted, with the script at the very least providing pointers to still other sides of their personalities. Perhaps the problem is that there just wasn’t enough time to do justice to all the characters. Most successful ensemble films that cut between many different groups of people (think Robert Altman, or Magnolia, or The Thin Red Line, hell, even How the West Was Won) are around three hours along, but this one is just a little over half that length. I couldn’t make much emotional investment in a couple of the characters (like the DA’s wife, played by Sandra Bullock) and if the film had to be this length, they could have been left out of the script and the time gained distributed among the others.

But highly recommended and all that, especially if you don’t walk into the hall thinking “this is a best picture Oscar nominee, so it has to be a Great Movie”.

P.S. One of the advantages of not watching movies as soon as they are released is that I don’t have to beat myself over the head about the factual errors made by our esteemed newspaper “reviewers”. In her Crash review the TOI Grande Dame writes “The district attorney thinks it would be good politics if he gave the award to an Iraqi named Saddam.” That’s completely wrong, as anyone with a little common sense would know. And over at the HT, Vinayak Chakraborty describes a film where “the director’s accompanying voiceover gives us nuances into the filmmaking process”. No such thing occurs anywhere in the movie. He watched a “Making of” documentary by mistake, yes?

Update: for a full-length review, read this one by Samanth Subramanian.


  1. there was a very interesting debate on the internet a few months back. in the slate movie club of last year scott foundas of la weekly called it the "worst film of the year" and said that it would appeal to those self-congratulatory people who like to say, "a lot of my friends are black"

    you can read the slate discussion here

    there were also exchanges between roger ebert (who thought it was the best film of the year!)and foundas

    I haven't seen the movie yet ;)

  2. Alok: I've read most of those exchanges. Thankfully it was all a very long time ago, so it probably didn't affect my experience of the film (or so I think!)

    With my frustrating Calvin-esque knack for seeing both sides of an argument, I can sort of understand what Foundas meant by that statement (it applies to some scenes, especially the one where Sandra B hugs her Latino maid and says "You're the best friend I've got"). But like I said, the treatment of race-relations wasn't the thing I liked best about the film anyway.

  3. I felt Sandra B was wasted in that role - there was almost nothing for her to do. The shooting scene was very well done- I held my breath till the child stared speaking again.
    Overall, it was a 'Watchable' movie, but not too great.

  4. See, Jai, so it is possible that we potentially agree on a movie's worth after all! ;-)

    Alok, thanks for those links, although I can't cut-paste the longer ones. For some reason, they spill over into Jai's sidebar. But I did Foundas' views on Slate when the piece released, and like Jai, I thought he was a bit too harsh. Cinematically, narratively and acting-ically, "Crash" was really well made, I thought. But like Jai, I thought the race part of it was mishandled - not, luckily, to the extent that it ruined the entire movie for me.

  5. I can understand Foundas' frustration with the film. Foundas lives in LA, and the film's oversimplistic treatment of race relations is very annoying to most of us who call the city home. It is the sort of film that is made by a person who spends a little time in LA and then decides he knows enough about human engagement in the city to make a smug, preachy film about it (Paul Haggis is Canadian, that explains a lot).

    It is filled with the worst sort of stereotypes about LA and its presumed urban alienation, about interpersonal dynamics in the city (relentlessly seen through a racial lens in the film), and caricatured, noxious depiction of races.

    More than anything, to depict an educated, successful African-American man as emasculated and inauthentic till he finds himself in the ghetto (his natural habitat, I presume) speaking the language of the ghetto is revolting. The assumption is that race as a category overrides class, which is bullshit of the highest order.

    Jai, I do understand that you appreciate the cinematic structure without necessarily becoming enamored of the racial spiel, but it is very hard to disengage the film from its overriding message. All Haggis had to do was look at LA's mayoral election voting patterns to know how unsophisticated his take of race in the city was.

    Anyway, the only redeeming features of the moview were the performances of Terence Howard and Don Cheadle.

  6. A lot of people seem to have watched Crash this weekend. I was quite blown away by the film, though it a few scenes did feel a bit trite (Sandra Bullock hugging Latina maid being one that springs to mind). But don't you think the triteness can be explained by the parable-like structure of the film? I don't think we are meant to accept, literally, the fact that the same bunch of people keep bumping into each other over the course of a single day in very unusual circumstances.

    The way I look at it, you can either make a film about race relations in LA that is so complex only people living in LA having first-hand experience of those relations will get the drift, or you can 'over-simplify' it so it is about prejudices people live with everywhere. I think Crash succeeds in acquainting us with our own gut reactions to people who happen to be different from us.

  7. If Jai permits, I'd like to respond to Shrabonti's comment (Jai, delete my comment if it's a bit much).

    Shrabonti, I'm miffed that there are many around the world who saw this film and thought that it authentically represents race dynamics in Los Angeles. But I can let that pass.

    However, even as a universal parable, I think the film is an abject failure, because the statement it makes about race is trite and trivial. It hammers "race" so insistently that any nuance, any contrasting layer of meaning eludes the narrative.

    Class is almost redundant, nothing seems to separate an affluent, successful person and a carjacker from the hood simply because they happen to possess the same skin colour.

    The film is syrupy naive when it wants us to believe in abrupt redemptions. And yet, it has a dark, dismal undercurrent in promoting the notion that human interaction in a multicultural space is only determined by race.

    And a brief illustration of why I think the director is clueless before I sign off. There's a scene in the movie where the storeowner's daughter says: "They think we're Arab. When did Persian become Arab?"
    LA has the largest Persian diaspora in the world. Invariably, an Arab will be mistaken for a Persian, not the other way round.

  8. Swati, I think I can see why we are reacting so differently to the film. It's a valid objection, presented coherently, so I'm sure Jai will refrain from doing the slasher bit :)

    What I feel is, you, being aware of LA and its social complexities, can see where the director has gone wrong in detailing them. To you, maybe inevitably, it's become more an LA film than one that talks about universal issues. But to me, it's a film about racial prejudice and conflict and LA is completely incidental to that.

    That said, I seriously can't agree that the point the film makes about race is trite. Jai says in his post: "If a movie’s deepest insight into the subject is that the best of us carry the potential for racism within us, and that conversely even the most bigoted people have good sides to them, well, that isn’t an earthshaking revelation...". I don't agree. I think that insight is just the most important point anybody can make about race today, be it ever so obvious.

    Also, it may be obvious to you and me and the other liberals reading this blog, hell, even the entire blog world, but is it as obvious to the guy next door who is not even aware that he is prejudiced against his neighbour?

  9. heard and read a lot about crash. now have to watch it. hope it releases in bangalore soon. :)

  10. Shrabonti, when you quoted me in your last comment you missed the most important bit: "…where I’m concerned". Like I said in my email, this was a notes-to-self sort of post. It’s not attempting to be a broad-based review – though for that matter even my formal reviews tend to be very personal. And it’s not aiming for a perspective other than my own.

    Swati: for the record, I’m not among those who thought this film “authentically represents race dynamics in Los Angeles” – in fact, after the first two minutes I didn’t even think of it as being set in LA (or any other specific location). But despite my own problems with the way it handled the race issue, I can’t agree that it’s a downright failure as a parable. Also – purely my view again – I didn’t think the film was making automatic assumptions about race overriding class. Given that it has set out to deal with race conflicts, not class conflicts, I think it's just chosen an angle that best suits its purpose.

    Somewhat reluctantly (and maybe a little hypocritically) I have to do an about-turn now and admit that Shrabonti has a point: people like us (the liberals, the already-enlightened) will by definition have a very limited perspective on this film, and will almost inevitably think it’s simplistic. We need a broader range of viewpoints. Any racist, redneck bloggers out there? Weigh in!

  11. Wow! Nice discussion.

    I think this is a general trend with mainstream hollywood movies with pretentions to seriousness. they invariably tend to take a smug, self-satisfactory approach to characters and ideas and then come up with trite conclusions. I am interested in how you see Munich. There was a bit a smugness in that too and it comes up with such shallow and banal conclusions, which is not to say that the conclusions are wrong, only that you don't need an art-movie to reach those conclusions. Racial prejudice is inherent and is bad. Violece and retribution are bad. Okay. got it. I don't need to see a movie to learn about these things. thank you.

    Samanth: sorry, was too lazy to put the links in the html tag. you can google up "foundas, ebert, crash" and reach many more links and blogs !

    Also if I can make a recommendation... Michael Haneke's Cache was a fantastic film which exlored similar issues of race and class in contemporary France. It has a historical, political and psychological depth which is required for films like these. after all a film really has to make you think before you can reach a two-line conclusion in a review ;)

  12. Very interesting discussion on the film's handling of the 'race' issue. But what really left me open-mouthed was the way the film technically lived up to the opening dialogue: "I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something." However, the amazingly well-written screenplay ensures that even when the various elements\characters crash into each other, it doesn't jar. Here's hoping that the film wins at least the Best Editing and Best Original Screenplay, if not Best Film.

  13. Alok: shoo shoo! I'm determined to like Munich now. Just you try and stop me!

    Yes, have been wanting to see Cache for some time too.

    Nikhil: no no no. The Ballard Crash is about a sexual fetish for car crashes and it was made into a very interesting film by David Cronenberg a few years ago.

  14. Jai would shoot me now, but couldn't resist one more dig :).

    Shrabonti, I don't think my objections to the film all stem from the LA details being wrong (and many of them are). As I clarified, I don't think it works on the universal theme of racism angle as well.

    We all carry the potential for prejudice within us. The best of liberals included. However what those prejudices are translated into in the context of a multicultural urban environment is far more complex than a simplistic - people act prejudiced and then figure out how wrong they are.

    And most people have figured out ways of rationalizing their prejudices (in outlandish ways at times, "they smell", "they eat dogs", etc.). They jolly well know that they are prejudiced and Crash isn't a revelation for them.

    Jai, after all the race debates that the US has gone through it is amazingly ignorant for a filmmaker to make a film about "race" that ignores every other issue that complicates the narrative. Either the director doesn't respect his audience's capacity for nuance, or he doesn't possess the ability to introduce it. The fact that he introduces the character of the affluent black director means that he wanted to flirt with class issues, just that he wasn't very sophisticated going about it.

    Tridib, that piece of dialogue had me fuming! You'd think he was describing some apocalyptic space of intense alienation, not a thriving, multicultural metropolis. I think deep down the director doesn't believe or want to believe in the possibility of people separated by race and ethnicity living and engaging with each other in the same urban space on non-racially mediated terms. And that's what I hated most about Crash.

  15. I'm with Thalassa on this one, Crash was written by a white man who thinks he understands racism because he's lived in dirty gritty LA.

  16. HellO

    i think crash is one of the best movies ever, it has a brilliant cast, excellent acting and is supported by a script which is true and everyone needs to see that racism is all around us.

    Johnny G (Upcoming Hollywood actor who auditioned for brendan fraiser role as lawyer but ditched the role as i had filming to shoot for a big film coming soon in 2008)

  17. Paul Haggis is done a great job for crash, the filming is magnificent, the film is spectacular, best film everrrr!

    Laila Rouass


    FROM Frankie J (Poet)