Posted to on February 4, 2006


Ordinarily I only write about films for which I have some degree of enthusiasm (my father would always say, "If you can't say something nice about somebody, say nothing at all--of course, he was one of the most taciturn people on the planet,) but every once in a while I run into a real stinker that the mainstream media hail as a progressive statement. I try to make room for them in my busy schedule. One such film was the meretricious "In My Country," that dealt with the Truth and Reconciliation hearings in South Africa. Paul Haggis's "Crash" is another ambitious Statement on Race. Described by the Rolling Stone as "a provocative, unflinching look at the complexities of racial tolerance in contemporary America" and by the New Yorker as a film "about the rage and foolishness produced by intolerance, the mutual abrasions of white, black, Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian citizens in an urban pot in which nothing melts," one might expect something worth the price of admission. Fortunately for me, I was able to take in this sorry spectacle for free, courtesy of a studio screener. If I had wasted $11 on it, I might have taken my case to small claims court.


"Crash" is apparently in the mold of "Magnolia" and "Short Cuts", two other films set in Los Angeles with large casts and structured as a series of overlapping vignettes orchestrated by coincidence. Robert Altman, who directed "Short Cuts," of course invented this genre. At least for me, his films have become Robert Altman imitations in recent years and not worth watching--let alone an imitation like "Magnolia," whose blandishments I have found all too easy to resist.


At the beginning of "Crash," we are introduced to two young, well-dressed and articulate African-American men--Peter (Larenz Tate) and Anthony (the rap star Ludacris)--who have just emerged from a fancy Italian restaurant. Like all the other characters in the film, they seem preoccupied with race. Watching the anxious expression on a white woman's face as their paths cross, Anthony complains bitterly that a Black has more to fear in this white-dominated, upper-class neighborhood than she does. Based on everything you have seen up to this point, your expectation is that Peter and Anthony might be a couple of UCLA students or "public intellectuals" from a Spike Lee movie.


Since Haggis's stated intention in making this film is to demonstrate that you can't judge a book by the cover, the two youths unexpectedly point guns at the woman and her husband as they are entering their Lincoln Navigator, announcing that they are taking the car. They are not students or website designers or shopkeepers, you see. They are professional carjackers.


Apparently Haggis was inspired to write and direct this film in 2004 after having been haunted since 1991 by his own experience as a carjacking victim:


"It was 1991, and I was with my wife at the time, coming home from the opening of 'The Silence of Lambs. We pulled over to get a movie at Blockbuster, and when we came out two guys with guns said, 'We'll take your car.' I said, 'Absolutely, you will.' We never found the car, and the people were never identified. "Ten years later I woke up in the middle of the night wondering about those kids and wanting to write about them. I made them the protagonists in my story.


"As a writer, you ask yourself questions other people never ask. I wanted to know who those kids were. Were they best friends or had they just met recently? Had they thought of themselves as criminals? Was this just something they were doing to make a couple bucks, or was this was a profession?"


"It's a hopeful film"


(Denver Post, May 22, 2005)


Whatever is hopeful in this film is more a function of characters going through Charles Dickens type conversions than any hint of social or political change. Since every character is utterly detached from the underlying economic realities of modern-day Los Angeles, the answer to "race hatred" is moral transformation rather than changing those realities.


In setting up these transformations, Haggis employs a series of plot twists that are utterly unbelievable. His characters find ways to bump into each other in this geographically dispersed city of 10 million that defy logic (hence the title "Crash," both figuratively and literally.) In watching these far-fetched coincidences, I was reminded of my experience hitch-hiking across the Deep South in the summer of 1965. Upon learning that I was from NYC, a truck-driver from Mississippi asked me if I knew his old army buddy who was also from New York.


This takes the most extreme form with Officers Ryan and Hanson, partners played by Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe, crossing paths with just about everybody in the film. Early on, they pull over Cameron (Terrence Dashon Howard), an African-American television director, and his wife Christine (Thandie Newton) mainly--it seems--to allow the sadistic Ryan to humiliate them. Ryan's racism is so extreme that he might even have shocked Mark Fuhrman, the white supremacist cop who testified against OJ Simpson. A search for weapons, for example, gives Ryan a pretext to grope the man's wife. For his part, Hanson--a seemingly open-minded soul, at least for the LA police department--is so offended that he later asks for a new partner.


To once again illustrate didactically that you can't judge a book by the cover, Officer Ryan bumps into Cameron's wife just hours later that day, as she is pinned in the smoldering wreckage of her car that has been involved in a freeway accident. He risks his life to pull her from the car, even though--having recognized him from the groping incident earlier in the day--she screams at him to leave her alone. The lesson? Even racist cops can transcend their racism when duty calls.


Meanwhile, Hanson, the "good" cop, has picked up an African-American hitch-hiker late at night. Just by coincidence, it turns out to be the carjacker Peter, who has been ejected from Cameron's car that he and Anthony have unsuccessfully tried to commandeer. First of all, the idea of hitch-hiking in Los Angeles is so implausible that Haggis might have well introduced a new twist in which it is revealed that Hanson is actually an extraterrestrial. But that would be not be as far-fetched as what actually transpires. After driving along for several moments, Hanson begins to grow wary of Peter and then opens fire on him, assuming wrongly that the youth is reaching for a pistol in his pocket. The lesson? Hanson, despite his liberal pretensions, is just as racist as Ryan, who turns out to be okay after all.


Despite its stylistic debt to Robert Altman's films, the true inspiration for "Crash" are the liberal "problem" dramas of the late 1950s and early 60s like "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" and "The Defiant Ones." These films were attempts to frame racial oppression in the USA in terms of a failure to communicate and thinking in stereotypes rather than racial supremacy. The answer to these problems is more understanding. One might even have expected Rodney King's "Why can't we all get along" to appear on screen as the film begins.


Originally from Canada, Paul Haggis launched his entertainment career as a TV screenwriter with shows like "The Love Boat" and "Walker, Texas Ranger" to his credit, so to speak. He made a kind of breakthrough with his script for Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby," another film with dubious claims to high-mindedness.