Friday, August 12, 2011

Justify My Shitty Taste: Don't Hate, Hate Hate Me Because I Like Crash

Mike Lippert of the much-read movie blog "You Talking to Me?" is having a blog-a-thon—one of those community drum-circles, where we pound on a theme and and listen to the echoes it creates.  I don't participate very often in these, but when something inspires a surge in heart-beats, I plunge in.  This time, the theme is "Justify Your Shitty Taste:" find a movie that has been given short-shrift and explain why you like it—defend yourself and your contrary opinion.  Well, I had a piece in the hopper that I wrote years ago to a film that has had its share of acclaim—even winning Best Picture at the Oscars—but meets with such condescending sneers every time it gets mentioned in "movie circles" that I've always felt the need to defend it—up to a point...and then I give up.  There's only so many times you can hit your head against a brick wall without doing damage to your own exquisite taste (that was written with sarcasm, btw).   Here, from the depths of my ignorance (and my ever-growing "Draft" pile) is my justification of Crash.

Hello, my name is Yojimbo, and I like Crash (Paul Haggis, 2004).

("Hi, Yojimbo")

It's really funny...really funny, to the point of out-loud chuckles...the extreme reactions Crash gets from its many, many detractors. When Jim Emerson mentioned it as one of his least favorite movies (he has, in the past, listed it as one of his "sociopathic barbarites")* in a recent blog post, the comments section went up in arms with lemming-like ferocity. "I HATE HATE HATE Crash!" yelled (caps indicative) one of the comments.**

I don't. I like it. With the same rictus smile that I appreciate other cynical films.  And the more extreme the reaction to it, the more I smile, because it only drives home the film's point further, and exposes it as true.

Now, some (but only some) of the hatred of Crash comes from folks who consider Crash the usurper that took the "Best Picture" Oscar from *sigh* Brokeback Mountain (as if the Oscars are ever truly the indicator of quality). Now, I didn't mind "Brokeback"--there was much to admire--the stunning cinematography, Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana's cruel, no-holds-barred/no-feelings-spared screenplay, and Heath Ledger's performance--someone finally captured the essence of the archetypal head-strong, mumbling western dude (and the guy was Australian, fer cryin' out loud!). Plus, there was something altogether shattering about his memorial to his lost love, in lieu of grave-stone. But, there was nothing in Brokeback Mountain that hasn't been done in every sudsy straight soap of the last eighty years. Nathan Lee of the Village Voice put it far better than I: Ann Proulx's bitter post-Oscar diatribe has a lot of empty fire to it, but, c'mon, honey, you were borrowing Faulkner's pen and you know it. And for anyone who thinks gay cowboys are revolutionary, skip right over the Village People and Jon Voigt for a moment and go directly to Red River. Howard Hawks knew it. Lenny Bruce knew it. Montgomery Clift, no doubt, knew it.

But Crash is the better movie. Crash is the subtler movie, believe it or not. Crash deserved that Best Picture Oscar, because it pulled off a great trick: it pissed off a lot of people, only proving its point.

Let me just say one thing about Crash: It's not "about" racism.

Yes, yes, I know, racism is all over the thing, morally repugnant, down and dirty, pig-ignorant racism. From all sides, and all races. And if racism was all it was about, yeah, some of the hatred for the film might have a point, because all the movie does is say "racism exists, and there's nothing you can do about it," which doesn't make it the Feel-Good Movie of the Year. If it was only about racism, then it would truly be committing that great movie sin "exemplifying what it rails against" like, say, Rollerball that says violence is a terrible thing and then rubs your nose in it for two hours. Or an "anti-war" movie--that relishes its battle sequences. If it were so, 'twas a grievous fault.

But Crash is not just about racism. Racism is a symptom in it, but it's not the "end-all, be-all."
Myopia is. The denizens of Crash are all folks (with very few significant exceptions) who've got it all figured out. Entrenched in their lives, in their jobs, in their bureaucracies, they think they've seen it all and they act appropriately. We've seen their type in movies before. Like Bogart's Richard Blaine in Casablanca who "sticks (his) neck out for nobody." Or Jack Nicholson's J.J. Gittes in Chinatown,*** who when asked what he did as a cop down there replies "as little as possible." They're not people of color, they're all gray, walking around with blinders on (which is why the movie's called Crash and not, say, Clash.) They all know "the score" and so they've stopped thinking. They live their cloistered, blindered lives in the grids of L.A. in their own little boxes of assumptions and none of them will try to see beyond them.  They are numb to the world, and the cultural clashes are battles over turf, amplified rhetoric and action so (as Don Cheadle—who also produced the film—playing Detective Graham Waters says in the opening line of dialogue) "they can feel something."

Except...except. Haggis has been accused of manipulation (and like, duh, all movies are manipulative, hate to break it to you) but the most egregious examples are the pretty obvious incident of the "invisible cloak." I think every viewer above a third grade education knew what was coming--the kid was going to get "whacked" with her invisible cloak, because, hey, we're all cynics, and the movie has been pretty cynical up to that point--actually the characters IN the movie have been pretty cynical. But not the kid. In an altruistic, completely naive and childlike way, the kid goes beyond what any of the adults would do and makes a sacrifice to save her father. We all assume that to her doom, and Haggis milks the anguish, and delays the inevitable reveal. The kid's not dead. Why? Because the daughter of the angry shop-keeper has also thought outside the box, and bought her old man blank cartridges. Both those individuals have gone beyond the "I stick my neck out for nobody" syndrome, and the synchronicity has pulled off a miracle, or at least, prevented a tragedy, brought on by short-sightedness.

Myopia is all over the movie--even when racism isn't. Because there's more than racism going on. It's blacks against whites, whites against blacks, cops against civilians, politicians against the cops, the bureaucrats against the trench-fighters, upper class against lower class, and the reciprocal vice-versa. Myopia is ever-present, and everybody stops thinking when they reach their assumptions...and look no further. The insurance worker thinks the guy on the line is a dead-beat, the guy on the line thinks she's a bitchy negro. They both have drawn lines in the sand and will go no further. Matt Dillon's bad cop just assumes all the minorities are scum, so he treats them accordingly. Ryan Phillippe's good cop takes the high road and assumes he'll never act like that in any given circumstances. They're both short-sighted fools. And they won't consider any other possibility. They're two sides of the same coin.

For me, Crash plays like a post-modern film-noir, where the world is crummy, people are tarnished (whether they're rich or poor), but there is no "slumming angel" (as Ross McDonald put it) to try and make things temporarily right—all the characters in Crash have that ability if they choose, if they will, and there is no hand-holding narrator or Stage Manager bringing perspective, merely the dispassionate view from on high.  The good that people do are mere slats of light in an all-enveloping darkness, not unlike the the noir's traditional backdrop, the venetian blind, or as the de-focused headlights in the film's credit sequence.

Another criticism: Too many coincidences in Crash? Yep, but that's to be expected with an ensemble cast in a limited area whether it's La Ronde, or Grand Hotel, or even...the acclaimed Babel where the coincidences are hemispheres apart (those butterflies are mighty powerful!). But Crash isn't like any of these films. The one I compare it to, both in tenor and reaction is The Rules of the Game, Jean Renoir's condemnation of pre-WWII French society going to its ruin in selfishness and self-involvement. French folk hated The Rules of the Game, too. In fact, riots broke out in theaters, and to try and save his investment Renoir kept cutting it and cutting it to try to assuage the angry mob. As a result, after the war when the hysteria died down, it was difficult to find an unexpurgated version of The Rules of the Game until...1958. The tyranny of the mob had done its damage and its only by the luck and a little hard work that a longer copy of this classic exists. Fortunately Crash hasn't had to go that far. Maybe people are just more passive-aggressive these days, content to HATE HATE HATE in the relative anonymity of a bogus screen-name--like, say, "Yojimbo_5." Maybe that's progress.

So, if I'm in a crowd of people and Crash comes up, and folks get angry about it because it's "about" racism but doesn't "do" anything about it (I suppose a cameo by Rodney King might help...?), I don't say anything. It won't do any good. Folks have already made up their minds about Crash and if I try to point out they might be wrong and consider that, no, that won't happen. Their thoughts stop at "racism" and go no further, thus proving the movie's point all over again, and proving, once again, why it's such a good film.

Ultimately it's a tough and pointless duty to watch a film with blinders on.  It's no way to see a film, and it's no way to lead a Crash, for all its flaws, so ably demonstrates.

* ...which is a far cry from what he wrote in 2006: "As restrictive as the rules of this cycle may be, “Crash” still manages to be an unusually mechanical instance of it. With numbing predictability, every positive character is revealed to have a negative side (the good, tolerant cop, played by Ryan Phillippe, commits an impulsive, racially-triggered murder), while ever negative character is revealed to have his or her positive (the racist cop, played by Matt Dillon, risks his life to save a black woman trapped in a wrecked car). Just about everyone is an instinctive racist, and just about everyone is a victim of racism, who learns his or her lesson when the tables are turned. Haggis piles up the coincidences that bring his characters together without shame or the slightest restraint; he seems to feel that by emphasizing the contrivances of his plotting, he is in fact revealing a hidden pattern, a secret will, that organizes the world. Turning bad writing into a metaphysical principle is indeed an accomplishment, and one that might well deserve an award – though Best Picture of 2005 is going a bit too far." 

From this to "sociopathic barbarity" is quite the change of opinion.  The above is reasoned analysis.  The latter is just hectoring screed.  Hating Crash became easier and more comfortable, then racheted up to the extreme.  Now, what was Crash saying again?

Emerson does this at times—I'll be shocked if there is ever a Christopher Nolan film that he will praise, rather than merely dismiss it, and he condemned Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (without even seeing it) merely because Haggis had a hand in the screenplay—to his credit, after actually seeing it, he praised it.  This may sound like bashing the man, but Emerson's is a great voice in film criticism, and I love reading his output, whether I agree with it or not.  His is an essential voice in the understanding of the mechanics of how film can touch the eye and the brain and move the heart.  If he ever stops writing, I will mourn that day.

** Which reminds me of the George Clooney retort to the web-site that said he was "GAY GAY GAY:" "Two GAY's, maybe, but the third's a little extreme."

*** Chinatown also makes a point of using prejudice, not just racial, but class prejudice, as a distinctive example of reactive, rather than thinking, behavior.


Candice Frederick said...

this is easily one of my favorite movies of the last decade. i thought it was beautiful, and very very real. haters could hate

"Yojimbo_5" said...

Yeah. It's a polarizing film, that is for sure. I find such films fascinating because they elicit such strong reactions...for reasons as individual as the person watching watching, especially if they're trying to do more than shock or gross out. I've never understood the hatred for Crash. I thought it was very brave to make that point (and Haggis did something similar with the theme in In the Valley of Elah), and it doesn't matter what pigeon-hole you consider yourself in—it's a film that touches or repuulses the individual.

Derek Armstrong said...

Crash is a funny movie. As I was leaving the theater, I thought "That's probably the best movie I've seen so far this year." And it was July, so that was saying something.

However, it did not sit well with me and I have ultimately crept closer and closer to the hater group. One reason could be this: In a number of ways, which I could not unfortunately cite here, Paul Haggis revealed himself to be kind of a douchebag. (Was it the appearance alongside other douchebags on Entourage? I think that was just one of the contributing factors.) Whatever it was he did, he somehow (in my mind) gave off this James Cameron-ish "I've made the best movie in the world" vibe, and I started to hate him and everything he stood for. And I started to hate Crash as well.

I do think it's pretty simplistic and pretty bombastic, but every time I have the urge to hate on Crash, I have to remind myself of what I said when I first exited the theater: "That's probably the best movie I've seen so far this year."

"Yojimbo_5" said...

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment, Audie:

Heh. Plus, there's the constant thump of the "haters" to tell you you're an idiot if you say there was a shred of value in it. I don't watch Entourage (I can't get "into" the trials and tribulations of the Rich and Famous), so I didn't catch the Haggis cameo—it IS fiction, btw ;P—and the only thing I know about him besides "Facts of Life" and "Walker, Texas Ranger" (which Haggis always mentions with self-deprecating humor) and his embracing and then subsequent leaving the Scientology...whatever-it-is—I can't call it a Church with a straight face and I won't call it a cult or a sacm. And I've liked his work in screenplays for Eastwood and others, which is "off and on."

But, it's not about Haggis. It's about "the work," and that's what's important. I try not to make my interpretations of people's movies about them and my feelings about them—that tends to skew your perception of the movie and colors your view of it. It kills whatever shreds of objectivity you walk into the theater with. Plus, everybody is capable of making a good movie, no matter what they've done in the past (I hold out foolish hope, I guess). But film criticism and "Entertainment Reporting" (we called that gossip in my day) seem to be as inseparable as chocolate and peanut butter in a Reese's cup. It disappoints me when it gets personal.

Anyway, glad you liked Crash. :D

The Taxi Driver said...

I think that Crash is a brillant movie caught in the excesses of a lesser one and that's what let's people bring it down. I'm hard pressed to think of scenes more powerful than when Matt Dillon rescues Thanie Newton from the car or anything involving Dillon really. But then the dialogue, especially at the beginning is way too blunt and the the film ends with a throwaway joke that lessons it, ala Bertolluci's 1900. Of course at least this one didn't make was wait 6 hours for a horrible ending. Other than that I think Crash has a lot of value.

Thanks for participating.

Adam Zanzie said...

Yojimbo, just a correction: Jim Emerson didn't make those 2006 comments about Crash himself. In the piece you've linked to, he's actually quoting from a Kaleem Aftab interview with Spike Lee; Emerson himself has never had anything but disdain for the film.