Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Jeff the Empath : Door in the Floor and An Appreciation of Jeff Bridges' Ineffable Magic

Another recent movie I would recommend is The Door in the Floor, with my personal favorite Jeff Bridges, who finally has a good, juicy role to sink his enormous acting chops into. Jeff is a funny actor, because if he doesn’t have a good part or a solid project to bring out his Herculean talents, he tends to walk through a movie and be indistinguishable from any other actor, becoming a kind of non-entity (as happened with the execrable, New Age slop K-Pax, in which Spacey did his nice guy routine again). But when Bridges gets a role to suit him, such as The Fisher King, The Fabulous Baker Boys, Fearless, American Heart, or to a lesser degree Door, he carries the movie to another plateau altogether.

I first saw Jeff in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, back in my teenage Eastwood-mania days, and I still find it interesting to watch the movie and see how much more likeable and empathic Clint’s acting is here than in any of his other films from the same period. From the start, Jeff Bridges had an easy affability, a lazy, laughing spontaneity, that made him both lovable and completely believable, and it’s clear in this movie that Bridges' immense appeal rubs off on Clint, and that the relationship between the two men (a young drifter and a hardened criminal who team up on a heist) was reflected by that of the two actors making the movie (Bridges was just starting out, Clint, maybe 15 years older, was by then fully established).

My personal favorite Bridges role has got to be Baker Boys, however; in fact it may be my all-time favorite performance by any actor anywhere (De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Pacino’s Michael Corleone would be two others). Here Jeff, as the Jazz-loving, piano-playing half of a cheesy musical lounge duo, gets to act alongside his real-life brother Beau, and there is such a natural affinity between them (even when fighting) that the movie really flies. (It was written and directed by Steve Kloves, who along with Keith Gordon may be the most underrated American filmmaker around.) When Bridges is at his best, the movie enters into magikal realms of empathy and humor that few other movies even seem aware exist. It doesn’t hurt having Michelle Pfeiffer along for the ride, either. She and Bridges make probably the most convincing and achingly doomed lovers ever seen on the American screen.

Door in the Floor, directed by Tod Williams (The Adventures of Sebastian Cole) from a book by John Irving (Williams wisely only adapted the first third of the novel), is an original and entertaining work. Though perhaps in the end it is a little removed from its characters and hence slightly less than fully involving, it at least avoids the sentimental pitfalls that some of the other Irving adaptations have fallen into. Above all, it has Jeff Bridges as the eccentric, philandering painter/children’s writer, Ted Cole. As Bridges plays him, Cole has hidden reservoirs of pain lurking beneath his abrasive charm. Cole has an irresitable (seeming) indifference to what people think of him, and there are few things more charming in a movie protagonist than not giving a damn about anyone. Although he has been written as something of a fraud and a jerk, Bridges gives Cole the freedom to create his own justification in our minds: he is a law (and a laughter) unto himself.

Bridges clearly revels in the task of creating Cole, and the delight he takes in fleshing out an already meaty role and making it his own fills every scene he's in to the brim. American movies rarely offer a greater high than Jeff Bridges on a roll, and Door in the Floor—though perhaps less haunting than it wants to be—offers just that, a chance to see America's finest, most empathic and most underappreciated screen actor flex his muscles.

OK, that's all for today. I am tired of writing now. This one's for you, Jeff.

Oh, i just found Jeff's personal web site and it's no surprise to find that's it's quite eccentric indeed, and definitely worth a look:

The Woodsman and the Root of All Evil

The Woodsman, with Kevin Bacon as a recovering pedophile. This one I liked, being a reformed pedo myself (just kidding, FBI surveillance members). It was surprising and refreshing to see everyone’s favorite “boogeyman” get a makeover and allowed ordinary human feelings, audience sympathy, and even, sort of, a happy ending. No doubt lots of people were incensed by the movie and considered it immoral because it evoked sympathy for someone who likes to have sex with pubescent girls (and even pre-pubescent, the character stipulates 10 to 12-year-olds). But it does an admirable job of telling its story first (which is really a character study, made effective by Bacon’s soulful and moving performance), and making its points second. The points it makes, predictably enough, center around tolerance and compassion, and the film shows pretty persuasively how regular folk’s fear and loathing of “pedophilia” (and the denial of their own propensity for it) only make the whole sticky problem worse, by refusing to even entertain the possibility of understanding.

The film dramatically illustrates the inevitable tension between the deviant and the society that rejects him, and how that tension itself gives rise to further deviance. It’s the oldest folly of all, the demonization of the other in order to project all our own unacknowledged neuroses, fears, and desires onto them. But oh, it’s convenient! The result is that what we fear and loath inevitably becomes more and more fearsome and loathsome the more we deny it and refuse to understand it. Because without understanding, there is no possibility of acceptance, which is the necessary prerequisite for change. If we only forgive the sinner once he has repented, what’s so admirable about that? Especially when we refuse to afford him our trust and compassion and sympathy and belief that he CAN change.

How is the sinner ever to repent, if he can’t first be forgiven, and forgive himself? All that self-hatred and the unbearable sense of being different, alienated, from others is what leads to the deviant’s neurotic drives to begin with. So it can easily be seen how society’s response to the “problem” (a problem which, after all, IT created), only exacerbates the problem further.God how I despise moralists!
"Morality is the root of all evil” - if I may be permitted to quote myself. (Matrix Warrior. Hey, it's my blog, man!)

The Woodsman is a slight, and apart from it subject matter, fairly conventional film. But it’s an affecting, graceful, intelligent work, with an astonishing and courageous central performance by Bacon; as such, it is definitely one of the best American movies of the past year.
15 more minutes of Fame

In the midst of writing this blog, I got a call from a lady, named Maya, wanting to know when she could come over and take my photo for The Guardian. Recently, I wrote a piece about how I threw away half a million pounds and went to die in Morocco, and submitted it to their “experience” editor, who selects one piece every week for The Guardian Saturday magazine. After a lot of questions to verify the truth of my tale, she accepted the piece, and the next thing I know, they are sending their Mexican photographer all the way from Mexico City, by plane, to Oaxaca, and thence to Huitzo, where I live right now (for another couple of weeks anyway), to snap a photo of yours truly. All this when I could have simply sent them a few digi photos, and saved them the hundreds of dollars they are spending on all this rigmarole. Instead I get to do my hair and feel like David Bowie for a day. Hopefully, the piece will rustle up a little attention from the afore-mentioned and ever-elusive (if not sneeringly indifferent) WORLD, anyway.

Notes on Dogville Vs Hollywood, Vernon God Little, & The Shipping News

I finally received my copies of Dogville Vs. Hollywood in the Mexican post, about two months after they were sent. The book looks great, and despite my half-hearted efforts not to do so, I am now caught up reading it again, as it were for the first time. There is a big difference between going over an MS for revisions, proof-reading, etc, and reading a published work. Once it is set in text, as it were, my critical writer/editor’s brain can relax and I am able to more or less enjoy the work as it. More or less.

So far, on chapter two, my “objective,” ha ha, assessment is as follows: the introduction blew me away. The first two pages must constitute the most profound comments ever made about Hollywood in a hundred years or more. That’s my objective opinion, of course.

Yes, I am biased to over-appreciate and value those moments when genius occasionally deigns to touch this humble author, producing such astoundingly original and profound thoughts eloquently and wittingly phrased. Perversely enough, I felt frustrated rather than pleased while reading these two pages, thinking about the fact that, so far, besides the Leeds Guide, no one has bothered to review the book. How could they ignore a work that starts so smashingly as this!!!???

Later, weary from the past few weeks’ continued attempts to get the world to NOTICE me, I decided, neither for the first nor I am sure the last time, that I was misguided in this pursuit, and that it is all about THE WORK, nothing at all about the world’s response to it. Besides, according to the argument of my book, the nature of the mediocracy is to resist new and overly creative ideas (viruses) and embrace instead more mediocre retreadings of old worn-out ground, anything that is pleasantly familiar and equally non-threatening. By such circular reasoning, if a work fails to ignite the world with enthusiastic praises and endorsement, this is itself confirmation that it is a grrreat work. Yeah.

It is all about the work, and the only true joy comes from knowing that one has done something as well as one could, and gazing upon that work, having it laugh back at one, like a newborn babe, and say “Hi Dad!” That is the only real measure of success for “an artist.”

Reading on, I found chapter one a little shaky, somewhat deflating my rapidly expanding self-esteem. But chapter two is strong again, though nowhere near as strong as the intro, and rather more errors have snuck in than i feel happy about. (Probably, the book starts with a bang and ends with a roar, and rather meanders in between. I think I attempted to save my energies for a final burst of inspiration in the last chapter; then later I found out, from my publisher Marion Boyars, that reviewers tend to read only the first and last chapters anyway!)

So that’s what I have been up to of late, devouring my own excreta, as it were, and enjoying it enormously. I definitely recommend it (the book that is, not devouring your own excreta.)

Recently I tried to read Vernon God Little, a book that people have made such a hop-te-doodah big hairy deal over. I disliked it. Actually I only read part one before passing it on to my wife, figuring she could tell me if it got any better. She didn’t much care for it either but read it all the way through, said it didn’t get better but worse. Yet people are falling over themselves to praise this smart-ass “look-at-me,” hipper-than-thou, post-post-modern, sub-Vonnegut/Heller/Robbins, 21st century, smugly cynical piece of pseudo-literature shite! Vernon Git Little, if you ask me. well OK, it wasn’t that bad, but it occurred to me while reading it (and resenting all the praise it got), that it may be a distinct DIS-advantage to have one’s work overly praised and touted by the Mediocracy, since it raises readers’ expectations, and as in this case, pre-inclines them to be disappointed or annoyed by the book when it doesn’t live up to the hype. If I had neve heard of VGL and knew nothing of all the raves and awards, I might even have finished the damn thing. And though I doubt I’d have liked it much more, I at least wouldn’t have found it so irritating. Of course, you could say that’s my problem.

I had more luck with The Shipping News, which though I had to really work at and found pretty boring most of the time, I could at least appreciate as a piece of literature. As it happened, I only persevered to the end because my wife had read it first and loved it. Plus again, all those damn awards, I figured I would at least get to the end. Unlike the Vernon crap, I could see it was a good book that was well written, but it just didn’t grab me. (Oddly, the first ten pages hooked me much more than anything that came afterwards, though I liked the last fifty pages or so.)

I’d even go so far as to call the prose beautiful, haunting, etc; also the main character of Quoyle had a lot of substance and poignancy, stayed with me for a while after. Fortunately, I had avoided seeing the shitty Hollywood movie, with Kevin Spacey no doubt doing his Tom Hanks “I am so sweet and harmless so love me” schtick (why the hell doesn’t he stick to playing Satan and other vicious but deliciously intellectual cold fish characters?). As a result, I didn’t have that Hollywood imprint to interfere with my visualization processes. My problem with the book was that it was too damn wordy. There was a good story somewhere in there, but it was too damn hard to find amidst all the billowing sea foam and damp odors and crumpling waves and malefic spirits, the fountains of blackflies and “the sea’s hypnotic boil.”

In the end (pretty quickly actually) the beauty and lyricism of the prose caused my mind to get blurry and tune out in search of a meaty storyline. Also, the unnaturally truncated sentences, refreshing at first, became kind of annoying by the end, almost like the writer couldn’t be bothered to write full sentences. It felt like I was reading a treatment rather than a novel, and so my mind started to skim over the words. All in all, I guess I took in about 30% of the book and missed the rest. It’s not something I’d recommend to many people, but I’m still glad I read it. A unique vision, and unlike Vernon Glib Little, one that comes straight from the heart, not out the arse.

with apologies to the many adoring fans of this book: "taste is the great divider" (Pauline Kael)

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Thoughts provoked by the film "The United States of Leland": More from Jake's Mother

Thanks to my son, Jake, who introduced me to one of the most remarkable films I have yet to see, "The United States of Leland", I have been engaged in a dialogue both with Jake and myself (and the boy, Leland) and discovering some interesting, very thought-provoking insights into my own psyche.

The concept of "goodness" (unlike what we consider as "evil") has always fascinated me and I would love to know what makes a saint. Is there such a thing? By comparison, someone like Hitler, does not interest me. Neither do I believe that evil is the opposite to goodness, although I'm not sure what I mean by that.

Leland, the writer, saying "We are afraid of what is good in us because if we took responsibility for it, we'd realize we could be good all the time" has struck me so forcibly that I think I will strive for sainthood. No, sorry to be flippant, but this awareness, as expressed by Leland, has affected me deeply.

Similarly, we are afraid of joy, as though it is beyond our understanding and hopes, whereas pain, horrible as it is, makes us aware we are alive: I suffer, therefore I exist.

To return to the film. Watching it for the second time, I closed my eyes in order to listen to the "writing", as written by Hoge, who is also the director. He is a wonderful writer and so I was able to understand even more of the film through the writing, as opposed to the images created by the actors. (I experienced something similar with "Dogville").

For me, one of the beauties of Hoge's film is his compassion, his ability to show the pain of every single person (even the father), and, of course, true compassion means no judgement. One loved and understood every single person in that film. The "villain" - the father - was the saddest of them all; he was the most lost.

Where I do not quite share Jake's view that through suffering all those people were opened up in some way to a better understanding of their lives is because it doesn't fit with how so many people are not wiser and better, more loving through tragedy. It seems, generally, that couples who experience the death of a child are not brought closer and often separate. The anger and bitterness they feel cuts them off from love when they most need it.

But perhaps, as Jake says, it is enough for one person to have learnt, i.e. the character of Pearl; and, yet, he was an outsider, he could observe in the way the family members could not.

I think the boy, Leland, was emotionally and irretrievably damaged by his father and, together with his capacity to over-empathise, he was too fragile to cope with his conflicting emotions and he over-identified with the boy he killed. He and the boy became united, in his mind, with unbearable suffering. Leland also wanted to die. He provoked and asked for his own death.

There are people who are too fragile for this life. It doesn't mean they are weak or pathetic and often, like Leland, they have an understanding beyond the norm of the rest of the world.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Empathy Vs. Intellect, the Writer's Curse and the Function of Art
More Notes on Leland

The film makes some interesting comments on writing, as way to get to the truth, and sometimes a way to evade the truth. Leland’s father, Fitzgerald, has drawn all the “truth” out of life for his books, leaving nothing for living, and nothing for his son. He is the one who is most responsible for Leland’s crime (besides Leland himself of course).

The film suggest that the real reason for writing is to work something out, to reach a better understanding of life, and to express some of the sadness of living. Exactly what Hoge has done by writing his movie. The false reason is to gratify and exalt the ego, and as a way of disconnecting from one’s feelings by taking retreat in intellectuality, the opposite of empathy, which is Leland’s “curse” (and gift).

What Leland does by his terrible act is force people to look at the sadness of their lives, to go beyond the surface for a time and not to hide from it. The murder brings things to light. Maybe it’s a release for his victim (we will never know), but it’s definitely a release for everyone else. Exactly what Leland does unknowingly, Hoge’s film does knowingly.

Art can help us detach from our sadness or it can help us to feel it. Both functions are valid, but of the two, the latter is harder for a work of art to achieve.

By facing up to the sadness and accepting it, it is possible to move beyond it. Sorrow is what allows for compassion and kindness. Goodness is not possible without first accepting sorrow. As Leland says, We’re afraid of what’s good in us, because if we took responsibility for it, we’d realize we could be good all the time. It’s easier to be bad, to feel bad, and to opt for numbness over pain.

Both Leland the boy, and Leland the film, aspire to the shock of beauty, to communicate to the audience/world a jolt that will open its heart and let the loving energy/emotion flow, cleansing us. The Don Cheadle character aspires to be, but isn’t, a writer. In the end, writing is a false path for him: he is just struggling to be a decent person. The film hinges around him, as he is the only one who really learns from the experience, who will be changed and improved by Leland’s crime.

Leland is a writer. He has the gift of vision and an ability to express it. But it comes too late, once he has already succumbed to the pressure inside him and committed his irrevocable act. His writing can no longer save him, but it can at least communicate the truth to another person. This, in the end, is enough. We know that, because of all this, the Cheadle character will treasure what is good (both in himself and in others) in a way that he never could have before. Hence good comes out of an evil act.


Friday, January 20, 2006

180 degree turn around
More thoughts on Leland, this time from my mother.

I think my response to "Leland" was too hasty. I needed to digest the film before spouting off to you, a typical Arian response. Also, I realize that, much as I love movies, the written word is more powerful and less likely to sway my emotions. Hence, for example, "Crime and Punishment" appealed to me on an intellectual level simply through the sheer power and genius of Dostoyevsky's prose, and therefore it "worked” - as does all great writing, whether one likes it or not. I do not, in fact, like the novel because I did not sympathize with Raskolnikov.

Am I making sense? I loved Leland, the boy, and not being able to understand him did not make him less lovable, but I feel that the film didn't work because it didn't convince me the way "Crime and Punishment" did, when I had no sympathy for the main character.

There needed to be some explanation for Leland's act. By comparison, "Donnie Darkie" was far easier to grasp. All I could see were all the people involved, floundering around in a sea of pain, made worse by the fact they will never, ever come through to any understanding.. You chose to see their pain as some sort of punishment for the mindless way they lead their lives, like God destroying Soddam and Gommarah. Actually, there is something rather biblical about the film.

Because you are very intellectual and you love theories, you tend to see or look for very complex, unexplainable reasons, whereas I look for the more prosaic and what makes sense for me. However, I think you are right when you suggest that I found the film too painful to truly appreciate and now, at some distance, I realize I loved it - albeit, still feeling it did not entirely work. It is a very poetic film.

The role of the father was surely very significant. Leland was as deeply wounded as the boy he killed; somewhere in his psyche he became confused between his own suffering and what he thought the boy was suffering, both of them alienated from life and neither of them understanding why. Leland was drawn to people who needed help - like the betrayed wife and his drug-addicted girl-friend - and his empathy overpowered him so that he couldn't separate himself from the "other" which lead him to his final act: he and the boy became one and in killing him he also killed himself. I don't think it was a coincidence that both Leland and the boy he killed were both very pretty and innocent looking.

My lasting memory of the film is the anguish of both mothers, neither ever being able to understand. Why? Yes, it is a very painful film.

I would love to meet the director.

Before we get off the subject and you become bored to death with me, I must add a bit more. It was not my intention, although it may have seemed like it, to knock Hoge by suggesting he was no Dostoyevsky, but to explain why I could understand "Crime and Punishment" without understanding or even liking Raskolnikov - because the written word is so powerful that the imagination takes over in a way a film may not.

However, "Leland" affected me much more powerfully than I realized. I had at first resisted being overwhelmed by the pain (as you rightly surmised) and, in fact, I let my brain take over at the expense of my emotions - which is what I said you were doing. . . . Working in the hospice helped me hugely to recognize that true empathy means such respect and compassion for the person suffering that one's own pain is not allowed to get in the way and distress the patient. A dying person does not want your tears, only your love and respect for the place he is at.
And however much one feels for that person one is not in that place.

Leland could not separate his feelings from another’s.

"If a sparrow alights upon my window-sill, I partake of his existence" John Keats

Did you not think the film showed that the murdered boy was much loved? Do we know he was unhappy or do we over-identify because we would hate to be him.

I have rented the film again.

I watched "Leland" again. I was more overwhelmed and, yet, also I felt I understood Leland, the boy more. How I wish I could talk to Hoge the way I am talking to you now.
What puzzles me is the boy's empathy, which is seemingly what destroyed him, and his detachment, which I think explains why his girl-friend left him.

His father didn't love him. What a betrayal. The boy he killed was loved, greatly loved, I would say. However, to me, the crux of the movie was: how could Leland possibly KNOW what was in the heart and the soul of that boy, who was he to judge that boy's pain. His problem, Leland's, was that he could not separate his own terrible pain from what he thought to be another's. He transferred his own pain onto others, not knowing what else to do .

Friday, January 13, 2006

The United States of Jake: Revisiting Leland

A while back I recommended The United States of Leland to everyone who would listen, as well as writing a piece on it for last-minute inclusion in my book, Dogville Vs Hollywood, which just came out.

I particularly urged my mother to see it, as we share a lot of favorites and because I was sure she would be deeply moved by it. She finally saw it, and a few days ago she wrote to me, rather rattled, saying it had depressed her, that the director was “no Dostoevsky,” and that for her, the film failed. As far as she could see, she wrote, all the main character did was cause a lot of people to suffer needlessly. Annoyed and disappointed, I wrote an email to her, then deliberately held off sending it knowing that it would upset her. The next day, I softened the tone some and sent it. This is what I wrote:

"It’s a little bit sad to me is that you would have had such a conventional response to the film, basically the same as all those critics who completely missed the meaning. Maybe I am wrong but I think the failure is less in the movie than in yourself.

"Perhaps the characters in the film NEEDED to suffer, in order to feel anything at all, to break through the petty surface of their shallow lives and get to something REAL? And isn’t is possible — probable even — that the retard boy was calling out to be set free of the prison of his existence, and that Leland was only responding, unconsciously, to a cry for help from a fellow damned soul? That they were complicit in the terrible act?

"The film dared to see things from a soul perspective, rather than from a world of egos. Your response, however, was all-too-human.

Why is people’s compassion always for the “victim” and never for the perpetrator?
That is what I find depressing. Leland was one of a handful of movies with the courage to address that question. That most people missed this entirely only confirmed that I have nothing in common with most people. It is as if I came from another planet. (The United Kingdom of Jake?)

"It makes me a little sad that this distance between myself and others seems to be growing, rather than reducing, but there is nothing I can do about it. For better or worse, I am with the Lelands of this world.

The prodigal son"

She wrote back:

"Maybe the boy was some sort of a visionary, but I doubt it, and even if he was he had no right to play God. No, he was just as bewildered as all of us; what made him endearing and lovable was his huge compassion and an empathy he couldn't cope with; his bewilderment in a world seemingly, to him, full of robots. His character was also made more sympathetic by the fact of his physical beauty. I found myself appalled by the whole tragedy and yet I loved him. Also, the painful poignancy of the murdered boy, who was extremely pretty. I could not relate to the brilliance of the film because I could not detach myself from how I would feel if either of those boys had been mine.

"In spite of moments of beauty, I found it very brutal and, as I said,
only Dostoyevsky could convince me through the sheer power of his writing.

"Do you know the novel of Faulkner (whom I do not like), cant remember
the title - it may be "Sound and Fury" - where the black nanny murders the child (whom she loves) of her employers in order to shake them up and show them how awful their lives are?"

I replied:

"I admit that I don’t know in the end how realistic the character and crime of Leland was. That’s one possible criticism of the film, and it would be interesting to hear a criminologist’s or psychologist’s take on it. Of course he wasn’t playing God. He wasn’t a psychopath. And it’s true he didn’t “know” what he was doing, since he didn’t remember it afterwards. But if there are cases of demonic possession, perhaps something similar, though not the same, happens when a person, extremely sensitive but at the same time lost, one who is unable to take responsibility for what he is feeling, gets taken over by the unconscious desires (demons) of another person, in this case, the retarded boy?

"All I know is that I did not feel sorry for that boy, or rather that he had been killed. On the contrary, I felt Leland’s great sadness and pity for him while he was alive, and I understood why Leland would feel such an irresistible urge to end that poor boy’s suffering (or if not suffering, his complete oblivion). That doesn’t make him a saint, but it certainly doesn’t make him a monster. Just one more lost soul helplessly railing against a world filled with seemingly senseless pain.

"I think that the film was realistic, in that truly sensitive, empathic souls in today’s horrendous world are perhaps as likely to commit unspeakable acts of “evil” as ones of apparent goodness. Because they are like mirrors reflecting our world back at us.

"You say that 'those people will not have learnt a thing from their suffering, simply because the act was not possible to understand.'
"But everything is possible to understand. It’s not necessary to understand why something occurs, either, and why we are being made to suffer, in order to learn from it. On the contrary, it is suffering itself that forces us to learn, about ourselves, and only then leads us to an understanding of “why” whatever it was happened. No one but Leland can know why he did what he did, but the people close to the murdered boy are FORCED to understand what THEY did, to bring about such an awful event, and to let such suffering into their lives.

"All are responsible for all. The murderer (like Hitler) is simply the one who acts out the unconscious fears and needs of the rest of us. But all are equally involved. All are responsible for all.

"I got annoyed not because I thought you weren’t clever enough to understand the movie, but because I felt personally alienated by your response (your finding the film “depressing”), and because, knowing you, I suspected that it was a defense mechanism. I think the movie might have upset you at a much deeper level if you’d been willing to take on board what it was offering. And to say it was depressing, or that it failed, was just your way of dismissing its truth before it went too deep. That’s what I thought, and since you admit that you loved the boy Leland, then I must have been right; because if you loved that boy, even despite what he did, then the film didn’t fail.

"There is so much in that film it boggles my mind. My wife and I talked over it for a couple of days (or rather, I talked, she listened), and I wanted to write a lot more, but only took down a few notes. It covers the whole gamut of human fallibility and weakness, in dramatic, symbolic form. To me, it is on par with Shakespeare. Add to that the fact that critics slated it, and yes, it has become my very personal cause protégé."

Jake Horsley

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

How to Fraternize with a Pile Up: Paul Haggis' Crash and the Politics of Intercity Living

“It was more about dealing with our fear of strangers rather than race. It’s just that we often define strangers by the way they look. And when people look different than we do, we tend to be a little more wary of them. So the story evolved into something about race.”
—Paul Haggis on Crash

The idea that urban violence is simply a way for alienated city folk to reach out and touch each other is just one of the many original thoughts floating through Paul Haggis’ Crash (as distinguished from David Cronenberg’s Crash), a movie filled with original thoughts (making it doubly regrettable it doesn’t have a more original title). Crash is a film about lives in the balance, another LA montage (Short Cuts, Magnolia) but probably the best so far. It weaves together its separate strands and disparate characters into a frighteningly beautiful patchwork, a fully grown up film about conflicted people and people in conflict. The subtext of Crash is intercity racial tension, but this never becomes a theme, rather it seems an inevitable and natural backdrop to the story, or indeed to any story set in a contemporary American city, and most especially in LA. A white racist cop who is also a loving son turns out to be a genuine hero. A good, non-prejudiced rookie cop winds up committing a murder. A young back hood railing against “nigga” stereotyping ends up becoming one himself. An angry young professional woman struggling to separate prejudice from common sense in stereotyping criminal types by their race and appearance winds up all alone with her anger. A pathological, revenge-driven Persian shop owner, sick and tired of being harassed and type-cast as an Arab, begins acting like a terrorist.

Crash offers up a dozen or so such characters wrestling with their identity and placement inside the melting pot of America as it nears boiling point. Paul Haggis’ film doesn’t reduce questions of racial prejudice to mere ideology or political incorrectness, however, which in the world of movies-by-numbers is something of a miracle. Instead he allows prejudice simply to exist, without judging it, an integral part of the life of his characters and the substance of their world. If everyone is racist, he seems to say, then no one is. Prejudice is inevitable when different races are forced to live together without any real means of interrelation. It’s human instinct to distrust what is different from ourselves, after all, and the film isn’t afraid to show how sometimes prejudice can even be justified (though it also makes it clear that most of the time it isn’t). The biggest problem, Haggis may be suggesting, is when these natural feelings of suspicion or hostility towards others are denied verbal or emotional expression, and so can fester and grow until they come out in acts. Hence, “crash.”

In Crash, the cracker cop (Matt Dillon) seems utterly irredeemable in his first scene, yet by the end of the movie he has become one of the most sympathetic characters in a film filled with sympathetic characters (even the deranged Arab, uh, Persian, invokes pity). Of course, sympathetic doesn’t necessarily mean likeable, although Hollywood movies never seem to acknowledge that there is a difference, and that audiences don’t have to admire or envy a character in order to relate to him. Haggis doesn’t let us judge the Dillon character, for example, by his beliefs. He forces us to stay with him and witness his many other sides. The same woman he humiliates, the cracker cop later rescues from a horrible death. Haggis is intent on showing that people are complex beings, and infinitely greater than the sum of their beliefs, prejudices, and actions.

Crash is one of the very few truly adult movies to come out of Hollywood so far this millennium. Its characters are observed not through the narrow crack of Hollywood’s conceit, but from the full 360 degrees of a creative imagination. They aren’t just given token shadings, these people are nothing but shadings. Haggis never makes the mistake of letting us think we know these people (or that he does), and he never allows us to judge them based on what little we see of them, since every new thing we see contradicts whatever we’ve seen before. The film seems consciously designed to this end, to remind us of the futility of judging others before all the evidence is in, and of the fact that it never really is. Without a full picture of “the facts,” any judgment at all is simply prejudice. Or, as Jimmy Stewart counseled Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story:

“The time to make up your mind about people is never.”

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Just watched Hotel Rwanda and was amazed to consider that one million Africans were slaughtered just ten years ago and i hardly heard a word about it, yet we are still, sixty years on, hearing about the Holocaust. Does this not seem a tad... curious?

Decent film anyway, thought-provoking, tho a little odd to see the UN made out as the Good Guys.

First thought that struck me is this: historical enactments separate the masses into victims and victimizers, and in that template, anyone who belongs to niether class but makes his or her own choices, becomes ipso facto, a hero.

I have also been reading about the real-life Dracula and i can tell you, he makes the fictional Count look like a pussycat. Truth is more twisted than fiction. More on Vlad anon.