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.”

No comments: