In this feature our writers take down films they feel are wildly overpraised.
Crash is such bullshit. No, wait – Crash has got to be the best comedy the year 2004 birthed in a piss-filtered, slickly rendered Los Angeles alley as people feet away on the road shouted racial epithets over smashed automobiles with smoking hoods. It somehow trounces Shaun of the Dead, Anchorman, Team America: World Police, The Life Aquatic, Soul Plane and The Passion of the Christ. Despite its reputation as being things like “powerful,” “racially charged” and “a drama,” I know it’s a comedy because it made me laugh my ass off, and only an asshole would make a film like Crash in earnest.
That asshole’s name is Paul Haggis, a TV writer of some note, having worked on the Edward Zwick (good company, right?) co-creation “Thirtysomething” and having created the Chuck Norris perpetuating “Walker: Texas Ranger” which, if nothing else, gave us an amazing theme song. It’s hilarious to think that a writer of such background directed and co-wrote an Oscar-winning film, but it befuddled pretty much everyone with a functioning brain when Crash won an Academy Award at the ceremony in 2005 over Brokeback Mountain.
Don’t worry, I think I’ve figured it out. Besides boasting great, engrossing performances that occasionally make you forget what you’re really watching – even on rewatch I got fooled a few times – I’d wager to guess that most of the Academy voters are based in LA, and somehow Paul Haggis convinced voting-eligible Angelenos that his film spoke to them – or at least their white guilt. Hey, the creator of “Due South” made a film that excuses my prejudices! Let’s give him a golden statue of a naked man.
Haggis was once carjacked in 1991 and used that experience (and one, assumes, the simmering racism that ensued) as inspiration for his Oscar-winning film Crash. It’s an experience that would rattle anyone – being carjacked, I mean, though making Crash would also traumatically affect you, probably – and you can imagine being angry at someone who you don’t even know and making a lot of assumptions about them, especially if they’re somehow different from you, and easy to stereotype. You can even imagine Haggis using that experience as a springboard to explore his own feelings and just why Los Angeles is so full of racial tension (as several riots through history have led me to believe).
As such, Crash’s script (co-written with fellow TV writer Bobby Moresco) follows about eight or so sets of diverse characters. There’s the wealthy, white couple who get carjacked, the black TV director who people accuse of not being “black” enough, the racist cop who ain’t too bad in the end and his idealistic partner who turns out to be not so good in the end, the pair of black carjackers who exchange dialogue like a drunken Kevin Smith/Spike Lee collaboration, a paranoid lunatic Persian shopkeeper, a police detective who has to make a tough, “racially charged” decision, a couple of evil, human trafficking Asians (in the background) aaaaand a handful of very nice Mexicans who are just trying to do their jobs. I think I still missed about a dozen pivotal characters.
All the above characters’ stories interweave in ways that only the cleverest of screenwriters can think of, and the interconnectedness plays out after an hour into the film as paths cross in minute, hilariously contrived ways. As we find out how two characters are related through tragic means caused by another character from a separate narrative thread, it turns out yet another character is their coroner, for no reason other than to make it just a little more tighter. It’s the kind of writing that brings attention to how clever the writing is, which has its place, sure, but this is supposed to be an affecting drama. A regular movie where we’re not supposed to notice the man behind the curtain.
They’re also all pretty racist, which seems like Haggis’ sole point making Crash, even though a year beforehand Avenue Q conveyed the same basic idea in one song with a couple puppets instead of an all-star cast. Knowing what inspired the film, it’s hard not to see the whole production as a man’s $6.5 million effort to make himself feel a little bit better for saying “nigger” once under his breath while alone in his apartment by pointing out that, hey, lots of people are as unfairly prejudiced against others as I am! Let the back patting and director’s cut DVD ensue.
As you might imagine, few of the characters (save the steadfast, good and put-upon Mexicans) are likable, because you can’t be a likable racist these days (save Clint Eastwood, Gran Torino), and Crash could have been a torturous experience in being subjected to despicable (and not entertainingly so) characters if not for the amazing talent working on this film. Matt Dillon’s a buffoonish standout as the racist cop, Terrence Howard as the not-black-enough director gets to have a wonderful breakdown in front of a line of gun-toting LAPD and Sandra Bullock wins the Amanda Peet Award for perfect on-screen bitchiness. Nearly every single actor knocks the thing out of the park, and it’s through these performances that Crash tricks you into liking it.
These days Crash makes me laugh, and I’d rather laugh at something than be pissed off about it. I knew I was in for a treat when the film opens with that nonsensical thesis statement delivered by Don Cheadle (“In L.A., nobody touches you. . . we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.”). Once I saw Michael Peña was in it, I realized it had to be a comedy because that’s all we really know him for these days. Then there’s Thandie Newton having to deliver cringe-inducing, sarcastic Uncle Tom “massa” dialogue to Terrence Howard. But the real big laugh of the film is the famous “little girl” scene that was so powerful it became the film’s poster. Back in 2005, that scene was such a tear-inducing moment (but ultimately kind of bullshit). In 2011, it is the funniest fucking thing I’ve ever seen, from the little girl diving directly into in the line of fire to the slow motion cinematography to. Capture. Every. Single. Millisecond of Peña’s roaring anguish.
It’s a beautiful moment of manipulation, and no one can blame you for falling for it because all film is made to manipulate. However, if you realize just what’s going on, it’s like waking up from The Matrix – it’s all giant sacs of amniotic fluid and you’re gripping at your spinal plugs as giant writhing squid-nannies tend to the fields of human cyberwombs. Then you wish that Paul Haggis was in Vaughan’s place at the end of Cronenberg’s film with the same name (wonder how many people that fooled).
I had a high school English teacher who, in 2003, predicted that future generations were going to look at the invasion of Iraq and wonder what the hell we as a country were thinking. But we’re more advanced than Ms. Vellis gave us credit for. We’re already wondering what the hell we were thinking back then, just as we’re wondering why we heaped so much acclaim on top of Crash.
by Danny Djeljosevic