Sunday, September 11, 2005

I regretted not having seen Crash during its initial run because I heard great and wonderful things about it. But now that Hurricane Katrina has blown away the comforting myths of America as melting pot and "classless" society, I'm glad I waited. Those sugary bed-time tales designed to comfort the middle and upper class lie swamped in the eaves-high toxic gloop being pumped into Lake Pontchartrain. There's no better context for this film.

Crash is far from perfect; too often the issues raised by the narrative are inelegantly crafted into unnecessary and preachy dialogue. There are enough incidents of deus ex machina/synchronicity/serendipity to keep all twelve Olympians, Shiva, the Apostles, the Saints, Metatron, and General Honore busy for a month. If you've seen Magnolia you'll recognize the borrowed underpinnings here.

But Crash is powerful stuff--brooding, troubling, thoughtful, stylistically accomplished. The actors (and I include typically deficient Sandra Bullock and Ludicrous) are all fantastic (Matt Dillon, the always-magnificent Don Cheadle, and Terrence Howard are particularly excellent). The "good" characters sometimes do awful things. The "worst" character in the film does the right thing. Those who are racist can be heroic and vice-versa. Asians, blacks, Hispanics, Persians, whites--how we get along, how we don't, and how fragile the existing societal detente can be--all is thrown into question. Some are redeemed, some punished, often with no evident justice. Writer/director Higgins doesn't provide facile closure, and refreshingly he foils expectations at every turn.

Crash uses an odd unrealistic realism; its often too-convenient contrivances point out how mysterious and confused about self and other most of us are. At each point where an overly contrived scene occurs, the randomness of life is curiously amplified.

Thinking about race honestly can be incredibly painful, and the goal of Crash is to force us to do so. As a graduate student I took a class with David Bradley and I spent the entire semester working on a single short story about race relations where I grew up. Bradley, as was his style, humiliated me publicly over the first draft--but he was correct. I was cushioning my own deeply held prejudices and trying to uncomplicate myself--I wanted to appear as a good guilty liberal and was evading some awkward truths. Bradley knew I was being deeply dishonest and let me have it, but on succeeding drafts he coaxed the nasty shit out and we began to admire each other after early contention.

At a time when too many Americans are surprised by the poverty in New Orleans, Crash is the sort of film that can continue to provoke much-needed debate and dialogue. Were I teaching now I'd gladly use it in class. My wife yesterday was amazed to hear a group of midwestern tourists on the DC Metro ridiculing evacuees: "Why didn't they just buy 25 bucks in gas and get out?" Barak Obama nicely summed it up this morning on This Week: far too many Americans believe that everyone has an SUV, a hundred bucks for gas, and a credit card to check into a hotel. When they see predominantly minority populations who don't have these things, they begin to make ugly assumptions. Crash challenges us to face those assumptions, even those of us who think we're right-thinking on race and class. See it now.