*/**** Image A Sound A- Extras B-
starring Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Jennifer Esposito
screenplay by Paul Haggis & Bobby Moresco
directed by Paul Haggis
by Walter Chaw In peeking under the satin-slick bedclothes of the latest crop of high-falutin' liberal diatribes tarted-up with matinee idols and compromised ideals, one finds that whatever the trappings of sophistication, we're still making Stanley Kramer movies, all of grand speeches and peachy endings. Seems to me the common denominator among the Interpreters and Constant Gardeners and Lord of Wars is a good unhealthy dollop of white man's guilt, that could-be beneficial malady that afflicts the affluent and socially well-established once in a while so they'll pay lip service to Africa, and race, and class. (Just as long as it has nothing to do with actual activism.) They're issues considered phantom offices at which to give and then leave with a sense of closure at best or, at the least, a feeling that all the tempests in the world are fit for a teacup you can put away somewhere in a mental cupboard. Race as a fable, Africa as a fantasy--and the last reel interested in beautiful, rich white people falling in love; I think about Preston Sturges's Sullivan's Travels and a couple of challenges presented therein to white, privileged, "morbid rich" filmmaker Sully, played by Joel McCrea: "What do you know about trouble?" and, later, "I have never been sympathetic to the caricaturing of the poor and needy, sir." To which Sully responds: "Who's caricaturing?"
Paul Haggis is caricaturing. The writer of last year's middlebrow flog-pony Million Dollar Baby co-writes and directs this year's middlebrow flog-pony Crash, a picture championed by that holy pop trinity of the father Larry King, the son Jay Leno, and the holy ghost Roger Ebert, who agree that the picture will make people in the audience better for having reclined agape before it. If you do pay attention, what you'll see is a roundelay of racist caricatures engaged in various levels of bigotry and race-baiting in a Los Angeles mythologized in exactly the same way (but to much better effect) in Michael Mann's Collateral. In that film, a wolf haunts a fairytale of the conflict between a white-collar white assassin and a blue-collar black cabbie when the pair wanders off the path into an urban jungle. In Crash, strife transforms saints into sinners and sinners into saints in the easiest, most reductive way in order to show that people are the same everywhere, no matter how broadly they've been painted as rigid types. A pawn is always a pawn, and a chessboard is always just sixty-four squares.
This would explain why characters are always running into one another in Crash. A day after molesting the wife (Thandie Newton) of a successful TV producer (Terrence Howard), a bigoted cop (Matt Dillon) crawls into a burning wreck to save the same woman. The philosophical car-jackers who turn the D.A.'s (Brendan Fraser) wife (Sandra Bullock) into a sour harridan (who accuses Christ-like locksmith (Michael Pena) of being a gang-banger) then try to jack the car of the TV producer saved from suicide-by-cop by the idealistic young partner (Ryan Philippe) of the bigoted cop. Lest we forget the Persian convenience shop owner who buys a gun and also thinks the locksmith is a gang-banger and decides to do something about it, or the black detective (Don Cheadle) with a troubled younger brother (no fair telling) and a Hispanic girlfriend (Jennifer Esposito) he insults by calling a "Mexican" before compromising his principles to get a promotion. The black detective, by the way, is the only character to get boned in the piece, which is only interesting because Crash is about race but not, apparently, about the representation of race in big-budgeted motion pictures.
Cheadle's black detective--and that's the only way you ever hear of people discussing the particulars of Crash ("Matt Dillon as that racist cop" and "Ryan Philippe as Matt Dillon's partner" and "That black guy from Ocean's Eleven as that detective"), giving lie to any argument that the film is successful in painting recognizable characters in realistic situations--opens the film by saying that the people in the City of Angels are so disconnected that they crash into one another "just so we can feel something." (I wrote something like that in a journal as a suicidal fifteen-year-old contemplating cutting myself with the serrated edge of a tape dispenser. Pathetic then, pathetic now.) The implication being that racial tensions and conflagrations are a product of sensitive people closed off from their feelings and needing to express themselves somehow. It's a theory that would explain how easily the bigots are redeemed in Crash: not with scars, but with chests full of medals and the grateful approval of an audience somehow seeing itself reflected in two-dimensional demagogues. I think about Ayn Rand a lot lately, too, and how easy it is in a fiction to reduce the great unsolvable, immutable complexities of the world to a series of meticulously manufactured dialogues spoken by machine-tooled automatons in a gunmetal universe as slick and un-mysterious as a snake-oil salesman's huck-and-jive.
by Bill Chambers Lions Gate/Maple presents Crash on DVD in a 2.31:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer* that rarely disappoints from an authoring standpoint, though the film's purposefully grainy look--preserved here with fidelity--is pretty trite by now. What has been characterized as softness in some reviews I've read seems more like another in a line of recent attempts to recreate the smooth detail of celluloid for the home audience. Meanwhile, the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is fine for a movie light on action; the rap music perhaps could've packed a more guttural wallop, but those gun shots definitely go up to eleven. On another track, find a feature-length commentary with writer-director Paul Haggis, co-writer Bobby Moresco, and star/co-producer Don Cheadle that begins with an unexplained burst of laughter but is thankfully not too 'inside' for its own good. Whatever you think of his movie, Haggis is endearingly humble, even mocking his past life as a writer for "The Facts of Life". In fact, since he has so rarely mentioned that prestigious gig in interviews, I wonder if he's actually smarting from our review of Million Dollar Baby.
Though there are too many observations of the "What Ryan does here, I love this" variety, a great deal of interesting, nay, applicable, info is provided on how Haggis managed to pull off a star-studded polemic without the proper credentials or a budget (or studio-backing, for that matter), and it goes a long way towards redeeming all the fawning. Of course, the participants mostly treat the film's subject matter like the white elephant in the room, but that's almost preferable to what goes on in the behind-the-scenes featurette (10 mins.), an overly sombre jambalaya of canned soundbites and B-roll. (About the only thing I learned is that Moresco must have the same dentist as Hilary Duff 2.0.) Kansascali's video for "If I...," an optional, 17-second video introduction to the film in which Haggis says--and I quote--"Uh, this is the DVD," and trailers for Rize, High Tension, Beyond the Sea, Diary of a Mad Black Woman, Killing Words, and A Good Woman round out the DVD, which Oprah recently declared is as essential to a definitive movie collection as Casablanca and Citizen Kane. Thank God she doesn't have Oprah's Film Club. Originally published: October 10, 2005.
*Also available in fullscreen.