Monday, March 06, 2006

LA Inconsequential

Crash (Dir: Paul Haggis, 2004)

O Robert Altman of blessed memory, see what thou hast wrought...

Since cinema is a collaborative art form (auteur theory or no auteur theory) you'd think the multi-stranded, no-stars-but-loads-of-meaty-cameos model that Altman gave to the world in Nashville would have attracted swathes of imitators, upending the pecking order in the awards season so that the supporting gongs are the ones that add big bucks to B.O. Well, a few have tried, but many have failed, including, sadly, Altman himself. (Have you actually seen Gosford Park lately? Ryan Phillippe? Stephen Fry??) Only Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia has approached what Altman managed with Nashville and Short Cuts; indeed, in my experience, 8 out of 10 multiplex droolers said they thought it was an Altman movie all along. The magnificent Amores Perros came close, but is more strictly a linked portmanteau movie, with three stories in sequence rather than intertwining. More common are the likes of Traffic and Syriana (both from the pen of Stephen Gaghan), which wrestled more with issues than with characters, leaving both unresolved.

The same can be said for Crash, the film Paul Haggis was allowed to direct after the collective Gumpery that saw Million Dollar Baby beat The Aviator and Sideways to the big 2004 hardware. If Traffic and Syriana were 'about' drugs and US foreign policy respectively, Crash is 'about' racism. Which surely shouldn't be such a shocker for the good folks of Bev Hills, seeing as how the entire country is facing an emotional meltdown about race and poverty and immigration and Islam and slavery and all the associated baggage. But for some reason, Crash was taken as something new and challenging, by a critical consensus that still seems to think that Guess Who's Coming To Dinner is edgy and kinda streetwise. America has been so clogged up by a mix of denial and PC about this issue that the use of racial epithets in a Hollywood movie seems to be enough to create some kind of controversy.

It would take too long to precis the various plot strands, but this is the deal, OK? Wait for it... Lots of people, and not just white people, can be a bit racist! There. That's shaken your world to rubble, hasn't it? But wait, there's more. Are you ready? OK... Most people are flawed... but, deep down, they're probably fundamentally OK! That's it. That's the philosophical keeper in the goodie bag that you can take away from Crash. If it's in any way startling to you, I don't think you're a fit person to choose whether you want your popcorn sweet or salty, let alone to watch a movie.

In amongst the platitudes, there's some pretty good acting: the constantly underrated Matt Dillon as the racist cop who is redeemed; Don Cheadle as the good cop who becomes disillusioned; Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard as the middle-class black couple who are forced to remember that there's no such thing. Indeed, Dillon's role offers the only real challenge to mainstream liberal values, when his attitudes are explained (but not excused) by a back story about the iniquities of affirmative action.

But it's all so neat, and all so balanced that you feel like ticking boxes to ensure each character achieves an appropriate darkside/lightside balance. In fact, I strongly suspect that the only characters to be wholly good (a Hispanic locksmith) and wholly bad (a Korean people-smuggler) were just administrative oversights on the part of Haggis. And while we're at it, that really is a silly name now, isn't it?

Hollywood has dealt with race as a complex, equivocal thing before, and has had flawed heroes whose views are less than PC; think Taxi Driver and The Searchers, although since John Wayne really was a swivel-eyed bigot, albeit one who fancied Mexicans, maybe the latter isn't such a good call. Indeed, the best portrayer of racial interaction in America, with all its complexities, is Spike Lee: consider the ambivalent Danny Aiello character in Do The Right Thing, torn between the attitudes of his two sons; or Edward Norton's equal opportunities invective in 25th Hour. Now, if he'd taken this job on, we might have had a movie that was worthy of the bien-pensant gasps. Rather than yet another attempt to copy Bob Altman - which, to be fair, is something that even Bob Altman can't do these days.

Btw, this is going out just as the beeyootiful people shuffle into their seats for the Oscars. Not that it's important, of course. Here are my tips, having seen about half the nominated films; deeply unimaginative, sorry.

Picture: Brokeback Mountain
Director: Ang Lee
Actor: Phillip Seymour Hoffman
Actress: Reese Witherspoon
S/Actor: Paul Giamatti
S/Actress: Rachel Weisz
Original Screenplay: Crash
Adapted Screenplay: Brokeback Mountain

Watch me crash and burn.

No comments: