Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Oscars: Implausible Crash

Crash deserved to win, but it was really about something else than it seemed. It was great Crash got the Oscar for Best Movie: the movie was a good one, even well-intentioned ... and the winning makes for an excellent excuse for pointing out why it was a pretty weak film in terms of analysis. The trailer presents Crash as a movie about racism -- and really it isn't.

The intention of Crash was highly likeable. Crash sought to present racism as it is -- pervasive and inculcated -- but also as something that just may be brought out into the light of day. So, xenophobia is not a necessarily stable trait, but can be de-learnt when we reflect on our initial assumptions. As such the function of the film is highly likeable too, as it might provoke such reflection. But there was a big, big problem with the fil
m at the script level. Somehow it is not surprising that Ebert's great review would miss this, with his slight preference for the visual and the colorful over the systematic and logical. Just take his emphasis on the element of chance:
The result is a movie of intense fascination; we understand quickly enough who the characters are and what their lives are like, but we have no idea how they will behave, because so much depends on accident. Most movies enact rituals; we know the form and watch for variations. "Crash" is a movie with free will, and anything can happen. Because we care about the characters, the movie is uncanny in its ability to rope us in and get us involved. (...) It connects stories based on coincidence, serendipity, and luck, as the lives of the characters crash against one another other like pinballs. The movie presumes that most people feel prejudice and resentment against members of other groups, and observes the consequences of those feelings.
It is more surprising that director and co-writer Paul Haggis, who ca
me from a position as a script writer on nothing less than Million Dollar Baby, should accept the problem. His overall, complicated patchwork story-arch does stick together -- albeit with the help of the usual deus ex machina of the traffic accident, that is sheepishly camouflaged as a title in order to "mean" someting more than the mere tying up of the knot.

But the problem is on the scene level: the means of resolution, how the writer gets the persons, and us, from one scene to the next. And most of the characters, or at least those who prompt the scene climaxes are all exaggerating. Everyone's freaking out. Rambling, exploding, being childishly unreasonable. This isn't about chance: this a structural condition for all of the plot-effective characters in Crash. And that structure just isn't credible -- at least from a Scandinavian point of view. Nobody behaves like that in real life. And they don't do that because short and stubborn tempers applied in important situations make you lose control of that situation and the ends you want to achieve. Simply not grown up behavior. But maybe that reflection applies only to the Scandinavian crowd where silence is the norm and conflicts are either resolved instinctively through consensus or buried illiberally under a cloak of yet more silence? In the end, most conflicts in Crash would have been resolved by grown ups; and those that couldn't be would not have turned even more sour due to absence of restraint.

The resulting misstep in Crash is this: if racism is presented as an incidental flavor to pathological flaring up then the movie is not about racism. Racism just becomes an underlying theme. What's really cooking is the problematic absence of a civilian approach and tone -- the one that grew from that weird mix of liberalism and European courtlife> the one we call progress. And so, basically Crash is not about racism. It deals with the juvenile condition; and society's need for effective schooling systems and labor markets to inculcate in the inexperienced values and abilities equivalent to those of the old liberal education -- tolerance and the ability to ask questions about one's own assumptions.

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