Contradicting Popular Opinion
An Enquiry Concerning Two Movies Called Crash
Wherein our hero watches two films of the same name within days of each other.
For the purposes of clarity, today we are discussing Paul Haggis’s 2004 film Crash and David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash.
We won’t be discussing the 1987 short film Crash, nor the 1996 Michael Biehn vehicle Crash, nor the 1977 occult thriller Crash!, nor any of the half dozen or so movies titled The Crash.
Just Haggis and Cronenberg.
Let’s look at the two writer/directors in question.
Paul Haggis is mostly considered a writer, and lately almost exclusively billed as “the man who wrote the screenplay for Million Dollar Baby. His other writing credits include TV shows like “Family Law,” cult favorite “Due South,” “Walker: Texas Ranger” (for which he is co-creator), “thirtysomething,” “The Facts of Life,” “Diff’rent Strokes,” and “The Love Boat.” He wrote the screenplay for the movie in question with Bobby Moresco who pretty much just wrote a couple of episodes of “Millennium.”
He is from London, Ontario. Hey, I still have family there!
David Cronenberg is a director/writer, low budget auteur, and probably the world’s greatest living existentialist. He is the man behind Scanners, Videodrome, 1986’s The Fly, Naked Lunch, Dead Ringers, and a bunch of others. He wrote the screenplay for his Crash based on the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard, who is best known for Empire of the Sun.
He’s from Toronto. I might have family there; I’m not good at keeping in touch.
So we have two films of the same name made by people from Ontario. Both feature multiple car crashes, and sexual situations. The 2004 film has music that annoys the shit out of me; the 1996 film has music that annoys the shit out of my wife.
That’s about it for the similarities though, aside from things like there are actors in the movies, they speak English, they are shot in color, etc.
We’ll talk about the newer film first.
Let’s start off by saying this: I do not hate this movie. It is a thoroughly… umm… okayish film. All right let’s get going.
After watching 2004’s Crash, I felt like I had just watched the most very special episode of “A Different World” ever! This isn’t a slight on the director’s TV background, or the fact that the actress playing Shaniqua was on “A Different World” as Stevie. That’s just how I felt.
I considered this feeling for some time. Crash wasn’t nearly so didactic as “A Different World.” It certainly was longer than 22 minutes.
Then I though, maybe it was the feeling that none of the main characters was ever in any real jeopardy. But then again, there was a sexual assault and two dead bodies.
So I have to think that this is a case of the piece feeling very safe and very Hollywood. Let’s look at these things. There is nothing really subversive to the film. There is nothing terribly ground breaking. Strangest of all, so many of the characters seem so assimilated.
What do I mean by assimilation? Well, we get the safe, nice guy, “deep down we’re all the same” versions of these characters. We have our two car-jacking protagonists. They speak eloquently in middle American English. They carry guns they never plan on using. They discuss philosophy and race relations. The two of them together can’t fight off one lousy TV director.
We’ve got the tattooed Hispanic locksmith who stays calm and quiet when being insulted. He just wants to take care of his daughter. We also have the Puerto-Rican/Salvadoran woman who is pretty much just white.
We avoid the less assimilated, harsher characters. Little is seen of the “ethnic” wives and mothers of the Persian and Hispanic families. We don’t see the hate group who wrecks the Persian family’s store. The movie doesn’t seem to care how the Mexican cleaning lady feels about Sandra Bullock’s proclamation of friendship. We don’t meet the possibly crooked African American cop that gets shot while coked out of his gourd.
But the big problem with Crash is simply that it consists of a bunch of incomplete thoughts. It’s a meal of appetizers. You have far too many characters. I don’t like Love Actually for the same reason. It’s not that I can’t keep track of more than ten characters, it’s just that there doesn’t exist a cohesive theme in either movie beyond “racism” and “love.” Neither racism nor love is a theme; they are topics.
“I’m making a movie about racism.”
“What about racism?”
“No, just general racism.”
But Crash isn’t even that tightly put together. For instance, let’s examine what racism has to do with the storyline between the store-owner and the locksmith. A store-owner asks a locksmith to fix the lock to his door. These guys install security locks, but advises that the store owner replace said door. The store owner thinks he’s being swindled. They argue. The locksmith storms out without accepting his fee. Later, the store is vandalized. Insurance won’t cover damages because the store-owner didn’t follow the advice of the locksmith. He wants revenge on the locksmith. He tracks him down to shoot him. Race is a non-factor. Oh sure, it’s an explanation for the store’s vandalism by an unseen third party, but so f*cking what? What does that have to do with anything else in the movie? It doesn’t even inolve a crash.
That was probably the film’s most dramatic scene and it had nothing to do with the rest of the movie. That’s how things are with Crash. The situations seem contrived, the connections seem forced and unlikely. You could pull out almost any of the characters and it doesn’t affect what the movie is about. You could chop off about half the scenes without really altering the story. The movie really didn’t seem to end of it’s own accord. It wasn’t particularly insightful. It wasn’t terribly honest, although probably more so than most flicks.
An aside: I really have to stop myself from calling this “Liberal Guilt: the Movie.”
I’ve lived on the south side of Chicago for the last 7 years. I’ve worked with different races, I worked for different races. I start off treating everybody the same, and then am a jerk to them on a case by case basis. Let me say these painfully obvious things: different people are different. A black criminal is intrinsically no better nor worse than a white criminal. My neighborhood has many criminals. Most that I have seen happen to be black. That’s not saying that most black people are criminals. But when you see a shady character walking down the street, you should avoid him even if he is black.
And the sad fact of the matter is that it is far more likely for a black person to shoot a white person than vice versa. I’m sorry, but that’s how it is here in the U.S.
And you know what? I’ve known white girls with flat butts, Mexicans who bus tables and steal, African American people that like hot sauce, Asian folks who cannot pronounce Ls and Rs well, and lesbians with short hair.
For those of you who want further proof that I am a heartless bastard, I will give you some. When the carjacker is shot during Crash‘s climax my first thought was, “…and the world is left no poorer for the loss.”
But maybe, just maybe, I’ve got it all wrong. Maybe the connecting thread is that the things we think are about race are really not about race. The TV director wasn’t getting pulled over because he was black. He got pulled over because he was getting head. His wife wasn’t sexually assaulted because she was black, but instead because she was mouthing off to the cops and because Matt Dillon’s character has power issues. No, that argument doesn’t really hold up in some of the other situations… oh well.
In conclusion, Crash is a mediocre movie.
Most people have no idea what to do with this film. When giving it a star rating, Julie Gerstel of the Toronto Star wrote “either one star of five stars.” Numerous reviews referred to it as “depraved” or “nauseating” or any number of similar slurs. It has been booed by audiences and walked out on, banned, and protested numerous times.
In short, David Cronenberg knows what the f*ck he’s doing.
The movie has its fans too, John Waters, Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, among others.
What could this movie possibly be about? Well, in general terms, it’s a love story about what it means to be human. In specific terms? It’s about people who use car crashes for sexual satisfaction.
Now, were anybody else to approach this sort of thing, it would be a completely different movie. It would be a black comedy, a social satire about the American love of the automobile, full of irony, tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s not this thing. Not at all.
For starters, the novel on which it is based takes place in London. J.G. Ballard, its novelist, was born in Shanghai, and studied at Cambridge and London University. The movie is a Canadian production, filmed in Toronto. Any notions of America’s obsession with cars here is incidental. It avoids the black comedy route. The movie let’s you know that it isn’t joking.
It is a hard film to pin down, exactly, because it really challenges the idea of what a movie is. It ignores the audience’s expectations, and breaks rules that are so innate that they aren’t normally questioned.
For instance, there are a ton of sex scenes in Crash, but the movie is never truly pornographic. The sex scenes are never gratuitous; they are integral. The sex scenes are instead used to tell the story and to develop the characters. It’s the opposite of just about every other movie there is.
Cronenberg and crew crash 25 different cars in the film. But things don’t move in slow motion, things aren’t replayed in multiple angle, and we don’t linger on the moment of collision. There is an accident, or a re-creation of an accident, and boom then it’s over. We linger on the results, on the damage done, both to the people and to the technology.
To watch Cronenberg’s body of work, we begin to see technology as , in his own words, “being an extension of the human body.” So, in a sense, we are seeing passion through near-death, a connection between the Eros and Tartarus drives. But it isn’t as simple as all that. There is something bigger at play. Maybe it’s more about humanity as organic technology. Maybe it is about man as just another cog in something more complex or maybe it’s about man’s insignificance. Crash is going to make you work for your answer.
The technical aspects of Crash are wonderful. The scenes are controlled and absorbing. You get the sense that the director know exactly what he wants to show you in every shot, right down to every last speck of color. The sex scenes are shot as if they were a car wreck and we were rubbernecking past them. The make-up jobs done for the scars and bruises is cringe worthy in its accuracy.
It is a beautiful movie. Fucking art.
I could go on, but instead recommend reading Joe Bob Briggs’s essay on Crash in Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies That Changed History! which, despite my best efforts, I probably have stolen from in writing this thing.
Ebert’s review is also interesting, but I don’t quite agree with his assessment. He sees Crash as a deconstruction of pornography, whereas I understand it to be a search for passion in a world that appears to be without restrictions.
One of my favorite reviews of it is this:
“I’m not quite sure what David Cronenberg is trying to say in Crash, but whatever it is, he deserves a lot of credit for having the nerve to put it on screen and face the consequences…. Perhaps it’s a metaphor for the depersonalizing of the postmodern world, and perhaps it’s Cronenberg’s way of suggesting our devolution as a species. I couldn’t tell you, because Crash doesn’t drop answers in our laps and doesn’t offer the audience the sort of comfort zones and easy resolutions we’re accustomed to. That’s its essence, its strength — and a source of frustration.”
— Edward Guthmann, The San Francisco Chronicle (March 21, 1997)
A film that baffles the critics. I love it.
Crash is much better than Crash. …Obviously…
If you are looking for any further recommendations this week, let’s see, what can we do?
… Movies that Cronenberg turned down? Nah, most of those aren’t very good. (Although, the prospect of Flashdance being done by Cronenberg is frighteningly interesting.)
Let’s instead do Cronenberg the actor! We’ll say, the weird and wonderful B-movie, Blood and Donuts.
While we’re on Cronenberg, Last week I failed to mention another one of his movies that is a good substitute for A Beautiful Mind. Like that film, the film I’m suggesting is about what we do when we see a loved one deteriorate and we feel powerless to stop it. BUT my movie also has an inside out monkey. Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about The Fly.