Crash (director/writer Paul Haggis, 2005) 

“Carry that Weight” 

 

Oprah Winfrey was reported to have suffered a disrespectful racist rebuff by a snotty employee in the luxury store Hermes in Paris (AP’s Erin Texeira in Tacoma News Tribune, June 29, 2005, p. A5).  It’s doubtful whether Oprah, who was rushing into the store at normal closing hours for a quick purchase of a gift watch, was “dissed” because she was a super-confident black billionairess or whether it was just too late for anyone to begin to shop in Hermes for anything.  Taking this in the negative as an officious employee’s suspicion of, or prejudice against, the worth of Oprah as a potential buyer, this scene would fit well both thematically and situationally in Paul Haggis’s movie Crash (2005), for it does not matter whether one is rich or poor, there’s no respect given anyone on the streets of Los Angeles, even at Christmastime. Throughout the confrontations in Crash, most of the characters seem incapable of reasonable, decent communication when they engage others, whether strangers, friends, or family.  It depicts an apocalyptic cultural state of Babel confusion.  Perhaps Oprah should overlook doing her own show to reveal the prevalence of peoples’ civic mistreatments, as she has implied she might; instead, she could help promote Haggis’s film.

 

        Crash’s very first victims of abuse and insult are very well-off individuals, the LA District Attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his privileged, querulous wife (Sandra Bullock) who have their new black Lincoln Navigator car-jacked at gunpoint by a couple of cocky, young black thieves (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Larenz Tate), whose anger has already been worked up by bad service in a restaurant.  If this isn’t enough ironic high contrast on opposite ends of the social economic ladder, the next dramatic episode of abuse is conducted by a malicious, racist patrolman (Matt Dillon) against a tuxedoed, black TV program director (Terrence Dashon Howard) and his cocktail-gowned wife (Thandie Newton) who are pulled over because they too drive a brand-new black Lincoln SUV Navigator.  Officer Jack Ryan, veteran L.A.P.D. cop, acting from racist envy and impotence, illustrates to his sidekick officer (Ryan Phillipe) just how to make the best of a no-probable-cause profiling stop by finger searching the under-skirt regions of the dignified director’s wife.  Granted, Newton’s virago does behave with mouthy insubordination to the officer’s order to stay put; then her indignation is incessant, further piquing his sense of control as she confronts the Man.  Though her husband begs her to shut up, she adds insult to injury, accusing her husband of cowardice for his submissive acceptance of the cop’s injustice in not speaking or acting in her defense. Wild stuff!  This appears to be a stereotyped scene of double-”dissing”--disgusting humiliation of a black couple by a nasty cop and its negative result on the couple’s relationship and self-respect.  Yet there is another level of dramatic upmanship at work in the scene: an abstract point of view from the embarrassed, helpless rookie patrolman watching this abuse of power.  In this regard, Patrolman Ryan’s misbehavior is a power play over a third victim; he is also testing the submissiveness of his inexperienced partner.  This is high drama, three “crashes” in one blow.

 

          In its eight or nine mini-plots, the cases of injustice and bigotry follow one upon the other, embedding the message in the audience’s mind:  the wicked human trait of using someone else to gain a shred of power for oneself makes social interaction an egoistic, nihilistic game.   Rather than striving for harmony or peaceful coexistence, by sensible compromise or compassion, the characters in Crash’s stories illustrate how people crave conflict, vying with one another over positions of superiority and inferiority.

 

        Rude behaviors and vile reactions in Crash’s short narrative stories are woven as fragments through a serialization of plot lines. None is presented fully in a traditional linear narrative from opening to resolution.  The interspersed plots are presented in either short snippets (many in just two- to three-minute sections, mere splinters of action) or longish scenes (five- to ten-minute sections) in the developed climactic passages.  They are designed in an effective mosaic, a postmodern movie collage.  Though presented fractionally, the stories do have a linear chronological progression, given one major flashback from the opening scene.  Eventually, characters from one or two plots reappear coincidentally in other plot developments, making a quite complex amalgamation of disturbing narratives.  Furthermore, the series of disrespectful engagements we witness--street crimes and murders, vitriolic discord in marital and home relationships, manipulative political power plays in race relations, official compromises that conceal corruption, sadistic police brutality, etc.--offers one very little hope that people will soon exhibit powers of positive emotional value.  The movie lays on thickly the incessant relay of one person’s inhumanity to another.  Emphatically denouncing the melting-pot myth, most of its thematic elements center on some aspect of ethnic difference and prejudice.

   

        As the opening credits’ dreamy music and lightshow fade, Detective Inspector Graham Waters (Don Cheadle) announces meditatively to his Hispanic female colleague (Jennifer Esposito) at a nighttime auto-accident scene:  “We’re always behind this metal and glass.  It’s the sense of touch.  I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into one another just so we can feel something.”  Worthy of Morgan Freeman’s despair of humanity in Seven, Cheadle’s voice-over may be a declaration of the totalized theme of the film; there are many types of disconnectedness portrayed by a large cast of actors in several incidences of people “crashing.”  However, it sounds like an obvious prologue statement to help audiences begin to piece the multifaceted puzzle movie together.  Even the chronological flashback is labeled with a bold “YESTERDAY.”  Some critics might question why we need to be told so much and why we need the common theme hammered home in so many different situations.  I thought it was a general assumption that most people harbored racial prejudices; however, I never imagined noisy expressions of prejudice would show up to prove it with such frequency in one movie.  No matter, the continued interest I had in the blow-by-blow actions of the contrived TV-like plots evidently convinced me that I was somehow delighted to see normally hidden aspects of human nature grossly exposed.

   

        Television these many decades has taught, if not habituated, viewers, to suspend in mind scenes and actions they have become interested in for the duration of commercials or station breaks.  Perhaps Crash’s periodicity worked well for general audiences because many have become accustomed to surfing TV channels, following sometimes two or three narratives at once.  Paul Haggis’s years in TV productions perhaps gave him confidence to pull off this film-tapestry experiment.  It is not unlike the design of Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), which was a patchwork ensemble of several Raymond Carver short stories.  The latter film focused on difficult situations of Los Angelinos’ marriages, relationships, and family life, experimenting with serialized presentations of narratives.  As symbolic prologue to its toxic human relationships, Short Cuts opens with a squad of helicopters. We hear the Apocalypse-Now thwup-thwup of their blades and see them releasing spray-jets of malathion over the city to kill the med-fly that hit the crops back in the 1990s.  Short Cuts gave a broader scope on American social life with themes of family crises, troubled personal communications and disconnected lives.   Nevertheless, Altman’s capable direction of this multi-narrative genre, with subtleties of more traditional storytelling, being less violent, less melodramatic, and less heavy-handed, surely paved the way for Haggis’s more concentrated ensemble on a single theme of conflict and confrontation.

     

        In traditional moviemaking narrative, none of Crash’s agitating stories would have held up without some subtlety and depth of story-telling motifs or interesting imagery to add dimensionality to actions performed by rather undeveloped characters.  Fact is, the Crash ensemble is one largely of stock characters in situations of quickly developed plot actions, exciting and emotionally provocative.  Cheadle’s prologue about crashing, though appropriate for LA’s automobile culture, could be applied as a rather sweeping generalization to life in most great cities in the U.S.  Wherever many ethnic peoples have accumulated and become demographically mixed, such cities will have engagements of racist castigation, marital bickering, social belittling, political manipulating and even impulsive killing--cop or no cop.  Episodic and fragmentary as the film is, it interested me to consider the traditional elements that added strength and coherence to the narratives and likewise gave richer emphasis to the theme.

 

        Setting is significant--not just the congested metropolis of LA, but  nature’s atmospheric mood over the City of Angels.  The opening reveals the peculiar seasonal and climatic conditions under which the actions of Crash take place; a cold spell is cast upon LA.  It is revealed later to be the holiday season, the season of high anxiety.  In the Christmas setting of Die Hard (1988), the filmgoer might remember the ironic contrast of the violent terrorist mayhem in an LA skyscraper, taking place in the time of plastic-star-twinkling charity and fake-evergreen good will.  In Crash, the atmospheric and Christmas setting symbolizes a greater depth of meaning, because we are nowadays more aware of climatic change, the shifting of weathers and the apocalyptic forecast of global warming.  It’s irreversible.  In Crash’s 21st century LA, the Christmas season with all the commercial rituals and decorative paraphernalia do not influence a communal spirit of peace and goodwill to all men.  Also the unusual chill to freezing and forecast of snow that is mentioned a number of times takes on highly symbolic resonance, implying, as I see it, overarching nature in chaos.  Generalizing the image, the world’s gone crazy.  Lawrence Chasten (The Big Chill, 1983, an early ensemble piece in traditional periodic style) in his film Grand Canyon (1992), another precursor of the ensemble narrative design, strove for the same general mood about the deep ditch into which society has cast itself.  A character rhapsodizes: “We live in chaos; it’s the central issue in everyone’s life.” As an irony, people do need to “chill out,” but the Christmas-y weather isn’t cooling tempers.

 

        On the other hand, if one interprets the weather indicators as the traditional, romantic purifying effect of snow, then it may add a note of schmaltzy hopefulness, but even in this context it’s ironic.  It may just mean a superficial covering of differences, which will re-emerge as soon as normal patterns of noisy, workaday desperation return.

 

        Two major Christmas images are imposed.  One is the huge, gilt, splendidly-lit Christmas tree in the official city hall, a domain of perverse corruption.  It’s presented as a necessary monstrous decoration in the building where the DA does his business: lying, strategizing the right lie to his political benefit, propagandizing his street mishap for media sympathy, and eulogizing to the press a Barabbas, a drug-money-laundering plainclothes cop, as a brave policeman cut down in the line of duty.  The other is a Christmas crèche display on a garage door and a plastic, inflated Santa with a smiling face, wagging his finger mockingly from the neighboring driveway. At this site, the police have stopped an insubordinate, car-chased suspect, the same black TV director the patrolman had picked up mistakenly the night before.  In this case, the director has just been car-jacked coincidentally by the same hoods who the previous night had assaulted the DA in his Lincoln SUV. The director, having managed to wrestle himself free of the jackers was in wild haste to make a getaway when the police noticed his speeding black Lincoln. Now, they threaten to shoot the innocent director with heavy firepower unless he submits to their vigorous demands to give up his aggressive, self-defensive attitude.  The enraged Terrence Howard, masterful in his role at showing hurt and anger, rails in a most un-Christian way at the insanity of the abuses he has had to suffer on the streets in the course of 24 hours.  He’s up against the wall, cornered again.  In the background, the blow-up Santa weaves and laughs, wagging the pudgy cartoon finger: No freebies here; no forgiveness, no consideration here.  Fortunately, rookie Ryan Phillipe is again on hand--coincidence upon coincidence--and defuses the tension, freeing the suspect, thus balancing out his former partner’s injustice of the night before.

 

        Symbolically, then, the movie contains layering and depth beyond the exciting surface plot actions and outrageous coincidences of highly melodramatic fictional contrivance. The stories, varying in degrees of plot and character development, do not have one main connecting line, the “clothes line” from which the other narratives hang; there are really several parallel lines, with some zigzagging interconnections:  the Waters family (Cheadle’s stories); Jack Ryan’s circle (Dillon’s stories); the DA’s work and home life (Fraser and Bullock’s stories); the black TV director’s work, street life, and home life (Howard and Newton’s stories); the Hispanic locksmith and the Persian family, etc. etc.  It is true, as described in the previous paragraph, that characters shift from one plot line and intervene in another, but all are playing on the theme of abrasive ethnic interactions--attacks and defenses, submissions and compromises.  Ethnic confrontations tie the narratives together.  Metaphors and other symbolic imagery are subtly at work to foreshadow and emphasize the chaotic world.

 

        One specific symbol, the dashboard trinket sculpture of St. Christopher, is the sole image that demands attention and carries considerable weight (pun intended), drawing together several relationships of characters and their personal recognitions or epiphanies.  The trinket is evident in the opening scene of the hoodlums’ car-jacking and it plays an important role in the final dramatic climax; then again it figures in the tragic recognition at the film’s resolution.  Don Cheadle digs the object out of the soft earth at the site of a roadside death.

   

        Haggis knows that the St. Christopher dashboard statue has enough common resonance in the mainstream audience to make a point, but he cannot trust completely.  Therefore, he makes an early explicit mention of its being the protective saint of travelers.  What’s immediately ironic and humorous is that the car-jacking hoodlum is the one asking protection from the Christ-bearing spirit.   The overall significance of this iconic symbol as a recurring motif demands that more is known of the legend of the saint.  How many people still remember old medieval saints’ legends is a question in our time.  Nevertheless, Haggis makes greater magic out of this symbol for the knowing viewer.  First, let me recount the legend as I researched it in the antique 11th edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica:

 

...[T]he best known story is that which is given in the Golden Legend of Jacopus de Voragine.  According to this, Christopher--or rather Reprobus [“Reprobate”], as he was then called--was a giant of vast stature who was in search of a man stronger than himself, whom he might serve. ...[On his search] he was converted [to Christianity] by a hermit; but as he had neither the gift of fasting nor that of prayer, he decided to devoted himself to carry wayfarers over a bridgeless river.  One day a little child asked to be carried across, and Christopher took him on his shoulder.  When halfway across the stream he staggered under what seemed a crushing weight, but he reached the other side and then upbraided the child for placing him in peril. “Had I carried the whole world on my back,” he said, “it could not have weighed heavier than thou!”  “Do not marvel,” the child replied, “for thou hast borne upon thy back the weight of the world and him who created it!”  It was this story that gave Christopher the immense popularity throughout Western Christendom. (New York; Encyclopaedia Britannica Company, 1911. Vol. 6,

p. 295.)

 

        On the surface we can see by the events of Crash that St. Christopher is no longer affective as an amulet to protect travelers or passengers.  Once more the effectiveness of religion and magic has been negated.  However, the depth of the irony and the negation of old beliefs are highly emphasized in the motif of who carries whom safely to the destination. And there are several kinds of human cargo needing passage over the Sea of Despond.   Who, in Crash, is the converted reprobate that carries the human weight to safety?  None other than “Ludacris,” the mouthy, cocksure hoodlum.  Of course, he does not even know the nature of his passengers; he thinks the South-East Asian refugees are Chinese illegals.  His chop-shop colleague tells him they are not Chinese, but communication is not effective between characters in Crash’s stories.  When Ludacris drops them off, he takes them to Chinatown, LA.  Could the malicious car-jacking hoodlum become a convert to magnanimous civil service?  Not likely, but he is the only ferryman of all the stories who carries his passengers to a destination over troubled waters and does not make demands of them. This is a wonderfully warped use of the old legend, making an incorrigible criminal the accidental savior of a gang of illegal immigrants.

 

        In all the other narratives, the ferryman seldom carries the passenger to safety.  From the very beginning scenes, the passenger is the individual who gets into trouble.  In Cheadle’s family, Peter Waters, the hoodlum, has not been kept from harm by his older brother in the police force.  The young brother’s rap sheet endangers the professional career of Cheadle.  Their mother is a heroin addict and she does not know who has been carrying her weight.  Though, neither son is capable of affecting her life for the better.  After the crisis of her story, she totally misconstrues the benefactor who brought her fresh groceries, unaware who is helping her in her journey.  In Dillon’s story, the son is inadequate at carrying his ailing father to a safe haven; in fact, he puts medical help at a further remove from his dad by his malicious behavior toward a public HMO servant.  In the Persian family’s story, the erratic, bad-tempered father takes his gun to get even with someone he suspects of helping vandals and burglars get into his shop and destroy the business.  Choices and communication are very cockeyed.  After his crisis, the Iranian, saved from being a murderer by his daughter’s wise decision and assistance, does not understand how his stupid misjudgment has come to nothing.  He does not understand how his daughter helped him avert an evil outcome; he thinks it’s a miracle.  Finally, Peter Waters, Ludacris’s buddy, the owner of the St. Christopher object, is not saved by his icon but actually harmed by its possession.  Picked up by off-duty Ryan Phillipe, the black hood feels at first privileged to be picked up in the wrong side of town.  Eventually it is the driver, the ferryman, who does harm to his passenger, out of misjudgment, bad communication, acting on his worst suspicions, as in all the stories that make up Crash.  No one is really carrying anyone to safety; there is no safeguard for the traveler in this world.  The inefficacy of the St. Christopher symbol is another sign how hopeless and pathetic a person’s lot is in life’s journey.

 

        Ironically, it a fairy-tale fantasy that helps to give hope to one character in the Hispanic locksmith’s story.  He and his family are the one main shred of hopefulness and decency in their blameless lives.  Even there, the locksmith thinks he has carried his family from a previous danger-zone of ethnic violence into one of greater safety.  Whereas before the violence may have been indiscriminate, now he finds the intentions of the Persian shopkeeper to do violence to the innocent are deliberate.   Otherwise, in the well-intentioned, successful TV director’s life, Terrence Howard has to submit to authorities, becomes a shameful object to his wife, compromises his best judgment on the daily TV set, and is nearly killed by a black car-jacker and then by the police when he stands up for himself.  The savage acts he endures in a series of crazy, coincidental accidents over 24 hours really stretch the credulity of the audience.  It’s credit to his strong acting of the character that the narrative does not appear hard to accept.  But I ask you: Do we have to get used to such actions in films being steered by and resolved by coincidences?

 

In Haggis’s cinema of cruelty the audience can find little hope and compassion. Crash makes the viewer yearn for some resolution to the human chaos, which has been expected as a main element in story patterns of films over the past decades.  With harder endings and less preaching, it behooves the comprehending audience to begin finding solutions.  Films that offer no solutions leave us, the audience, to ask when will we start to change this course of behavior.  Who is there ready to instigate a revolution for better relations among people in public?  In Crash, so deplorable are the characters’ misjudgments and plot actions based on wrong opinions, not even Spiderman can bring harmony to social life in this Gotham. In most cases, the whole tapestry of the film’s mini-narratives adds up to a profoundly negative view of human nature. At best, the scenes of story resolutions in Crash’s many narratives aim to reveal characters’ tragic recognitions, revelations, or discoveries about their misguided behavior, their impotence, alienation, and entrapment among hateful humanity.

 

        In conclusion, because I have for the most part emphasized the negativity of Crash, I wish to consider the few incidents that show where hope lies.  Haggis depicts the healthy young family of the locksmith as one element of future hope.  The little daughter of the struggling tradesman is wise beyond her years and willing to throw herself in the path of danger to protect her loving father.  Here is a loving innocence that does not beget murder.  Another blameless but knowing protectress is the Persian shopkeeper’s daughter, who works in the morgue as a forensic assistant.  Her experience, coming from a knowledge of death, helps the father to avoid danger by making his gun a harmless instrument.  She chooses the shells and loads them to keep the father from knowing what he has.  By stealth and intelligence, this daughter is the cunning savior of her father. Not only are young daughters to be thankful for, but also older caring souls.  The Hispanic housekeeper of Sandra Bullock is unjustly chided and blamed as the cause of much discontent in her bitchy employer’s life; after the Mrs. had her accident, she discovers that the long-suffering housekeeper is perhaps her only trusted friend, a very present help in trouble.  Here the humble, dependable woman, who has known cruelty and hardship, shows herself as the capable “ferryman.”   Innocence and imagination of the young, caution and intelligence born out of experience, and practical wisdom and humility--these are in short supply in our world.  If one goes by the evidence of Crash--and it is there is Million Dollar Baby--Haggis has a special fondness for the sacrificial power of women.    

 

 

        The tragic or pathetic incidents of Crash are an amalgamated ad hominem against society.  If it were art, which often aims to criticize or protest against society, this would be high art.  It is rather good postmodern storytelling with high melodramatic rushes, much as we’re used to in fine TV dramas. None of the narratives, however sketchy, really tax the viewer’s attention span or awareness.  They just ask for some self-recognition by the viewer, for the tragedies we watch for the 105 minutes of compressed stories are illustration of the ways human beings behave poorly when acting on their worst assumptions.

   

        Paul Haggis’s fine script and lively direction of his personal film project, Crash, which he produced on spec in 2003 before Million Dollar Baby, have offered a film for mature audiences about some serious realities of American metropolitan life.  And yet it was released for general audiences, a brilliant move by distributors, for everyone in our culture should have a chance to recognize themselves in some traits through this film.  Sure, precedents have undoubtedly lead to Haggis’s effective handling of this postmodernist ensemble film, some already mentioned: e.g. Lawrence Kazdan’s Grand Canyon (1991), Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), Paul Anderson’s Magnolia (1999), all basically a series of short stories developed to highly dramatic moments, with strong thematic connections, and employing techniques of coincidence and recognition.  However, the intensity of Crash’s dramatic interactions, based on the dystopic idea that people are not coming to a healing understanding of one another but rather aggressively repelling one another in their engagements in life-crises, puts Crash in a special melodramatic genre.  It remains to be seen how less accomplished writers and directors can produce other such artistic works without falling into patterns of cliché, which are potentially already evident in this style of film.

David Gilmour