The film Crash — the new one, not the 1996 one with James Spader having sex in car
accidents — is one of those movies with a big ensemble cast which throw out a dozen plot
threads which then get woven together in various combinations. These movies are sort of
paradoxical: on the one hand, you might have twenty characters or more to keep track of, so
it looks like the world of the film is too big; on the other, as you discover that everyone
who calls for a locksmith gets the same guy, and everyone who gets carjacked is victimized
by the same pair of guys, and the same twenty people just keep running into each other over
and over in a city the size of Los Angeles, the world of the film starts to look too small.
And there's another problem. Crash wants to be thematically deep, to say something
about race and class in modern America, to introduce us to characters we come to care about
and play them off one another in bravura set pieces... but, at least for me, the artifice
was so obvious that it short-circuited my sense of involvement. Scenes that should have
been moving weren't because they involved not people but chess pieces.
I don't know whether this is just a coincidence or if I've just become sufficiently grumpy
that I am no longer capable of enjoying narrative, but the last few works I have tried have
all bothered me in this respect. Oryx and Crake with its
artificial mysteries and jumping around in time, Watch Your Mouth
with its irksome meta bits, Crash... they just don't feel organic. And as I work on
my own stuff, I can't help but wonder to what extent I'm falling into the same practices I'm
preaching against. I guess we'll see.
As I have mentioned a few times in the past, I like it when I have somehow managed to hear
that a movie is good without knowing anything about it — premise, cast, nothing. (I
suppose I could just check random movies out of the library without looking at the covers,
but the hit rate wouldn't be as good without any sort of recommendation.) I came close
with Crash... for months all I knew about it was that it had received good reviews,
and then right before I saw it I learned (a) that Sandra Bullock was in it and (b) about
the tone of the movie. Now, by clicking on a link that says Crash and reading this
far, I assume you will not be surprised if I toss in spoilers. But I happened to be reading
an article a few days back which I did not know would mention this movie, and it included
the sentence, "Will it be comic and happy ([name of some other movie]) or tragic (Crash)?"
And I thought, crud, now I know that it's tragic. Nice going, random blogger whose article was
a model of bad academic writing anyway! So for the entire running time of the picture I was
tensed waiting for bad things to happen. This turns out to be a running theme of the movie:
places where people should or shouldn't be scared, people around whom others should or shouldn't
be scared. This struck a chord — while Anaheim Hills certainly had its disadvantages,
there is definitely something to be said for living in a bubble where you are absolutely secure
in the knowledge that nothing bad will happen. This has not been the case recently.
In New York I was constantly afraid of being assaulted, and in
Holyoke, which offered a little more breathing space but which is still a slum, I was
forever worried about our home being broken into, both when we were not home and when we were:
as I lay in bed I would think, "If I hear the door being busted open, what do we do?
Hide? If so, where? Jump out the window? Will we have time to get dressed? What about
the cats?" I still don't have a great sense of my surroundings here in San Leandro, so
I am slightly less paranoid now but not yet carefree. Someday.
In Crash, people who start off doing bad things end up doing good things, and
people who start off doing good things end up doing bad things. Most of the victims turn
out to have either contributed to the circumstances in which they find themselves or at
least to have done something to make us think that perhaps they are getting what they
deserved. "Yes, it's a shame you've been shot, but maybe he wouldn't have shot you had
you just explained what you were doing," that sort of thing.
This reminds me of a little game I learned as a kid. There's a story in which a murder
occurs, and the listeners are supposed to rank the characters from most culpable to least
culpable. In the game, each character is supposed to stand for something, but I have
always found the associations artificial, and it is more fun to listen to people's rationales
than to pretend to know what they are already. Shall we play? Let's!
The story goes like this:
(Before I begin, I will again point out that I did not make this up, so please do not blame
me for any stereotyped gender roles or what have you)
Out in the woods a woman and her husband live alone in a cabin. One day the husband says
that he has to go to town on business. His wife begs him to take her along, offering many
reasons except for the real one: she has a lover on the other side of the river, but is
trying to be faithful to her husband, and she knows that if her husband leaves her alone
she will be unable to resist the temptation to see her lover. But her husband won't listen
to her entreaties, and leaves her alone.
So she goes to visit her lover. Her lover lives on the other side of the river. There are
two ways to cross the river: a bridge and a ferry. However, under the bridge lives a troll
who kills everyone who tries to cross. So the woman gathers all her money and finds that it
is just enough to pay the boatman for one crossing. So she takes the ferry across the river
and visits her lover.
The next morning she wakes up and realizes that she needs to return home before her husband
gets back. She asks her lover for some money to pay the boatman, but he refuses to give her
any. So she walks to the river and explains to the boatman that she desperately needs to
cross the river, but has no money. He refuses to let her on board and rows away. Out of
options, the woman takes her chances with the bridge. Halfway across, she is killed by the
Rank the characters from most culpable to least culpable. (Here they are in alphabetical
order: BOATMAN, HUSBAND, LOVER, TROLL, WIFE.)
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