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 troll.

Rank the characters from most culpable to least culpable. (Here they are in alphabetical order: BOATMAN, HUSBAND, LOVER, TROLL, WIFE.)

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