March 5th, 2006

In Case You Were Wondering

I have a strong populist streak, with all the good and bad that entails. My heart warms to Woody Guthrie songs. I love interacting with people on public transportation, especially buses. I am more likely to be brought to tears by a documentary about union organizing than I am by my own life. And that helps to explain why I really liked this year's Academy Award winner for "Best Picture."

I will freely admit that there's plenty of corn in Crash's salsa. The intersecting plotlines that "crash" into each other are too contrived to feel like real life. No matter how powerful an individual actor's performance, it is still going to feel mechanical at times, because the picture's allegorical dimension barges into the foreground on a regular basis. Despite all those caveats, though, I did not heed the cries of, "Emptor!"

As I see it, Crash is the latest example of a cinematic subgenre with literary roots in the nineteenth-century novels of Charles Dickens and their twentieth-century offspring in the work of writers like John Dos Passos, John Steinbeck, and even William Faulkner. What those disparate novelists have in common is an attention to the fine-grained details of place, coupled with an eye for shaping plots in a manner that accentuates divisions of class, gender, religion, and/or race.

Like Grand Canyon, Wings of Desire, Shortcuts, Magnolia, Amores Perros and a bunch of other films, Crash is a "city film" that simultaneously attends to the specificity of its setting and also uses that setting as the springboard for broader points about life in the modern world. Like the documentary city films of the 1920s, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis or Man With a Movie Camera, the films in the subgenre I'm delineating map the complexity of urban social space through montage, with each cut signaling another potentially violent encounter across tribal lines. But unlike those documentary city films, the films in this subgenre make unabashed use of melodramatic conventions rather than abstract principles of composition in order to achieve coherence.

What I liked best about Crash was director-screenwriter Paul Haggis's willingness to embrace the generic aspects of this subgenre, to be formulaic in a good way, in the manner that the best Westerns or Films Noirs are formulaic. When snow falls miraculously from a Christmas sky, contrasting sharply with the burning car and the simmering rage of Terence Howard's character, the manipulation of the audience is obvious. Yet it's manipulation that worked for me -- and many others, clearly -- for the same reason that a grid-like shadow across a femme fatale's face works in a noir.

I recognize the irony in Paul Haggis quoting Bertolt Brecht in his first acceptance speech. While I love the notion that art should be a hammer instead of a mirror, I'm sure Brecht wouldn't approve of his formulation being applied to melodrama. Melodrama goes out of its way to produce the sort of identification with characters that Brecht's theory of epic theater was designed to ward off. And yet, as in the great 50s melodramas of directors like Nicholas Ray and Douglas Sirk, I perceive something at work in a film like Crash that is best described as a closing of the circle. When the demand to identify is both exaggerated and dispersed over many characters, as it is in Crash and other examples of the subgenre I've been describing here, the effect can be almost as eye-opening as the experience of disidentification Brecht sought to promote.

In the passage from the one to the many, something happens to the bourgeois story arc that is salutory from a political standpoint. Crash may not be didactic in the way that Mother Courage is, but it teaches all the same. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more Crash ends up seeming like a complicated experiment in stretching identification with characters, what film theorist Christian Metz termed "secondary identification," to the breaking point, where an excess of demand for identification collides with the realization that we have only so much of ourselves to give.
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