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In Case You Were Wondering - De File
Does Collecting Make You Feel Dirty?
cbertsch
cbertsch
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.

Tags: ,
Mode: too populist, not popular enough
Muse: an unfortunate intrusion by the Dave Matthews Band

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Comments
jcoldrey From: jcoldrey Date: March 6th, 2006 04:40 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Great post. I suppose what can let films of this peculiar subgenre down is an ultimate point that tends to the banal. In other words a message that, despite all the structural complexity and all these characters, lacks the resonance to do justice to the manner in which it's communicated. I haven't seen Crash yet, but I found Grand Canyon rather like this. It's a particular risk for these ensemble films that aim, by their very nature, to illuminate shared aspects of the human experience.

If you enjoy these types of films, I can highly recommend a film called Lantana. It's an Australian film that was released a few years ago, and it uses the genre form of a thriller to explore issues of trust and relationships in contemporary Sydney. Worth seeking out.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 6th, 2006 11:19 am (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
Thanks for writing! I adore Lantana and would have included it in my list if it had come to mind. I wrote the entry very quickly.

I agree with you about the ultimate point tending to be banal in this subgenre. But somehow that doesn't make me like the better examples of it any less. Maybe the point behind that ultimate point is that having an ultimate point is not the point. It's those moments of temporary identification cut short by the cut back to another storyline that carry the force of these films in my estimation.
jcoldrey From: jcoldrey Date: March 6th, 2006 06:51 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I'm very glad you enjoyed Lantana. I rewatched it the other day and was struck, again, by how it treads a beautiful line between the highly schematic and the naturalistic. Oh, the acting...

You're quite right that, in really great films of this type, it can be exhilerating enough just to watch the structural mechanics unfold, and to experience those brief moments of recognition that accumulate over the course of the film.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 7th, 2006 01:38 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
That's a nice way of putting it. For me, it's the lack of finality to those moments of recognition, the understanding that they will soon pass away, that makes them more poignant. Each is a temporary stopping point in an endless flow, where the illusion of an ending is bound to be unsatisfying in the end.
masoo From: masoo Date: March 6th, 2006 02:02 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I had something to say, but then I saw the first comment. Thank you, oh thank you, for mentioning Lantana, one of the best movies of the last several years!

Anyway:
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.
This describes rather perfectly why I think Crash would have worked better as a television series, where Haggis did some fine work in the past.
cbertsch From: cbertsch Date: March 6th, 2006 02:25 pm (UTC) (LINK TO SPECIFIC ENTRY)
I was talking to Kim in the car this morning about your argument and noted that the subgenre I was attempting to delineate is impossible to think without a pass through television dramas of the Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere sort, a lineage that your writing on television over the past several years has made me think long and hard about.

As to the substance of your comment here, I'm sure I would enjoy a television series featuring the characters in Crash, but also believe that the stretching-thin of identification I wrote about would be less obvious when played over a longer period of time. In other words, I think it is the abruptness of the film, its lack of character development, that makes it interesting to think about.
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