With the Oscars not far away, I thought it might be good to take a look at last year's winner of Best Picture, Crash. Crash essentially explores the assumptions often made about race in the United States, against the backdrop of Los Angeles. Its structure is like that of many of Robert Altman's films, with multiple storylines which intersect at various points in the plot. Unfortunately, Paul Haggis is not Robert Altman.
While I think that in exploring assumptions about race Haggis had noble intentions, the sad fact is that noble intentions do not make a great movie, or even necessarily a good movie. Crash is in many ways a very flawed film. Indeed, it makes use of stock characters and stock situations that were old decades ago. A perfect example of this is Matt Dillon as a racist cop. Now I am sure we are all aware that racist cops do exist in real life. And I am sure that the LAPD has its share of racist cops. But where both the small and big screen are concerned, racist cops were old hat nearly twenty to thirty years ago (I don't guess Haggis has ever seen Black Caesar, Dark Blue, Heart Condition, or any of the other myriad films with racist police officers). Quite simply, it seems to me that the racist cop has become a stock character with no more weight or shock value than any other stock character. Another example is Don Cheadle as a black detective who comes from a poor family and whose brother is on the other side of the law. This is a stock situation that is even older than that of the racist cop. It dates as far back as Angels With Dirty Faces (made in 1938). Although I know that this occurs in real life (indeed, one of my best friends is a lawyer, archaeologist, and Marine whose brother is, well, in prison...), it is a situation that has been seen in movies over the years that it had long ago lost any power it has.
A far worse problem than the use of stock characters and stock plots in Crash is the fact that at times the plot seems downright contrived. The problem is that Haggis has disparate individuals who move in totally different circles (Dillon's racist cop and Christine, the wife of television director Cameron Thayer, are an example) encounter each other and the encounter each other again in ways that seem very unlikely and highly unrealistic in a city the size of Los Angeles--in some cases, these encounters and re-encounters seem to me like they would be unlikely in a city the size of Columbia, Missouri! One such coincidence in a film might be acceptable, but Crash has so many that some viewers might find it difficult to suspend their disbelief.
Another problem I have with Crash is that there are a few moments when characters (such as Matt Dillon's racist cop) pause to explain their thoughts and motivations to other characters. This simply strikes me as artificial, as it seems to me that in real life people rarely, if ever, explain why they are the way they are or why they do some of the things they do. Indeed, I can't help that wonder if Haggis felt that audiences needed these explanations in order to get a better grasp of the characters or if he thought it would give the characters more depth. Either way, I think he was wrong. It seemed to me simply to be one more contrivance.
Beyond the problems with the script itself, it seems to me that in some respects Crash, a film which seeks to explore assumptions about race, is in some respects racist itself. As of the 2000 census, 9.99% of the population of Los Angeles was Asian, which means that there only 1.25% more African Americans (who made up 11.24% of the city's population) than Asians. Despite this Asian characters only appear briefly in the film. And when they do appear, the characters are underdeveloped and, at least to me, they show characteristics of established Asian stereotypes! This is not what one expects or finds desirable in a movie that is supposed to be attacking racism.
Despite its flaws, I must say that I enjoyed Crash and it does have its good points. Most of these are to be found in the cast's various performances. I thought Sandra Bullock was convincing as a rich housewife who practically becomes agoraphobic after she and her husband are carjacked. And I thought both Ludacris as Anthony and Larenz Tate as Peter gave good performances as intellectual car thieves who are anything but stereotypical (I loved Anthony's theories on the origins of rap music...). I must also say that I liked the storyline featuring Shaun Toub as Farhad, a Persian storekeeper worried about his own safety--not the least of which is because it is one of the few storylines which is not marred by the coincidences and contrivances that afflict so many of the film's other story arcs.
I hope that no one here thinks that I feel Crash is a bad film or that I did not like the movie. That having been said, I am not sure that I can necessarily say that it was a good movie, and I certainly cannot say it was a great film (it certainly did not deserve to win Best Picture). That having been said, it is an entertaining film which has its share of good points and bad points, and it is certainly worth watching at least once.