Crash course

May 18, 2005 at 12:00 am

I can’t imagine what kind of hard-bargaining tactics brought the movie Crash to the screen, even with all the heavyweight actors involved. I would surely love to know. In an age when the vast majority of major motion pictures don’t dare to deal with any issue of real substance, and when character development, plot development and dialogue have all become pretty much antiquated, experiencing a movie like Crash is the equivalent of walking merrily down the road on a warm summer day, then suddenly falling neck-deep into ice-cold water.

A customer blames an Arab storeowner in Los Angeles for 9/11, and his response says he’s confronted this type of ignorance ever since that day. His weathered face is contorted with a riot of emotions as he struggles through the muck of his life, edging closer to what will surely be a nervous breakdown. Finally, in one of the movie’s two most powerful and hard-to-watch scenes, he obtains revenge and salvation at the same time.

Meanwhile, an upper-middle-class black couple has a life-transforming encounter — a sickly disturbing one — with two white members of L.A.’s finest who pull them over. It would have been easy to leave the viewer with a feeling of revulsion toward the cops, but instead we are forced to peek into the wretchedly painful home life of one of the officers.

And those are just a few of the characters.

This movie tackles the subject of modern racism with a precision and intelligence that I have very rarely seen before on the big screen. Yet it still entertains. Every time you think you know what’s about to go down, you can count on another surprise.

This is what has me scared about the prospects for this movie at the box office. It apparently did quite well on opening weekend, coming in third at $9.1 million (tied with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy); it dropped to fifth place last weekend with $7.2 million, and it remains to be seen whether it continues to draw or fades from cineplexes. The generally strong reviews and star-studded cast can be credited with bringing out the curious, but it will take more than that to keep them coming and telling their friends to go see it too.

Crash was made independently for a paltry $7 million, which makes it obvious that its long list of heavyweights — including Sandra Bullock, Don Cheadle, Matt Dillon, Brendan Fraser, Ludacris, Thandie Newton, Larenz Tate, Terrence Dashon Howard — agreed to contribute their talents for far, far less than in a film with a more typically bloated budget. It’s also obvious that they wouldn’t have all collectively agreed to such dramatic salary cuts (director Paul Haggis hasn’t said how much, only that they were substantial) if they didn’t believe in what the film was about. It’s one thing to make an important film, but there’s nothing like star power to help it get seen. It didn’t hurt that Haggis, who wrote the outstanding script for Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby, is a hot director right now.

The theme of the movie, and meaning behind its title, is that sometimes we have to crash into one another in this modern life before we actually feel anything. The characters crash into one another in all sorts of unanticipated and uncomfortable ways, revealing something each time. I don’t want to give away too much because I hate film reviewers who do. I will say that it forces us to confront the way in which so many of us navigate our daily individual lives based on social misconceptions about the lives of others that we cherish as absolute fact. In fact, we often hide behind those misconceptions to protect us from dealing with the honest truth, which is far more complex than most of us feel like being bothered with. It’s easy, for example, to assume that a tattooed Hispanic handyman working in your home is a gangbanger, as does one very angry woman in the movie portrayed by Sandra Bullock. It’s easy for some whites to believe that black people should be grateful for the helping hand of gracious whites, who only want the best for “those people” — easier than to dig into the tangled mess of issues just beneath the surface. But what the movie helps all of us to see is that so many of us (black, white, brown, yellow, whatever) base our deeply held prejudices on personal negative experiences that we use to frame the entire world — and the world is far too big to be defined by any one person’s traumas.

And yet, it was the personal trauma of being robbed at gunpoint after coming out of a video store that gave Haggis the idea for this film. But rather than giving in to the temptation to go on automatic pilot and label his attackers, Haggis, according to one interview, began to reflect on who his attackers really were as people. He wondered about their lives, where they came from, and what steps had led them to the point where his life suddenly crashed into theirs.

Granted, this is not what most of us would consider a normal response. I believe most of us can be forgiven for thinking all sorts of ugly things about anyone who sticks us up at gunpoint. But when we allow ourselves to stretch beyond the anger, however understandable that anger may be, and to instead try and understand what life has been like for those whom we would most prefer to grind into the dirt from which we believe they came, that is when we bring a little more light where it is much needed.

So I can only hope that a film like Crash that tries its best to shed a little light instead of blood gets not only the critical acclaim but the popular acclaim that it deserves. I’ll be the first to admit that there are scenes that seem a bit forced, and some of the interchanges between characters seem far too scripted and artificial in an attempt to make a point. But, as far as I’m concerned, this is a relatively small matter overall. If I can forgive (pick a movie, any movie) endless, senseless violence, moronic humor, sexual situations above and beyond the call of duty, more moronic humor, more sex and more violence, all for no visible plot-related reason whatsoever, then I think I can give a break to a flick that is actually trying to say something meaningful and important.

Why not give intelligence in drama a chance?

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musician. Send comments to [email protected]