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See the companion essay, Four Defenses of "Crash" by Suzanne Lummis

Crashing Los Angeles

Brett Myhren

If someone asked me to make an aesthetic argument about why Crash doesn’t succeed as a film, I would say that the coincidences stretch credibility, that the characters are stereotypical, and that the dialogue frequently lapses into melodrama. For this essay, however, I want to set aside these aesthetic issues, primarily because many other critics have already written extensively about that topic. (There are many articles, not surprisingly, in the Los Angeles Times, as well as a compelling discussion in the New York Times by A.O. Scott.) Instead of rehashing those discussions, I think it would be much more interesting to examine the claims that Crash makes about Los Angeles and urban areas in general, the way the film locates social tension in the built environment (specifically in transportation by car), and the place of these ideas in a historical context. Ultimately, my goal here is fairly modest: to untangle the philosophy that supports the film and to suggest that the issue of urbanity in Los Angeles is quite a bit more complex than that philosophy suggests.

The key quote is the one that opens the film, where we hear in voice-over Graham, an LAPD detective, say,

It’s the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know. You brush past people; people bump into you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something.

When the camera pulls back, we find Graham in a car, peering forlornly out the window, while his partner listens from the driver’s seat. It’s immediately clear from the scene, if not explicit from the dialogue, that Graham thinks cars isolate and alienate people in Los Angeles—not just the fact of their existence, of course, but what they imply about the culture of the city and how people in Los Angeles spend their time.

Yet, the quote goes further than that. Graham’s opening commentary is fundamentally an attack on the cultural status of city itself. Contained in his dialogue is the apparently offhand comparison between a “real city” and its implied antithesis, Los Angeles. Thus, the remark is about urban hierarchy, as well, about what makes a place qualify as a city, according to suggested, but unspecified, categories of evaluation.

To be fair, Graham’s soliloquy is quickly contradicted by his partner, who looks incredulous as he speaks. Yet, if viewers assumed (or hoped?) that Graham’s perspective was going to be given nuance and texture, they were quickly disappointed by the behavior of said partner, who in the next moment exits the car and begins to mock another woman’s accent and make racially derogatory comments. From that point until the finish, the film never really lets up, wielding the culture of Los Angeles like a club and beating the message into us: this city ruins people; blame the design.

Underneath the histrionic confrontation, then, Crash is really an urban social critique. In comparison to the norms of “real” cities, the film argues, Los Angeles is unconventional and misshapen, and that’s why people who live there are terribly unhappy. If this sounds like an unfair oversimplification that no careful thinker would be willing to accept, we need only read a review of the film by David Denby from the New Yorker, which calls Los Angeles “a strange automotive paradise in which people live in separate racial and class enclaves, drive to work and stick with their own.”

To expose the underlying problems of this thesis, we might ask a number of simple questions. For example, does this mean that people in “real” cities do not live in “separate racial and class enclaves” or “stick with their own”? I’d like to think that achieving racial harmony in the world could be as simple as building subways and high-density housing, but, unfortunately, my experience and the historical record tell us otherwise. Furthermore, when Graham says, “We’re always behind this metal and glass,” to whom does the pronoun “we” refer? For instance, a quick perusal of the Metro transit website reveals that on average 1,554,002 people board public transit per day in Los Angeles. Busses alone—excluding rail—average 33,860,858 boardings per month. Apparently, “we” does not refer to these people, unless riding a bus counts as being behind a very large piece of “metal and glass.” In addition, does this mean that those people are less at risk of saying racially inflammatory things to others? I will leave these questions for others to answer. The larger question remains: Is the built environment of Los Angeles more alienating than other “real” cities, or is the reality more complex?

Christopher Hawthorne, the Los Angeles Times architecture critic, comments on this very aspect of the film in an article comparing Crash (set in Los Angeles) to King Kong (set in New York). Because Hawthorne’s argument is one that is often overlooked in discussions of the film, I want to summarize it and connect it to some broader themes. Hawthorne convincingly argues that Hollywood’s vision of Los Angeles simply replicates the stereotype of the city “where you can order your alienation to go.” Essentially, Hawthorne says that not only are the characters stereotyped, but that the city itself is “typecast.” In fact, he argues, both New York and Los Angeles are frequently put to the service of “architectural determinism” in films, with Los Angeles playing the role of a “sprawling, atomized” place and New York playing the role of a “dense and vertical” one. But these differences are not simply cosmetic. For Hawthorne, Crash “empt[ies]” Los Angeles of “buildings” and “community,” so much so, in fact, that “a young cop…can torch his car in plain view” without attracting much attention. Thus, the built environment not only makes (or perhaps drives) people crazy, but also allows terrible things to happen to them.

Of course, some people might protest that Crash is a film and, as such, simply documents the physical reality of the city. In other words, this argument goes, it’s not the film’s fault that the city looks alienating. That’s just the way it really is. The truth, however, is that photographs, videos, films, or other supposedly “objective” arts are no more objective than text, and scholars have been working for years to reverse the perception that ‘seeing is believing.’ All of these visual representations, whether paintings or films, make conscious choices about what visual elements to include or exclude, and these choices have ideological implications.

Thus, in its depiction of Los Angeles, not only does Crash choose many vacant exteriors, places outside what Hawthorne calls the “moderating influence of community,” but it also chooses to heighten the vision of the city as an exotic place, a strange world, removed from the conventions of so-called normal places. Partially this is achieved through music, lighting, and choice of location, but perhaps most obviously, it is achieved with snow.

Snow, in Crash, functions as a kind of visual cue for the exotic. It lets the viewer know that weird things can and do happen in this strange place called Los Angeles. As a visual device, the exotic occurs quite frequently in films about the city. For example, it appears in films like Magnolia (the raining frogs), Short Cuts (the med-fly spraying), and L.A. Story (the talking freeway sign). But snow in particular has a much longer, and more specific, visual history in Los Angeles. Starting in the 19th century, it was reproduced in virtually every tourist’s or traveler’s description of the city, and almost always in combination with either oranges or palm trees. The reason for the pairing is simple: it emphasized the strange or exotic nature of the place. Where else, the photographs and drawings begged, would you see oranges or palm trees in the foreground and snowcapped mountains in the background? The swirling snow that falls on the tumbleweeds above the city in Crash functions in largely the same way. Where else, the film asks, could such strange and terrible things happen? The snow is the detail that serves to authenticate the visual and dramatic experience. Wow, we’re supposed to say, this place is weird. Anything can happen.

I spend time on these notions of the exotic because they are fundamental to visions of Los Angeles. If the connection between strangeness and culture is not yet clear, we have only to return to David Denby’s quote from the New Yorker, which describes the city as “a strange automotive paradise in which people live in separate racial and class enclaves, drive to work and stick with their own.” The key words here are in fact “strange” and “paradise,” which not only suggest the visual dichotomy of snow and oranges, but, in the context with the rest of his quote, illustrate how quickly those kinds of exotic perspectives substantiate larger claims about culture.

Theories about alienation and environment are not new, of course; nor are theories about Los Angeles not being a “real” city. From a historical perspective, these kinds of complaints can be seen as part of a larger pattern of complaints about southern California, the southwestern US, or the western US. All of these places, to varying degrees, have been depicted as “strange,” “alien,” “fake,” and “unreal” for quite a long time—at least since the 19th century. For evidence of this, read Mark Twain’s Roughing It, which both satirizes and perpetuates views of the western US as exotic, or Charles Lummis’s book about the southwestern US, Some Strange Corners of Our Country, which uses the word “strange” more than seventy times in roughly 250 pages. Furthermore, this vision of the West as exotic is remarkably persistent; as Hawthorne correctly points out, Crash essentially takes its ideas like hand-me-down clothing from people such as Nathanael West, Mike Davis, and Michael Mann. I would hasten to add to that list Raymond Chandler, Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, and Evelyn Waugh, just for a start.

For example, in The Little Sister, Chandler’s detective Phillip Marlow, says of Los Angeles,

Real cities have something else, some individual bony structure under the muck. Los Angeles has Hollywood—and hates it. It ought to consider itself damn lucky. Without Hollywood it would be a mail-order city. Everything else in the catalogue you could get better somewhere else.

Again, the focus on the “real” is fundamental to this critique, and this lack of the authentic or the “individual bony structure” is the foundation for an attack on the culture itself. It’s an idea that we can trace from Chandler to Joan Didion as well. For example, in After Henry, she writes,

In fact there is in Los Angeles no memory everyone shares, no monument everyone knows, no historical reference as meaningful as the long sweep of ramps where the San Diego and Santa Monica freeways intersect, as the way the hard Santa Ana light strikes palm trees against the white western wall of the Carnation Milk building on Wilshire boulevard.

Here again the writer focuses on culture and the fact that the built environment in Los Angeles supposedly lacks it. Or perhaps, the argument might be better stated this way: the built environment in Los Angeles does not create or retain culture. Now we seem to be very close to repeating what we hear in Crash. In fact, the history of the exotic and its connection to culture suggest that this viewpoint is, indeed, rather persistent.

Yet, we would be mistaken if we assumed that its persistence would be confined to reviews in the New Yorker. In other words, this is not a simple East vs. West relationship. One example of its continuing appeal to residents of Los Angeles can be found in a recent anthology of Los Angeles literature, titled LA Exiles. In the introduction, the editor, Paul Vangelisti, who has “spent more than thirty years in Los Angeles,” argues that the lack of culture in Los Angeles is directly connected to its shape. He begins by noting that “this vast metropolitan expanse (the term ‘city’ needs to be surrendered) … [is] remarkably non-urban, in any traditional or historical sense…” (7). Here, of course, we hear echoes of the claim that Los Angeles is not a “real” city. Vangelisti (along with “a great many writers”) further argues that Los Angeles, lacks a “common code of cultural behavior” (12), and that this “instability” produces a city “where the force of the exotic, often bewildering nature… play[s] … a complex role” (13). Thus, we also find the oft-repeated terminology. Finally, Vangelisti cements a connection between the apparent lack of culture in Los Angeles and the built environment: “Not unlike other suburbs and decentralized urban sprawls in contemporary America, the City of Angles thus retains its cultural, social and political amnesia” (13). Why does this all sound so familiar?

Obviously, the reshaping of an exotic vision continues, drifting from the 19th century to—and through—the end of the 20th. If the connections weren’t obvious enough, note that Vangelisti actually quotes the same Chandler passage above, but uses it to support his vision of the city. Therefore, Graham, the LAPD detective in Crash, essentially espouses a version of an argument that is nearly 150 years old—and much older if we include texts before Twain. This genealogy might suggest the durability of wisdom if not for the fact that the idea sounds no more compelling now than it did then, despite the ethereal sound track.

Graham’s argument was accepted mostly without question until the 1970s, when Reyner Banham’s book, Los Angeles: the Architecture of Four Ecologies, proposed that the shape of Los Angeles wasn’t terrible or terrifying, but simply different from conventional models of cities. He further argued that these differences were precisely what made the city interesting. This point of view was, indeed, hard for some people to swallow. What made it harder still to accept was the fact that Banham wasn’t a real estate developer or city booster from the Chamber of Commerce, but an architectural critic—from stodgy old England, no less. Clearly, the cognoscenti of alienation thought that Banham was someone who ought to know better.

Slowly, other contrary views began to emerge. With the rise of deconstruction and postmodernism in the humanities, urban historians and theorists began to ask different questions and develop new models. The classic conceptions of the Chicago School of urban theory, in which concentric circles of urban growth radiated out from the city core like the rings on a tree, didn’t seem to apply to Los Angeles. Furthermore, it became increasingly clear that Los Angeles resembled many of the rapidly expanding urban formations, both in the US and abroad.

Geographers and urban scholars have continued this line of thought, turning their critiques to places such as Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tijuana. Most argue that the reluctance to accept these places as “real” urban environments stems from a variety of factors, but usually from the shape of the city and its architecture. In other words, places that don’t look like London, New York, or San Francisco aren’t “real” cities.

Related to this reluctance to accept new forms of urbanism is a reluctance, often on the part of the area’s residents, to let go of suburban mythologies connected to the American Dream, especially in Los Angeles, and its focus on garden-like suburban homes with lawns and garages as the ideal image of happiness. (Both of these positions are staked out by books such as The Reluctant Metropolis and Landscapes of Desire.) The problem, geographers and cultural critics argue, is that these people don’t recognize (or aren’t willing to admit) that their “suburban” homes are within shouting distance of very urban activities, manufacturing and shipping especially, and which often connected to global networks. Again, it is not simply easterners who inflict these problematic models on defenseless western cities; often the cities themselves accept and perpetuate these myths.

Westchester, in the southwest corner of Los Angeles, serves as a good example of both of these phenomena. An area that saw most of its initial growth in the building boom after WWII, Westchester is exactly the kind of place that people cite when they want to show that Los Angeles is merely a collection of suburbs or, conversely, when they want to claim that they don’t live in the city (meaning: “good neighborhood”). At first glance, the area reveals row after row of exactly the style of home that people associate with alienating suburbs. Yet, this supposedly isolated community leans against the fence posts that surround the Los Angeles International Airport, a place that perfectly encapsulates the scale and scope of global commerce that occurs in so-called suburban places. The airport is, in and of itself, a kind of city with connections to enormous and complex global networks, not to mention the freeways, busses, commuter rail, hotels, and cargo terminals around it. Therefore, even if we claim that Westchester is not a “real” city or urban environment, we still have to contend with the very urban infrastructure that surrounds it.

Though we may seem to have wandered far from the film Crash, we are actually untangling the roots of its principle philosophy. In fact, the film aptly illustrates the persistence of both the exotic and suburban vision of Los Angeles, as well as the connection of this vision to arguments about culture. Let me be perfectly clear, however, that I am no booster. I wouldn’t argue that Los Angeles is perfect, or even better than most cities. Any casual observer can see that the city has problems. I dislike the film, not because I love Los Angeles and can’t stand to see it maligned, but because I take issue with the nature of the arguments themselves. Not only are they based on unexamined norms, but they repeat the conventional wisdom of ages past while pretending to deliver a bracing new insight. Furthermore, we need to move beyond binary rhetoric that hinges on descriptions of the real/unreal or normal/exotic. Those kinds of models are far too reductive. Los Angeles certainly is urban, and a city. According to the 2000 census, it is now the most densely populated region in the country—if that is what matters. Personally, I think culture entails more than population density.

At this point, rather than viewing the place through the lens of assumptions, a more productive investigation would try to understand these urban shapes and the lives of those who live there. Are there racial problems in Los Angeles? Absolutely. Does the built environment affect the lives of the people there? Absolutely. Can we say that the car or the built environment leads directly to racial problems? Of course not. Ultimately, I don’t think that people would entertain an any idea of culture as monolithic and reductive as this sounds if it weren’t for a history of perceiving the West as exotic, which tends to support and perpetuate half-baked theories. If we accept the notion that frequent driving makes a place into a “strange automotive paradise,” then we are forced into arguing that a large portion of the US is exotic, and not just the West. Carey McWilliams bemoaned the “Spanish Fantasy Past” and its influence on Los Angeles. Perhaps now it is time to address the Suburban Fantasy Present and the remarkable ways that the anti-urban paradigm influences the way we see and think about the city.


Brett Garcia Myhren is a PhD student at the University of Southern California, studying the literature of Los Angeles, California, and the West.  A writer of prose and poetry, he has recently published in the Xavier Review, Rattle, and Nimrod. In 2004, he won the Passages North Waasmode fiction contest. Currently he is working on a project about representations of Los Angeles as a place without a history.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach