See the companion essay, Crashing Los Angeles by Brett Myhren
Four Defenses of
(Because, yes, even with its Academy Award for Best Picture it still
Rebuttal that Begins with Poetry and Ends with a Crash
Preface & I. Unreal City (Snow)
Regarding selected points in Brett Myhren’s essay—musings and
II. The Pan-Prismatic Movie
Crash in context—in a posse of likeminded films
(Cool with warm patches)
Angry Meditation in the Interrogative Mood
It’s not about L.A. (not just).
IV. Sudden Conversation
When I received Brett Garcia Myhren’s “Crashing
Los Angeles” I was pleased to find it thoughtful, original in
its approach, and quite acceptable with respect to publication. On
the other hand, I was distressed to discover he’d taken a stand
against the movie, because when he told me he’d be submitting a
piece on Crash I hoped its bend would lean my way. But this way, oh
no, now I’d have work to do—extra work. I’d have to shape an
elaborate and time-consuming rebuttal and—phooey—here at Speechless no one’s on salary.
Further, the fellow hasn’t made my task
easy—not because his argument fastens down and seals up the
matter so well it deflects all opposition. No, it’s that
his rendering of the movie seems so far removed from my
experience of Crash that it gives me few reasonable
points of entry. Evidentially, scenes that tapped my
reservoir of memory and emotional knowledge and set off series
of associations slipped right past him while he was thinking
about, what—the 1,554,002 people who ride the bus in Los Angeles
every day and therefore don’t fit the movie’s automobile motif?
It’s like having to defend Citizen Kane against someone
who declares the entire film is a waste of time because a
child’s sled isn’t an interesting object for an old man’s
nostalgia. I’m baffled. I am almost—but not
The sled analogy isn’t entirely from left
field. My contemporary across the way does go on about snow, and
ways in which it’s been used to shape images of Los Angeles, and how
Crash, sure enough, also conjures the paradoxical
occurrence of snow in the sunshiny city, and how we all ought to
feel about that. Nettled—that’s how he’d like us to feel,
but I don’t. In this year’s recent deep-freeze didn’t it in fact
snow somewhere on the outskirts of Los Angeles? And to many of us
didn’t that seem a bit strange—that disposition Myhren
resents when it’s applied to Los Angeles? A few days ago, for a
couple minutes, hail pinged and bounced on my porch, here in
Northeast L.A.—a bit strange but agreeably so. I’m not adverse to
Anyway, I found it rather lovely, that scene
at the end, the white flakes falling around the torched and flaming car.
I felt it to be true in that peculiar, particular way—that way that
comes about when the flat-out, scrappy real world meets the dominion
of poetry. It’s not a “crash” that takes place then but a collision
so soft, so yielding, most people don’t even hear it.
Most people don’t even see it.
* * * * *
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many….
— T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
Brett Myhren claims “…Crash essentially
takes its ideas like hand-me-down clothing from people such as….”
The list that follows includes Nathanael West, Raymond Chandler,
Joan Didion, Christopher Isherwood, and Evelyn Waugh—all my
favorites, and some of the greatest writers, most provocative
thinkers and prose stylists, of the past century.
Sakes alive, them make for some purty fine
The first question that springs to mind: can
anybody point me towards other movies that might draw ideas from
these literary precedents? Because I think I’d enjoy them very
much. And, see, I’m scanning the movie listings right now—hmmm,
Wild Hogs, Norbit, TMNT (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles)…—and
I don’t notice a superabundance of movies that crib from Didion,
West and Evelyn Waugh.
Admittedly I’m kind of skirting Brett Myhren’s
point here, which seems to be that a variety of authors and cultural
commentators described or rendered Los Angeles as a strangely unreal
place, not a real city, well before director Paul Haggis,
together with Bobby Moresco, wrote Crash, a movie that
sometimes gestures towards that notion. This may be, but I’ve read
lots of books and spent, oh, a great many hours at the movies, and
doesn’t assemble its images, or entwine its narratives, or leap
along its theme, too exactly like anything I’ve seen or read. (If
it had my hair wouldn’t have, a couple times, figuratively speaking,
stood on end.) It doesn’t convey Didion’s parched, depressive,
trance-inducing experience of the city, or Waugh’s satiric take, or
Chandler’s biting, funny, splendid contempt. If Paul Haggis’s
Crash presents Los Angeles as an unreal place, then it is his own
version of the city’s unreality, and it draws no more on the writers
and thinkers of the past those people drew from their forebears.
You know who should really be mad, and
defensive about their city and its alleged “unreality”? Londoners,
that’s who, and by this time they would’ve needed to stay mad for
the past eighty years because Eliot’s “The Waste Land” never seems
to go out of print—seeing as it’s credited with helping define the
Modernist sensibility of 20th poetry and all that.
Sighs, short and
infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street…
There we have it—those folks are walking,
not navigating the streets within the solitary confinement of autos,
and they’re still isolated, and the surrounding urbanscape
still feels unreal. At least this so in the interpretation, the
perception, of the poet Eliot.
In light of this maybe they should be knocked
down a peg, those stellar novelists Myhren names as originating the
attitudes towards Los Angeles evoked in Crash, because not one can
claim he, she, is the first to notice the unsettling dreamlike
quality of a mega-metropolis.
I can’t remember now which Native American
tribe evolved this poem-like refrain:
What is it, this life
I am dreaming?
What is it, this life I am dreaming?
And that predates not only cars but also
Hasn’t it always been the disposition of the
artistic or metaphysically inclined, or any number of other
unclassifiable individuals, to feel something wild and
transfigured—one might even call it “exotic”—in the ordinary
environs that others take for granted? I cannot find in
otherworldly and isolate moods all those dastardly, L.A.-bashing
motives my fellow moviegoer and essayist ascribes to it.
The Pan-Prismatic Movie
In looking for commentary on Crash I’ve
lately ventured around the Web, and I am now back to report my
finding: there’s a heap load of baloney out there. Who would’ve
thought that something as ephemeral as the Internet could support so
much pressed lunch meat, so many nitrates and parts of cow. I’m not
as angry with the film critics who panned it; on occasion these same
critics have pointed me towards great movies I otherwise would have
missed. It’s those Who-Asked-You? voices piping and squeaking in the
wilderness that annoy me—all talking at the same time and out of
First, let’s reclaim Crash from those
detractors who want to link it to the less interesting, Grand
Canyon—a superficial comparison. It should be considered
within the crop of pre- and post-9/11 movies that forego traditional
linear structure and employ instead a panoramic and prismatic
approach. Panoramic in their scope, prismatic in their play of
multiple views, they place an array of characters in the element of
some larger social, geographic or political forces.
Further, these films are likely to speculate on how accidents of
fate, or one individual’s action with respect to another, might
affect a variety of people and lead to unforeseeable results.
They’re interested in how things spin out from the center, these
films, while at the same time they defy the idea of a center.
They present characters who might seem isolated yet they refute the
idea of true isolation, for their people bestir the air around them,
act and are acted upon. These filmmakers, writers, seem engaged in
ideas about contrast, and contradiction.
Largely by chance I suppose (since some of them
were at work before the book debuted), the writers, makers, of the
pan-prismatic film often fall into agreement with aspects of Chalmers
Johnson’s now famous study Blowback, which details how
specific CIA programs and policies implemented overseas led to
complicated chain reactions and, finally, unintended—and
undesirable—consequences that fly back upon us. (When first
published in early spring 2000 the book went unnoticed, then sprang
onto the Bestseller lists after 9/11.) To take the example of
Crash, while it isn’t set in the world of international affairs,
it suggested to me how a version of “blowback” might play out on a
smaller scale. It speculates, at times brilliantly, on how a series of incidents or one extreme circumstance might
set a person in motion, propel him towards some far region of his
own psyche, and towards some action on the outermost realm of
On the other hand, maybe Crash’s
crises-that-beget-crises should be called blowforward.
This crop of films—I call it a crop because who
knows whether it’s a wave—seem to share another trait. Though deeply
concerned with morality and ethics these writer-directors,
producers, are less likely than others in their field to pronounce
judgment on their characters—that is, to appoint villains who will
then be punished, executed by the hero, or taken through some
process by which they’re reformed. Those who do commit bad acts
might simply carry on; that is, they might not have been apprehended
or punished by the time the credits role. In this respect these
stories resemble life, the unsatisfactory, ragtag truth of things.
However, the better part of these films—or at least the aspects that
most interest me—are less concerned with pinpointing and condemning
evil than with musing upon tragedies and mishaps that result from
human fallibilities: fear and anxiety, misdirected anger, ignorance.
I’ve withheld the titles but by now readers may
have guessed some. There are others in this group no doubt, but in
addition to Crash I’m able to name Traffic, Syriana,
Babel, and, in certain respects, in spirit if not in
construction, Munich—all recent releases that most filmgoers
have seen or have a sense of. There’s another, too, which reached
few theaters, but it’s the one that feels closest to Crash.
Subtract “comic” from its tagline and it nearly suits the movie that
had not yet been made: “A comic collision of chaos and coincidence.”
Before Crash’s credit lines had begun to
roll, I’d all ready drawn a line between that and a 1999 British
release, written and directed by Bosnia-Herzegovina-born Jasmine
Disdar. Instead of opening in the interior of a car just after a
fender bender, the earlier film begins on one those red two-decker
transports where a shabbily clothed fellow spots another bus rider
and has at him, fists flying, “You killed my village!” This series
of entwined stories make 1993 London the setting for both homegrown
racial strife and imported ethnic feuds, as refugees from war ripped
former Yugoslavia begin to show up in that city. It’s a lovely film.
Though it didn’t strike me as forcibly as Crash, it helped me
get a reading on Paul Haggis’ movie. Disdar’s characters make for an
imperfect, unlovely bunch (unlovely, anyway, by the standards of a
Hollywood agent looking for pretty, unlined faces), yet they’re his
characters, his people. They’re struggling. They’re human. So he
titles his film Beautiful People.
Likewise, there’s a quality of forgiveness in
Crash that intrigues me. (It intrigues me, but it doesn’t at
all remind me of myself. Later, or even sooner, in this sequence
essay we’ll see why.) Its detractors mostly fail to notice this, and
if it’s pointed out them to they find a way to dismiss it as
sentimental. It’s not. I’m the poet; I’ll be the judge of
sentimentality thank you very much. (You other people stick to what
you’re good at.)
So, that’s that. With a brief digression or two along the way,
I’ve set down the context, as I see it, for Crash and noted
the precursor that most resembles it in method, subject matter and
spirit. These movies strike me as original—original in degrees from
fairly to markedly—and should be paid attention to.
Yet even with that, suppose not one of them turned out
through-and-through perfect. Suppose I feel Babel’s “flash”
shot, which involves an actress playing a high school girl, is cheap
and exploitive. What if I find Syriania easy to respect but hard to
love, and in Traffic I cringe at the programmatic, polemical
tirade the kid unleashes on the father of the girl he—the
kid—introduced to junkie-making drugs. (But the audience is expected
to take this lecture, out of his mouth, as a moral corrective?) What
if I believe even Crash has a flaw: that scene, the search
scene. I can’t fathom the cop’s despicable act. It’s an utterly
different order of racism; it’s not connected to his rage. His
father would be so ashamed of him, and he loves his father. In life
people often behave irrationally but here I can’t grasp, can’t feel,
this character’s state of mind.
Even so. Even if not one of these films
is perfect, so what? So absolutely what? They’re still some of the
most interesting, substantive movies to have come down the pike.
Taken together, they’re still evidence of some new or renewed
striving to understand the human psyche, society, and the world,
some new or renewed striving to grasp what one person has to do with
another, one people with another.
I love what the great Randall Jarrell wrote
about a Dylan Thomas work:
People who can really write something,
really imagine something, are not so common that we can let even
their odd or slight works go unread.
And, the movies I’ve named can hardly be called
slight, so quite certainly they should not go “unread.”
In addition to Disdar, a few of the creative
forces involved—serving as writers, directors, producers, actors and
writer-producers—include Stephen Soderbergh, George Clooney,
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, Guillermo Arriaga, Don Cheadle, Stephen
Gaghan, Stephen Spielberg, and writer-director Paul Haggis who
followed Crash with, among other things, Clint Eastwood’s
admirable pair, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo
Not only for the above but also for other
projects they’ve headlined or helped get made, these are some of the
film world’s foremost men of conscience—people of conscience. And
while any one of them might vacation for a while in a project that’s
pure fun (I hope so, because we need some fun), or embark on an
enterprise that doesn’t turn out well in the end, their serious
works need to be taken seriously. That’s not to say their
productions must be uniformly commended or praised, but they must be
taken seriously. And they damn well better be, or….
I will have something to say about it.
Angry Meditation in the Interrogative Mood
Why isn’t it obvious to anyone with an
Intelligent Quotient above a parakeet’s that the Los Angeles of
Crash is a microcosm—a supremely appropriate setting to
reflect on conditions, attitudes, behaviors, that stretch across the
country, across the Atlantic to Europe and circle the globe—circle
it ten times over in every-which direction?
Do all those who complain that the movie makes
Los Angeles look like “a cauldron of racism,” or a “boiling hotbed
of racism” or a molten, burbling, teapot of…etc., really believe the
makers of Crash set out to represent this city as one itchy little
trouble spot spoiling the otherwise pristine calm and serenity of
Did the people of 19th-century
London rise up against Dickens—Oh no! Now everyone will think our
noble city is overrun with homeless orphans and child pickpockets!
Did Mario Puzo infuriate New Yorkers—We’re
nice people here. Everyone is not in the Mafia!
Do these people, whom I’ve never met, but whose
opinions grate on me, ever read the papers? Even half hour TV
news carries some information from around and about—tribal, ethnic,
cultural, racial divisions, varieties of divisions, some centuries
old, some that just surfaced last week, and new ones in the making.
Do these Crash-detractors ever watch the news?
Those who say "It’s a lie. It’s not like that
at all" mean it’s not what they see when they look around. Crash
is a movie. It’s selective. It has focus,
design, purpose. Do those people notice any witty and well-shaped
romantic comedies taking place nearby? Do they observe any
thrillers when they look around?
Since when did certain people come to expect a
movie, or any art form, to unfold its vision of a city, or a region,
or the whole human world, in a manner that pleases the local Tourist
How dumb is that? I mean, really. How dumb is
So I was talking to my friend saying, I’ve gone
here and there looking at commentary, and one remark—it dismissed as
a trite stereotype Sandra Bullock’s character, whom I found moving
and true and part of a really daring conversation about violence,
the aftermath of violence—this guy was an idiot—and I got so
mad I had to lie down for a couple minutes. Because he gave me a
headache. There’s a lot of anger about this movie, even more
since it won Best Picture and now I’m mad too—because the world’s
just swarming with two-bit, smalltime opinionators who don’t know
what the fuck they’re talking about but won’t shut up. And
my friend said, “Exactly. That anger—That’s what the movie’s about.
That’s why it’s so great. That’s why it’s called Crash.”
Suzanne Lummis is Editor of Speechless.