Speechless the Magazine

 To render. Be rendered. Awestruck. Awesome.
A magazine of poetry and related arts straight from L.A.

 

Contents


See the companion essay, Crashing Los Angeles by Brett Myhren

Four Defenses of Crash
(Because, yes, even with its Academy Award for Best Picture it still needs me)
or
Rebuttal that Begins with Poetry and Ends with a Crash

Suzanne Lummis

Preface  &  I.  Unreal City  (Snow)
Regarding selected points in Brett Myhren’s essay—musings and disputations
(Cool.)

II. The Pan-Prismatic Movie
Crash
in context—in a posse of likeminded films
(Cool with warm patches)

III. Angry Meditation in the Interrogative Mood
It’s not about L.A. (not just).
(Toasty)

IV. Sudden Conversation
(
Hot)

Preface
(Snow)

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 quite—Speechless. 

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 the strange. 

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.

* * * * *

I.
Unreal City

   Unreal City,
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 second-hand duds.

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 Crash 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 cities.

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 Crash’s otherworldly and isolate moods all those dastardly, L.A.-bashing motives my fellow moviegoer and essayist ascribes to it.

II.
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 turn.

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 possibility. 

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 Jima.

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. 

III.
Angry Meditation in the Interrogative Mood

Questions:

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 Earth?

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 Bureau? 

How dumb is that?  I mean, really.  How dumb is that?

IV.
Sudden Conversation

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.

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Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach