Crash (2005)

At the risk of exposing my lack of attention or inability to follow non-linear storylines, I have something to confess:  I know there’s a “crash” in this movie, maybe even multiple crashes (including metaphorical ones, oooooh), but damned if I can figure out who all was involved and what happened to them.  Because, okay – there’s the crash in the beginning with the black guy who turns out to be a detective, and it’s apparently a big one, but it’s also noteworthy that it’s nighttime.  Later on, though, we see the wife of the movie producer in a (different?) crash, but it’s daytime.  What gives?  It’s not like they called this movie “Crashes.”

Although I tend to struggle with large casts of characters, in theory I like the idea of stories with multiple threads that overlap and interweave, and on the surface, Crash is entertaining for that.  I’ve read that this film is generally considered to be overrated and undeserving of its Oscar win, so I was expecting a hot mess.  I don’t really find it to be a hot mess so much as a bit heavy-handed and ultimately kind of unsatisfying.

Pretty much every character in Crash is either reprehensible with a brief moment of redemption or generally okay/sympathetic until they do something terrible.  At best, we’re left with the uncomfortable sense that everyone is just moments away from spewing blatantly offensive insults toward people of different races from us.  While there may be some truth to that, it would be nice to see a movie that addresses racism in its subtler methods.  It’s easy to look at a character like Matt Dillon’s (I didn’t pick up the names while viewing the movie, and I’m certainly not going back to look them up now) and say, “Wow, what a racist; I am definitely a way better person than he is.”  Far harder is to look at the more insidious ways we are terrible to each other.

My favorite character was the locksmith, the young Latino guy who was accused of being a gang member.  He’s one of the few who came out of the movie looking pretty decent, and the scenes with his daughter were the only ones that inspired a genuine emotion in me besides discomfort.

I was also reminded of a lesser-known TV show that I think pre-dated this movie but used a similar conceit.  It was called Boomtown, a police procedural that took place in LA and featured the unusual trick of showing each week’s crime from the perspective of various characters.  When it worked well, it was a really clever method of storytelling, revealing surprising things about the lives of the detectives, uniformed cops, journalists, district attorney, and EMTs involved in cases.  There were also far fewer racial slurs and assholes, so there’s that.  Maybe I’ll just go back and rewatch it on DVD.

Crash:  better than advertised.  Because it was advertised to be utter crap.  It’s also worth pointing out that, among a swath of unrealistic circumstances in the movie (all these people keeping bumping into each other in such a massive city!), the most improbable:  a black guy gets pulled over by the cops in a suspected stolen vehicle and gets out of it without being shot by police or even arrested.  I don’t even think that’s supposed to be funny.

 

Theme:  crossing paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  Probably an unprintable racial slur

 

Grand Hotel (1931/1932)

 

Several years ago, I stumbled on the movie The Impostors, which features a large cast of characters on board a cruise ship playing out their respective dramas.  It’s a witty film, filled with zany hijinks and snappy dialogue.  Though they’re not the biggest stars, the cast is widely recognizable (Stanley Tucci, Oliver Platt, Steve Buscemi), an ensemble story that seems directly inspired by a film like Grand Hotel.

This movie was a sort of experiment in something that is pretty much commonplace today:  the bigger-than-life film packed with all the greatest stars of the day.  It’s like an Avengers movie, only with better character names.  The Baron.  Grusinskaya.  Kringelein.  And they’re played by John Barrymore, Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, Joan Crawford.  Even I’ve heard of these people.

The thing with ensemble stories is you have to land on a particular individual’s narrative in a quick, easy-to-remember way, and even though I already forget a lot of the specifics of each thread, I think it was done well.  Once I got past my usual trouble of recognizing whether there were, in fact, two characters that looked similar and had mustaches (answer:  one guy), I enjoyed this.  There’s a depressed dancer, a man living it up at the fancy hotel because he’s dying, a factory owner plotting a big deal, a jewel thief and man-about-town, a stenographer (slash-evening escort? unclear), a doctor with a mysterious wound, a porter expecting a baby (from him wife, not himself).  And somehow, by the end, these threads all end up interlocking.

“The Grand Hotel:  People coming, going.  Nothing ever happens,” someone intones at the beginning of the film, as a sort of existential portent.  It’s not so much that nothing happens, but that the hotel is a sort of all-seeing but apathetic party to the action.  When people leave their rooms, even after living there for years, the hotel absorbs whatever character that person might have brought to it and readies a generic space for the next resident.  Hotel as heartless God.

One little thing that amused me, particularly in the historical context, was the silliness of the drunk guy.  In the midst of Prohibition, I can imagine that watching the (over)consumption of alcohol on film might have been entertainingly scandalous, sort of the way marijuana use has been portrayed in movies from, say, the nineties.  There’s also a touching moment where the drunk man – who’s been freely spending and gambling away his money – panics about losing his wallet full of cash.  Meanwhile, the jewel thief, desperate for the cash to catch a train the next day, has tucked the wallet away in his pocket.  For a long moment, it’s uncertain whether he’ll run off with the dough or have a change of heart, and it’s notable by that point that you really care what his answer will be.

I wonder if a movie like this could be done successfully today – a story about a contained universe full of characters who start out as strangers but quickly grow intimately familiar.

 

Theme:  Crossing Paths

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  A short life, and a gay one