Monday, June 13, 2005

Crash: a reading of a movie

I hated this movie. And here’s why:
--lining up coincidences does not create an interesting plot. If you are going to have ten coincidences in a movie, you ought to be more meta- about it, don’t present it as realism. I gave Haggis the benefit of the doubt and thought, okay, he knows the viewer recognizes the structure as unrealistic, so …. What? What then is his point? It doesn’t matter that the guy who fixes Sandra Bullock’s lock is the same guy who fixes the Iranian guy’s lock. It’s a gimmick without relevance.
--having characters behave first at one polar extreme then the other on the hero-to-villain scale is not the same as creating complex characters. Complex characters are people who are conflicted, or who have emotions and thoughts--embodied in their actions--that are sometimes contradictory but are interesting. I accept that people can be heroic in one situation and villainous in another. That might be a revelation to an 11 year old; it shouldn’t be to most adults. The trick is to get me to empathize in both situations, and I didn't.
--surprising the viewer is not the same as making her care. The audience I saw Crash with gasped a lot. One of my companions suggested that’s a positive achievement for a film. I think most writers recognize though that it’s easy to shock people. It’s easy to go with extreme violence or heavy-handed irony and manipulate people into feeling excited/sad/surprised for a moment. It’s easy to increase their heart rate or anxiety level for a moment. It takes a much subtler manipulation to get a viewer/reader invested in the life of the character.
--a movie of ideas cannot be reductive in its treatment of those ideas. I don’t believe all narratives have to follow a conventional structure, and not all have to be character-driven. But a movie that depicts racist behavior is not the same as a movie that has something fresh to say about racist behavior.

I wanted to like this movie though. I liked its ambition; I liked that it had social commentary as a goal. The people I saw it with—discerning viewers whose taste I often agree with—liked it. A.O. Scott didn’t like it in the NYTimes, but the forty viewers who responded to his review seemed to love it. What, you ask, does this have to do with writing fiction? Well, a lot. Because when I teach a fiction workshop—particularly a beginning one—half the battle is convincing the class of what is good fiction. (for the record, I consider a wide range of works in a wide range of genres to be good fiction) And maybe this is more subjective then I choose to believe. One of my thoughts about Crash was anyone could have written/directed this movie. There is no vision here. Every thought about race is a thought that’s already been had—if you were given only ten minutes to write about race the ideas in this movie are the ones you would come up with. If a hundred people were given two weeks to write a movie about race these are the scenes ninety-nine people would have come up with (though probably not in this structure, I admit). So should writing be like the Family Feud—trying to figure out the top ten answers on the board—in other words determining what people already think and feeding it back to them—or should it be about an author’s worldview, one that is crafted and shaped by deep thinking, thinking the audience would not have done if they hadn’t read/seen this story? Quite a number of reader-writers are in favor of the Family Feud style. That, they say, is entertainment. I, pretty clearly, think the opposite. Because I’m not teaching writers to be popular (nobody can guess what’s going to be popular anyway), I’m trying to teach writing that has some chance of lasting.

The guys I saw Crash with seemed to enjoy it in a zen-like way. In each individual moment they appreciated the emotion and the drama. They didn’t mind the coincidences—they pretty much ignored them—and they didn’t mind the lack of character development. But in all the discussion we had of the movie afterward, none of it was about the supposed ideas of the movie. And I think if you enjoy a movie only in the moment—and the same with a book—there’s little chance of you returning to it, either to think about it or reread it. And my goal is to teach people to write narratives that linger—but I’m left with the question why do so many people seem to want so much less?


Tai said...

I'd like to believe, along with you, that "lasting" fiction (prose, poetry, and film) is an important quality. But when it's produced and marketed, that's not really the point, is it? I have just read the introduction to Camille Paglia's new book, Break Blow Burn, -- (have I just ruined my academic career or are we through caring all that much about her?) -- and she suggests that mass media and advertising serve as the context through which we must "read" our texts. she writes that "the shadowy literary establishment in the United States, in and outside academe, has failed to adjust." I think she is on to something no matter how uncomfortable the statement makes me. Her conclusion, I think, is bang on: "At this time of foreboding about the future of Western culture, it is crucial to identify and preserve our finest artifacts. Canons are always in flux, but canon formation is a critic's obligation. What lasts, and why? Custodianship, not deconstruction, should be the mission and goal of the humanities [. . . long ellipse] And art generated art: where will our future artists come from? In an era ruled by materialism and unstable geopolitics, art must be restored to the center of public education. If the humanities expect support and investment from society, there must be a reform of academe, which can come only from idealistic graduate students [:)] and junior faculty [;)], but they cannot do it alone. Poets [I'd add authors of all kinds] must remember their calling and take stage again"
I haven't read any of her analysis of the poems in the book yet but her intro is really on to something.
Sorry for polluting your blog but she is speaking to a similar issue

A. Papatya Bucak said...

I'm not sure what specific reform Paglia is calling for but I think undergraduate creative writing curriculums in particular have a chance to teach not just the techniques of writing but the value of writing and of art. I think one of the best places to create life-long readers is in writing classes. And I plan to increasingly talk about the role of writers and of literature in the world to my undergraduate students. (my assumption is that grad students don't need me to raise the issue as much).

I also have friends who teach creative writing courses with a service learning component--taking writing/reading into the community--which I think is a great step.

Tai said...

It seems to me, and I may be projecting here a bit, that Paglia is calling for the critic or reader – but more specifically the artist as critic – to abandon the disaster (as she sees it) of postmodernism and deconstruction and recreate a new variety of new criticism that makes the understanding of language and meaning accessible to a mass readership. In the collection she comments on Joni Mitchell’s "Woodstock" as an influential poem of the twentieth century. And I think she is right. We can love Mitchell’s poetry and we can treat it with the same reverence that we treat Pound, Williams, or Stevens. It’s the Poet who must reinitiate the public’s interest in art by celebrating and “playing with” the English language. Of course Paglia insists that the language should come from mass media and popular culture, the place where language is alive and changing, not from those who marginalize poetry with “pretentious ‘theory’ – which claims to analyze language but atrociously abuses language.” I’m not sure I trust the public with language as much as Paglia seems to trust them. When, on certain days, the most criticism I seem to get from my students runs something like: “That reading was really gay.” But I think you’re right that we can teach the value of writing and art. And I think Paglia’s right that we can make it more accessible. Ultimately, however, we are challenged to be “custodians” of the humanities and be nurturing art and artists, as well as nurturing (and maybe even cleaning up?) readers. So I suppose that what Paglia is calling for is a sort of New Criticism for the masses. This may be a bigger task than she lets on! But your initial post was about a film and I should really bring this around from Paglia and poetry to the movie. I think it connects. “And art generated art.” The reader of one piece becomes the creator of another and, in turn, shapes the progression of a movement. It seems to me that your frustration with the movie was that the film maker has stopped playing with “language.” His “vision” was just to repeat and not to recreate. He let you down as an Artist because his world view, at least the one he was trying to communicate, didn’t try to do anything fresh. I’d say he’s fallen victim to public language – the kindof victim that I feared in Paglia’s analysis. He’s become my student saying “that’s gay” rather than an interested reader writing. I recall that after the film you and your friends discussed the movie. Alternately, most of the others left the theater saying, “That wasn’t gay at all.” Rather: “That was awesome!” And that’s mostly all they said. This is where we in the humanities have failed to be custodians. I think we have failed them. And capitalism has saved them.

Rereading this, I’m worried that I’ve taken your post out of the realm in which you wrote it and into a realm where I want to talk about it. What an obnoxious and pedantic move! Sorry. And I wonder why I became so interested? I haven’t seen the movie. Although, I do not enjoy most movies for the same reasons that seem to have frustrated you. Thanks for being an idealistic faculty memeber :)

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Tai, I think it's all quite relevant and interrelated and you should feel free to follow your thoughts wherever they lead.

My friends and I didn't so much discuss "Crash" as we discussed whether or not we liked "Crash" which was actually more interesting to me than the movie itself. And probably very narcissistic of us.

I think one of the best ways to make art feel accessible to others is to break down how it is made and say, hey you too can create art. Which is why I'm in favor of teaching creative writing to all--whether or not they ever hope to write professionally.

For the record: I believe poems and songs are different things--though of equal value to culture. My undergrads very much believe though that the failure of poetry to be accessible (they believe this is the case, I'm not saying I do) has led it to be replaced by song.

Nicole said...

Hi Papatya! (one of your undergrads speaking.)

Hi Tai! (a fan of what you've posted.)

This is my first blog comment, so please excuse any poor etiquette on my part.

I was motivated to post because I've heard how "controversial" and "edgy" this movie is in its approach to race's role in society. Yet, every "envelope-pushing" clip I see seems a mere scrap of paper, with plenty of room to spare.

Your careful analysis, Papatya, extrapolates exactly what I and countless others feel: The lack of fresh ideas. Hey, it's not easy, I know, but what is so insidious is the deception: passing off as new what is really recycled (The Maxtrix trilogy anyone?).

For the longest time, family and friends have joked about my sister's love of historical romance novels ("same story, different cover"). But she reads them, hungrily; hundreds of books have been placed in large garbage bags and given away to people or places that want them. (I won't give names.)

And that's a problem for me. Not the giving away of books--hey, share, please! But my sister can't tell me the names, events or titles even, of any of these stories. She's not a nitwit, either; she simply likes the fleeting escape from failed relationships and three kids...who has time to think about society and larger scopes when wails need answering and diaper pails need emptying?

But things like character and conflict matter to me--and I think they should matter in all artistic endeavors.

Paglia had great energy when she was in Coral Gables last month (and the book is a great read), and while she may be right about a certain exclusion factor that plays into--and plagues--a lot of artsy cliques, she contradicts herself when she says it's up to the artists to create the canon and to shape it according to society's morphing, while also saying she deplores the lack of a structured history of all arts.

One one hand, we should allow for the commercial jingles and Madonna, but at the same time, we need to all have the same cultural history taught in chronological order.

Elitism is used as a pejorative, but I don't know anyone who is striving to be mediocre. (Sit down, Dan Brown.)

Paglia, who does an excellent job dissecting the Metaphysical and Romantic poets, chose them because they LAST. Amen. What's interesting, though, is the language and terms she uses to describe these works...yes, some vernacular is thrown in, but a lot of terms will surely be unfamiliar to the laiety to whom she professes to be writing.

Thank you, Papatya, for teaching us about making art that lasts.

I, for one, want to experience, and one day create, art that will be discussed centuries on....Maybe even by a Paglia descendant.

I hope I haven't made a complete ass of myself. (A partial ass is okay--the recovery rate is much better.)

A. Papatya Bucak said...

Nicole--I love what you say about elitism being considered pejorative. I think this happens because the term suggests that only a limited number of people can understand "art" which some think must be difficult and inaccessible to even be art. Genre fiction is considered for the people because it is so uncoded--so easy to "get." But I think most gate keepers of art -- publishers, film companies, etc-- way underestimate what the public is capable of appreciating and understanding. For example, Oprah (I confess, I'm a big fan of Oprah--and while I'm confessing, what the heck, Martha Stewart, too--actually the very fact that I have to "confess" this suggests my nervousness re: the response of the "elite" as opposed to popular academic community in which I operate) picked three Faulkner novels as her latest book club picks. And the furor has been--whoah, most people are way too dumb to "get" Faulkner. Or: why didn't she pick the Faulkner novels that are easier to "get." But I say if Faulkner truly is great (yes, he is) a lot of people, if not thrown blindly into him, will have full appreciation. And I think sometimes profs give off that same elite, literature is hard, vibe and it alienates students. And in writing classes it translates to literature is too hard to create--why don't you aim lower. Well, I think if you aim high you at least hit higher than you expect. I don't see why any writer can't grow to the point where they write something great. With that said, I actually enjoy a lot of commerical fiction and even commercial film--what really bugged me about "Crash" was it pretended to be smart when it wasn't.

Maria said...

Perhaps I am not just as articulate as other bloggers here, yet I cannot understand how you would not consider the scene in which Dillon (character's name?) sexually harasses a main female character as an innovative portrayal of modern racism; in short, that much of racism remains fueled by sexism. The dialogue that follows this attack seems fresh to me. The African-American couple nearly separate simply because a question of manhood surfaced in the context of racism. I only cite one of many scenes that seemed subtle and complex. And surely wildy creative structure like this film has is a significant kind of meaning in itself. We live in amazingly times of serendipity. Or are we shut down and critical just for the sake of having something to say?