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CRASH AND THE CITY

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  • pg 1
									24 FEATURE»FILM
“AMERICA IS NOT A MELTING POT. IT IS A SIZZLING CAULDRON.”




                                        CRASH
                                         AND
                                       THE CITY
          RACE & RAGE ON THE STREETS OF L.A. BY PAUL GORMLEY


T
          he French philosopher Jean Baudril-                                                   criminal actions of James Cagney in classic
          lard once wrote that ‘the American                                                    gangster films like The Public Enemy or the
          city seems to have stepped right out                                                  skewed intentions of the hard-boiled cop and
of the movies’ by which he meant that the                                                       detective of the more fragmented noir period.
experience of visiting an American city itself                                                      However the most influential films of the
is one that is produced directly by experienc-                                                  last 30 years have tended to eschew singular
ing it at the cinema first. Any tourist who has                                                  linear plot lines and characters in favour of a
seen the steam rising from manhole covers in                                                    circular structure that plays with chronology
New York as yellow cabs roll over them or have                                                  and have multiple characters and plotlines,
dared to negotiate Los Angeles freeways or                                                      with dramatic centres dispersed throughout
have even stood by the Golden Gate Bridge in                                                    rather than as culmination of the narrative.
San Francisco will know the feelings to which                                                   Arguably Scorsese’s 1970s films such as Mean
Baudrillard is referring – a confusing mixture                                                  Streets and Taxi Driver and Altman’s Nash-
of stored memory-images and bodily affect                                                       ville have been most significant in this respect
that can leave the tourist reeling, such is the                                                 – though the work of John Cassavetes in films
intoxicating power of celluloid America.                                                        like Shadows influenced both these directors.
    Yet one of the biggest challenges facing                                                    These films began to realize that the dream of
Hollywood narrative film in the recent years                                                     the American city as melting point was a fan-
has been producing the contemporary Ameri-                                                      tasy borne out of a repression of racial diversity
can city on screen. The fragmented milieus,                                                     and rage.
different ethnicities, myriad, disconnected                                                         More contemporary films have tended to
spaces and speed of the late twentieth and                                                      focus on Los Angeles as the city where this
                                                  Top
twenty-first century city and urban cultures       Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon) saves a reluctant   fragmentation is most marked in contemporary
do not lend themselves easily to traditional      Christine (Thandie Newton) from the fire       America. Films like Joel Schumacher’s Falling
                                                  Bottom
modes of Hollywood storytelling and images,       Cameron (Terrence Howard) makes a decision    Down, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Altman’s own
concerned as they are with linear narratives,                                                   Short Cuts and Paul Anderson’s Magnolia have
chronological structures of cause and effect                                                    produced Los Angeles as a city where individ-
and the actions of an individual hero or (less                                                  ual actions and causes and effects are localized
often) heroine at the centre. The films of the                                                   and often disconnected. Bubbling beneath (or
period of so-called Classical Hollywood cin-                                                    in Falling Down’s case over the top) the sur-
ema tended to produce a homogenous space                                                        face of these films is the idea that the visibility
where an individual could act and affect the                                                    of ethnic diversity has fundamentally damaged
entire milieu of the city whether through the                                                   certain central tenets of the American dream


 | intellect quarterly
25 FEATURE»FILM
“LOS ANGELES SEVENTYTWO SUBURBS IN SEARCH OF A CITY.”




– most notably that the actions of an individual     plotlines of the film where a multitude of char-       can-American representation in film up to the
are significant and have the power to produce a       acters with different ethnicities and classes         significant influence of the short-lived blax-
profound effect on the milieu or community in        come into violent conflict with each other in          ploitation and hood films of the seventies and
which that individual is situated.                   various life-changing ways.                           nineties respectively.
    Characters in these films tend to be ulti-            Indeed the film attempts to cover all classes           The diminished power of white American
mately powerless in terms of intentionally hav-      and ethnic bases in its narrative strands. Crash      identity is most apparent in the storyline in-
ing a significant effect on the cinematic worlds      begins at its narrative end with Walters and his      volving Matt Dillon’s character, Ryan. In many
they inhabit – even if, as is the case with the      Mexican partner and lover, Ria (Jennifer Es-          ways Ryan is the contemporary descendant of
Michael Douglas character in Falling Down            posito), finding a man’s body by the side of the       American anti-heroes whose ability to act is
(a latter-day relation to Travis Bickle in Taxi      road who eventually turns out to be Walter’s          underpinned and undermined by their racial
Driver), they still have the psychotic fantasy of    missing brother (Larenz Tate). We then flash           rage. There are elements of Ethan Edwards
recognizing and being recognized by the vari-        back 24 hours to meet other characters includ-        (The Searchers), Travis Bickle, and Dfens
ous constituents of the modern American city.        ing an unhinged Iranian shopkeeper who in a           in Ryan as he attempts to solve his problems
Underlying this powerlessness, particularly in       mood of post September 11 anxiety attempts            in the manner of an American ‘action-taker’,
Taxi Driver and Falling Down, is an often un-        to buy a gun for protection and comes into            culminating in the rescue of Thandie New-
                                                                                                                              ton from a burning car while
‘CRASH EXPLICITLY LAYS BARE THE POLITICAL AND                                                                                 unable to repress his racial
                                                                                                                              rage. White paranoia around
HOLLYWOOD NARRATIVE FANTASY OF THE U.S.                                                                                       racial difference, miscege-
                                                                                                                              nation and the loss of power
CITY AS MELTING POT, WHERE THE ACTIONS OF                                                                                     is embodied in all of these
AN INDIVIDUAL CAN OVERCOME OBSTACLES AND                                                                                      characters and they all ex-
                                                                                                                              pose the fact these anxieties
AFFECT THE ENTIRE WORLD OF THE FILM.’                                                                                         and racial rage underpin the
                                                                                                                              action-taking individual of
spoken white racial rage demonstrated by Tra-        conflict with a Mexican locksmith. Two Afri-           the American dream and its cinematic coun-
vis’ desire for a biblical rain to ‘clean the scum   can-American men (Tate and Chris Bridges)             terpart.
off the streets’ and in Michael Douglas’ DFens       debate the stereotyping of themselves as crim-             The African-American characters all ac-
to ‘go home’ and resume his ‘all-American’           inals before hijacking the car of a district attor-   cept this notion of a powerlessness to over-
family life.                                         ney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra           come social and political obstacles, whether
     The recent American film release Crash,          Bullock). Finally a racist cop (Matt Dillon)          it is the characters played by Thandie Newton
directed and partly written by Paul Haggis, is       sexually harasses the wife of an affluent televi-      and Terrence Howard accepting that they can-
the latest attempt to put Los Angeles at its cen-    sion producer (Thandie Newton and Terrence            not single-handedly defeat the institutional-
tre. Unlike most of the films mentioned above,        Howard) after pulling them over.                      ized racism they encounter, despite their class
the question of race and ethnic division as the          Throughout the action, the film brings to          privileges, or the black detective Graham Wal-
cause for the diminishing of the powers of the       boil the various racial paranoia and anxieties        ters in bringing together his family and win-
old American cinematic hero and his dream is         that these encounters spark off and explicitly        ning their mother’s love. All these characters
explicit in the various narrative strands of the     lays bare the political and Hollywood narra-          accept a localized, negotiated and contingent
film and its moments of attempted cinematic           tive fantasy of the American city as melting pot      degree of power in the city and in this way
affect. The film opens with a dreamlike se-           where the actions of an individual can over-          Crash is indebted to black aesthetics of ‘real-
quence where an African-American detective,          come obstacles and affect the entire world of         ism’ as they are played out in the powerless-
Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) in the after-           the film. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is in the          ness of the characters in ‘hood films like the
math of a car crash muses on the disconnected        conflict between African-American and white            Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993).
and alienated experience of contemporary Los         American identities that the film is most suc-         Indeed like many American urban films of the
Angeles. He notes that in New York City you          cessful in laying bare the racialised fantasy of      1990s, Crash borrows its aesthetics of local
can walk around the city and brush into peo-         the American dream and Hollywood narrative            spaces within the city from the localized bor-
ple, but in Los Angeles you just drive around        aesthetics – unsurprising because this is the         ders and tensions of the ‘hood as produced in
and nobody touches you – until you crash into        conflict that has been at the heart of Ameri-          the ‘hood film.
them. This statement underlies the various           can cinema since the marginalisation of Afri-              The film is less convincing when it en-


                                                                                                                            intellect quarterly | 25
26 FEATUREFILM
026 FILM»FEATURE
EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW LIVING ALONE
FURTHER INFO. ON INTELLECT BOOKS & JOURNALS: WWW.INTELLECTBOOKS.COM




                                                                                                                                   FURTHER READING
                                                                                                                                   The New-
                                                                                                                                   Brutality Film:
                                                                                                                                   Race and Affect
                                                                                                                                   in Contemporary
                                                                                                                                   American Cinema
                                                                                                                                   By Paul Gormley
                                                                                                                                   £19.95 / $39.95
                                                                                                                                   The 1990s saw the emergence of a new kind
Above Dist. Attourney Richard Cabot (Brendan Fraser) calls home   Above Detective Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) makes a discovery   of American cinema, which this book calls
                                                                                                                                   the ‘new-brutality film’. Violence and race
                                                                                                                                   have been at the heart of Hollywood cinema
‘IN TERMS OF CONTEMPORARY AMERICAN                                                                                                 since its birth, but the new-brutality film was
FOREIGN POLICY THE CHARACTER OF                                                                                                    the first kind of popular American cinema
                                                                                                                                   to begin making this relationship explicit.
THE IRANIAN SHOPKEEPER IS PERHAPS                                                                                                  The rise of this cinema coincided with the
                                                                                                                                   rebirth of a long-neglected strand of film
THE MOST DISTURBING, DEPICTED AS A                                                                                                 theory, which seeks to unravel the complex
DERANGED, PARANOID INDIVIDUAL WHO                                                                                                  relations of affect between the screen and
                                                                                                                                   the viewer. The book argues that films like
IS ONLY REDEEMED BY WHAT HE BELIEVES                                                                                               Falling Down, Reservoir Dogs and Se7en
IS A MYSTICAL ACT OF GOD.’                                                                                                         sought to reanimate the affective impact
                                                                                                                                   of white Hollywood cinema by miming the
                                                                                                                                   power of African-American and particularly
gages with more recent threats to the ques-                       comments around the connection between the                       hip-hop culture. Available now.
tion of American identity in the city, notably in                 American cinema and its celluloid significance
the case of the character of the Iranian shop-                    and offers a necessarily updated experience of                   Hollywood
keeper and the various Hispanic characters of                     contemporary Los Angeles. {                                      Utopia: Ecology
the film. In the case of the latter group all the                                                                                   in Contemporary
characters are ‘good’ and honourable, again at-                   Paul Gormley is Field Leader of Media,                           American Cinema
tempting to negotiate the fragmented city in a                    Communication and Screen Studies at the                          By Pat Brereton
‘realistic’ fashion, perhaps betraying the film’s                  University of East London and has just                           £19.95 / $39.95
liberal sentiments at a time when white para-                     published The New-Brutality Film: Race and                       Utopianism, alongside
noia around Los Angeles becoming a predomi-                       Affect in Contemporary American Cinema                           its more prevalent dystopian opposite
nantly Hispanic city is at its height. In terms                   (Intellect 2005).                                                together with ecological study has become a
of contemporary American foreign policy the                                                                                        magnet for interdisciplinary research. The
character of the Iranian shopkeeper is perhaps                                                                                     book applies a range of interdisciplinary
the most disturbing, depicted as a deranged,                        TELL US WHAT                                                   strategies to trace the evolution of ecological
paranoid individual who is only redeemed by                                                                                        representations in Hollywood film from
                                                                    YOU THINK! IQ IS
what he believes is a mystical act of God. West-                                                                                   1950s to the present, which has not been
ern media images of the Middle East as being                        LOOKING FOR YOUR                                               done on this scale before. Many popular
full of deranged and fanatical peoples are not                                                                                     science fiction, westerns, nature and road
really challenged by this portrait, and the con-
                                                                    FEEDBACK. SEND                                                 movies, as listed in the filmography are
temporary threat to the western city remains                        YOUR LETTERS AND                                               extensively analysed while particularly
at the door of this other in the overall affect                                                                                    privileging ecological moments of sublime
of the film.
                                                                    COMMENTS TO:                                                   expression often dramatized in the closing
     Nevertheless the overall affect of Crash                       IQINTELLECTBOOKS.COM                                          moments of these films. Available now.
does prolong the pertinence of Baudrillard’s


 | intellect quarterly

								
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