Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Crash is not a good movie.

I never saw Crash when it came out because I like to think I have developed a good sense for what movies are good or bad simply from seeing some of their publicity. Yesterday was a snow day and today was a snow day, though, and sometimes watching "big" movies is a fun way to celebrate those kind of days.

But instead, it was bad, and here is the main reason: non-diegetic sound. That is, it relies on music and sounds that aren't generated from the action on the screen itself as a substitute for true emotion. The use of non-diegetic sound isn't necessarily why Crash is bad, but it was a big early clue for me that it would be. I mean, when there is a scene, and it it supposed to be an intense interpersonal exchange, and in the background you hear this thick, sludgy layer of synthesized soundtrack, it means that they are trying to manipulate you using something other than whatever dramatic interest and tension they have invested in the characters. It's a cop out, in other words. And they use this all the time in Crash.

Take away the music, and you'd have some pretty boring stuff going on, I think. Really, what is so devastating about the epiphanies experienced by the characters in this movie? Here's a short list:

Shop keeper guy: if you shoot someone's kid, you really should not have done that.

Locksmith: it is so great when your children are not shot by unstable immigrant entrepreneurs.

Matt Dillon, bad cop
: women will not like you if you touch them inappropriately.

TV director's wife: even if a cop is a bigot, he might try to save you from a burning car.

Good cop kid: sometimes, when angry strangers reach for their pockets in a violent manner and it is late at night, they are not reaching for guns.

Sandra Bullock: you should not be shallow and materialistic.

TV director: people are bigoted against blacks, and that is partly because some black youths steal cars.

The other cop guy: I'm not sure what he learned.

Ludicris: maybe I don't always live up to my ideals about not stealing from other black people. I should really examine the way I live because I am ashamed of myself.

It's not just the obtuseness of the message that I dislike, but the ham-fisted way the movie uses bizarre coincidence after coincidence, cute children, and a melodramatic soundtrack to make it all come together. Ultimately, I think it was popular because by saying "You need to see Crash," people could tell themselves that they were enlightened on the subject of race. But could any movie about race in America really leave you feeling this good and this hopeful for the possibility that we can all be brought together? Is it that easy?

Wow, that's quite a rant.


thechrisproject said...

I think you can apply this sort of reductionist criticism to anything.

Citizen Kane: if you have an odd childhood, you might be messed up as an adult. Oh, and money doesn't buy happiness.

Personally I didn't think Crash quite lived up to the hype that everyone else heaped on it, but I liked it. I thought most of the cast was very good and I thought the writing and dialog was fairly interesting.

Rachel said...

I dunno, Mr. H. I really liked Crash. It may just be because I'm shallow and mostly only pay attention to cartoons, but I thought that it was a good movie with a good message. People don't realize how much racism is still prevalent today and how intensely it effects people. I actually started the movie feeling that I was pretty good about race issues, but I felt less so afterwards.

The series of coincidences is part of the way the story is told. They couldn't have gotten to the "people are connected" point of the story without them. Maybe it is immature of me to think that. But maybe your love of music made you judge this film by its soundtrack, something that I don't think should affect someone's overall view of a film. (Not everyone can have Garden State's luck.)

Maybe the themes Crash has come on a bit strong, but I don't think that your arguments make it a bad film. You just gotta chill out about music sometimes and stop being affected by cute kids.

P.S. I could definitely be wrong here (I am just a kid.) but this is just what I think.

Ryan said...

I admit, I was all over Crash when it first came out. I thought it was fantastic in every which way and it played off of my own emotions well. However, having seen it so long ago and having seen many other films since then, it's obvious to me by now that it isn't as great as I originally projected it to be. Mind you, I hardly think it's a bad film but when it's compared to other films that have done something like what Crash did (21 Grams did it so much better) then you realize that, "Eh, what exactly was I so hyped about."

On a side note, I did finally see Half Nelson and I am a little bit disappointed. For some reason, I almost felt like the film was ready to end itself by the hour mark. However, Ryan Gosling definitely deserves that Oscar nomination, to say the least.

Mr. Hill said...

Oh, I think I was exaggerating the simplicity of the message there for some kind of annoying comic effect. Honestly, I don't think that a film or book's theme is as important as the way it's expressed--there are only so many things to be said, after all.

But Crash, in my own obnoxious opinion [I do come across like something of a blowhard in this post], is somewhat artless in how it expresses its rather unremarkable ideas.

Are there other ways to show connection besides a series of zillion to one traffic stops? I would think so. Do people have other emotional states besides "rage" and "understanding"? Not in this movie; they were kind of cartoons up there, beginning the movie with shocking dialog and then turning 180 when they it's their turn to have a coincidence.

As for the dialog and it's famous in-yer-face shock factor, I think you could argue that Crash is just a safer middle class alternative to more originally expressed race commentary made by people like Chris Rock and Sarah Silverman.

And Rachel, it's not that I didn't like the music, or that a better choice of soundtrack would have changed things; it's the choice to pump up the non-diegetic mood music at all that is a bad sign--it's emotional propaganda almost, like you expect to see in ads for iPods, but not in something that's supposed to be an honest look at life in the '0ughts.

Mr. Hill said...

And Ryan, to the extent that you did not like Half Nelson, you are wrong.

Compared to Crash, I thought the people up there felt a lot more honestly drawn, or whatever. That girl in Half Nelson was fabulous too.

Ryan said...

The extent to which I did not like Half Nelson was based simply on the fact that it felt like it was trying to come off as something more meaningful then it really was (much like Crash). The performances were spot on, of course, but without them, the film would be a bland one. I'd definitely go as far as saying that it's a helluva lot better than Crash, but I suppose this can be compared to the instance where I hyped American History X up so much for you.

tsea said...

I only saw half an hour of Crash at school one free day. I know I backlash at anything when I'm surrounded my a bunch of classmates (and in this case even my teacher) who do nothing but speak volumes about how wonderful and life changing the movie is. From what I saw I concluded much of what Mr. Hill did. I felt like it was one of those pop icon cast flicks with a message everyone should already know, but can't say is wrong. I don't feel like I was left to form my own oppinion about the story. Most of the charaters seemed to come straight out of the stereotypes the movie attempts to destroy which unlike Half Nelson which presents characters that are neither completely good or bad, but whole. Half Nelson makes characters and leaves it to me at the end to judge if they redeemed themselves.

Oden, Miles said...

Ugh. Crash makes me want to kill myself. The only person I loathe more than Paul Haggis is Ron Howard.

While I certainly agree with everything you've said, my issue with CRASH is its absolute lack of testicles.

CRASH is the "white" version of what racism is in this country; something that is taboo, but is neat enough that it can be conventionally contained and have a happy ending. It tries SO HARD to toy with you in its first hour--for awhile, it even tries to make you dislike some of its characters. And then you have the absolutely absurd moment where the little girl gets "shot"--and the film falls apart. Because in the "white" candy-land utopia that Paul Haggis OBVIOUSLY lives in--little girls don't get shot. And suddenly redemption spreads out its evil wings and flies over everyone--and they discover new things about themselves and everyone is happy. Fuck, fuck, FUCK that movie. Oh, I can't even begin to tell you how much it aggravates me. And ANY other movie nominated for Best Picture last year deserved soooo much more than this piece of shit.

OK, OK...I'm sorry. I've just got to slow down.

In my mind. There is only one great film that has ever been made about racism. I mean, there have been others that explore racial themes. But only ONE film truly and successfully tries to explain what racism is and how it functions. And that is DO THE RIGHT THING.

So. All you CRASH lovers---firstly, let's try a little harder to develop some taste. And secondly, go rent DO THE RIGHT THING--and marvel.

POST SCRIPT: I thought HALF NELSON was s--loppy and uninteresting (I mean HONESTLY, how many times have we seen this story? A variation of it comes out at LEAST once a year). That being said, I thought Gosling was just as phenomenal as all the hype would have you believe. A terrific performance all around.

Oden, Miles said...

(rolling eyes) Garden State? American History X?...I hate it when people talk about movies. I mean, I know I'm a grumpy old man, but you HAVE to be joking...

HBO's THE WIRE will explain everything about anything you could ever need to know that's going on in the world. So let's just stop watching everything else.

Calypso said...

This post, and all the comments about it, just sort of make me sit back and chuckle at everyone arguing. :-)

wes gaines said...

Good call Scott, "Shop Girl" is another movie drowned with a "non-diegetic" soundtrack.

Mr. Hill said...

For Miles, all is fair in love and art.

Oden, Miles said...

How unfortunate for me.

Ryan said...

God forbid a film about racism is directed by a white Anglo film director...

[insert name] said...

I think it's true that sometimes movies have to bank on their subject matter for commercial and critical success. I think films like Crash and American History X rely to much on their topics, Nazism and Racism, trying to intimidate viewers into liking them.

Certainly, whenever you go to a message board or get in an argument, a defender of Crash will call you uninformed and immature about racism, trying to make you feel like you can't appreciate or understand real world issues.

Naturally, the audience is going to be emotionally attached toward such profound subjects; Crash and American History X use this as a crutch.

It's what separates them from great films about similarl subjects, e.g. Schindler's List.

Not that I hated Crash or AHX. I own them both, but both are just 'good'. Not 'great'.

Houston Smith said...

Wow, Scott, your blog is going like hotcakes, as they once said. I agree, Crash is not a good movie, and reductionist criticism is funny here.