Thursday, July 28, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"She went to make a deposit,
Then she cleaned out her closet.
Guess I'll sit here and wait."
~ Bowling for Soup, "Ohio (Come Back to Texas)"

Happy Birthday:
Elaine Barber
Bill Bradley
Rita Haught
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Beatrix Potter
Sally Struthers
Eugene McCarraher reviews Mark C. Taylor's Confidence Games, which I haven't read but appears to be an exuberant celebration of the New Economy. McCarraher brings him down to earth:

To be even more pointedly materialist, Taylor's economy is unpopulated by office temps, dishwashers, cable installers, Filipino assembly-line workers who destroy their eyesight soldering computer circuits. There are no adjuncts who staff the courses that the tenured are too busy or proud to teach, no janitorial staff who dump their trashcans and vacuum their carpets, no domestic laborers who clean their kitchens, bedrooms, and toilets. There are no sweatshops, no overworked and underpaid counter help, no factory operatives or data-entry clerks without pensions or health insurance. In short, because they don't show up in the network—except perhaps as the cost of doing business—most of the world's population doesn't merit Taylor's attention.

This bone-deep solipsism, increasingly endemic to the suburban middle class, follows directly from an inability to acknowledge our humble and fragile materiality, the substance of which involves us, on this side of paradise, in painful and exploitative bonds as well as connections of felicity and flourishing. As Barbara Ehrenreich has observed, "to be cleaned up after is to achieve a certain magical weightlessness and immateriality." Such indifference to the world without quotation marks enables palaver about the capitalist economy as an "information-processing machine" of "complex adaptation."
I have no idea whether I agree with it or not, but it's a thoughtful and well-written review. I found it where I find a lot of great links -- AL Daily.

Saturday, July 23, 2005

Lyric of the Day:
"Is it a lesson that I never knew?"
~ Dionne Warwick, "Heartbreaker"

Happy Birthday:
Nomar Garciaparra
Monica Lewinsky
Woody Harrelson
Don Imus
Marlon Wayans

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

Movie Review

Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin: Unf***ingbelievable

In Mysterious Skin two eight-year-old boys in a small Kansas town in the early 1980s are sexually molested by their little league coach. Neil, the best player on the team, is coach's pet for the whole season and loves the attention from the man he idolizes. Brian, the worst player on the team, and a runty disappointment to his father, is brought in on coach's "games" with Neil only once but feels so violated he immediately blocks out all recollection of what happened. From that day on, however, Brian suffers from "hysterical" symptoms, such as nosebleeds, and knows that exactly five hours of his life are missing from memory; by his teens he suspects he must have been abducted by aliens. By his teens Neil has become a hustler whose identity is entirely bound up with the effect he has on the older men he picks up, as if trying (hopelessly) to recreate the way coach made him feel that "golden" summer.

Most of the movie follows the grown-up boys for several years around the age of twenty when Neil (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) begins to tire of the hustling life and when Brian (Brady Corbet) breaks through his amnesia and investigates what really happened to him. The Neil half of the movie is considerably more interesting; the Brian half is the latest in a line of naïvely earnest yet overwrought movies, including Alfred Hitchcock's Spellbound (1945) and Marnie (1964), and the female star-turn vehicles The Snake Pit (1948), The Three Faces of Eve (1957), and Sybil (1976), that fashion the discredited theory of recovered memory into psychosexual detective stories.

The theory of recovered memory hypothesizes that some childhood events, such as sexual abuse, are so shattering the mind defensively blocks "explicit" memory of them from conscious retrieval. The memory of the event nevertheless lives on in coded "implicit" forms, in dreams and idiosyncratic, uncontrollable responses to objects and situations (e.g., parallel lines in Spellbound, the date May 12th in The Snake Pit, the color red in Marnie). The implicit memory is taken as evidence that the trauma occurred, and by decoding the implicit memory the explicit memory of the traumatic event can be restored to conscious recall. The restoration of the explicit memory also functions as therapy--by identifying the true source of the coded memories, the sufferer is supposedly released from the effects of the trauma.

In the past 20 years or so, this theory has been used in notorious prosecutions based on hallucinatorily unbelievable accusations of repeated, communal torture-rape, sometimes relying on "memories" "recovered" during hypnosis. The documentary Capturing the Friedmans (2003) examines such a case, in which the counts are so numerous and preposterous you'd think the judge would dismiss the case; instead she says that she never doubted the accused were guilty. The far more judicious comments of the investigative journalist Debbie Nathan about the quality of the evidence against the Friedmans, and the handling of the matter by the police and the judicial system, serve as a model of sanity. (Click here for Nathan's 12 January 1990 Village Voice article "The Ritual Sex Abuse Hoax." Elizabeth Loftus, professor of psychology and law at the University of Washington, has also written extensively on the suggestibility of memory, in and out of a legal context.)

The underlying science appears to be as bad as the law. This 15 March 2005 paper by John F. Kihlstrom, professor of psychology at UC Berkeley, discusses how clinical therapists working with supposed victims typically have no means of independently corroborating what their patients "remember." In this vacuum, the inference that certain symptoms are manifestations of a repressed traumatic memory is taken, circularly, for the corroboration itself. As Richard Webster similarly writes in this excerpt from his 1995 book Why Freud Was Wrong: Sin, Science and Psychoanalysis, "[P]roper caution is replaced by credulity. 'If you think you were abused,' write Ellen Bass and Laura Davis [in The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse (2nd Ed., 1990)], 'and your life shows the symptoms, then you were'."

Kihlstrom also points out that studies supporting the theory of recovered memory show "an unhealthy reliance on self-reports--both that the trauma in question actually occurred, and that it was actually forgotten." In addition, the cases put forth as proof are retrospective; if sexual abuse of children causes dissociative amnesia, however, there should be a certain incidence of it going forward from indisputable cases of abuse. To the contrary, as Kihlstrom writes, "[E]vidence based on random or prospective samples" indicate that "multiple personality disorder and other dissociative disorders simply do not figure prominently among the sequelae of documented child sexual abuse." In summary, quoting Kihlstrom, "[E]verything we know about emotion and memory tells us that emotional involvement makes events more memorable, not less." (In these articles in the 17 November 1994 and 1 December 1994 issues of The New York Review of Books, Frederick Crews provides a classic, trenchant debunking of recovered-memory theory and its uses. Click here for an entry on false memory from The Skeptic's Dictionary.)

Even to laymen, recovered-memory theory reeks of the con artist's foolproof reasoning. In Debbie Nathan's Village Voice article above, for instance, she describes an interviewing method for children used in the McMartin preschool case which was modeled on Los Angeles psychiatrist Roland Summit's "child sexual abuse accommodation syndrome," a theory about incest holding that "if there is evidence of sex abuse and a child denies it, this is only further proof that it happened." The appeal of recovered-memory theory--being able to trace the unmanageability of your life to a single cause for which you bear no responsibility--is in itself suspicious. Many of us have thought, Something must have happened to me when I was young--I can't naturally be this fucked up. But intellectual honesty dictates that you double your guard, rather than dismiss it, when assessing such seductive theories.

Whatever pull recovered-memory theory has for people in the real world, its allure for storytellers is all too tackily apparent: psychoanalytic theories give the appearance of depth and modernity to utterly conventional melodramatic romance plots. But these conventional plots simply compound the way the theories falsify what we know about psychological processes. In recovered-memory plots the omniscient storyteller can establish both the repressed trauma and its significance objectively; he simply coordinates the disordered implicit memories in the present with the unambiguously actual traumatic past event, all of which he has invented. This is what recovered-memory movies share with detective stories, in which no key has been cut but to fit in its keyhole. The narrative structure of a recovered-memory plot thus seems to deal with the murkiness of human memory, and the uncertain impact of past experience on the present, but replicates the difficulties only to resolve them, with nothing lacking and nothing left over. (The fact that the interaction of past and present is pretty much always a matter of speculation, not susceptible to objective falsification, is not meaningfully addressed.) Such plots turn some of the most protean and elusive processes of existence into gratifying pop formulas, dispensing psychotherapy as if from a drive-thru window.

In Spellbound, The Snake Pit, The Three Faces of Eve, Marnie, and Sybil, the psychologist (whether professional or amateur) also functions as a detective and this truth-seeking romance hero takes on the quest of piecing together the confused amensiac's backstory. (The cleverest of these movies, Nicholas Meyer's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976), turns the combination of psychologist and detective to comically self-conscious advantage by having Sigmund Freud himself probe Sherlock Holmes's dreams to discover the cause of Holmes's cocaine addiction and paranoid fixation on Professor Moriarty.) In Mysterious Skin (as in A Thousand Acres (1997), in which Jane Smiley grimly and gracelessly inserts recovered memories of sexual abuse to retell King Lear from Goneril and Regan's point-of-view), Brian is both victim and detective. If writer-director Gregg Araki (in what I'm told is a faithful adaptation of Scott Heim's fictional source work) is one length ahead of the pack it's because he suggests with Neil's story that not every boy would be so freaked out by molestation as to repress the memories, and with Brian's story that uncovering the truth behind the coded memories may not of itself cure life-long misery. (The latter in stark contrast to the triumphant ending of Three Faces of Eve, in which the heroine, having lost her Southern accent in the therapeutic process, recites her grade-school teachers' names to demonstrate the integration of her personalities.)

But even if you accept recovered-memory theory as valid, it stretches credulity to think that like Brian, the victim would be able to locate the one person who could decrypt for him his defensively distorted remnants of memory. It's this convenience that makes Mysterious Skin kitsch in the same vein as Spellbound, even without ineffable moments like the one in which Ingrid Bergman says, "Liverwurst." (Click here for DVD Savant's knowing devaluation of Spellbound. The least credulous use of recovered-memory theory in movies can be found in Karl Freund's Mad Love (1935), in which Peter Lorre as the fiendish Dr. Gogol tries to convince Colin Clive that he has repressed a childhood memory involving knives, and then in private refers to his "arrested wish fulfillment" theory as "a lot of nonsense I don't believe myself.")

By comparison to the corny patness of Brian's story, Neil's seems to present the bald reality of a slutty, narcissistic gay boy's misadventures. And Araki certainly puts into a feature film words and actions I've never seen outside gay porn. (You hear, for instance, some snippets of gay smack-talk, with its distinctive impersonal exhortations, e.g., "Suck that cock!") As a narrative artist, however, Araki doesn't have adequate command of this material, but he doesn't seem to be working intuitively, either. Rather than clinching the case for more explicit treatment of sex in fiction, Mysterious Skin made me wonder what we get out of such scenes at all. (What follows are some thoughts offered to open the topic up, not to lay it out definitively.)

In the first place, representations of "sex" have the appeal of vicariousness: we fantasize about doing what the characters are doing (with one or the other of the characters and/or the actors playing them). This is part of the attraction of vicariousness in movies in general, which includes countless aspects apart from sex. The purest example might in fact be something like travelogues, which show us experiences we may then arrange to have for ourselves. Vicariousness also encompasses objects of fantastic identification, such as the knight of romance with his impossibly apt and effective prowess. The entire range of possible, improbable, and impossible projections can come together in a single movie, Stanley Donen and Peter Stone's Charade (1963), for example, in which the gorgeous, chic male and female leads fall in love among the picturesque sites of Paris, and which culminates when he saves her by force and ingenuity from the villains and then proposes to her. Of course, the sex in Charade is implicit, romantic, but it wouldn't change the analysis of vicariousness if it were explicit, whatever it might do to the tone of the film.

Next, the depiction of sex also has the element of utility. This is what distinguishes porno from "romantic" films like Charade in which the sex is suggested, in scenes of the lead couple necking, or sublimated, as in the game in the nightclub which requires them to pass an orange tucked under their chins without using their hands. Like a recipe, porno is fully oriented toward getting a specific result; if you don't get the result the porno has failed. Much more so than the appeal of vicariousness, the element of utility depends on a taste for the "types" engaged in the action. Charade works as romance for me even though I'm not heterosexual; it wouldn't work for me as porno even--especially!--if Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant took their clothes off and went at it.

Finally, there's the element of information: what are people doing, and how, and why. This covers nonfiction works such as Alfred Kinsey's Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and how-to books like The Joy of Sex. It also covers the naturalistic handling of sex in fictional works such as Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris (1972) in which Marlon Brando's three-day erotic escapade with Maria Schneider is the necessary means of developing the characters. (In fictional works, vicariousness and utility are judged subjectively--the effect depends on our finding the couple involved romantic or erotic. Information, on the other hand, is judged objectively--is this couple likely to do the things they're shown doing for the reasons given or suggested.)

There's a certain amount of overlap in these categories: e.g., vicarious projection may be a prerequisite for getting the utility out of porno. For this reason it requires an enormous amount of discipline to make sure that explicit sex intended to be naturalistic is generating information. In Last Tango Bertolucci and his actors don't put the sex up there for us to project ourselves into, as is the case with a "great lovers" type movie, or to get us off, as in porno. We're always conscious that the sex acts express Brando's character's impotence and rage after his unfaithful wife's suicide. It would thus be an eccentric reaction to wish you could take the place of Brando or Schneider in Last Tango; after three days Schneider's Jeanne is herself done with Brando's Paul. By contrast, Charade can't be said to have worked its charm on you if you don't make this projection to some extent.

In Mysterious Skin these categories are constantly spilling over into each other, or perhaps it's more accurate to say that Araki never distinguishes them in the first place. However grateful you may be to Araki for extending the range of sexual depiction in American movies, he lacks artistic control of the material he has burst onto the screen. Thus, although Neil's adventures are presented as information--i.e., the kind of trouble he, with his specific personality, family background, experience, and opportunities seeks out--all of them function as porno, including those with the coach. That could perhaps be explained as Neil's sex-intoxicated point-of-view, but it's equally true of the way Araki shoots Brian's molestation by the coach, and a violent encounter that brings Neil up short as well. In addition, probably any gay man could tell you that one of Neil's johns lands solidly in the vicariousness zone, to such an extent you don't feel you're getting any information--he's so hot he doesn't look like he'd have to pay for sex on his home turf. It's thus fair to say that although the movie depicts child abuse as deplorable, and inevitably exploitive even in Neil's case, it will readily appeal to pedophiles because Araki indiscriminately drizzles honey on sex scenes.

At the same time the obvious, lumbering plot mechanics constantly interfere with the erotic signals. Brian's story is a romance in which the protagonist is both the rescuing knight and the damsel in distress; Neil's story is a romance of temptation, in which his adventures teach him that "real" connections are better than the kind he has with johns. So you know something bad has to happen to Neil while hustling, which gives the last few of his tricks a meretriciously ominous feel--Is this guy Mr. Goodbar? Is this one? The sex scenes in Mysterious Skin thus flicker between porny languor and psycho-killer suspense (with public-service interruptions to remind us to have safer sex), and it's hard not to get the giggles when you feel the self-serious director has so little management of his erotic material.

All that said, Gordon-Levitt, his eyes both shiny with anticipation and cut off from direct contact, gives Neil an overdone swagger that's perfect for a boy getting all his experience at the extremes. He impressively embodies without overstatement the movie's otherwise dull, alternative-normative lament, If only Neil could settle down with Eric (Jeffrey Licon), the queeny, arty college student who adores him. (I'm guessing Eric is Araki's point of identification among the characters.) And are we to suppose that Neil prefers the excitement of the hunt to the relative security of possession because he was molested? If so, there must be a lot of men out there with as-yet unrecovered memories.

Gordon-Levitt's performance is certainly daring; it is, in fact, all daring because he has to pull the character out of himself working for a writer-director who doesn't have the head for realism. For instance, the movie has Neil, when still a child, abduct a retarded kid on Hallowe'en, put two bottle rockets in his mouth and fire them off. To keep the kid from telling, little Neil then goes down on him. This behavior in a child as young as Neil evinces a psychopathology that the movie's sympathy for him never accounts for. (And I don't believe that a retarded kid would not tell his parents who had maimed him just because his assailant had given him a blow job, however precociously skillful.)

Altogether, the world of Mysterious Skin doesn't work like our world. Neil isn't just sexually active at age eight, he's sexually mature, physiologically. When he goes into the public park to cruise as a teenager he goes in broad daylight, and stands out in the open on the playground rather than in the bushes or on wooded paths. A john warns him that the police patrol the park regularly but there's never anyone else there at all. Neil's mother is a hard-drinking sexpot who leaves him on his own to such an extent he can get stoned and hustle while living in her house, but her love for him is meant to be genuine, complete. Later, in New York, a john beats Neil bloody with a shampoo bottle while fucking him upside down in a wet bathtub--how many hands does the attacker have? And is it likely the guy would dump the unconscious boy in front of his own apartment building?

It isn't only that the working details don't add up, most of the dialogue scenes come off as both underrehearsed and overexplicit. Brian's family in particular is so stiff in their exchanges that the alien abduction theory seems plausible in a way that probably wasn't intended. This all may sound harsh considering the movie is an adventurous, shoestring independent production. But Araki has been directing movies for nearly 20 years--if he's not more capable by now I doubt he ever will be and there's little reason to make excuses for him. (The only skill Araki shows that isn't purely pictorial, and the movie's only amusing moment, is when Neil gets a blow job from a baseball player while announcing a minor league game.)

Finally, because Araki can't establish the setting and characters on a realistic level, the movie is entirely thrown back on the two boys' romances; the vision at the heart of both is the unspecified emotional and moral destitution of middle America. Araki, a born-and-bred Left Coaster, doesn't show any feel for the terrain at any level, however. To him, small-town Kansas is the kind of place where a man in a pick-up will pull out a shotgun, fully intending to use it, when he discovers the boys in the car next to him are homos. (Whatever Araki has been smoking he must have scored from Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.) Mysterious Skin thus takes place in the middle America of the cultural class's self-justifying nightmares. (Oddly, however, there's nothing to suggest a relationship between uptight, provincial Kansas and coach the molester, no account of how repression might be related to pedophilia.) In this respect, the ending which shows that remembering the abuse won't actually liberate Brian from its effects doesn't evince a reasonable skepticism about psychotherapy but seems to proceed instead from a belief that nobody could possibly be happy in Kansas. This is probably true for Araki, though Neil's life as a hustler finds its dead end in dangerous Manhattan, where predatory men from Brooklyn cruise young boys on the deserted nighttime streets like Bruce the Shark (i.e., the feverishly prurient, nighttown Manhattan of Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977) and Cruising (1980)).

Gay eroticism is still a new subject for our movies, but the way Araki handles it in Mysterious Skin it feels as contrived as the material dealing with the effects of childhood trauma, which was long ago conformed to the conventions of detective-story romance. The perennial golden touch in Hollywood is to make old stories seem new. In Mysterious Skin Araki "achieves" the opposite. The movie's candor is superficial--it should not be mistaken for liberation.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.
Movie Review

Paul Haggis's Crash: First the Bad News

In House of Sand and Fog (2003), Kathy (Jennifer Connelly), a young, recovering addict, loses a house she inherited from her father because she's too depressed to open her mail and so doesn't see a final demand for taxes (which turn out to have been improperly assessed). Behrani (Ben Kingsley), an Iranian immigrant who was a military muck-a-muck under the Shah but who now works on a road crew in the U.S., buys the house cheap from the government in order to sell it dear and get back on an upper-class, if commercial, footing. Kathy and her attorney make it known to Behrani how much the house means to her and how unjust its seizure was in the first place, but Behrani won't sell it back. Prosperity is too essential to Behrani's dignity, especially since he's been pretending all along to be well-off to his daughter's in-laws. Kathy manages to get a disaffected married cop on her side; the cop then tries to get rough with Behrani and things get fatally out of hand. Behrani's son is accidentally killed, which drives him to kill his own wife and then himself.

House of Sand and Fog attempts to be very exact about the characters' motivations, and there's one good, focused moment at a candlelight dinner with the cop when Kathy, defying the consequences, chooses to start drinking again. The dramatic scheme is to show how two people who are set on what they want intersect "tragically," but what we see is a group of characters who act as wrongheadedly and intransigently as imaginable. The movie doesn't sustain its aspirations to tragedy because there's no vision of a possible better outcome that Kathy and Behrani are fated by some mysterious law or force to miss. The foreseeability of the consequences in House of Sand and Fog is not the same as the quality of inevitability ascribed to tragedy. Similarly, Kathy and Behrani lack the heroic dimensions of tragic protagonists, but they're not ironic-tragic protagonists, either, because no irony is intended. Which is not to say you may not have an ironic reaction to the movie. Kingsley's exquisitely careful "accent" performance, in particular, struck me as one of the funniest impersonations Robin Williams has ever done.

House of Sand and Fog's tragic air is thus a matter of affectation more than dramatic structure. If this happened to people I knew I would think: What did they expect? But then it couldn't happen to people you know because the premise doesn't make sense. As I recall, Kathy owes the county about $500 in business, not property, taxes and the house is sold for around $42,000 to Behrani. Who pocketed the difference? Wouldn't the county be more likely to freeze her bank account (she's employed, self-punishingly, as a house-cleaner) or seize her car or other property closer in value to $500? (It would save them the trouble and cost of the seizure, eviction, and sale, after all.) This means that it isn't only the characters who behave unreasonably in every way at every turn, it's the legal system and the agencies of the government, too, and it's just too much. The movie's pessimistic vision doesn't hold because the elements feel so determinedly selected to ensure the bad outcome. I felt about the moviemakers the way I feel about people who are sulking--If they want to be in a bad mood and spoil their day I can't stop them.

Writer-director Paul Haggis's Crash takes House of Sand and Fog's dramatic principle of the lose-lose situation and expands it to epic scale. The movie combines characters and incidents in a panoramic frieze of the various racial, ethnic, and national groups in Los Angeles and what they think of each other, and the news is bad, bad, bad, bad, bad. (Religion, sexuality, and physical disabilities are not "represented," it is to be noted, but maybe it's just as well.) It isn't merely that people bear suspicion or ill-will towards other groups; when push comes to shove, which is all Crash shows, they can't keep their mouths shut, or their guns in their pockets. The possibility that people could be idealistically committed to what is now called "diversity," or that race and ethnicity could remain invisible to well-meaning people, especially in conflict, simply doesn't exist in the world of Crash.

Intemperateness is a general condition among the melting-pot population of Crash (to such an extent that an explanation out of science-fiction, an infusion into the earth's atmosphere of a toxic interplanetary gas, say, wouldn't have surprised me). And it comes out not just in traffic accidents or during the commission of crimes, but when people are trying to sell and procure what they want, i.e., typically when we're on our best behavior, even if insincerely. The intemperateness even comes out in intimate relationships -- a black man resorts to epithets with his Hispanic girlfriend during a fight that starts when he takes a call from his mother during sex.

If you believe what Crash shows, there is no one in L.A., land of deals, who can negotiate his way out of conflict. Not even the white assistant to the D.A. who has orders to promote an African-American cop because the cop is African-American: he makes tactless and irrelevant racial comments during his pitch to the cop. In other words, the assistant manages to create ill-will in the very act of bestowing a benefit on a man of another race. There is, or was, exactly one idealist in town, a white cop, but the tensions of living in the city make him act like his festeringly racist patrol-car partner, whom he loathes, in about a year's time.

Well, at least Haggis's isn't a sentimental view of diversity, for once. And, notably, in Crash it isn't by any means whites alone who are bigoted. Everyone carries the taint. But if this view of friction-in-diversity isn't a sentimental view neither is it complete: it's the flip side of the sentimental view and only the flip side. This singleness-of-purpose undermines the movie's epic pretensions. In Crash Haggis doesn't give us the whole picture but one that will lead to the most "dramatic" exchanges of a certain kind. This means, then, that the movie can't function as an epic of the interracial and interethnic attitudes of L.A.'s mixed population because it can't account for someone like Haggis himself, a person who is ethically concerned about those attitudes. From Crash you get the impression that there's no one in L.A. decent enough to learn from Haggis's string of interlocking cautionary lessons.

Neither can Crash work as an epic depiction of racism, as opposed to an epic of interracial and interethnic relations, because there isn't enough variety in the forms of racism. Many of us know people capable of holding their tongues who nonetheless harbor feelings that are no longer socially acceptable. As a purely descriptive matter, then, you'd have to say it's an epic depiction of a certain kind of racism, the kind that some people believe exists right under the surface and will pop out under pressure, the kind that Spike Lee attributes exclusively to whites and treats as the road to hell in his overheated Black Nationalist-leftover Do the Right Thing (1989). (Click here for my comments on Do the Right Thing in my new book.) Lee assumes that this worst truth is the "real" truth; Haggis sees it as even more widespread than Lee, and portrays it as the sole truth.

Describing more evenhandedly the phenomenon that Haggis dramatizes, you might say the problem is that people tend to think of each other statistically, to presume that an individual member of a group will necessarily display a certain set of expected characteristics. The further idea is that in tense situations these statistical assumptions spike into more destructive manifestations. People latch on to race or ethnicity to vent their frustration over accidents or bureaucratic foot-dragging, or, worse, they demonize their perceived antagonists and take inappropriate or overscaled action. They overreact, defense becomes offense, conflicts escalate into crimes.

All this would be much more effective with contrast. Haggis does gesture toward complexity when he demonstrates the common perception that a white woman who sees two young black men walking towards her in a prosperous, "white" part of town will react as if they were criminals. Haggis has one of the black men notice the woman's self-protective movement and rant about it while his friend laughs at the contradictions in his arguments. But when it turns out that the two black men are in fact criminals -- who assault the woman and her husband and steal their car -- the contradictions are not only left unresolved, they're made incoherent. The discovery that the black man complaining about the woman's assumption is indeed a criminal undermines his complaint, but the movie is made up entirely of similar kinds of complaints. For all the talk, Crash doesn't offer a basis for analyzing the exempla it puts forth. (It may be that Haggis invested the movie so heavily in dramatizing these complaints that he couldn't afford to analyze them for fear of discounting them.)

Despite the lack of analysis, it appears Haggis thinks of himself as teaching us something about interracial and interethnic attitudes. That explains why the Irish cop who sexually assaults a black woman during a racially-motivated DUI stop, with her husband watching, is the same Irish cop who later rescues her from a fiery crash. (Her husband is also involved in a high-speed chase; these two clearly need to stay out of cars.) The point of the rescue episode is to round out the depiction of the cop's racism: nothing impinges on his concept of heroism in the line of duty. But it's too much of a coincidence to have him rescue the woman he'd previously felt up.

The movie develops character allegorically and so the cop is meant to stand for a certain combination of characteristics that expresses itself in contradictory ways in different situations. At the same time, however, Haggis directs his actors as if the movie were a work of naked naturalism, exposing what's really going on behind the scenes, at City Hall, in bedrooms, on the side of the road in those mini-dramas we rubberneck at and drive past. Allegory creates meaning with conscious, undisguisedly artificial craftsmanship. For Haggis to expect from his allegorical figures the "unmediated" impact they'd have as naturalistic characters is an indication that he has fundamentally misapprehended his means. (Comparable, perhaps, to shooting Dante's Inferno as if it were a hard-hitting prison drama.) There is thus a gap between the movie's condensed symbolic writing and its intended sociological sweep.

There's also something weird about using allegorical demonstrations in a movie on this subject. The characters think in statistics, but Haggis does, too; although he gives himself credit for greater insight he doesn't have any method either for collecting or interpreting data. Don't ameliorist filmmakers like Haggis realize that some people actually go to school to learn sociological and statistical methods that ensure more accurate results? Of course, racially and ethnically motivated bad acts still occur, but there's a huge difference between occurrence and incidence. Haggis assumes the significance of the anecdotal evidence he's made up but doesn't establish the context fully enough for us to discern how representative it is. If what we see in Crash were statistically significant, that would mean that everybody in L.A. is being racist in every tense situation all day long, and it doesn't take much experience of life in the diverse big cities of this country to know that isn't right. The L.A. of Crash is a distorted scale model of the city that Haggis treats as if it were the city itself.

Haggis doesn't even make clear what the problem is with much of the prejudice in Crash. He does not, and could not truthfully, show what used to exist in law and in fact: people denied basic rights and opportunities because of a belief in the inferiority of their race. So in Crash when an Asian immigrant woman makes a derogatory comment about a first-generation Hispanic woman after a fender bender and the Hispanic woman answers in kind, is it worse than if two Chinese women disparaged each other's looks or intelligence or some other quality having nothing to do with ethnicity or race? It's uncivil by definition, inexcusable by common consent, but is it unforgivable? Surely racism is worse when a dominant group's belief in a subject group's inferiority is expressed in totalitarian restrictions. (Spike Lee's schema in Do the Right Thing is equally coarse but at least coherent: when Sal calls Radio Raheem "nigger" and the cops show up and put a lethal chokehold on the young black man, Lee is dramatizing his belief that the latent racism of an otherwise nice guy like Sal is part and parcel of what Lee sees as the violent police-state oppression of African-Americans.) These are the kinds of questions that Crash never goes into. Lord knows the characters talk enough -- couldn't there have been a handful who said something intelligent and non-hysterical about the movie's central topic? (Don Cheadle's "poetic" speech about why people crash into each other with which the movie opens can, out of mercy, be ignored.)

Because Haggis hasn't thought through what he's dramatizing, Crash comes close to equating the things worked-up people say after car accidents with the cop's sexual assault of the black woman, and the incidents keep piling up and blurring--a hit-and-run, burglary, attempted murder, carjacking, homicide, slave-trafficking. The whole thing tips over into the ludicrous. Once I realized I was playing the game of guessing who was going to die and who wasn't, each new "dramatic" development seemed merely garish, superfluous. The movie wants to be an unvarnished view of bias in one of the country's most racially and ethnically mixed cities and there I was responding the way I would to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. About halfway through, my boyfriend said, "This is the kind of movie people will laugh at ten years from now," and I said, "Why wait?"

Ambition can be a bitch. If Haggis had scaled back and shown how prejudice made a few well-intentioned people reach a bad outcome, while broadening his outlook to allow for the possibility of a good outcome and showing some even-keeled people for contrast, he might have avoided the predictable pessimism that raises a camp response. As is, for all its scale Crash has the same limited outlook as House of Sand and Fog, with race and ethnicity at issue instead of a beachhouse.

All the same, a number of the actors do make strong impressions. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Phillippe are both surprisingly brisk and forceful in loud confrontations, and Brendan Fraser does some adept, low-key cartoon comedy as the D.A., a man so important his aides do all his thinking for him, and his wife all his feeling. Even cursed with the problematic role of the Irish cop Matt Dillon manages to be creepy in a precise way--he knows we can read the billboard-sized messages. Best of all is the comic teamwork of Ludacris and Larenz Tate as the weaselly, paranoid, speechifying street thug and his sunny, open-faced partner. In substance, their scenes have some of the overbearing "relevancy" of Spike Lee or John Singleton, but the style is more like Quentin Tarantino--they're a fine mismatched pair of incongruously clownish, sociopathic chatterboxes. Their syncopated patter is the most confident expression of Haggis's uncertain sense of humor about his subject. (Click here for my chapter about Pulp Fiction.)

The startling good news is that the actor's best moments gain a lot from the fluidity of Haggis's moviemaking. Haggis wrote the flea-bitten script for Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby, but his direction of Crash is way beyond Eastwood's competency behind the camera. (Click here for my review of M$B.) It isn't ordinarily the case that successful screenwriters turn out to be more talented as directors.

The single greatest virtue of this overfreighted vehicle is that Haggis keeps the rhythm going as he cuts among the characters and stories, back and forth in time. (He does this much better than Paul Thomas Anderson in either Boogie Nights or Magnolia. And if Haggis is slicker than Robert Altman in Nashville that may have something to do with his tightly-riveted script, which doesn't permit the intuitive looseness that was Altman's great contribution to American moviemaking.) Crash features some surprise sharp cuts when you think you're following one character and turn out to be following another, and the cuts are not only judicious (accepting the dramatic framework as given) but smooth. Perhaps because I rejected the substance of Crash, Haggis's moviemaking made me aware all over again of how much style can do to awaken an audience's senses. Haggis's directing is so secure in its rhythms it kept me alert to the shifts among stories I had otherwise lost interest in.

You can find this review and a lot besides at Blogcritics.

Sunday, July 17, 2005

I'm considering adding this to the blogroll.
Quote of the Day:
"An unhurried sense of time is in itself a form of wealth."
~ Bonnie Friedman

Song of the Day:
Dionne Warwick, "Heartbreaker"

Happy Birthday:
Camilla Parker Bowles
Erle Stanley Gardner
David Hasselhoff
Donald Sutherland
A Mississippi adoption agency considers Catholics unfit parents.
The NYT examines the fundmentalist "gay re-education camp" that I meant to post about a while back, but didn't.

Excessive jewelry or stylish clothing from labels like Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger are forbidden, and so is watching television, listening to secular music (even Bach) and reading unapproved books or magazines. "It's like checking into prison," said Brandon Tidwell, 29, who completed the adult program in 2002 but eventually rejected its teachings, reconciling his Christian beliefs with being gay.

Physical contact among clients other than a handshake is forbidden, and so is "campy" talk or behavior, according to program rules that Zach posted on his blog before he began at Refuge. Occasionally, recalled Jeff Harwood, 41, a Love in Action graduate who still considers himself gay, some participants would mock the mandatory football games. "You could get away with maybe one limp-wristed pass before another client would catch you," he said.
Here are the rules.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Check out Rick Santorum's views on feminism and the proper place for women in society.

Link via Sullivan.