Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina, Crash and the US of A

This isn't at all a time to gloat about foreign policy misadventures. People are dying in New Orleans and people dying anywhere is horrific. As news reports galore have pointed out, this is a disaster with many dimensions: federal-local tensions (what to do and who should be doing it?), rich and poor states (response to New York v. response to Louisiana), race and ethnicity (who is disproportionately affected? who are the people less likely to have had cars in which to drive to safety?), tunnel-vision conceptions of security (terrorism above all else, with funding diversions - and consequent unpreparedness - reflecting this single-minded pre-occupation). Yet there are at least two foreign policy issues that seem relevant: (i) Iraq, in all sorts of ways - shuffling of resources to pay for the invasion, but also the stark fact that 35% of Louisiana's National Guard is serving in Iraq; (ii) Without making spurious scientific claims about Katrina as evidence of climate change, you have got to wonder what it will take to get the Bush administration to think seriously about the effect that climate change could have on life on this planet (even if Katrina has nothing to do with climate change, if this is what it's going to be like...)

If you watch one movie the whole of this year, let it be Crash. I was terribly pre-occupied with other things when I watched it, but even in my distracted state was riveted by the script. This is one of the most compelling portraits of the United States I have come across (in any medium). The portrait is smashed to smithereens through a series of 'crashes' and the resulting shards function as intersecting sub-plots. In putting these together, you are forced to confront the faultlines that run through the portrait - which, in the movie, are mostly racial and ethnic. What makes Crash an exemplary exploration of these themes is its complex, multilayered treatment of racism in all its variants - not just the (unfortunately classic) white LA cop who habitually pulls over (and violates) black people and the upper-class white woman who instinctively sees black men and Hispanic 'gangbangers' as a threat, but the black carjacker who refuses to rob black people and sees 'Chinamen' as ever so slightly less than human, the black cop who has less than flattering views about 'Mexicans' (a category into which he dumps his half Puerto-Rican, half-Salvadoran girlfriend), the Iranian shopkeeper who is almost uniformly suspicious of anyone not of his own kind. Yet this is a movie that refuses to serve up characters as objects of unqualified empathy or revulsion - the racist white cop is also a devoted son, the carjacker helps Chinese people almost despite himself, the Iranian shopkeeper is a struggling immigrant and a loving father - I don't want to give much more away. Crash is about America and its contradictions as a place of great compassion and cruelty, of hatred and humour, of mutual understanding and blank incomprehension.

Crash is shot through with uncanny coincidence as the character from that subplot interacts with one from this one in this other highly charged situation. There is a pattern of sorts in the trajectory of development of many of the characters - we are introduced to them, we see them go through a life-shattering experience, and we see them emerge on the other side as different people. Not transformed or reformed, but marked by the moment. If the movie is aiming for realism, the character development is a little too symmetrical. I actually think it is intended to be quite stylised (what particular style or mode I don't know - I'm not a movie critic!), and works when seen in this way.

apparently there is a shoot on spot policy for the cops/guards. and who are they going to kill you think?
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