Movie illuminates real prejudices

'Crash' shows Los Angeles as a racially mixed city about to explode.
In the opening moments of writer-director Paul Haggis' recently released "Crash," we hear the tired voice of a man bemoaning the lack of routine human contact in the road culture that is Los Angeles.
"In L.A., nobody touches you," the man says. "We miss it so much we crash into each other just so we can feel something."
As a native of Los Angeles and latecomer to New York, I think this wail of nostalgia for casual contact seems very curious. After a few hundred rear-end collisions, shoulder blows, tripped feet and near misses with bicyclists, contact on the sidewalks of New York is not something I would expect to miss.
But I know what the speaker means. Los Angeles is not like metropolitan cities in the North and East where most of its critics reside. It has no seasons, no high culture and no sense of its own history. Its people are loopy and shallow, given to flash fads and sun worship. You can't walk anywhere.
These are the things I learned about my hometown while growing up there in the postwar years. It was amazing how freely outsiders -- especially those who intended to stay -- condescended toward the people who had beaten them there.
Underneath it all
Of course, the la-la land label is about as accurate a reflection of L.A.'s current mind-set as photos of its one-time carpet of citrus orchards are a reflection of its landscape. And Haggis, a transplanted Canadian coming off an Oscar nomination for his script for "Million Dollar Baby," rips that label apart with "Crash."
His movie is a seismograph of a city undergoing convulsive change. Using a series of overlapping vignettes, "Crash" brings to the surface racial pressures that have been building for decades and may be about to blow.
The racist attitudes depicted in "Crash" are the obvious sorts of cliches and stereotypes. But they're delivered at odd angles. The black LAPD cop (Don Cheadle) speaking in the opening scene insults his Hispanic girlfriend by wondering how immigrants from Mexico and Central America had come to agree to park their cars on their lawns. Later, she gets into a screaming match with an Asian woman, mocking the way she pronounces her Rs and Ls.
Most of the reviews I've read of "Crash" projected Haggis' view of L.A. to urban American life in general, and I think that misses the point. "Crash" is so specific to the racial realignment that has gone on in Los Angeles in the past 20 years -- with its massive influx of Central Americans, Middle Easterners and Southeast Asians -- that it seems almost a mistake that someone agreed to finance the movie.
When I was growing up, there was little racial pressure in L.A. because there was little integration. Blacks lived in Central L.A., Hispanics in East L.A., Jews in Boyle Heights, Asians in Chinatown, with a small enclave of Koreans west of downtown.
Mixed messages
The '65 Watts riots sent up a plume of Mount St. Helens steam to warn the white majority about the building pressure in the inner city, but most of it continued to be contained in those communities.
But as Lawrence Kasdan captured so well in the 1991 "Grand Canyon," the borders protecting affluent whites on the West Side from the riffraff they feared began to fall. There's a great scene in that movie where a movie producer played by Steve Martin is accosted on his way to the studio by a black man demanding his Rolex. When the producer pleads with the man to take his car instead, he is shot.
The message: When you wear a watch worth more than your car, you do so at your own risk.
In 1993, Joel Schumacher's "Falling Down" took up the cause of an unemployed defense worker (Michael Douglas) who snaps one day and goes on a violent spree throughout the city, taking out his anger on the blacks, Latinos and Asians he blames for his downscaled life. "Falling Down" was a hideous bit of exploitation filmmaking, but it certainly struck a chord with like-minded Angelenos.
"Crash" is sometimes too broad and simplistic in its approach, and the idea of having crashing cars represent our need for contact is more than a little silly. But the dialogue and conflicts in it grab you by the shoulders and give you a good shake. That's enough touch for me.

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