Saturday, March 18, 2006

A Highly Productive Crash

Mark Greene finds much to ponder in Crash, his film of 2005

Crash is a controversial film that quietly concludes that there is no God. But that’s not what made it controversial. It’s controversial because it is outrageously politically incorrect on the issue of race. Hispanics mock Chinese to their faces for saying ‘blake’ instead of ‘brake’, blacks mock Hispanics for parking their cars on their lawns, black diners complain that waiters and waitresses never give them good service because black people don’t tip well and then the diners don’t leave a tip. Indeed, almost every character ends up saying the kind of things lots of nice people think but rarely express.

However, below Crash’s multi-racial surface deeper themes swim – issues of purpose, of life, death, the human capacity for evil, the human capacity for heroic acts of self-sacrifice and the question of whether anyone knows enough to know anything for certain. Indeed, it is the multi-layered nature that made it for me the most stimulating film of 2005, and certainly a film that provides a fruitful platform for conversation with people who’ve looked for the presence of a benevolent divine being and not found him, her or it. Because neither does this movie.

The film opens with a crash, significantly just before Christmas. A Chinese woman has rear-ended a car being driven by an off-duty black policeman accompanied by his Puerto-Rican partner – professional and sexual. The policeman muses on the metaphysical significance of the moment. Was it a mere accident? Or are there so many crashes in Los Angeles because people are so isolated from one another, so lonely, so thirsty for contact that a crash is the only way to get in touch with others? Like deeply troubled young people who cut their arms – their hearts are screaming.

It sounds like blah-humbug but by the end of the film the audience is in no doubt that sometimes a crash, or some tumultuous event can put people back in touch with each other, with themselves or with the reality of their situation. Of course, it can also hurl them apart.

What follows is a flashback over the preceding 36 hours in which the stories of the core cast intersect with one another in evocative, thought-provoking ways. Matt Dillon, for example, plays a bigoted LA cop who pulls over a couple in a luxury four wheel drive. The driver is black and his wife looks Hispanic but turns out later to have been a member of the Varsity equestrian team – not what we’re expecting. The cop body searches the wife in a thoroughly indecent way – bad cop. The cop’s new freshly recruited partner looks on disgusted and requests a transfer and, at some personal cost, he gets it. Good cop.

The following day bad cop confronts good cop and declares that: “You think you know who you are. You have no idea.” Nor perhaps do we. Later bad cop attends another crash. One car’s fuel tank has burst and a rivulet of petrol is running towards an upturned car. There’s someone trapped inside. Bad cop dives into the car. The black woman he molested the day before is inside. He tries to get her out. The petrol is getting closer and a spark from the other car ignites it. Bad cop’s fellow officers pull him from the car. The woman will die. But he dives back in and pulls her out. Pervert turns saviour. Bad cop? Good cop? We didn’t know what was in him. We don’t know what’s in ourselves.

Indeed, past actions are not always accurate indicators of future ones. By the end of the day his former partner, good cop, has saved the woman’s husband from being killed by two policemen. We’d expect that. But when a young black man that he’s offered a lift to seems to be mocking him and goes to reach into his pocket, the good cop thinks it’s a gun. Bang. But it was a statuette of St Christopher – the patron saint of travellers. The black traveller is dead. And white traveller who also has a statuette of St Christopher has killed him. Good cop, bad cop.

The good cop didn’t have quite enough information. And that is one of the themes of the film – people making decisions on the information they have and acting accordingly. Sandra Bullock’s suburban housewife, recently carjacked at gunpoint by two black men, notices that the man changing her house locks is young, Hispanic and tattooed. She insists that her husband has the locks changed the following day. The Hispanic will, she is certain, hand over the keys to their house to his homeboy friends.

She’s wrong about the locksmith but is she wrong to think what she’s thinking? Don’t we all have to make judgements like that every day? To try always to be as innocent as doves but as wise as serpents – to love but not to be naïve – like Salvation Army Officers working with alcoholics and drug addicts – understanding likely patterns of behaviour but somehow treating every person as an individual.

Crash, however, does not stop at asking how we use the information we have to make judgements about people, it asks how we make judgements about the meaning of events. Is there any? Or do we simply impose our prejudiced worldviews on events in the same way that we impose our prejudiced racial views on people?

So in Crash people do kind things for others and bad things happen. People do bad things and good things happen. Well intentioned actions and malicious actions have unintended consequences that can lead to good or bad consequences. So, for example, a racist gunseller lets an Iranian woman unwittingly buy blank cartridges for the gun her father has bought to protect his store. That night, the store is vandalised by people who think he’s an Arab. Distraught and financially ruined, he seeks his revenge against the locksmith who he erroneously believes failed to secure his shop. He tracks him down, and pulls out his gun. The locksmith’s five year old daughter runs between them. The Iranian fires. We think she’s dead. But no one is killed. His gun is full of blanks. The locksmith intended it for harm, as Joseph son of Jacob put it to his treacherous brothers in Genesis 50. But was it the Lord who turned it to good? Or just chance?

The Iranian shopkeeper, presumably a Muslim, is in no doubt. God has sent an angel. We know he hasn’t. We know that it wasn’t the little girl but the blanks. But the shopkeeper is insistent. The film’s point is that people insist on seeing the world in their own way, that they either suppress the facts or simply don’t know them all.

Certainly, there are reconciliations. The ‘crashes’ change some people for the better and help others see their world or themselves more accurately. This is not however because there is some great benevolent deity. A black director, a Buddhist, may be saved by a white policeman outside a house with a huge nativity scene painted on the garage door, and a Chinese human trafficker run down by a car is dumped outside a hospital in front of another nativity scene – but it’s got nothing to do with Christ. After all, the St Christopher fails to prevent the manslaughter of an enlightened, if criminal, young black. We are left with our yearning for meaning, or our insistence that there is meaning but there is none to be found beyond humankind. Our hope, according to Crash, lies in our capacity to love others, and in the capacity of some of us to change for the better.

Still, the film raises important questions. How do we as Christians interpret things that happen to us? Yes, we may well be able to present evidence to rebut any atheist’s assertions about a god-free universe, we may be able to defend the reliability of the biblical documents, make a compelling case for the resurrection, and we may know that life is not ultimately random, that bad things may be allowed by God but are not pre-intended and can work for the good of those who love him, but do we see him acting in our daily lives? And how do we know?

Two true stories:

It’s March 2005. A Christian woman thinks that God is telling her to pray for the protection of her office. It seems like a strange imperative but she does so. On July 7th 2005, a bomb explodes 50 yards from her building. Glass flies through many of the the offices like shrapnel from a shell burst. Ordinarily, there would be people working in those offices. Extraordinarily, on that day at that time, no one is in their office. Luck? Coincidence? A miracle, she believes. So do I.

It’s December 2005. A senior Christian businessman is struggling to discern his way forward in his career – he loves the company he’s in but finds the man he works for very difficult. Should he stay or should he go? He’s travelling and comes across a copy of the Daily Telegraph. It’s not his usual paper but he picks it up anyway. Inside there’s a Q and A with Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric. One of the two questions Welch addresses is this:

What's better: to work for a bad boss at a good company, or a good boss at a weak company?

Luck? Coincidence? Divine provision, he believes.

Of course, the first instance is less easily dismissed than the second. But to the people involved God had provided. Sometimes we may never fully know but once Christians start praying before and after events then God may well give us eyes to see his interventions, and then the number of instances accumulate to the point where the odds of them being fulfilled become so high as to be implausible.

Many people think God is an idea. I think he’s a person. Some people think God is dead. I know he’s alive. Some people think God is a long way from here – I know he’s Emmanuel – God with us. And I’ve got the stories to prove it. So probably have have you. And the more we pray the more the odds mount up against those extraordinary events in our lives being mere coincidences. People in our culture are yearning for a living God who has not only spoken but acted. More than that they are yearning for a God who not only speaks but acts, who is present with us. Isn’t that why Jesus was called Emmanuel – God with us? Not because he came and went but because he came and went and came back and went and sent His Spirit to be with us. Crash doesn’t know that but it gives us a chance to communicate it – humbly. And in awe.

Mark Greene, London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC), www.licc.org.uk

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