June 9, 2005
If you do a LexisNexis search for the screenwriter-director Paul Haggis and his new film, "Crash," you'll come up with a surprising number of hits for newspapers in Canada.
It turns out Haggis was born in London, Ontario. He came to Los Angeles in 1977, started writing for television, then in 2001 switched to movies. His screenplay for "Million Dollar Baby" won a much-deserved Oscar, and "Crash," his directorial debut, has been an early summer sleeper hit.
"Crash" weaves together the stories of disparate Angelenos -- a white district attorney and his Brentwood wife; a black detective; a black TV director and his wife; an Iranian shopkeeper; a Latino locksmith -- whose lives intersect and sometimes collide in explosive moments detonated by fear, racism and crime. The language is sharp, the acting superb. As for the reality of Los Angeles that the film portrays on screen: Well, it ain't reality.
Haggis' Los Angeles is no more a true depiction of our city than George Lucas' "Revenge of the Sith" truly depicts outer space.
This isn't a knock. Movies can create a compelling alternate reality, the singular vision of a writer or director. In 1946, most Angelenos didn't skulk around a Los Angeles filled with gin-sodden detectives muttering like Bogie about a dame who "tried to sit in my lap while I was standing up." Haggis' Los Angeles is not true to life either; it's true to Haggis.
But that's not how "Crash" plays in Canada, where Haggis has favorite-son, "Canadian writer," status. In the Canadian press, and elsewhere outside of Los Angeles, "Crash" is seen as a narrative oracle. Haggis the outsider has come to tell the truth about the city of O.J. and earthquakes, movie stars and race riots.
It's a city many prefer to imagine in stereotypes, and to some extent "Crash" feeds those misconceptions. Walking out of the theater, you half expect someone to run up and cut off your wrist for your watch. You expect to be called whatever epithet fits your mother's ancestry, then shoved onto a violent city street and set upon by roving (though perhaps hyperarticulate) thugs.
"That was a city I didn't recognize," said Joe Hicks, co-director of Community Advocates, Inc. "That's not the daily engagement most people have here. As any kind of social commentary, it just falls flat."
The funny thing is, most residents are optimistic about Los Angeles. Our new mayor, a Latino, won the vote of almost every voting bloc except Republican whites. Reported hate crimes have gone down by almost half in four years.
A poll taken by the Public Policy Institute of California this year found that Angelenos hold "a positive overall attitude" toward the city. Sixty-one percent say things are going very well or somewhat well. The same number believe race relations are improving and will continue to improve.
On public schools, the economy, job opportunities -- on all these things expectations are optimistic. People are most overtly concerned about the environment and transportation, but light rail and particulate counts don't make for very sexy drama.
The film's own setting drove this point home, without meaning to, during a scene in which two carjacking thugs walk in a supposedly nasty neighborhood, grousing about how the white man keeps them down.
Hey, I thought to myself, that's my neighborhood. Haggis had shot the scene on Venice Boulevard, about two blocks from my home. It's a neighborhood all but devoid of violent crime, where an Indian restaurant shares a building with a Mexican grocery across from a Thai cafe. Venice has its share of gangs and burglaries, but it is more "Lords of Dogtown" than "Lord of the Flies."
The morning after I saw "Crash," I was sipping coffee near work at Cafe Americano, a quiet little place in Koreatown with a neighborhood vibe. It serves good coffee, pastries from La Brea Bakery, and the clientele -- white, black, Latino, Korean -- resembles a mini-United Nations, as does much of Koreatown. At the table next to me a heavyset young man started speaking Russian to a beautiful young Korean woman at the counter. She turned to him and answered -- in fluent Russian.
In last year's action thriller, "Collateral," actors Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise engage in all-out shootouts with various underworld thugs that seem to control these same streets.
At dinner that evening, we took the kids to Nagila in Pico-Roberston. As we got up to leave, the Latino busboy called out to us, "See you later" -- in Hebrew.
It was so incongruous I could only stammer back, "Gracias."
These are snapshots, granted, and perhaps no more reflective of the truth of Los Angeles than Haggis' hate-mongering city, where people learn, too late, the salvation of coming together.
Haggis has told interviewers that the inspiration for "Crash" came after he and his first wife were carjacked outside a video store on Wilshire Boulevard in 1991. The film, ostensibly told from numerous points of view, most particularly feels like a tale told by a man terrorized 14 years ago.
But a parallel tale could be told about all the ways we here in Los Angeles have found to come together without crashing -- to combine, to collaborate, to live well with others.
It would be sweet, upbeat and affirming -- and so saccharine that it would never get made into a movie.But it might just be more real.