The French philosopher Jean Baudrillard once wrote that “the American city seems to have stepped right out of the movies” by which he meant that the experience of visiting a U.S. city itself is one that is produced directly by experiencing it at the cinema first. Any tourist who has seen the steam rising from manhole covers in new York as yellow cabs roll over them or have dared to negotiate Los Angeles freeways or have even stood by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco will know the feelings to which Baudrillard is referring – a confusing mixture of stored memory-images and bodily affect that can leave the tourist reeling, such is the intoxicating power of celluloid America
Yet one of the biggest challenges facing Hollywood narrative film in the recent years has been producing the contemporary American city on screen. The fragmented milieus, different ethnicities, myriad, disconnected spaces and speed of the late 20th and 21st century city and urban cultures do not lend themselves easily to traditional modes of Hollywood storytelling and images, concerned as they are with linear narratives, chronological structures of cause and effect and the actions of an individual hero or (less often) heroine at the centre. The films of the period of so-called Classical Hollywood cinema tended to produce a homogeneous space where individual could act and affect the entire milieu of the city whether through the criminal actions of James Cagney in classic gangster films like The Public Enemy or the skewed intentions of the hard-boiled cop and detective of the more fragmented noir period.
Despite this history, the most influential U.S. films of the last 40 years have tended to eschew singular linear plot lines and characters in favour of a circular structure which plays with chronology and have multiple characters and plotlines, with dramatic centres dispersed throughout rather than as culmination of the narrative. Arguably Scorsese’s 1970s films such as Mean Streets and Taxi Driver and Altman’s Nashville have been most significant in this respect – though the work of John Cassavetes in films like Shadows influenced both these directors. These films began to realise that the dream of the American City as melting point was a fantasy borne out of a repression of racial diversity and rage.
More contemporary films have tended to focus on Los Angeles as the city where this fragmentation is most marked in contemporary America. Films like Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down, Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Altman’s own Short Cuts and Paul Anderson’s Magnolia have produced L.A. as a city where individual actions and causes and effects are localised and often disconnected. Bubbling beneath (or in Falling Down’s case over the top) the surface of these films is the idea that the visibility of ethnic diversity has fundamentally damaged certain central tenets of the American Dream – most notably that the actions of an individual are significant and have the power to produce a profound effect on the milieu or community in which that individual is situated.
Characters in these films tend to be ultimately powerless in terms of intentionally having a significant effect on the cinematic worlds they inhabit – even if, as is the case with the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down (a latter-day relation to Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver), they still have the psychotic fantasy of recognising and being recognised by the various constituents of the modern American city. Underlying this powerlessness, particularly in Taxi Driver and Falling Down, is an often unspoken white racial rage demonstrated by Travis’ desire for a biblical rain to “clean the scum off the streets” and in Michael Douglas’ DFens to “go home” and resume his “all-American” family life.
The recent U.S film release Crash, directed and partly written by Paul Haggis, is the latest attempt to put Los Angeles at its centre. Unlike most of the films mentioned above, the question of race and ethnic division as the cause for the diminishing of the powers of the old American cinematic hero and his Dream is explicit in the various narrative strands of the film and its moments of attempted cinematic affect. The film opens with a dreamlike sequence where an African-American detective, Graham Walters (Don Cheadle) in the aftermath of a car crash muses on the disconnected and alienated experience of contemporary Los Angeles. He notes that in New York City you can walk around the city and brush into people, but in Los Angeles you just drive around and nobody touches you – until you crash into them. This statement underlies the various plotlines of the film where a multitude of characters with different ethnicities and classes come into violent conflict with each other in various life-changing ways.
Indeed the film attempts to cover all classes and ethnic bases in its narrative strands. Crash begins at its narrative end with Walters and his Mexican partner and lover, Ria (Jennifer Esposito), finding a man’s body by the side of the road who eventually turns out to be Walter’s missing brother (Larenz Tate). We then flash back 24 hours to meet other characters including an Unhinged Iranian shopkeeper who in a mood of post 9/11 anxiety attempts to but a gun for protection and comes into conflict with a Mexican locksmith. Two African-American men (Tate and Chris Bridges) debate the stereotyping of themselves as criminals before hijacking the car of a district attorney and his wife (Brendan Fraser and Sandra Bullock). Finally a racist cop (Matt Dillon) sexually harasses the wife of an affluent television producer (Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard) after pulling them over.
Throughout the action, the film brings to boil the various racial paranoia and anxieties that these encounters spark off and explicitly lays bare the political and Hollywood narrative fantasy of the U.S. city as melting pot where the actions of an individual can overcome obstacles and affect the entire world of the film. Perhaps unsurprisingly it is in the conflict between African-American and white American identities that the film is most successful in laying bare the racialised fantasy of the American dream and Hollywood narrative aesthetics – unsurprising because this is the conflict that has been at the heart of American cinema since the marginalisation of African-American representation in film up to the significant influence of the short-lived blaxploitation and hood films of the 70 and 90s respectively.
The diminished power of white American identity is most apparent in the storyline involving Matt Dillon’s character, Ryan. In many ways Ryan is the contemporary descendant of American anti-heroes whose ability to act is underpinned and undermined by their racial rage. There are elements of Ethan Edwards (The Searchers), Travis Bickle, and Dfens in Ryan as he attempts to solve his problems in the manner of an American “action-taker”, culminating in rescue of Thandie Newton from a burning car while unable to repress his racial rage. White paranoia around racial difference, miscegenation and the loss of power is embodied in all of these characters and they all expose the fact these anxieties and racial rage underpin the action-taking individual of the American dream and its cinematic counterpart.
The African-American characters all accept this notion of a powerlessness to overcome social and political obstacles, whether it is the characters played by Thandie Newton and Terrence Howard accepting that they cannot single-handedly defeat the institutionalised racism they encounter, despite their class privileges, or the black detective Graham Walters in bringing together his family and winning their mother’s love. All these characters accept a localised, negotiated and contingent degree of power in the city and in this way Crash is indebted to black aesthetics of “realism” as they are played out in the powerlessness of the characters in ‘hood films like the Hughes Brothers’ Menace II Society (1993). Indeed like many American urban films of the 1990s, Crash borrows its aesthetics of local spaces within the city from the localised borders and tensions of the ‘hood as produced in the ‘hood film.
The film is less convincing when it engages with more recent threats to the question of American identity in the city, notably in the case of the character of the Iranian shopkeeper and the various Hispanic characters of the film. In the case of the latter group all the characters are ‘good’ and honourable, again attempting to negotiate the fragmented city in a ‘realistic’ fashion, perhaps betraying the films liberal sentiments at a time when white paranoia around L.A. becoming a predominantly Hispanic city is at its height. In terms of contemporary American foreign policy the character of the Iranian shopkeeper is perhaps the most disturbing, depicted as deranged, paranoid individual who is only redeemed by what he believes is a mystical act of God. Western media images of the Middle East as being full of deranged and fanatical peoples are not really challenged by this portrait and the contemporary threat to the Western City remains at the door of this other in the overall affect of the film.
Nevertheless the overall affect of Crash does prolong the pertinence of Baudrillard’s comments around the connection between the American cinema and its celluloid significance and offers a necessarily updated experience contemporary Los Angeles.