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Sunday, May 08, 2005

So, you think you know what kids are thinking? As someone who works with and teaches teens and twenty-somethings, I have learned that Internet technology has given them a whole alternate media that herds them - by happy consent of the herded - with lock-step success. This alternate media includes web-sites like aintitcoolnews.com, and a whole cultural chat-room universe to which people over thirty are not invited. I experienced this again this weekend.

When I walked into the theater to see Kingdom of Heaven Friday - the movie Hollywood and the MSM have been telling kids they want to see - the theater was less than half-full. The film itself never achieved half the emotion from the audience as did the previewed trailers for Batman Begins, The Return of the Sith and Fantastic Four. I knew right away that it would be counter-productive to make too big an issue of Kingdom because the audience was going to ignore it anyway. The audience at Kingdom skewed older - people in their forties, with a handful of teenage fans of Orlando Bloom.

Then, last night, I walked into a theater to see a screening of an underfunded indie picture called Crash,
that several of my students had told me was a "must see." The theater was packed -- even that front part in which viewers sit ten feet from the 25 foot screen. And I was one of the few people in the room over 35.

I was marveling about the alternate media network that had packed that theater. There has been very little advertising for the film. Sandy Bullock and Brendan Fraser have small parts in it, but they aren't doing any real press, and they certainly wouldn't draw the kind of multi-racial, under twenty throng that was filling the rows for this particular R-rated indie.

I liked Crash. I was pleasantly surprised by the game it plays on the audience with its skillful use of structure and characters. With the notable exception of its easy over-use of the F-word in dialogue, not much else about Crash is easy from a technical screenwriting standpoint. It is a smart movie....But I'm not sure what the net effect of it is on me as a person. But I'm okay with that this morning, because I have the haunting sense that the movie knows exactly what it's doing, and it will be up to me to puzzle over it and its message...we call it healing rumination at Act One.

So, Crash at first seems to be a straight scape-goating film in which everybody in Los Angeles is basically a racist. Fully the first half of the movie moves the audience from shock to sadness to horror as we watch different characters act on their varying degrees of prejudice. But, then, the movie starts to mess with the audience's expectations. Suddenly, the characters we thought were bad guys, start to show qualities like mercy, compassion and even heroism. And then, the ones we thought were good guys, reveal themselves as frightened and even bumblingly murderous.

And there is a wonderful element of providence in the film - call it grace - which corresponds with the acts of goodness in the film to basically keep the forces of hatred in check at the end. It even does something miraculous...in a funny kind of way in which grace can make good even out of our neutral ignorance and haste.

Crash is a good, thoughtful consideration of a complex social issue. The film transcends easy political distinctions in favor of a "human family" perspective. The language in the film is foul, and there is one non-erotic but still too explicit sex scene, but these artistic choices do not ultimately subvert the larger project of the film, which is good. This film is Pulp Fiction without the cynicism and violating violence. It is Traffic with gentle humor.

I'm giving Crash the coveted COTM thumbs-up.