(Published in Jung Journal: Culture and Psyche, Vol. 1, No. 2, 2007)
Quite surprisingly, Crash rose through the ranks of many excellent films in 2005 to win the Academy Award for Best Film and the esteemed 2006 Humanitas Prize for a feature film. It hit a nerve. “The dark secret of America has always been and always will be race.”, says David Mamet*.Crash visualized racial conflict for the big screen, located it in Los Angeles where racial populations are almost equal and won global recognition, making a special connection with audiences. People all over the world are living with the secret. But Crash does more than recount conflict and conflagration. It illuminates an unusual viewpoint, dramatizing collisions between people as capable of bringing down society’s divisive barriers.
Perhaps a film about the power of race to drive such ordinary everyday activities as getting stopped by the police for a traffic infraction, running a small business and applying for health benefits won such prominence because it speaks to a hidden longing in our culture, a desire for conflict to lead to something positive, something other than trouble and war. Its tagline, spoken by a police detective, “we Crash into each other just so we can feel something” frames the deep chasm of alienation left in the wake of unresolved differences. Many people would like to believe there’s a way out of the societal instability and disorientation that turns neighbors into enemies but, at the same time, doesn’t ignore our anger about injustice at the hands of authorities. Crash points to the mythic realm of transformation for an answer.
As Crash opens, it’s a cold night in Los Angeles, cold enough to snow. Extremely unlikely, even if it is Christmas.
Two plain-clothes detectives, an African American man (Don Cheadle) and a Latina woman (Jennifer Esposito), have just been rear ended on one of the winding canyon roads that cross the Santa Monica mountains from the San Fernando Valley to L.A.’s Westside. Common occurrence, even if it’s cops.
An event as common in L.A. as a car accident paired with one so unlikely — snow – sets Crash up to metaphorically reflect a big city as a world of extremes, a mythic centre where nature and society exist as opposites and change will be as magical as it is scarce. As viewers, we become participant observers in a black and white Crash perspective, allowing everyday encounters between diverse people to immerse us, symbolically speaking, in alchemical clashes of opposites. Crash is a collection of interlocking scenarios in which characters of different race, class, religion and gender literally run into one another during the short course of a couple days. Some get more than they bargained for. And so do we. Jung referred to a coming together of extreme opposites for transformation of consciousness as coniunctio. If we shift our point of view and experience Crash as a series of interlocking allegorical stories meant to challenge our personal imaginations and intellect, the film can be a process of learning for protagonists and viewers alike.
The ancient Chinese yang-yin symbol symbolizes nature’s dual distribution of opposing forces as invested with a dynamic tendency. As such, they are comprised of interdependent, integrally connected and constantly balancing opposites that contain within them their antithesis. Yin is soft, warm, darkly fecund and receptive. Yang is hard, cold, inseminating and brightly active. Feminine and masculine, perhaps, but not female and male. They are universal in nature, not gender bound. They exist within us. Each depends on the other for full realization. The white yang side contains a black yin spot; the black yin side contains a white yang spot as reminders that the seeds of one can always be found within the other. In other words, good and bad, misery and joy, losing and succeeding, rising up and falling down are constant and in motion, exhibiting a natural rhythm like a regenerative heartbeat supporting life as we know it — and as we can never know it fully.
Sitting still on the canyon road, Graham, the male detective, seems weary, too weary to jump out and face an angry Asian woman driver ready to do battle. He waxes philosophical, attempting to give meaning to the unconscious motives behind the frequent car accidents in Los Angeles.
“It’s our sense of touch. In any real city, you walk. You brush past people. People bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches anybody. Always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much we Crash into each other just so we can feel something.”
His partner, Ria, shrugs off his remark as a little bit crazy and takes the initiative, getting out of the car. With an ironic tone, she offers to go find the “frame of reference” she feels he’s lost. For her, an accident is matter of fact. She approaches the woman driver who’s talking to a motorcycle cop. Out from behind the protection of metal and glass, as Graham predicted, emotion flies between drivers. The Asian driver, not knowing she’s yelling at an officer of the law, deflects responsibility for the accident by hurling insults at Ria about sloppy Mexican driving. Ria sneers reactively, “I blake too fast?”, making fun of her attacker’s English. “How about you being too short to see over the steering wheel so you know to stop?” Their blatant racist blaming exaggerates differences, exposing edges of hatred and inciting animosity.
Meanwhile, Graham walks through police flares to the side of the road. “What’ve you got here?” he asks, recognizing one of the policemen. “A dead kid.” Graham crouches down, using his silver pen to turn over a lone sneaker lying in the dirt. Now, he seems more than weary. His eyes look outward but his gaze pulls inward as if he’s seeing something we’re not seeing, drawing us more deeply into his thoughts. More than a collision of cars has occurred on this isolated road. A line between life and death collapsed.
Yesterday. Crash backs up in time to bring us to the moment at hand. The action starts on the streets of Beverly Hills and picks up speed, quickly running through one racial clash after another, tying them together with threads of festering frustration. Each encounter, like a fender bender on a mountain road is on one level a small, minor incident that should pass without trouble. On a symbolic level, however, death lies near by, letting us know we’re being drawn close to the mystery that links the mundane and the profound. Initiations of consciousness seek such landscapes. We’re in mythic territory. Manners and convention, some kind of moral fabric should prevail and protect. Instead, each confrontation in Crash breaks through an established system that we rely on to get through each day.
Rich or poor, small businessman or big politician, degreed, pedigreed or in need, people are facing an unprecedented fear of losing control over their well being in a multifaceted society. Cultural diversity is developing faster than the thinking and understanding required to handle the range of challenges. Angry accusations based on stereotypes may aggravate difficulties but they’re symptoms of already existing frustrations, not a source. They’re a response to feeling helpless, taxed emotionally and endangered. We live in a society with systems of protection in place that are meant to buffer children born into poverty, assist elders who are ill and provide basic safety in homes and city streets. But these systems are collapsing and, as they fail, it’s like a promise broken. As seen in Crash, people lock their gates, buy guns and harbor dualistically based rationales of the behavior of others as if a wall of prejudice will hold where protocol fails. Worse, many gatekeepers of security – police, social workers, parents – first fail and then become abusive. Trust is broken. Now when prejudice leaps into the void, naked names and acts of retaliation explode, leaving greater, not less, fear in their wake. As buffers of reason and consideration deteriorate, vulnerabilities are exposed and an impatient anxiety rises up and spreads out.
A gunstore owner boils over with contempt when a middle-eastern father, Farhad, (Shaun Toub) and his grown daughter, Shereen (Marina Sirtis), deliberate in their own language about buying a pistol. Because the owner is an outsider to their language, he can’t understand them. He starts fuming, feeling excluded and losing control. To gain back a respect he imagines he’s lost, he demeans their conversation with a racial slur. The father, already agitated and in an argument with his daughter about the wisdom of buying a gun, raises his voice, attacking the storeowner for making an insult he doesn’t feel he deserves. Under pressure, both men picture the other as an enemy with malevolent intent. The owner’s resentment about war in the middle-east restructures his customers as Iraqi when they are actually Persian. The father is irate that he’s not regarded with respect as a man who has worked hard to become a legitimate American citizen. First, race and nationality, then gender infuses the owner’s arrogant attitude toward his customers. After throwing the father out, he demeans the daughter, likening the bang of a gun to having sex. It’s ugly. Buying a gun becomes a sado-masochistic struggle for dominance that has nothing to do with making a purchase.
After leaving the gun store, the Persian father becomes increasingly incensed with his inability to keep his own store safe, helplessness in keeping his own family fed and housed. He’s blinded to consequences of rage he could not consciously accept. He precipitates a heinous act from which only an accident of extreme good fortune saves him. Saved, he’s humbled by discovering the racism he so hates in the outer world within himself. As an allegory of transformation, he is a man who finds the respect he’s looking for in the eyes of others coming – finally – from within himself. And he’s brought back to his senses by the realization.
Most of us deal with the bewildering complex society we live in by drawing lines to help us navigate safely. We draw a line separating one race from another. One religion from another. One gender from another. One point of view from another. We try to avoid conflict, confrontation with “the other” — the one who sees, feels and thinks different from us. However, this dualistic perspective usually leads to more, not less hostility and estrangement. When we project a stereotype onto another person, simplifying as Crash does in its portrayal of differences, it’s a small step to experiencing others as antagonistic. The Los Angeles car culture easily perpetuates an illusion that opposites can be kept separate and an isolationist policy of living maintained. What may not be so obvious is that duality builds a latticework of protective thinking that is short sighted. But to give it up undermines an unconscious structure of security. When we’re deprived of dualism’s feeling of safety, however false or limited, we recoil because it puts us in touch with our vulnerability. It is only in the aftermath of duality’s repeated, painful failure to ease the consequences of prejudice that a larger, more truthful reality can emerge – one in which perceiving differences becomes part of an accepted totality.
Two young African American male friends, Anthony (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Daniel (Larenz Tate) amble down a sidewalk in Beverly Hills. They may be cool dressers but they’re acutely aware of being outsiders in this posh part of town. They’re engaged in an animated conversation about whether they were or weren’t given short shrift by a waitress in a coffee shop based on their race. One argues they were, the other doubts it. An upscale Caucasian couple walks toward them. The wife, almost imperceptibly, pulls up a little closer to her husband. Already in a mood for feeling slighted, the two men make a joke. “Why do people respect us?” They look at one another, laughing. “Because we have guns.” Bam. As if on cue, a stereotype springs to life and become the couple’s worst nightmare, carjackers with guns. They steal the couple’s black Navigator because they can. Fear rips apart a scene that was, a moment ago, funny and disarming.Crash follows the fall out from this clash, showing how – when isolation is broken – a stream of consequences ripples through every level of society with good and bad effects.
Next, Officer Ryan (Matt Dillon), a seasoned but bigoted Caucasian cop teamed with a Caucasian rookie, Officer Hanson (Ryan Phillipe), pulls over a Navigator fitting the description of the stolen car but clearly not it. It’s driven by a well-dressed African American couple, Cameron (Terrence Howard), a Hollywood director and his wife, Cynthia (Thandie Newton), on their way home from a party. A routine check turns into an inflammatory confrontation. Officer Ryan runs his hands over the man’s wife’s body feigning a search for weapons while making taunting remarks for the sheer pleasure of asserting his authority over a couple who felt safe, protected against brazen acts of prejudice by their status and wealth.
It is from the inherent fluidity of a mythical yin/yang dynamic of opposites in nature that Crash reaches for change. It posits racial clashes between people as alchemical vessels for a transformation of consciousness. To grasp the gift of such storytelling, it helps to think of its stories as allegories where the process is always more than it seems, emphasizing the importance of what goes on inside a character rather than between characters. “In the course of their adventures the heroes of allegory discover which ideals are worth pursuing and what things are obstacles to that pursuit.”** It takes a shift in thinking to see that belief rests on attitudes held in one’s own mind as much, or more so than what happens between people.
Later we learn some of the reasons behind Officer Ryan’s need to assert his power over successful Blacks. He is the sole caretaker of an ill father who has lost his benefits along with his job and been rendered helpless by a failing health system. He can barely stand his father’s pain. He treats the couple with disrespect as he believes he’s been treated by anonymous African Americans who’ve displaced his father and, particularly, by a Black HMO caseworker who has control over his father’s health care. He takes out his frustration on the couple, making them scapegoats for his misery.
When the couple finally arrives home after the humiliating experience, Cynthia turns on her husband, accusing him of letting her down because he doesn’t want his name in the paper. She puts her finger on a sore point, the place of conciliatory silence that helps Cameron maintain his status as a Black director in Hollywood. Silence often plays a role in oppressive relationships when speaking up could invite devastating consequences. This is one of many times in Crash that women turn on their men for failing to provide protection in a culture where dire consequences for disagreement are commonplace. When race and gender are both factors, as they are with women, they’re often the first to react to the toxicity – and the first to become targets – of divisive social systems that depend on dualistic thinking, intimidation and separation.
Hurt to the core by his wife’s accusations, Cameron later speaks up and provokes a confrontation when police officers again pull him over. This time Anthony is hiding with a gun in the front seat of the Navigator. Luckily, Officer Hansen — Officer Ryan’s partner during the previous traffic stop, who had been offended by his treatment of Cameron — is on the scene and a disaster is averted. This “miracle” of a black man mouthing off to the police and living to tell the tale takes place in front of a Nativity scene in a cul de sac. It’s a narrow escape for Cameron but an awakening for Anthony.
And then, Officer Ryan comes upon a car turned over in an accident and on the verge of bursting into flames. He’s thrust into saving an African-American woman trapped by her seat belt that requires him to risk his life. Saving her simply calls him to duty. But saving her when she recognizes him as the policeman who molested her requires him to look himself in the eye. Is he a racist who will walk away, not go to the depths of feeling between human beings that will change him forever? She becomes hysterical and fights off his help. He has his chance to retreat. A fellow cop pulls him out. But, instead, he crawls back into direct contact with the woman, near death. To gain her trust so that they don’t both blow up in the car, he has to soften. He convinces her to let him touch her, even to use a knife to free her from her seatbelt. The challenge awakens him to an emotional nuance within himself he didn’t know he possessed. He finds a streak of compassion that cannot change his father’s pain but can ease it for both of them.
Crash portrays its direct clashes of antagonistic differences as containing a possibility of revelation and even redemption. Its tales of black, white, brown and yellow peoples crossing paths in the sprawl of L.A. don’t give us a road map to resolving the angry estrangement between races but they do show instances of personal violation changing to a felt connectedness. To see characters emerging from the terrifying encounters in Crash with life-transforming insight is to acknowledge a reality that heated conflicts often play in our own individuation. Becoming more perceptive, more capable of learning and more empathic as a consequence of surviving the fire of volatile conflicts is more true than we like to believe.
Almost as a living symbol of the threads of frustration bringing the people inCrash together, a Latino locksmith (Michael Pena) first re-keys the locks for the upscale couple whose Navigator has been stolen and then goes to the Persian storekeeper whose door won’t lock because the door itself is broken. On his way from one job to another, he stops home to check on his daughter who’s been so frightened by a drive-by shooting that they’ve moved. He finds her sleeping under the bed. To coax her out and comfort her, he tells her a story about a magical cloak, handed down by his mother to protect him in times of danger. Now, he tells her, it’s time for him to give it to her. It’s a high point in the film because it reminds us that we’re living in a very large world of make believe where safety is more mindset than reality. The L.A. inCrash is not a city of perfection. It is one in which belief in the presence of a force for good sometimes works as miraculously well as it sometimes fails. Ironically, this father is a locksmith, one who makes homes safe with real locks. But break-ins occur and breakdowns happen in spite of his locks. However, a miraculous event later in the film brings alive the symbolism of Los Angeles as a mythic land – a city of angels.
Jean (Sandra Bullock), society’s picture perfect wife of Rick (Brendan Fraser) who is L.A.’s district attorney and whose Navigator was stolen at gunpoint, reacts to the theft by having the locks on her Beverly Hills mansion changed. Crazed when she discovers the locksmith is Latino, it’s clear that changing the locks will do nothing to heal the anxiety she is experiencing following the destruction of the fantasy of safety she’s built around her. She lashes out, slandering Latinos, her husband and her friends for being indifferent to the injustice she’s suffered. She feels entitled to foolproof safety. And then, alone inside the house that represents her sense of safety, she slips on its polished floors and falls down her own stairs. Unable to get anyone to help her, Jean becomes like the child under the bed on the other side of town. She feels her fragility instead of defending against it. She can no longer find an enemy or anyone who can prevent anything horrible from ever happening to her. When her Latina housekeeper arrives, she offers help and a kind word. Feelings of gratitude replace Jean’s anger and condescension. She holds onto the housekeeper for dear life, unable to let go, seeking the connection that she has avoided from not only her housekeeper but everyone else in the film. She seems to feel genuine feelings of love rising in her that she didn’t know existed.
The clashes in Crash dramatize encounters in which characters move into the fear zone where prejudices about race and gender dominate. One becomes cut off from “the other”; extremes are bred that do neither side any good. As allegories, stories symbolically expressing opposites in human nature for the purpose of discovering deeper meaning open exploration of how incendiary interactions have a positive side, a side we can learn from. However, even with the best of intentions, the potential of confrontation for healing is often difficult to discern when it’s happening directly to us. In myth and allegory, we can more easily see the details of movement between opposites interacting, creating and allowing transformation where none was possible before. Since we cannot avoid culture clashes, we could look to them for whatever insight they can bring, perhaps uncovering an alternative outcome to the separation and distrust that has led us to withdraw to false islands of safety.
Her husband, L.A.’s District Attorney, is faced with the problem of handling the theft of his Navigator and needing to avoid being called a racist for wanting to prosecute the thieves. He comes up with the idea of a photo op in which he honors an African American man that can be released simultaneously with the news that his car has been stolen. Graham is picked for the compromising honor. It puts him in a strange triple crossfire of professional insult, a desired but tainted promotion, and his mother’s anger. His mother resents that her successful detective son does not take more time to look out for his brother who, good kid that he may be in her eyes, has followed a lowlife of crime. In fact, he was one of the black men who stole the Navigator. Graham travels between his ghetto family and his respectable job, unable to call either home. Accepting the offer from the District Attorney will require Graham to compromise his integrity regarding another case but will also give him the wherewithal to save his younger dropout brother from jail. When duplicity is required for survival, anomie is not far behind. A marginal view of place, identity, and role develops. Circumstance requires what can’t be given freely but which must be rendered. Cooperation. His idealistic separation of good and bad as mutually exclusive cannot be maintained. Graham cannot choose good without choosing bad.
This imaginal inferno of contradiction, an irreconcilable duality of everything Graham holds dear, is a true crucible. He fully experiences a collapse of the line that holds him apart, separate and different. Painful. When we have these kinds of experiences – and survive them, we discover firsthand the meaning of movement between opposites. Our lives become testimony to the underlying unification of opposites in the universe and its unfathomable mystery of redemption. We are initiated into a new range of feeling, humbled by nuance and shaded by emotion beyond intellect.
Drifting and driving the stolen Navigator, distracted by talking, Anthony and Daniel sideswipe a Chinese man who’s been locking up his white van on an isolated street late at night. The Chinese man ends up in the hospital while his van stands quiet on the street until Anthony spots it later as he’s riding the bus home and gets the bright idea that he can take it and get a few bucks from a broker who deals in stolen cars. In the course of events, Anthony discovers the van is filled with Asian immigrants smuggled in by the Chinese man, presumably to fill sweatshops in downtown L.A. Anthony can’t quite go along with the car broker’s idea of selling the Illegal immigrants to him for cash. Is it, perhaps, because his vision of a hopeless future as a black kid was changed when Cameron faced down the police officers and survived? He takes charge of the illegal immigrants, steps far out of character, far enough out to suggest that he might make a break from his path of crime.
His friend, Daniel – who is, as we are to learn, Graham’s younger brother – doesn’t get a second chance. The accident of good fortune that saved the Latina child is now contrasted by its opposite, an irreversible tragedy, and a moment from which there is no recovery. The self-righteous, well-meaning young Officer Hansen, who recoiled at Officer Ryan’s blatant racism and later saved the day for the African American producer in very dicey second encounter with him, offers Daniel a ride from the Valley to the Westside. Off duty and unprotected by his uniform, he becomes suspicious of the wandering black teenager he’s picked up. Afflicted by paranoia, he’s quickly offended by Daniel’s easy-going manner when he reaches out to him as a friend, someone cut from the same cloth of youthful idealism. Hansen doesn’t wait to see what Daniel is pulling out of his pocket to show him. Prejudice colors Daniel evil and Hansen pulls his gun and shoots and kills his hitchhiker before he realizes what Daniel is offering him is an icon that represent the very kinship he has been longing for. Then he dumps Daniel’s body alongside the canyon road, drives to another location and sets his car on fire. The protective cloak of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travelers and strangers – eluded these young men. Hansen’s righteous indignation about racism is not sufficient to guide him when he feels personally threatened. Lacking empathy, he couldn’t see himself in Daniel.
We all struggle to understand how opposites work in our own personal lives.Crash invokes the difficult questions of what it means to contain opposites within ourselves – of sex, race, religion, age and point of view – and confront them in the world around us. The heated exchanges in Crash lead to surprising awakenings. In Crash, we see over and over again that only when an iron bar becomes red hot does it become pliable enough to bend, change direction, and take a different shape. Even in confrontations we’d rather turn away from, Crash opens a door of insight. In the mythic realm of coniunctio, Crashes and clashes activate dormant but potent elements for change that lie buried in the psyche. Perhaps the interactions release individual and collective resources to meet society’s unprecedented loneliness, apathy and neediness. Surely, the stories in this film show how attempting to protect oneself by acting out self-righteous feelings of superiority over the “other” with indignation only leads to greater feelings of fear and greater likelihood of doing damage to oneself as well as others. It’s not that one side is superior to any other, or that it is necessary to erase all sense of difference to arrive at a resolution, suggests Crash, but it is important to learn from and accept our vulnerabilities as shared and common.
If there were a mirror inside Crash looking out, its stories would be reflected inside every person in the theater. Crash brings our psyche, with all its hidden conflicts out of the dark into the light and onto the big screen for us to identify with, participate in. And, in so doing, Crash renews our wonder…how do we do it, be so good and so bad, so dumb and so smart, so predictable and so surprising? It’s a wonder we’re alive at all.
Of course, we have a right to fly in the face of enlightened understanding that “Crashes” caused by differences play a necessary part in the human drama of evolution. A sense of humor is key, of course, and Crash ends with a laugh. We see the imposing African American woman, Shaniqua (Loretta Devine) — the sternly charming gatekeeper who denied Officer Ryan’s request for health services for his father because he was incorrigible — get rear-ended in her car and throw herself into the fray of conflict just as rude and self-righteous as anyone else. Her voice of fair play turning foul makes us laugh at ourselves. We’re never far from a clash that could bring out the contradiction in us.
As I walked out of the movie theater into a mall of shoppers, I took note of a clash that I probably wouldn’t have thought twice about before seeingCrash. A group of adolescent boys, mixed in race but each wearing standard gear of provocation – everything too loose, hanging low and jangling – were being herded, ever so quietly but firmly, to a corner exit by security police. They had violated an imperceptible line with their mass and their energy. Now, after seeing Crash, I worried that they’d be back, not to enjoy themselves and make a spectacle but with malcontent in reaction to being seen as ‘the other’ and not belonging. I saw an invisible motive for this newly constructed mall made visible. These rowdy boys had been influencing the architect’s plans before they ever showed up physically. This super clean, upscale mall, designed to signal safe passage, functions also as a sign of our culture of fear. Fanning a fundamentally misleading illusion of safety, it contributes to the continuance of a fear-driven duality, a self-isolating reality.
Allegories leave morals in their wake. To the naked eye on a cold dark night, soot and sparks from a car set on fire to mask a murder look the same as snowflakes announcing a miracle. No one’s bad all the time; no one’s good all the time. The best also can be the worst, failing to love and failing those who love them. The worst can also be the best, coming through when least expected and making a magnificent difference. Perhaps miracle and tragedy are not separate matters but integral, part of a larger totality that supports us all – and we would do well to include “the other”, heed the wisdom. Is Los Angeles a big city symbolic of a mystic center where the tendencies of evolution and involution reside? Is Crash illuminating an ancient message for modern times in its revelatory stories?
*The New York Times, Movies, June 11, 2006 Quote from “William H. Macy Takes a Walk on the Dark Side in ‘Edmund'” by Neil Amour
** Clifford, Gay. The Transformations of Allegory. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, pg. 11, 1974.
This profile examines the film “Crash” as a series of allegorical stories that explores the inevitable “collisions” in a mixed-culture society such as present-day L.A. involving race, class, religion, and gender, which are transformed into an unexpected path toward healing society’s false divisions. These conflicts are presented in terms of Jung’s idea of conjunctio–the coming together of extreme opposites that activates elements buried deep in the psyche, something like the transformative power of the alchemical clash of opposites. The opposing drives that set-up these types of conflicts are an individual’s desire to create boundaries in order to maneuver through their increasingly bewilderingly complex society, and the personal, social, cultural, and spiritual needs for the growth and wisdom that comes fromCrashing into–and overcoming–the prejudices and false projections that we create in an attempt to protect ourselves from a feeling that our lives have slipped out of control.