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'Crash' owes a debt to Dickens

The storylines in “Crash” involving two cops and an upper-crust black couple (from left, Terrence Howard, Matt Dillon, Ryan Phillippe and Thandie Newton) have inspired the most discussion.

I was reading Charles Dickens the other day, and realized in a different way why "Crash" is such a good and useful film. Dickens is the best storyteller in the history of the novel, and although I've read him pretty much from end to end, I got into an argument about the character in "The Squid and the Whale" who tells his son that A Tale of Two Cities is "minor Dickens." I thought this opinion was correct, but I re-read it for the first time since I was a child, and found that it was not minor Dickens after all.

Dickens wrote melodramas and romances, comedies and tragedies, usually within the same story. He was a social reformer, filled with an anger that had its beginnings when his father was thrown into a debtors' prison and young Charles was yanked from a happy family into a precarious existence as a child laborer in a blacking factory.

His targets were corrupt educators, exploiters of children and defenseless women, windbags, cheats, hypocrites and toadies. He painted them with broad strokes, and assigned them names to reflect their weaknesses: Mr. Gradgrind was a cruel schoolmaster, Scrooge the archetypal tightwad, the Cheeryble Brothers saw the good side of everything, Miss Havisham got a sham instead of a husband, and I don't know why Uriah Heep's name makes me think of bodily wastes, but it does.

These characters had flaws that defined their personalities. They occupied plots in which coincidence was the bedrock of the story. It was absolutely necessary that characters turn up precisely when the plot required them, and that those with shady pasts turned out to be concealing the very secret that was needed in the present. "Masterpiece Theater" is currently serializing Bleak House, in which many scraps of paper are thrown out, but not the crucial one; in which a young woman's mother turns out to be the very person she is required to be; in which only those conversations are overheard that must be preserved; in which an orphan's protector fortuitously holds the key to her happiness.

Caricatures and coincidences are not weaknesses in Dickens but his method. And "Crash," one of this year's Oscar nominees and my choice as the best film of 2005, uses exactly the same tools. The film's critics believe its characters are caricatures and say its Los Angeles seems to be populated by 20 people who are always crossing paths. Surely life is not a nonstop series of racist confrontations and coincidences?

Well, of course not. But the movie is not about life in general. It is about how racism wounds and stings, and makes its victims feel worthless and its perpetrators ugly and vicious. All true enough, but the brilliance of the movie's method is that victims and victimizers change places, and "Crash" demonstrates how in a complex multiracial society there is enough guilt to go around.

The storylines involving the two cops (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe) and the upper-crust black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) have inspired the most discussion. On one day, Dillon stops Howard for DWB (driving while black) and commits a sexual assault against his wife, while the other two men stand by impotently -- Howard aware that if he challenges the cop, he could get arrested or killed; Phillippe a rookie who is intimidated by his brutal partner.

We follow the characters into their lives. Newton and Howard have a lacerating argument in which each says unforgivable things, and each blames the other for pain and ugliness that was certainly not either's fault. Dillon is seen in all the frustration of trying to care for his dying father in the face of heartless HMOs. Phillippe is seen as a decent cop trying to distance himself from Dillon's indecencies. And then, the next day ...

Well, either you know what happens, or I should not tell you. The point is made that in different situations the same people behave in different ways. One life is saved, another lost, not in the way we anticipate. The film does not forgive Dillon's character or excuse his crime; it simply shows that on both days, he has done what it is in his nature to do. The film deals here and elsewhere in irony, in the bitter truth that human nature doesn't divide us into heroes and villains, but gives us situations in which we behave badly, or well.

Many of the film's scenes involve misunderstandings. Many of the racist assumptions are incorrectly aimed; a man of Iranian (i.e., Persian) descent is infuriated that anyone would think he is an Arab, but he leaps to immediate suspicions about the ethnic identity of the young man changing his lock. And then the locksmith ...

I get in a lot of discussions about films with strangers. "Crash" is the one that keeps coming up. Those who dislike it assume it should be more "realistic," reflect "the Los Angeles I know," be less "manipulative," "not celebrate paranoia," not be so "facile."

Those who admire it have a different tone in their voice. They say the movie made them think, made them look within themselves, made them realize that society has shuffled the packs of good and evil and made it more difficult for the good to always be Us and the evil to always be Them. The movie invited them to see that everyone has a story -- a story that does not excuse or justify their actions but places them in a context.

People wrote me. I heard from a black woman who was surprised to find herself sympathizing with the Sandra Bullock character. Well, why shouldn't she? You don't have to be white to be paranoid after a carjacking (to think you do is racist).

I heard from a Canadian with a North American Indian background ("First Nation," as they say in Canada). Because of his appearance, people can't immediately identify him by race, but sometimes they think they can, and he is treated in different ways by those who think he is Asian, Latino, Arabic or African-Canadian; he learns at first hand about the subtleties of racial prejudice.

"Crash" is not a movie with answers, and maybe not even with questions. Maybe it is all made of observations. In a time when we are encouraged to draw sharp lines and leap to immediate conclusions, here is a movie that asks us to think twice, to look again, to look also within ourselves. "It made me think," a lot of people say.

Yes, you can dismiss it, deplore its contrivances, think that by exposing its methods, you have invalidated the film. You can demolish Dickens in the same way. But social arguments are not won by drawing subtle logical distinctions. He brought about actual changes in British laws involving education, child labor, bankruptcy, insanity and legalized theft from estates.

Dickens did it with caricature, coincidence, exaggeration, honesty, passion and truth. "Crash" is using the same methods with the same hopes. It is not an unworthy undertaking.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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