The last encounter I had with anyone here in Los Angeles involving race or cultural diversity came while helping out in my daughter’s kindergarten class last week. I called her name and attached to it the appellative “-chan,” a familiar term of endearment in the Japanese language (my daughter is half Japanese). My daughter’s teacher looked up at me and asked me what I said. I repeated it, and she told me, with some delight, that in Armenian there is a similar appellative, used in exactly the same way, pronounced “-jan.” It was a pleasant exchange, an unexpected connection between two cultures and peoples I’d always assumed were about as far apart as two cultures and peoples could get. There was no tension, no unease, no anger bubbling just under the surface that eventually exploded in ugly epithets and violence. It was a simple, everyday occurrence, the sort for which there is simply no room in Paul Haggis’ widely admired, overwrought, fatally didactic and schematic, frequently absurd after-school special entitled Crash.
I’m not naïve enough to suggest that racial tension in the most segregated city in America is outside of my experience—if it ever was before (and it wasn’t), in the post Rodney King-O.J. Simpson era it is impossible to live in Los Angeles and not be aware of the kind of cultural divisions that often seem to be tearing the city apart from the inside out. But it’s just as naïve, self-serving and dramatically shortsighted to set up an entire movie populated by people who function only to embody all the various elements of bigotry and prejudice and intolerance which make up Haggis’ cobbled-together thesis, the bottom line of which seems to be, “Racism is wrong, and we are all capable of it.” A radical idea on which to construct a big, important social melodrama, or a safe platitude around which to twist and turn a convoluted narrative based on a specious metaphor designed to ensure everyone who leaves the theater will be convinced they’ve seen something significant and soul-changing? When a morose detective played by Don Cheadle opines, not five minutes into the film, about Los Angelenos, “We’re always behind this metal and glass. It’s the sense of touch. I think we miss that sense of touch so much that we crash into each other just so we can feel something”—and, yes, he’s just gotten into a fender-bender—I felt like shutting the film down, because I could feel Haggis already clobbering me on the head, insisting that I understand that he’s serious, dammit.
Haggis’ strategy is to alternate between the stories of 15 or 20 different characters as they literally and figuratively crash into each other over the course of the movie, and since none of them have any inner lives, all any of them ever talks about are hot-button issues of race and intolerance. Haggis writes scene after scene of position-paper dialogue masking as conversation, and after a very short while you begin to realize that these 15-20 characters must be the only citizenry in Los Angeles, because they keep stumbling over—I’m sorry, crashing into each other in ridiculous coincidence after ridiculous coincidence. The racist cop (Matt Dillon) who feels up the wife (Thandie Newton) of a black TV director (Terrence Howard) at a traffic stop saves her from a fiery car accident the next day. The same black carjackers (Larenz Tate and the representatively named rapper-actor Ludacris, who likes to argue about hip-hop culture and black-on-black crime and being stereotyped by whites between jobs) who steal an SUV belonging to the district attorney (Brendan Fraser) and his shrew of a wife (Sandra Bullock) later jack the SUV of the above-mentioned TV director, leading to a patently absurd scene in a which the ex-partner of the racist cop (Ryan Phillippe), after a lengthy chase down residential streets, convinces the rest of the pursuing officers to let him off with a warning. The cops have mistakenly assumed that the director, because he’s black, has done something wrong-- he’s really been trying to wrest control of the vehicle from Ludacris, who hides in the front seat, undiscovered, while Phillippe engineers Howard’s release. Later, Phillippe, a good liberal, will gun down one of these same carjackers due to a knee-jerk response based on the man’s race. The dead car thief turns out to be the brother of another major character, and on and on and on.
Those who would defend Crash might dismiss these constant coincidental meetings as thematically relevant, and the interlocking stories as parables. This might be a way of suggesting that even though they are filmed “realistically” and we are meant to take Crash as a portrait ripped fresh and bleeding from the streets-- The Way We Live Now!-- they don’t really have to be believable in a dramatic sense because they exist primarily to teach us something. (That “whooshing” sound is the wind going right out of my sails.) Unfortunately, those stories don’t really interlock so much as, yes, crash together, due largely to Haggis’ ham-fisted mise-en-scene, his tin ear and the movie’s flaccid, predictable editorial rhythms (You may ask yourself, for example, why we're not allowed to see a scene between Newton and Howard where he expresses his concern that she almost lost her life in a car accident. It’s not there because Haggis isn’t interested in these people as people, only in terms of how they flesh out his thesis—much more important to see the scene where Howard stands up to the Man and regains his dignity, even if it is one of the most unbelievable scenes in the entire movie.) The film is rigged to produce a response to premises-- racism is wrong, all of us have the capacity to change-- with which most of the film’s viewers probably already agree, and the zeal with which people have taken to this movie might make others who end up less impressed think that to reject the movie’s clunky drama-turgid-cal arguments is tantamount to siding with the devil of intolerance. I’d call it standing up for cogent, clearheaded analysis and vivid storytelling.
Haggis’ movie has drawn comparison with other life-in-L.A. mosaics like Alan Rudolph’s fuzzy, unfocused Welcome to L.A., Robert Altman’s misguided and condescending Short Cuts and, the cream of the crop, Paul Thomas Anderson’s Magnolia, which found ever more interesting ways to spin characters that resembled real human beings through a visually arresting narrative that hit on its own concerns in a fluidly charged way quite the opposite of how Crash throttles its big issues to the ground. Anderson, in Magnolia recognizes that one aspect of an issue or a person does not constitute that whole person, and he creates a visual/aural tapestry that, seen whole, is reflective of a sensibility based on dramatic and emotional truth, of searching for the connections that people make and following them in order to find out where they go, not because you’ve already decided where they’re headed and what they mean (if anything). At the top of this particular hill must be Michael Haneke’s Code Unknown, probably the best example of this kind of mapping of the ways in which people touch and influence and enhance and destroy each other’s lives, often without ever knowing it, all as a condition, a symptom, of living life in modern, racially and culturally integrated cities. What’s intriguing, as a matter of comparison not only with Crash but with the other films as well, is how Haneke charts the movement of his characters. Where Altman or Rudolph or Anderson or Haggis might insist that the constant bumping up against each other within the framework of the urban world they portray is where their films derive, or at least begin to extrapolate their meaning, Haneke sees it in precisely the opposite terms.
Code Unknown, well described in the opening credits as “a collection of incomplete tales of several journeys,” begins with a brief episode in which a group of deaf children attempt to interpret a visual representation of an emotion (“Alone,” “Hiding Place,” “Sad”). This sequence is followed immediately with a single long take that will handily encompass the characters who will, in varying degrees, inform the rest of the film. The camera glides laterally along a Parisian street as we observe a young man, Jean (Alexandre Hamidi), catch up to a young woman, an actress named Anne (Juliette Binoche) who is his older brother’s girlfriend. Jean expresses frustration about having to live with his father on their farm, for which his father expects him to eventually assume responsibility. Anne discourages the idea of Jean moving into the apartment she shares with Jean’s brother, but offers to let him rest there for the afternoon while she is out and gives him the pass code so that he can enter the building. (This is the film’s only explicit reference to a code, unknown or otherwise, and it’s enough to set up a fertile metaphor that the movie will bring to fruition in various incidental ways.) After parting with Anne, Jean walks the street, unsure of where to go, and in a burst of frustration hurls a crumpled sandwich bag into the lap of a woman (who we will later know as Maria, played by Luminata Gheorghiu) who sits begging for change near a storefront. The act is witnessed by Amadou (Ona Lu Yenke), a teacher of deaf students, who confronts Jean and demands he return and apologize to the woman. The police are quickly called, Anne reappears on the scene, and it’s not long before the police have (inaccurately) assessed the situation and Amadou has been arrested for attacking Jean. As a result of this one encounter, Amadou will spend time in jail (where, we find out later, he was beaten), Jean will sullenly retreat to his father’s farm, Maria will be deported to Romania when it is discovered she is in France illegally, and Anne proceeds on to a series of film auditions.
Rather than tracing his characters in a pattern like an interconnected web, taking them from the outside in toward an all-encompassing event or series of events that will tend to define them, Haneke, in Code Unknown approaches this central narrative event as if it were the point of impact on a shattered windshield, a center of pulverized glass, and follows the myriad ways in which these people fan out along the cracks toward experiences and destinations that may have been set in motion by that event but may also bear no real relationship to it. It is down these fractured, unpredictable paths that Haneke sets his characters, a strategy which sets the film itself up as a series of fragments, individual scenes not connected by conventional film grammar (dissolves, shock cutting, graphic continuity, etc.) that often begin and end abruptly, either just a moment or two into the significant action, or just a beat or two behind the completion of a thought or an action, separated by a brief moment of darkness. The director often refuses to make the connections between emerging characters and those we’ve already met clear—it may be a minute or two, or more, before we can adequately suss out who this new person is in relation to Jean, or Anne, or Amadou, or other more tangential characters. (At one point Anne is seen attending a funeral, and the moment when the realization hits as to who is being buried is devastating, in large part due to the offhanded way we’ve been made aware of this character’s presence earlier in the film.) Within that period of time when we’re assessing these connections, we’ve been taking in information about the environment and the different ways we’re allowed to see those characters that accrue and augment our understanding. There’s a striking scene, reminiscent of similar visual strategies Haneke uses in Cache, in which Anne is seen addressing an unseen man on a videotape—she becomes increasingly distraught, as it is becomes clear she’s been trapped in a room where she will be killed for the man’s entertainment, and only gradually, while watching Binoche’s magnificent face register an agonizing array of emotion, do we realize she’s auditioning for a suspense thriller.
Race is significant in Code Unknown, too, but the way Haneke integrates the reality of social relations into the mosaic of the film’s “narrative” boldly suggests, as Crash does not, that the viewer may have actually done some independent thinking on the subject before coming upon this film, and thus may be capable of filling in the spaces between glances and body language and intonation, allowing the story to tell itself so much more eloquently. When the police arrive on the scene and begin questioning Jean and Amadou, there’s an immediate resignation on Amadou’s part, a slight recessive quality in his body language, even as he remains confrontational, which says, “I know what’s coming, but I need you to hear me anyway.” Paul Haggis might have had Amadou begin haranguing the officers, Ludacris-style, about how a nigga always gets treated this way, immediately curdling the subtleties at work in the scene into hopeless grandstanding. It’s there in the eyes of the officers too, who must assert their authority while holding their physicality, and their disdain for Amadou as an assertive black man, in check for fear of creating a potentially more volatile situation. Haggis would have made sure Amadou’s girlfriend (who turns out to be white) was also present, so one of the officers could grope her in front of him, thus adding another series of humiliations onto the already loaded scenario.
But what may be even more important about the way Haneke plays the race card is the way that, when the matter of race does shift to the foreground, it may still not be the most significant element being discussed in the scene. Haneke doesn’t dilute the power of any scene by overemphasis, and certainly the one scene in Code Unknown that could be read as an explicit statement on race relations in an integrated city like Paris could just as easily be read, minute to minute, as a bitter comment on class, economics, sexual aggression, sex-based power or simple urban stress. On a Metro ride after a day of looping dialogue for an upcoming film, Anne is confronted by two young men, one of whom, unprovoked, zeroes in on her and begins haranguing her, accusing Anne of disregarding him based on his “common” status (he reveals after a few moments that he is an Arab). Anne quietly endures his increasingly aggressive and suggestive comments, but at the first opportunity she moves down to the end of the car to an empty seat. The young man follows her, sits next to her and continues his campaign of rage, while an older man sitting directly across the row stares straight ahead, clearly disgusted by the young man’s actions but unwilling to get in the middle of the confrontation. Finally, the young man spits in Anne’s face and begins to walk away, and the older man blocks his way and tells him, in Arabic, that he considers the young man an embarrassment. The hostility leaches out of the young man’s posture as he stands staring at the older man for an uncomfortable moment. He then passes out of the frame and presumably heads for the exit. Haneke’s camera holds on the older man, who has returned to his seat, and Anne, who is wiping her face with a handkerchief and trying to maintain her composure. The scene has been quiet just long enough that when the young man, from out of frame, makes a shocking, loud noise before leaving the train car meant only to unnerve both of them, it succeeds all too well. Anne’s reserve has been shattered, and she explodes in tearful sobs, through which she thanks the older man, who, we might guess, has been witness to this kind of behavior before.
The scene is a brilliant tour de force from Binoche, who creates high point after high point like this throughout the film. In a career full of exceptional performances, this is the very best work I’ve ever seen from her. But it’s Haneke’s triumph as well, as the scene turns out to be the emotional climax of the film, and a more powerful, elliptical way of summing up and addressing the concerns of the entire picture I couldn't imagine— the way the electricity of all these interwoven connections fires on the nerve endings of these characters to create meaning through experience, shared or isolated-- without breaking the code the picture has established for itself and allowing it to slop over into purplish melodrama (like another film I could name). The only thing that keeps me from unreservedly declaring Code Unknown a masterpiece is that it is the first encounter I’ve had with the work of Michael Haneke, and I like to have a little more familiarity, a little more context to drawn upon before bestowing such a judgment. But whether I can declare it a masterpiece or not, it certainly does seem to me the apex of this kind of investigation into the way that people cross amongst each other, how cultures seep into one another, are informed by one another, and how people live and exist and flail and love and create a sense of responsibility, of community, and how some (like Maria) are left out of that picture altogether even as they drift among its signposts. Haneke avoids the kind of haughty disregard for his own characters that crippled Robert Altman’s Short Cuts. (The disastrous decision to excise the Northwest from the stories of Raymond Carver from which Altman stitched his film together, as if to say what was most important about Carver was not his poetry but his plots, did the director no favors either.) And he eschews P.T. Anderson’s penchant for visual overstatement (which I tend not to mind, if it results in a sequence as brilliantly inexplicable and unsettling as Magnolia’s rain of frogs). Haneke can, however, tie an entire disparate bundle of feelings, experiences and implications together with a touch as glancing and moving as the way he ends Code Unknown. A simple shot of a multiracial group of children and adults playing African drums at an outdoor festival, the sound of which carries over and accompanies a kind of visual coda-- Maria, who has returned to Paris, only to find herself homeless and without work again, attempts to land on the same storefront step she was on when we first met her, but is chased off; Anne emerges from the subway and makes her way to the front door of her apartment; her boyfriend, a war photographer, who disappeared without notice to Kabul, reappears, attempts to enter the apartment building but finds the pass code has changed and, upon attempting a phone call, that her phone number has as well; and a final return to a deaf child perhaps interpreting a series of events or other emotions like the ones considered at the beginning of the film, all in body and sign language, for some of us yet another code unknown.
The Code Unknown Blog-a-Thon continues with great pieces on the movie available at the following links:
Aaron at Cinephiliac
David at Drifting
Dipanjan at Dipanjan's Random Muses
Eric at When Canses Were Classeled
Filmbrain at Like Anna Karina's Sweater
Matt at Esoteric Rabbit
Michael at CultureSpace
Michael Guillen at The Evening Class
Zach at Elusive Lucidity
Girish may have a more recently updated list of participating bloggers available on his post, but I will try to keep this list as current as possible.
(A final note: the domestic Kino Video DVD release of Code Unknown may be one of the worst-looking DVDs of a major film I've ever encountered. For a side-by-side comparison of the Kino region 1 disc and the Artificial Eye region 2 disc-- the difference is shocking-- as well as a detailed explanation as to why the Kino disc looks the way it does, visit our friends at DVD Beaver and see for yourself. It's the best argument for purchasing an all-region DVD player-- which I recently did-- I've seen yet.)