Monday, December 26, 2005

Holiday Blogging - More on Movies (Race)

Not to get too caught up with the movie theme, but it is both school break and the holiday season. To continue a bit from the theme of the last post, sometimes the films that are supposed to be meaningful are a lot less meaningful then they appear to be. Just because a movie deals with a controversial issue such as sexuality or race does not mean it actually has anything all that interesting to say. Sometimes the supposedly stupid joke can be a great deal more meaningful. I figured I'd look at two films, both from the last few years; the critically acclaimed Crash, and the somewhat ignored Harold and Kumar go to White Castle.

Crash, to put it simply, is supposedly about questioning our assumptions about race. The plot weaves together a number of different storylines of characters from different racial backgrounds, eventually culminating in a literal car crash. (There are some spoilers below, so if you've never seen the film, but intend to, you might not want to read on.)

All of the lonely libertarian's friends loved the movie. The problem is, as the events at the end of the movie unfolded, I couldn't help but feel as though the entire plot was contrived in order to reach the exact scenarios that would make you question the assumptions about character and attitude toward race you had made earlier in the film in regards to the films main characters. (Take the two cops for example, as the racist cop becomes a hero and the not so racist cop does something unforgivable.) While attempting to be clever through intricate plotting, the film really just insults our intelligence.

The events that unfold are shocking, but do they really change any perceptions of those of us from the younger generation? I don't really think that they do. We recognize that race is still an issue today, that some people use race, for good and for bad. We recognize that racism still exists, and it isn't always so overt. The point of the film may be to break some of our own supposedly modern day stereotypes, but for many of us, those stereotypes don't really play a role in our conceptions of people, unless those stereotypes are laid out before us as they are in Crash. The film is supposed to be emotionally powerful, but it feels emotionally manipulative. The conflicts are those created by the film, and therefore upon further reflection, their resolutions are far less satisfying. In a simple movie, such simple emotional resolutions are fine. After all, it’s what you expect. But in a film that is supposedly more complex, and supposedly deals with controversial issues, the answers shouldn't be so readily construed for us.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, take the 2004 comedy Harold and Kumar go to White Castle. On its face, it's a stereotypical stoner comedy, where the stoner heroes go on a crazy adventure and get tangled up in all sorts of wacky situations. As a stoner comedy, the film is enjoyable, but it doesn't really stand up to the greats of the genre. (Up in Smoke, Half Baked, and whatever else you want to throw in with "the best.") What makes the movie great is the metaphors about race laced throughout the movie. First there is the movie itself, which gives an Asian-American and an Indian-American a chance to play roles that seem typically reserved for ethnicities a bit closer to home. And then there is the plot of the film itself, in which the journey to White Castle is a metaphor for both acceptance, becoming "American," (and for the sociology majors out there, perhaps even becoming white.)

On their metaphorical journey to White Castle, Harold and Kumar must conquer racist bullies and racist cops, along with all the typical stoner movie plots you can think of. Rather than raising any big sociological issues of assimilation, the movie focuses on the very personal struggle of Harold and Kumar to actually fit in to the country they were born in. Instead of being about society, this movie focuses much more on personal identity.

And why chose White Castle as their goal? Well, what is more American then White Castle, sort of a symbol of America as literally a whites only club, a castle which non-whites can't easily enter. It's very important that Harold and Kumar's best friends in the movie are two Jewish guys. Jews are considered to be white, even though it hasn't always been that way- they basically made it to White Castle years ago. The point being that we all had to go through this process at some point.

The movie is a stoner comedy precisely because it doesn't take this issue so seriously. We see the racism in the movie for what it is; just as stupid as every obstacle encountered in a stoner journey. It doesn't take a critical look at assimilation because it doesn't see it as an issue. Ask any second or third generation immigrant what they want, and they don't want to be different, they want to fit in, and they wish they could be considered as American as the next guy.

While Crash purports to have deep meaning, Harold and Kumar doesn't- most people would probably tell you Crash is more meaningful. But keep in mind that the best movies, and the ones that have the most to say, are usually the ones that are not what they appear to be. And the movies that are supposed to be powerful and meaningful can at times be the most pretentious and condescending movies out there.


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