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Crashing into World Wars

This is a quickie. Saw that horrible new War of the Worlds last night. Saw the very interesting Crash a month ago. Somehow there is a weird echo in them for me, but one that most people would not see or hear in either film.

First Crash is getting a lot of attention as a blisteringly honest film about race relations. I didn’t think so. I think it’s a fairly accurate portrayal of how people rely on shallow racist stereotypes to navigate their frustrations and insecurities in daily life. But the real point of that movie, stated rather clearly in the opening epigraph voiceover by Don Cheadle, is what car culture does to us. “We never touch each other, unless in a disaster.” That’s not a verbatim quote because I’d have to see it again (can someone give me the actual line?), but it underscores the underlying theme of the movie, that revolves around a series of interlocking plots and car accidents. And sure, the fears and loathings that people maintain, mostly racist, are shown in their nauseating stupidity, but that part felt really separate and distant to me. Like racism in general, it’s artificial and based on alienation and separation. Crash shows how arbitrary and pointless the racist assumptions people use are, and how dramatically they’re tossed aside in profound moments of human connection.

But the less-than-one-dimensional Tom Cruise and the silly, disconnected, inconsistent War of the Worlds offers no insights into the human condition. Doubt that it was supposed to. But by accident it underscored something about class and America and war…


Cruise appears at the very beginning running a crane at the Brooklyn port across from Manhattan. Longshoreman who run cranes get nearly $100,000 a year salaries, and there’s a lot of extra hanky-panky going on behind the official salary to get containers moved ever faster. But we see him get off work and refuse an extra shift to rush home in his souped-up Mustang to receive his two kids from his estranged ex-wife. She looks around his house disapprovingly, especially when there’s a V-8 engine occupying the kitchen table. Cruise, you see, is a car freak. It’s the part of the technosphere that American workers are expected to embrace, and he apparently does. When the alien attack begins with an Electromagnetic Pulse all electrical systems are shorted out. He’s passing by a mechanic pal in the neighborhood while trying to figure out the ‘weird weather’ that’s swirling overhead. Automatically he tells him to replace the solenoid on the SUV the mechanic is having trouble fixing, and sure enough that works. Later, that’s the ONLY car running in the whole eastern U.S. and it magically finds unobstructed paths through all kinds of urban wreckage and mayhem after Cruise appropriates it for himself and his two kids, abandoning any and all others in their wake.

Because the real story of the American Working Class Hero, as told by Speilberg and Hollywood, is one of the strong individual saving his individual nuclear family. This flies in the face of what usually happens when natural (or unnatural) disaster strikes, when people come together in awesome efforts of mutual aid and cooperation. Ask anyone who has lived through an earthquake or a flood or a hurricane. But according to Holllywood, it’s a dog-eat-dog Darwinian struggle for survival, and only the marquee stud will make it, and his kids too thanks to his superhuman luck and skill and ruthlessness.

The other dig hidden in this film, that Frank Rich at the NY Times pointed out too, is the moment when Tim Robbins as a crazed guy in a basement fulminates that these are aliens occupying our country, and that “occupations never work, hundreds of years has proved that.” Also, at the beginning of the movie, the sullen teenage son is supposed to be writing a school paper on the French occupation of Algeria… Ah, liberal Hollywood! They must really hate America!

I probably have a lot more to say about this, but I’ll stop there. I’m going to use Cruise and this movie in an upcoming essay on bicycling culture… the key that we all need to look a lot harder at is the relationship to appropriating the technosphere (not wildly relevant to the gist of this stupid movie), and what’s allowed and what gets left unmentioned entirely (the bulk of science and technology, e.g.!).

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