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From:     blp
Category: Films
Date:     10 March 2008
Time:     07:12 AM


This was on channel 4 last night. I missed the first 45 minutes because I was watching Mad Men, then 
realised I could pick it up from the start on 4+1. The bit that made me want to go back to the 
beginning was when a mulatto woman was so horrified by the arrival of cop Matt Dillon at her 
accident scene that she nearly didn't let herself be rescued from a car that was about to explode. 
Turned out Dillon was a racist cop who'd stopped the woman and her prosperous black boyfriend 
and used a weapons search to feel her up. 

The whole film is sort of about race. The strategy is the now familiar Short Cuts/Magnolia 
interweaving narratives structure in which we learn, over and over again, that we are all, if not 
connected, then only a few degrees of separation away from one another. Further lessons seem to 
be that people are not always what they seem, with unsympathetic characters turning out to be 
saviours (see above vignette) and that the world itself, likewise, can sometimes surprise us with 
moments of great and sublime redemptive beauty (especially if you happen to have the radio on at 
the time and it's playing some melancholically song with smooth production values). The element of 
surprise is, absurdly, an unsurprising constant. Obviously, the odds of you and everyone you interact 
with in a day going through dramatically interesting stuff like disabling accidents, deaths, meaningful 
chance meetings, revelations, freak weather etc. are tiny, but these films groan with them and none of 
the characters are ever shown going amorally through blah nothingy shit, a la Richard Linklater's one 
truly great film Slacker. 

Neither honestly fantastical nor absurdist, this lack of realism is absolutely insidious. The purported 
aim is to be dealing with the weighty issues of human existence by taking a tough look at how hard 
everyone's got it. The risible loftiness of the endeavour, here and in Magnolia at least, seems to lead 
inexorably to a cloying didacticism that will find its schmaltzy summation, if it's ever owned up to at all, 
in the film's theatrical trailer - 'Sometimes, hope comes when you least expect it...' 'None of us can 
say what is around the next corner...' etc. Yes, hope. It's hope porn, didactic, properly, only in teaching 
a lesson the target audience wants to learn over and over again, like a metaphysical insurance ad: 'In 
an uncertain world, you can rely on the magical vagaries of chance to, like, sometimes (read: always!) 
come up trumps and deliver exactly the compassion, moment of beauty or moral lesson you need.' 

Zeitgeist spotters will have noted already how these films feel like a product of their pluralist, post-
structurally anxious, godless, post-modernly ugly, multi-cultural times. This film's focus on race, topped 
off with the cherry of a van-load of illegal immigrants being magically released into downtown LA, 
makes it feel something like the apotheosis of this tendency. Dillon's racist cop, nursing a father with 
probable prostate cancer, is confronted with a black hospital administrator called Shiniqa who won't 
refer him to a better doctor. The black film director he shakes down is asked to reshoot a scene in 
which a black character didn't, originally, talk black enough. Sandra Bullock's pathologically angry 
prosperous housewife perpetually takes it out on her Hispanic minions before, in a typically 
transformative moment of crisis, telling her put-upon cleaner she is her only friend. The black director 
is accidentally held up by two black kids, one of whom, on principle, only robs whites and delivers a 
monologue on how hip-hop is oppressor music designed to supplant intelligent black voices of 
resistance such as those of Malcom X and Huey Newton. The Iranian shopkeeper marvels at the 
graffitti left by burglars, 'They think we're Arabs. Since when have Persians been Arab?' 

Lots and lots of this is actually interesting, most signally the screed Dillon's character delivers to 
Shiniqa on positive discrimination: 'I can't look at you without thinking of the five more qualified white 
men who didn't get the job...OK, you hate me and that's fine, I'm a prick, but my father employed black 
men on equal pay all his life and then the city fucked him by switching to a black run companies only 
policy. He lost everything and never once blamed your people and now you can help him...' 
Something very like that. Shiniqa buys his story, says his father sounds like a good man, but punishes 
him anyway for his views by refusing to help. She is herself punished when an immigrant runs into the 
back of her car and she reveals her own prejudice by insisting that her adversary 'talk American.' For 
all the mathematical precision of fate's intervention here, this is a didacticism far more concrete than 
the gooy metaphysics that dominates. Broadly, Dillon is right, Shiniqa is wrong. Which is tricky, to say 
the least, deeply contentious and, as I say, quite interesting. 

It's right to talk about maths here because the film's depiction of complexity, whether in individuals or 
society and events, is built out of a series of numbingly simple equasions where a bit of bad is 
balanced by a bit of good, grim reality by something magical, desolation by hope etc. When you 
weigh it all up, it's not such a bad world, eh? To which, if only they would say it outright, I would want to 
reply, How do you know when you're not even looking? Stop adding negatives to positives and start 
paying attention. 

What's particularly nauseating, when you get right into it, is that the genuinely interesting, genuinely 
thorny problems of race, which are delineated, and poverty, which are barely skimmed, are integrated 
with the schmaltz not at all. All the snow bubble hope and MOR music and the phony complexity sit on 
top of the film's purported themes like icing. And that suggests, more than anything, that where the 
real problems are concerned, there is no hope, at least none the filmmakers can see. 

In amonst this, it must be said, is one simply brilliant narrative thread about a father who gives his five-
year-old daughter an imaginary cloak that can stop bullets. I'd say more, but I really don't want to ruin 
it. It's worth watching just for this, but after it plays itself out,  you can switch off. 

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