Crashville

Will a short spell in the slammer prove to be the making or breaking of actress, model and substance-abuser Lindsay Lohan? Tabloid hacks and accident insurers everywhere will be holding their breath to see what sort of vehicular mayhem might ensue next time LiLo gets behind the wheel. As Bette Davis would say “Fasten your seatbelts . . .”

Lindsay didn’t manage to write off that famous VW Beetle in Herbie: Fully Loaded, but if she’s looking for some on-screen auto action, then she might consider another foray into multi-character dramas. While action movies tend to focus on maximum destruction, Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) showed that crashes are a great device for bringing a large number of characters together. You don’t even have to kill any of them, though the post-nuptial prang towards the end of A Wedding (1978) does prove fatal. But perversely, Lohan’s two excursions into the genre — Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion, and Emilio Estevez’s Bobby — don’t feature any reckless driving. This might go some way to explaining why both movies are so deadly dull.

I wouldn’t call Paul Haggis’s Crash dull, so much as desperately worthy and almost begging to be patted on the back by the Oscar voters. They duly obliged back in March 2006, with one of those annual “surprises” that inevitably ends up being reported as a calculated snub for the hotly touted favourite. So Ang Lee’s acclaimed gay cowboy drama, Brokeback Mountain missed out on the best picture Oscar, while Haggis’s tale of accident-prone LA motorists got the nod.

But perhaps Crash’s success really was a belated acknowledgment of the kind of ambitious, loosely woven dramas made famous by Altman. From Nashville’s exploration of politics and country music; to the Carver compendium Short Cuts; the fashion faux pas that was Prêt à Porter; and his 2006 swan song A Prairie Home Companion; Altman offered audiences the cinematic equivalent of a book of short stories. A fashion show, a wedding or a political convention could be just the starting point for excursions into satire, music, drama and broad comedy. Writer Alissa Quart has characterised these films with multiple intersecting plotlines as “hyperlink movies”, in which, “information, character, and action co-exist without hierarchy”.

As the summer blockbuster season spews out another round of effects-heavy mayhem in which a plot is barely discernible, I’d happily lose myself in a three-hour hyperlink movie. But there’s a fine line between genius and disaster, and even Paul Thomas Anderson’s audacious Magnolia has moments — particularly during Jason Robards’ dark night of the soul — that are almost unwatchable.

Cinema that simultaneously explores the randomness and interconnectedness of modern life, can end up being chaotic or just pretentious. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s much admired feature debut, Amores Perros, evoked comparisons with Quentin Tarantino’s similarly non-linear Pulp Fiction. It features three sets of characters linked by a love of dogs and — you guessed it — a serious car accident. But in the infuriating Babel, the same director was far more ambitious, sending Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett on a disastrous Moroccan bus trip that spins off into tales of misery on three continents.

What with the rifle-toting goat herds, a deaf-mute Japanese teenager and a stressed-out Mexican nanny, I barely had time to register that the unshaven Brad looks an awful lot like George Clooney here. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw memorably dismissed this film as being “almost incandescent with self-importance”. I wonder what he thinks about Iñárritu’s Biutiful , the trailer for which helpfully reminds us that “Sometimes fate is like a small sandstorm that keeps changing directions.”

The problem is that when hyperlink movies misfire, the results can be – literally – car-crash cinema. In case you’re not sure whether you’ve seen one recently, here are some hints:

More stars than there are in the heavens
A galaxy of acting talent can help sell a movie, but is it refreshing or simply perverse to recruit megastars Tom Cruise (Magnolia) and Brad Pitt (Babel) for what amount to little more than supporting roles? Like Woody Allen, Robert Altman had a knack of attracting stellar casts for his projects, but even lining up Italian superstars Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni alongside the likes of Julia Roberts and Lauren Bacall couldn’t redeem the disaster that was Prêt à Porter.

When time ran out . . .
In a genre that artfully combines the modern trend for extravagant running times with relatively condensed time frames, Nashville runs 159 minutes, Short Cuts 187 minutes and Magnolia a bum-numbing 188 minutes. We’re not talking Gone with the Wind here: all these films cover the events of just a few days and in the case of Emilio Estevez’s Bobby, just the final day in the life of Senator Robert Kennedy. But with all that interlinking, intersecting and overlapping, it seems there’s no chance of wrapping things up in 90 minutes.


Reality bites
Stunt-filled car crashes are a staple element of action movies, but in Amores Perros and Crash the collisions aren’t there to entertain but to link the disparate characters and storylines and to remind us how random and cruel life can be. In The Safety of Objects the catalogue of suburban misery includes a character who’s in a coma following (you guessed it) a car accident, while Magnolia really goes to town with a biblical shower of frogs that causes vehicular mayhem.

Wise up
Finally, never underestimate the power of music to underscore a climactic montage in which all the characters confront their destiny – see Aimee Mann’s songs for Magnolia and Mark Isham’s score for Crash. And perhaps that’s why A Prairie Home Companion, which is really more of a dull backstage drama than a hyperlink movie, doesn’t gel: it showcases the combined vocal talents of Meryl Streep, Lily Tomlin and (yes) Lindsay Lohan.

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