Is this all Robert Altman's fault?
February 7, 2006 8:56 AM   Subscribe

Film buffs: I just watched Crash last night (I've now seen all the Best Picture nominees and feel soooo enriched). It reminded me of how very, very tired I am of the whole Random People's Lives Intersect Meaningfully genre, and it made me wonder how it got started. I know that the large-cast-intersecting gimmick is an Altman staple, but are there any precursors to his using it, or is it more or less his invention? Was Nashville where this whole thing began, or are there commonly-known, generally-acknowledged precedents for this genre?

Also, to reward those who clicked onwards, here's a deeply entertaining, if unrelated, quote about Crash from yesterday's New York Times, courtesy of Manohla Dargis:

There are a few obvious reasons why “Crash” connected with the Academy. First, Los Angeles, where most of Academy members live, is a profoundly segregated city, so any movie that makes it seem like its white, black, Asian and Latino inhabitants are constantly tripping over one another has appeal. If nothing else it makes Los Angeles seem as cosmopolitan as, well, New York or at least the Upper West Side. Second, no matter how many times the camera picks out Oprah Winfrey on Oscar night, the Academy is super white. Third, the Academy is, at least in general terms, socially liberal. You see where I’m going, right? What could better soothe the troubled brow of the Academy’s collective white conscious than a movie that says sometimes black men really are muggers (so don’t worry if you engage in racial profiling); your Latina maid really, really loves you (so don’t worry about paying her less than minimum wage); even white racists (even white racist cops) can love their black brothers or at least their hot black sisters; and all answers are basically simple, so don’t even think about politics, policy, the lingering effects of Proposition 13 and Governor Arnold. This is a consummate Hollywood fantasy, no matter how nominally independent the financing and release.

(Obviously, I did not love Crash. You go, Manohla!)
posted by logovisual to Media & Arts (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
"Grand Hotel", 1932
posted by matteo at 9:03 AM on February 7, 2006

I can't name any specific films, but I would bet that it was prevalent in European cinema before Altman started doing it. I haven't seen Crash but from your description it sounds similar to Altman's Short Cuts from 1993 based on the stories of Raymond Carver. Carver's stories are definitely part of the "Random People's Lives Intersect Meaningfully genre". But that literary genre has been around for a long time so it isn't hard to believe that it's been in film before Nashville. Damon Runyon's stories from the 30's are almost all like that.
posted by JJ86 at 9:09 AM on February 7, 2006

In modern times, pretty much every Pedro Almodovar movie fits into this genre - and the first film I ever saw of this type was probably his 1982 film Labyrinth of Passion
posted by vacapinta at 9:11 AM on February 7, 2006

I realize this isn't what you asked, but your question reminded me of Slacker, which would be an outstanding representative of the Random People's Lives Intersect Meaninglessly genre, were there such a thing. I'm not a film buff by any means but I enjoyed the random intersection of lives in this film because no attempt was made to make it meaningful, but it was strictly a device to effectively show a cross-section of a particular subculture.
posted by harmfulray at 9:18 AM on February 7, 2006

slight derail: Sandra Bullock, at a screening I attended... "I got twenty pages into the script and I called Paul [Haggis] and told him that I just had to be in the movie and I had to -- had to -- play Jean." Really, Sandy? You would only play that part? You mean the only role for a white woman, that's the only role you'd play?

Paul Haggis is a maroon and I'm ashamed to belong to a guild that rewards such tomfoolery.
posted by incessant at 9:19 AM on February 7, 2006

btw, where is that nytimes piece? she doesn't seem to have written anything yesterday...
posted by yonation at 9:42 AM on February 7, 2006

Paul Haggis is a maroon?
posted by _sirmissalot_ at 9:48 AM on February 7, 2006

Yeah, I agree with JJ86: I think that the real answer is that it's a literary tactic that's been brought into film. The earliest example I can think of off the top of my head is Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, which was published in 1919--although I'm sure there are other, earlier examples that fit the mold a little better. Certainly the laying-out of apparently unrelated plot lines which then resolve in a vast, glorious intersection is a literary device right out of nineteenth century novels like Great Expectations.

The first time I saw this in a movie was Pulp Fiction. I was 15, and I distinctly remember that when all the plots came together I was like woah -- dude!
posted by josh at 9:51 AM on February 7, 2006

yonation - here
posted by Tenuki at 9:54 AM on February 7, 2006

La Ronde
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:01 AM on February 7, 2006

I added an talk by David Bordwell and he quoted those movies you mentioned. Nashville and a handful of others. Nothing good on his site however, in fact his site is not much.
posted by Napierzaza at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2006

This article on ensemble films credits D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916) and mentions Grand Hotel (1932) and Dinner at Eight (1933). This article mentions The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). There's also American Graffiti, which came out two years before Nashville.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:24 AM on February 7, 2006

No precise answer for your question; never saw Nashville and I didn't bother with Crash because it sounded exactly like a Grand Canyon re-do.
posted by Rash at 10:26 AM on February 7, 2006

It appears to be a cinematic version of the Victorian multiplot novel--most famously, Charles Dickens' Bleak House, in which every apparently random character (and there are dozens of them) "intersects" meaningfully with at least one other. (My students sometimes feel the need to draw flow charts...)
posted by thomas j wise at 10:36 AM on February 7, 2006

In novelsthere's something called "River plotting," in which characters start at their own points of origin and then are brought together by the plot - the analogy being to the tributaries of river being brought together.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on February 7, 2006

Edna Ferber's novel "Showboat" (1927) and the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein musical made from it, sorta fits the bill, too.
posted by Asparagirl at 11:06 AM on February 7, 2006

Don't the Shakespearean comedies have this quality? Maybe not as random as Altman, but I suspect they're the precursor. Not an astounding hypothesis to make in English lit, I know.
posted by Hildago at 11:20 AM on February 7, 2006

incessant writes "slight derail: Sandra Bullock, at a screening I attended... 'I got twenty pages into the script and I called Paul [Haggis] and told him that I just had to be in the movie and I had to -- had to -- play Jean.' Really, Sandy? You would only play that part? You mean the only role for a white woman, that's the only role you'd play?"

How the fuck do you intepret that comment to imply that she picked that one character over the others? Wouldn't anyone with cognitive skills recognize that she was excited about the movie as a whole and wanted to play the one role for which she was appropriate?
posted by mullacc at 11:32 AM on February 7, 2006

It's from real life. Random People whose Lives don't Intersect Meaningfully should get out more.
posted by hermitosis at 12:20 PM on February 7, 2006

Yep. Real life. Synchronicity is far more prevalent than we like to readilly observe, much less admit.
posted by grabbingsand at 1:18 PM on February 7, 2006

It may not have been a perfect movie but Manohla failed to get it.
posted by 6550 at 2:16 PM on February 7, 2006

logovisual, have you seen Magnolia? When I saw Crash, I was kind of shocked at how many key themes and plot points I recognized from Magnolia, down to the ending (inexplicable, miraculous falling frogs becomes inexplicable, miraculous falling snow in the other). Have any critics commented on this? Anyway, Don Cheadle rules all, and that little Mexican girl is adorable, but Crash just seemed like Magnolia: the Race Episode.
posted by ibeji at 4:52 PM on February 7, 2006

I can't name any specific films, but I would bet that it was prevalent in European cinema before Altman started doing it

I'm sure that's right. If I had to single out one movie, it would be Bunuel's The Phantom of Liberty, which came out in 1974, the year before Nashville.
posted by verstegan at 4:38 PM on February 8, 2006

Kottke says Ebert calls these hypertext movies.
posted by Rash at 9:48 AM on February 10, 2006

A) Yes. Paul Haggis is a maroon. As in "What a maroon." A slightly more creative way of calling someone a moron. It's... old fashioned.

B) I guess I left out a crucial part of my "Sandra Bullock is an idiot" story. She said she had to play Jean, Jean was her favorite character, and she didn't want to play another other part, just Jean. So sorry, mullacc, to have offended what appears to be some part of you, otherwise I'm not entirely sure where your vitriol comes from.
posted by incessant at 12:18 PM on February 10, 2006

That makes much more sense. Sorry to be such a dick - for some mysterious reason I felt a wave of compassion for Sandra Bullock when I read your ancedote.
posted by mullacc at 5:28 PM on February 10, 2006

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