A Narrative Analysis Of Crash Film Studies Essay

This research paper is about the narrative analysis of the movie Crash [2004] directed by Paul Haggis. Rassism is an uniformly examined theme by the critics and analysts but this time my main point is not that and I would like to show another approach.

This film’s story and structure is made by a methode which became very popular from the beginning of the XXI. century – and not only in Hollywood. Using several plots in a film, mixes them like a puzzle is very a characteristic feature but it is not unique in the film industry. Analizing the scenes and connect them to the viewer’s conclusions is a mission which can be taken with any puzzle plot movie. The reason why I chose Crash was that Haggis is a screenwriter originally, his first directing work is this movie. His work reflects his writing talent so we can see how Haggis controls our attention during the movie.

Narrative created inside the film but it is given meaning only in the viewer’s mind where some kind of uniformity is born about the story of the film. This uniformity has several levels: we can see the organized story and the pictorial-idiomatic harmony.

In the research paper I analize the scenes of Crash where I would like to show which characters get into connection with which other characters (so as to make a coherent network) and I find interesting the patterns between the scenes. While I am analizing these features I am taking arguments if we can classify Crash as a (classical) hollywood-type movie.

Theoretical basis

In my opinion the narrative of a film meant the story how it had been told on the canvas. (Later I will proove this statement is not enough for the definition of narrative.) But it has (big) difference in the amounts of data which the perceiver remembers and the information that is shown in the movie. (Other part of the difference is that viewers could remember different ways of the narrative – even if they often differ a little).

In film thery there are several theories which analize the narration, the narrative of the/a film. Now I will summarize two theorists’ work. Edward Branigan starts with the idea of schema. Almost every viewer has more information in his/her mind and makes more conclusions than he/she can gather from the canvas when he/she watches a movie. When the perceiver gets a data which can connect for a schema then he/she starts to think in the way of that schema. Amikor olyan adatot lát a vásznon, ami egy schemahoz kapcsolódhat, akkor aszerint a schema szerint kezd gondolkodni. „The interaction of schema and data creates a perceiver’s recognition of global patterns characteristic of data” (Branigan, 1992:14).

According to Branigan a narrative schema has the following format (Branigan, 1992:14):

introduction of setting characters

explanation of state of affairs

initiating event

emotional response or statement of a goal by the rotagonist

complicating actions


reactions of outcome

As we can read in Tarja Laine’s article „[in Crash it is] almost impossible to reconstruct the lines of action in an exact chronological order, at least from memory” (Laine, 2007:36), because there are eight main (or side?) plots in Crash. So Haggis has a difficult issue if he wants to succeed the narrative schema above. Plots are so mixed in Crash and it is almost impossible to find that seven part (and in case of eight plots within two hours gets the mission more difficult) – so as to make a holywood movie. Even critics write that Haggis just presents the rassism inside of us but doesn’t show any solutions, I think why the film works as a whole thing – instead of the lack of solution – is because in the level of narration Crash is strictly constructed and well-ended. (It is not a masterpiece but could be a rare gem.) According to Lanie, Haggis makes „more or less fortitous change in the trajectory of the global network” (Laine, 2007:38) very professional.

Branigan has two key ideas when he discusses the narrative theory of film. First, the main part of the narrative is about the „knowing how” in the film, not what we can see. „We can carry this analysis [gathering data, thinking of schemas, making presuppositions] one step deeper by associating ‘how’ and ‘what’ with two different ways of acting upon knowledge: ‘knowing how’ and ‘knowing what’ ” (Branigan, 1992:65). The second statement is about the disrtibution of information between the viewer and the film. During narration there’s „a subject in an asymmetrical relationship with an object”. (Branigan, 1992:66).

If we summarized what would we say? What would happen during a cognitive percepotion? Well, the film puts some selected information on the canvas. The viewer perceives these datas and recognizes the schema which – (s)he supposes – was sent to him/her. After that the viewer makes presumptions, conclusions. The film gives datas by a determined style (it depends on the filmmaker) and in this way it can control the feelings and emotions of the perception. E.g. how does a film invoke empathy and sadness? The protagonist’s friend is dying and we see that friend through the protagonist’s eyes (subjective shot); or when the protagonist finds his dead friend the camera shows him like a still picture while we hear some sad music composed by a symphonic orchestra.

David Bordwell is also one of the most acknowledged researcher in the field of narrative theory whose statements could be drawn paralells with Branigan’s ideas. Bordwell defines three key elements which helps the viewer to remember and summarize what he/she sees on the canvas.

„The imaginary construct we create progressively and retroactively, was termed by Formalists the fabula (sometimes translated as ‘story’) […] The fabula is thus a pattern which perceivers of narratives create through assumptions and inferences. It is the developing result of picking up narrative cues, apllying schemata, framing and testing hypotheses” (Bordwell; 1985:49). It is worthy to note that „a film’s fabula is never materially present on the screen or soundtrack”, and it is „a set of inferences” (Bordwell; 1985:49, 51). So the fabula is more complex than what we can see on the canvas. What we see is the second idea of Bordwell: the syuzhet which „(usually translated as ‘plot’) is the actual arrangement and presentation of the fabula in the film” (Bordwell; 1985:50). The third component is very important so as to make the viewer feel what the filmmaker would like to mediate. This is the style. Style „also constitutes a system in that it too mobilizes components – particular instantiations of film technigques – according to principles of organization”. While „the syuzhet embodies the film as a ‘dramaturgical’ process, styles embodies it as a ‘technical’ one.” (Bordwell; 1985:51)

The following picture shows the relations of these three ideas:

. The Film as Phenomenal Process. (Bordwell; 1985:50)


The original soundtrack was composed by Mark Isham. He made more than seventy soundtrack which was released under his name in the last thirty years. Moreover, he composed a few tracks other for other movies as well. Haggis hired a very experienced soundtrack composer and we can read this in critics too. According to András Földes „the music is like a hymn […] and after all kind of ethnic group said selected swearword to anohter ethnic group (or shot them) the whole movie becomes a calm, dandling twenty minutes video-clip, the viewer almost falls sweet asleep” (Földes, 2005).

It is a fact that the music is very suggessive but it is a fact too that it has to be in a dramatic movie. Branigan points out the film uses narrative schemas but the viewer only understand the actions by these schemas. The film gives feelings and strengthen emotions by other devices (e.g. style, actor’s play) (Branigan; 1992:16). The musical part in the movie serves this goal, the music is used to exercise an influence on the viewer. Haggis used non-diegetic music which makes this influences more effective.

During the movie the music sometimes outgrows the pictures, it becomes independent – in the scenes when the characters contemplate and plots are not mixed. It seems these parts move from the narrative apart but it would be a mistake to draw a conclusion like that. Actually these moments present decisions, mean set purposes (and as we can see this process the actors are becoming characters and getting delicate traits).

Narrative analysis

In Crash we could see a practice of non-linear editing. „This is how meaning circulates […] since every change causes a chain of local events leading to another […] The narrative of Crash is a weaving together of random incidents, instead of a linear chain of cause and effect” (Laine, 2007:36, 37-38). I my opinion this statement is half true. Actually the lineral structure of cause and effect is not ceased just because we split the events in the movie. We always see the cause first then the effect. What the filmmaker does is that he splits or breaks these parts into pieces and fills the gaps with another actions (which are parts of other causes or effects of course).

These breaks or fragments appear in two levels in Crash: time and space. Jumping spaces during the narrative of the film is common for the present-day viewer. Chasing scenes of adenture movies are based this jumping to reach high excitement and empathy. E.g. we see a burglar who is stealing things in a room then we see a man who is approaching to the entry door. As he is coming, the distance of the two places is reducing and actions of the characters will be shown in shorter and shorter cuts (the tempo becomes faster and more dinamic). The viewer presupposes that these parralel montage is set in the same time and the story goes by to equalize the difference of space – which usually happens if the filmmaker’s intention is not to mislead the viewer (if he/she does then the whole scene and suspense will be comical).

The other methode which make gaps in the narrative uses time. Well, this is a fact and common thing too that movie misses some time periods out as it doesn’t want to represent reality but give a strictly contstructed and controlled expreinece of perception by the story (and using elements which the film finds important). But if the film makes non-linear jumps in time then it can make the viewer’s conclusions more difficult and make the movie more unique.

Haggis mixes the scenes but both of these two levels is not dominant in the movie. I don’t make a list how many times we change space because it is easy to tell: when we change scene we change space as well (about fifty-seven times). Changing time in non-linear way is only once in Crash. Here is a summarized chart about treatment of times in Crash:

Length of the movie: 1:45:23 (100%)

Relations of time during the scenes:

First part: present (night): 2:57 min. (2,8%)

Second part: past (yesterday): 1:25:00 min. (80,6%)

Third part: present (night): 17:24 min (16,6%)

I think Haggis confuses the classical strategy of perception, but he does this in a delicate way. He doesn’t want to confuse the viewer overmuch, the viewer could put the puzzle pieces into the right place too easily. This practise is close to the classical hollywood narrative: everything has to be cleared and explained.

Scenes and narrative motives

The following chapter is about to show the structure of scenes in Crash. I would like to show the connections between the scenes which help the viewer to put the plots, characters in a linear chain of cause and effect. You can read which characters get any connections with the others so how the plots are mixed during the story.

These connections can be:

Direct – there’s personal contact or confrontation.

Indirect or suggested – verbal suggestions: theme of the conversation; pictorial/action suggestions: a motive or action which can be related to a character, e.g. the door of the shop relates to the mexican guy).

I made some extra notes in the list where I’d thought Crash uses classical hollywood narrative strategies.

. The network of (main) character’s connection in Crash.

No. of scenes main characters connections to other

/timecode characters


3:57 detective ♀-♂ thai woman, black guy 01

Ending: right at the beginning, there is a typical hollywood practise. The last main thing (doing, character) will be the starting pattern of the next scene. (A last pattern is the case of the shot guy, the next scene starts with buying a gun.)


5:56 persian man, daughter

Starting: buying a pistol

We get a clear information about the diegetic time of the film: ‘Yesterday’, and since that day indentified as yesterday at the end of the film we think we may get to present time back.

Ending: opening a door


7:50 black guy 01-02 lawyer, wife

Ending: car moves through the frame.


10:32 detective ♀-♂

Starting: car moves.


11:56 lawyer, wife mexican guy


15:24 police off. 01, soc.worker thai man


16:39 police officer 01-02 director, wife

Ending: police officer gets in the car, closes the door.


22:36 persian man, duaghter mexican guy (door)

Starting: door closes.


23:18 director, wife police officer 01-02



25:09 mexican guy, daughter


30:21 black guy 01-02 thai man


30:14 police officer 02 police officer 01



35:05 black guy 01-02 thai man


35:17 mexican guy persian man

Starting: door closes – second time, that a scene starts with this.

Ending: sound of a car from the next scene starts.


36:51 black guy 01-02

Ending: sound of the next scene starts.


38:14 detective ♀-♂ black guy 01 or 02


Ending: detective shuts the door.


39:52 police officer 01, dad

Starting: police officer 01 suddenly wakes up because of some noises (as if the detective – from previous scene – would have shutted the officer’s door).

Ending: music starts from the next scene.


41:29 persian man mexican guy (door)

Ending: persian man walks in a door.


42:20 lawyer detective ♀

Starting: lawyer walks out from a door.


42:44 black guy 01-02

Starting: two guys come out of a garden (gate of the garden = door).


43:24 lawyer’s wife housekeeper

Ending: sound of the next scene starts.


43:57 black guy 01-02


44:52 director


46:27 police officer 01 soc.worker

Ending: officer walks out from a room.


49:11 persian man mexican (search for him)

Starting: persian man walks into a room.


50:12 detective ♀-♂ black guy 01-02 (suspect)


53:19 director, wife police officer 01-02


55:07 persian man mexican (cause of

insurance failure)

Ending: persian man walks out of an opened door.


57:00 police officer 01-02

Starting: there’s an open door as well.

Ending: blurred picture


58:26 detective ♀-♂

Starting: blurred picture.


58:53 director (contemplating)


59:11 persian man (contemplating) mexican guy (address)


1:00:12 police officer 01 director’s wife

First dramatic confrontation, it is already a scenes that can show the fate of one of the characters.

Now it is the half running time of the film. We know some casual motivations of the characters. And from now until the end of the movie we can see the results of their actions, the truths or failures of the perceiver’s conclusions. This is a feature of Hollywood movies as well.

At the end of this scene there’s a happy end, noone died in the accident. (It is kind of „they lived happily after” schema; this scene could be a final ending scene in another movie.)


1:06:17 detective ♂ black guy 01-02 (suspect),


Ending: a door is being closed.


1:12:47 persian man mexican guy

Starting: door.


1:13:15 director black guy 01-02

Confrontation: director police officer 02

director black guy 02

Ending: they sit in a car.


1:20:22 persian man mexican guy, daughter

It can be interesting to notice that a dad-daughter pair confrontate with the other dad-daughter pair in the movie.

Here is the second dramatic confrontation: but this is still different with the viewer’s expectations (like in the case of the car accident). Noone died, we found the second happy end of the eight plots.


1:23:20 detective ♂

Ending: sound of the next scene starts.


1:23-56 lawyer’s wife housekeeper (conversation)

I call this scene the third dramatic confrontation, even if there’s only one character who suffers. The lawyer’s wife falls downstairs. After two happy end, I think that the viewers take an expectaton about that this woman will survive this accident. (And later this conclusion will be right.)


1:25:35 black guy 01 (hitch-hiking)

1:26:03 police officer 01 (driving)

1:26:39 black guy 01 police officer 02

The fourth dramatic confrontation is between the black guy 01 and the police officer 02. At this point we may expect happy end again but we take a mistake this time. The movie won’t let itself become an ultimate happy end system, differs from the classical hollywood narrative.

And after we watched this scene, we may overwrite our expectations from the previous accident we thought a few minutes ago. (This is an emblematic part of the movie where we can see how these schemas could be used to control our expectations.)

Ending: After four dramatic peaks we get into the present time back. (‘Yesterday’ which started at the sixth minutes of the movie now has ended.)

Actually this is the first connection between two scenes where we are staying at the same place. The first time when we only jump into another time but not to another place.


1:30:44 detective ♂ black guy 01 (presumption:

brother or not?)


1:31:37 black guy 02 nobody

This scene can hold some mystery for the viewer. It is not obvious if our suspects turn into knowledge. We don’t know clearly if the shot guy was the detective’s brother or not. If we follow the hollywood narrative methode, when we see the other black guy in the next scene, we identify the black guy 02 as the detective’s brother. (But we will be misled.)

Ending: the characters/the plots creates a chain of doing. The Thai man comes into the picture, and the film uses hollywood strategies again: the last motive in the present scene will be the main motive in the next scene. (The Thai man is in hospital.)


1:32:34 thai woman thai man


1:33:39 black guy 02 thai man (van)

We watch the second correction of someone’s ethnic roots (the first was of the detective woman). The people who were found in the van hadn’t been Chinese but Thai or Cambodian. It is a delicate and consistent construction of the system of scenes. The ending shows that Thai people and the next scene starts with the character whose roots was corrected as well.


1:33:29 detective ♀-♂ detective’s mom,

black guy 01

The last cognitive gap is filled here. Now we have information enough to realize that the detective’s brother was the black guy 01.

We are near to the end of the film and it is an unique thing in the film’s narrative that Haggis gets a new link between two side-plots. The persian girl is working at the hospital or at the morgue.


1:35:58 persian mexican guy’s daughter à



1:39:10 lawyer, wife housekeeper


The main pattern of the following scenes is music. We see almost every character contemplates, thinks of their status. It is like the enumeration in an epic.

1:40:04 police officer 02 (burns his car)


1:41:36 police officer 01, dad

Starting and ending: the frame of the picture is the frame of the door.

1:41:57 lawyer

Starting: the lawyer locks a door.

Ending: the lawyer looks out of the window/door.

1:42:12 mexican guy

Starting: the mexican guy looks the same way like the lawyer.

1:42:25 director police officer 02’s car

1:44:23 detective ♂ black guy 01 (cabbala)


1:45:20 black guy 02 thai refugees à thai man


1:47:10 social worker à crash

We see a car crash and hear messy and rassist arguments, just like in the beginning; crashes give frames to Crash.

1:48:20 the end

The film shows american ordinary people who are frustrated of pistols, guns. I think Crash is explicitly about the universality of rassism, but impicitly about everyday life which is sokaed with violence. The pistol is the most emblematic motive in Crash. It can be seen directly on the pictures or it is the theme of the discussions or we only realize the results.

The list below shows, in which scenes we can find the pistol, or we are associated to that (the result of using a gun):

„a kid were shot”

buying a pistol

using a pistol to steal an SUV

after a gun-fight nearby a petrol station

lawyer’s wife: „they put a gun into my face”


police officer 01 checks the director’s wife: „do you have any pistol, knife or any kind of weapon?”

persian man: loads the pistol and puts it in the shelf.

director and his wife: „they wouldn’t have shoot you ont he Ventura Boulevard”

mexican girl: „I heard […] a gun”


19. lawyer: discussing the gun-fight


34. detective’s pistol

35. persian man’s pistol

36. black guy 02’s pistol


42. police officer 02’s pistol à black guy 01 is dead


48. persian man’s pistol

We can see the pistol or gun as a main pattern in fifteen scenes (25% of the whole number of scenes). I think it is meaningful. Only western or war movies shows weapons more time than in Crash. The pistol is so common so we can’t draw conclusions about which characters will show up in the next scene but definitely connects these plots. The door is a key element in the film but presents another – technical – level.

From the facts above we could summarize the following: the connections of the narrative could be divided into two parts.

1. Narrative content (refers the fabula): accidents/touches of plots and characters, universality of rassism, pattern of pistol.

2. Formal/technical connections among the scenes (refers the syuzhet): ending/staring with a door; panning of sounds; analogous movements (e.g. directions, cars), sharpening-blurred-sharpening picture.

From Gábor Bódy’s opinion we could know how the filmmaker can make pure film languge (= new kind of film art), so as to film becomes poetry. In film poetry every element of the structure should connect every other element between the scenes – this is one part of the filmmaker’s intentions and it appears during the composing.


In Brodwell’s Narration in the Fiction Film it is summarized there are four kind of narration styles: 1. classical/hollywood, 2. art-cinema, 3. soviet/historical-materialist, 4. parametric. Crash can be classified into the first and second categories. It is not a pure hollywood movie – I mean it wasn’t when it had aired but I think this statement is passed by today. Crash is hollywood movie because it was captured by the help of studio system, it deploys filmstars and I take notes above in the scene-list where Crash may use some classical hollywood narrattive schemas. That is why I classify Crash as a hollywood movie but not as a typical one.

Crash uses the second narration mode. As Bíró says „In the film’s diegetic space causes are changed to the crashes and random frictions of the characters” (Bíró) which random things very meet the filmmaker’s intentions – if it weren’t so the film would be rather a documentary than e.g. a drama.

In the parametric narration style and authorship dominates but not in the case of Crash. We don’t see anything which would be some kind of innovations nor in the storytelling (using puzzle-plots is not unique) nor technically or idiomatic (there’s no unique montage, lighting, composition, camera-moving, individual actors etc.). „The syuzhet dominates in the first, second and third narration mode” (Bíró) over the style and this statement is right in the case of Crash as well.

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