Sunday, March 05, 2006

Breaking News: Crash Can Lick My Balls

That was some bullshit, right there.

ETA: But perhaps I should elaborate.

As per request, I will get into why I hated Crash in a second. First of all, I just want to set the table for what it means for Brokeback Mountain to lose this Oscar. To those not in the habit of following the movie awards, when I say "precursors," I don't mean handy guessing games useful for filling out your Oscar pool entry. These are more like iron-clad indicators that are seldom wrong. And when they're all given in unison? When the Producer's Guild, Writer's Guild, Director's Guild, Golden Globes, Los Angeles and New York Film Critics, and the BAFTA awards all agree on the same movie? When that same movie has the most Oscar nominations of any film and the highest box-office take of the Best Picture nominees? That movie never loses. It never does. So for this particular movie to be the only one to succumb after such broad support, it's not hard to see that as a slap in the face against said film by the Academy.

I guess as someone who didn't like Crash, it's easier for me to see a vote for Crash as a vote against Brokeback, but doesn't it seem that way? It's disheartening, because as much as Brokeback has become the zeitgeist film of 2005, it had thus far avoided becoming a referendum on Homosexuality in America. It made money not just on the coasts, but all across the country. It had seemed to win support far broader than that which exists for actual gay causes. It had seemed like it was being viewed for what it was: a well-crafted and moving film that was able to relate the suffocating tragedies of closeted life in simple terms of love and longing. Much as some of the less sanity-burdened right wing ideologues wanted to pretend that "America didn't want to see" a story like that, America did, to the tune of $78 million and counting.

The opposite side of that coin had only started to surface in the final few weeks. Reports of Academy voters anonymously relaying their intention to vote for Crash because they could not connect emotionally with Brokeback Mountain. It's been a long-standing Oscar tradition that voters tend to vote with their hearts, not their heads. So a Crash win would seem to suggest that maybe Brokeback was admired for its technical skill, but enough Academy voters shared a similar inability to make an emotional connection with the faggots on screen that it lost to a film with the more relatable message of "Everybody's a Little Bit Racist!" It's a shame to think that even in Hollywood, famed liberal bastion, it's still an uphill struggle to get straight people to feel empathy for gay people. That's the key to Brokeback Mountain. The hurdle isn't getting over two men actually having sex. There's really quite little of that in the film, and what is shown is tastefully reserved. The hurdle is actually wrapping your mind around two men in love and affectionate with each other, so when I hear "can't make an emotional connection," from old white Academy voters, it reads to me as, "fucking fags," and I honestly don't think that's an overreaction.

So. Crash. Well-acted movie, that I will grant. A good half-dozen performances more impressive than the one (Matt Dillon) who got nominated, but overall the ensemble was a strong one. The problem was that all that good acting was in service to a simplistic, overly convenient, contrived, and ultimately dishonest film. For one thing, I don't know how this can be seen as any kind of politically forward thinking film when one of the central messages seems to be, "It's shitty of you to be so racist, but check it out: so is everybody else in the entire country. So don't sweat it, and if you see someone trapped in a burning car and they happen to be a different color than you are, try to save them anyway." I don't entirely discount "white guilt" as a motivating factor for Oscar voting, though I think "L.A. guilt" might be more accurate. But I think the film actually does more to assuage white guilt than anything else. "Everybody's gotta hate somebody." So when all of a sudden, a film with that worldview starts to have this series of snowy epiphanies, it's dishonest, to me. This also plays into how the film is so ridiculously contrived to form some kind of racist paper chain, with the characters as nothing more than thin layers of whatever point the story needs to make at that very second. Like how Ludicris can be walking down the street illustrating a hot-button racial/political issue, and then here comes Sandra Bullock ready and willing to play a real-life visual aid to said issue. The writing itself is a problem in that it's too blunt and obvious. I've seen racism in action -- not on the receiving end, obviously, but I've grown up around a lot of it -- and precious little of it is so conveniently direct and plain-spoken as when Matt Dillon lays his "affirmative action" cards on the table for Loretta Devine. There is so little nuance to Haggis's script, which in turn makes his frequent directorial excursions into ethereal, fanciful slow motion shots and metaphorical precipitation all the more frustrating. No film this pedestrian deserves a song like "In the Deep" to accompany it.

It's not a terrible film, but it's a seriously flawed one. So to see it even get nominated for the Oscar is such a kick in the balls. Not to mention see it win, and to see it overcome so many of the historical obstacles that stand in the way of films that: a) get released in the spring; b) come from independent film studios; c) have no true lead performance to hang their hat on; d) barely top $50 million at the box-office; e) don't even get nominated for a Golden Globe; f) lose out on the PGA and DGA. How many other, better films have failed to pull something like that off? How many films worse than Brokeback have managed to ride the wave of frontrunner status to a Best Picture win.

All too often I have to remind myself that the Oscars are not any kind of barometer for true greatness. As if any such barometer can exist for something so subjective as motion pictures. But this seemed to be one of the few years that Oscar's tendencies and cinematic quality looked like they were destined to converge. Another lesson learned.

ETA #2: Kenneth Turan says it way better than I can. Check his article out.


Ali said...

Yup. Not much to say, but I feel ya.

Anonymous said...

I'm going to be bitter the rest of the week. Maybe I'll kick a puppy and it'll all be Paul Haggis' fault.

God, I hate that man.

Sticky Keys said...

Heh, I'm guessing Best Pic? I called it and no one believed me. Race movie post Katrina people! It's why I hate the Oscars. Good times.

mathan said...

As soon as I heard, I knew the one blog that I needed to visit.

As a guy who dug the flick, I'm not complaining. Granted I've not yet seen all of the nominated movies, just Munich and Crash, but I did think that it was a solid piece of cinema.

Sticky - Cut out the "post Katrina" nonsense. Off the top of my head I'm sure I could come up with "Post-" arguements for the other noms.

Post 9/11 & Gulf Rewar - Munich

Post mass veto of Gay Marriage - Brokeback Mountain

Post Falling out of love with the administration - Good Night and Good Luck

Which leaves only Capote without a nice little cop out.

Is it possible that a contemporary movie with message of flaw and redeemption (and set in the voters backyard) resonated more than period pieces? Possibly, but saying that Crash wins amounts to nothing more than "white guilt" is reckless.

Oh Joe, can I request that you unleash your wraith upon Crash, buy thoroughly explaining it's flaws and why it shouldn't have won/

Sticky Keys said...

Heh, I was mostly joking but still. After the Golden Globes I thought it was obvious, especially with everybody talking about race and the million and one shows they were on, specials, blah dee blah. I actually loved the movie (though not on the IT CHANGED MY LIFE front) so I wasn't too mad.

Capote was just lucky to be nominated.

Aaron Cameron said...

I haven't seen "Crash" or "Brokeback Mtn.", but I'm looking forward to seeing both, really soon.

Due to my ignorance on the actual substance of either film, I'll keep my comments to a general tone.

Joe, has there EVER been a movie on race relations that DIDN'T use the same broad brush that you criticize "Crash" for? Off the top of my head, I think "Do The Right Thing" might qualify, but that film seemed to intentionally build to its climax by lessening its subtlety from the first act to the third.

Every other "major" film on the subject of racism ("Higher Learning" or "Glory Road", for (bad) example) seems to feel the need to dumb it down for the audiences so we can follow along just who is "bad" and who is "good".

I'm sure there are several films that have done it "right", but I'm amazed that I can't think of any.

Joe R. said...

That's funny, Cam, because I was actually thinking about Do the Right Thing as I wrote that piece. That movie also advanced the "everybody's racist" idea, but Spike's intent was to make the audience ridiculously uncomfortable, not (as I see in Crash) to make everyone feel weirdly better about it all. Turan called Crash a "feel good" movie about racism, and I agree with that 100%.

As for movies that tackled the racism issue with some nuance, I'm going to turn to a lot of Spike Lee, because I think he's great (if purposefully controversial) at it. Jungle Fever is one example. Bamboozled, for how much of a mess it is, actually makes you think instead of going to the Mississippi Burning place.

As for Higher Learning and Glory Road, it reminds me of a quote by a sage, if overly fretful, woman: "Of course you're going to have a bad impression if you only focus on the pimps and the C.H.U.D.s"

Aaron Cameron said...

Hey, in my defense, Higher Learning and Glory Road were THE absolute first two movies that popped in my head. Lousy brain.

Anyways, I respectfully have to disagree with you on Spike Lee. While Do The Right Thing came the closest to "getting it right", I thought Jungle Fever and Bamboozled were entirely agenda driven and not so much Spike letting the audience think as it was Spike TELLING the audience what to think.

Sticky Keys said...

I thought Jungle Fever and Bamboozled were entirely agenda driven and not so much Spike letting the audience think as it was Spike TELLING the audience what to think.

Oh goodness, I completely agree with you there! I love Spike, but those movies make me want to drive a nail through my eye.

That said, I know that a lot of the movie was heavy handed, but it was something I actually enjoyed about it. I've experienced MASS amounts of overt racism, but it's the subtle, sneaky racism that gets me the most. Which is why I loved that Crash was so obvious about it.

The scene with Matt Dillon yelling at Loretta about affirmative action, had the exact same impact as someone not training me properly at my job (Why do you want to know that? I know it's part of your job description, but it's really not necessary. You shouldn't apply for that promotion, I heard it was already filled... etc). I thought it was a very nice wake up call in that Hey, you know how uncomfortable you feel because of [insert scene here]? Well minorities pretty much feel like that EVERY DAY kind of way.

This was one of the successes of the film I think. Now that's not commenting on the motivations of the writer or producers or anything, it's just what I felt at the time.

mathan said...

Joe, it's really funny because what I got out Crash was completely different than what you got out of it. It's almost like we watched two different flicks. (I do feel the need to note that there's a distinction between "racism" and "prejudice" Crash had to do with race and prejudice, but had few examples of "racism.")

I also want to point out that the votes do make distinctions between movies, (it's why King Kong won effects awards and Geisha won for actual physical attributes) so the idea that Ang Lee did a great job of filling space should be awarded, but that doesn't necessarily make it a better actual movie than Crash.

It should also be noted that the source material played a role. Brokeback was a short story and had to be fleshed out. Crash was intended to be a televison series, and those ideas had to be wedged into a feature film.

Are you really attacking Crash which I believe had a shorter running time and, we'll say three times as many characters than Brokeback for not having equally well crafted characters? Gee, it would seem to me that less time and more characters would equal less lushly created characters.

Now allow me to offer full disclosure; I'm Black, and I've walked with down the street with my best friend (who's also Black) and we'll bet on which white women will clutch their purses closer or on which white guys will avoid eye contact at all cost. So the moment preceeding the carjacking felt very real to me.

I've also had incredibly frank conversations with whites coworkers about the theoritical ills of Affirmative Action, which rival Matt Dillon's forthcoming nature, so again that scene rang true.

To me Crash wasn't about "Everybody's Racist" but more "Everybody has their prejudices and preconcieved notions." I've spoken to immigrant cabdrivers who do base who they pick up on the color of their skin, and they immigrated from Nigeria. I've got coworkers who would probably fit the description of a Latino gangbanger if you saw them in casual clothes.

I didn't dig Crash because it changed my life, but rather because it mirrored situations I've been in and people I know or have met. It felt real to me and connnected with me on that level.

But again, I'm coming from a Black perspective. I didn't feel let off the hook. I don't know how whites felt about it (except for my mom, who loved it, but she didn't feel let off the hook either, in fact at work I was talking with someone who said that Crash made her feel worse after watching it.)

What I saw when I watched Crash was a flick that dealt with the topic of race, a topic that folks seem to ignore with as much subtlety as they ignore a missing limb, stutter or lazy eye. I watched a movie about how people use stereotypes as a sort of cultural shorthand, sometimes it's justified but more often it's not.

I really don't see how intolerance for homosexuality is any different or worse than ignoring this country's problem with race and if you want to break the two movies in question down to political issues that's what they're about.

As for the Spike Lee Collection debate Aaron and Joe, you're both right.

Jungle Fever was motivated by outside events, but does a decent job of showing both sides objections to the coupling. Plus you've got the C story involving John Turturro, which flips things a bit.

Bamboozled was again created in response to numerous things, but it does cause you to think about the nature and purpose of some of the images that are popular.

Ah, who better to try to bridge the Spike Lee divide between Aaron and Joe than a mulatto named Mathan?

Joe R. said...

How did a nuanced debate break out on this crappy little blog? The title of the post contains the phrase, "lick my balls"!

Anyway, good stuff all around, even if I'm not really swayed by the Crash arguments, it's good to know what other people saw in it.

The one thing I will respond to, Mathan, is this: Are you really attacking Crash which I believe had a shorter running time and, we'll say three times as many characters than Brokeback for not having equally well crafted characters?

It's up to the screenwriters to create characters that make sense and are not just a collection of convenient prejudices which will help us advance our story. I think think of dozens of multi-character films who managed to create better, more nuanced characters with the same limited time to do so. I know you're a Magnolia fan, and that's just one example. Short Cuts, The Royal Tenenbaums, tons of Coen Brothers and Tarantino films.

JavierAG said...

"Brokeback Mountain" was so complex and, shall I say, deep, that its theme of repression and opression works just not for homosexuality but for *anything* concerning those subjects.

On the other hand, "Crash" is so blatantly attuned to its "Racism!" issue, that the theme of prejudice relates *only* to that, to racism.

"Brokeback Mountain" is about universal subjects like love, emotional repression, etc. "Crash" is about racism, when it should be about prejudice, and it isn't at all universal or special in any way.

Thought Criminal said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Thought Criminal said...

I didn't see Crash, and the only Best Pic nominee I saw other than Brokeback Mountain was Capote (which I really enjoyed, but how the hell did it get that nomination? The Best Actor award I agree with, somewhat, but best picture? Really?), but I was going to stubbornly support Brokeback Mountain no matter what the compettition was because I loved it.

wolfchick said...

Wow. Great outlook, and you verbalized it beautifully. I also greatly admire the discussion that's arisen from your post.

You make some very good points regarding the Academy, and since I am much more an AMPAS aficionado than I am a film critic, I will primarily address those.

First, you are absolutely correct in your assessment that Brokeback's loss was the result of votes against it, rather than a lack of votes for it. If you put your ear to the ground in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, you could hear the rumblings of a backlash. I don't think this had anything to do with homosexuality, per se - as you said, the movie itself is far removed from being any sort of political statement, centering instead on universal themes of longing and heartache, love promised and love denied, desperation and anguish - but more to do with Hollywood's vain need to be edgy and unpredictable. That sounds trite, I know, but look at recent years in Oscar history and you'll see a trend.

When "experts" discuss the Academy Awards, in a general sense, they talk about the inevitable surprises in store over the course of an Oscars telecast. Historically there was always an upset, always a shock, always something unforecasted happening. And truth be told, not many of us would know or remember what was so shocking about it in the first place, because these things simply weren't followed or discussed in mainstream media. But over the past, say, 10-15 years, when these "precursors" you speak of really started coming to the forefront of entertainment news, with the advent of Entertainment Weekly, and with the E! channel doing nothing but roll around in its own Oscar drool for the entire time between nominations and awards, the winners have become increasingly easier to predict. In order: Dances With Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs, Unforgiven, Schindler's List, Forrest Gump, Braveheart, The English Patient, Titanic. None of these were what I'd call surprises.

But then something interesting happened. When Shakespeare in Love beat out Saving Private Ryan for Best Picture (something I both predicted and agreed with, btw, but that's a topic for another day), it created an uproar of controversy and intrigue. It's like suddenly people understood how unpredictable these things could be. People still talk about it to this day. If members of my own family, who see maybe half a dozen movies a year, are this upset seven years later, can you imagine how tightly wound actual connoisseurs are? The Academy has simply responded to that fervor.

In these past seven years since the SiL/SPR incident, picture and director have split three times - in the ceremonies for the films of 2000, 2002 and 2005 (this year) - whereas it only happened three times in the thirty years preceding (1989, 1981 & 1972). And speaking of unpredictability, Adrien Brody, anyone? Halle Berry? It's more exciting when things go awry - as the snoozefest that was All Hail LOTR will attest - and it is my opinion that these upsets are calculated attempts at shock value. Crash made a perfect candidate.

In the interest of full disclosure, I liked Crash. It entertained me, though I will hasten to point out that it did NOT strike me as a feel-good film of any kind. However, it also never struck me as a Best Picture. While the acting was phenomenal, and while I actually felt the writing was intricately fitted together, there were substantial holes and contrivances that simply could not be overlooked. What makes them easy to overlook for the Academy, interestingly, is one of the very obstacles you pointed out that movies like Crash generally have to overcome: its early release date.

Normally an early release date is a death knell to any movie hoping to be showered in Oscars for the simple reason that everyone has forgotten them by the time the nomination ballots are distributed. This is actually a benefit for Crash, however. People have forgotten the holes, forgotten the contrivances. They remember the phenomenal acting and the intricate writing and the fact that it sparked debate. Granted, the DVD was out by that time, and there are no shortage of screeners available, but even the DVD came out well before the nomination period and with all the movies in contention, it's not unreasonable to assume that a lot of Academy members didn't rewatch films they'd already seen. Irresponsible, perhaps, but hardly surprising when you recall that considerable numbers of notable Academy members don't even fill out their own ballots.

I understand your frustration at the implication that voters didn't emotionally connect with Brokeback. It does seem to send a certain message, that this love story isn't identifiable because the homosexuality angle is insurmountable. But honestly, I don't think that's the case. Maybe I'm overly optimistic about the tolerance and understanding of others, but I think it was perhaps easier to "emotionally connect" with Crash is because it was about L.A. and voters are hopelessly self-centered, not homophobic. Or maybe it's easier to use "emotional disconnection" as the excuse, rather than chalking it up to cold calculation, because I sincerely believe that the Crash win was nothing more than an attempt to go against the grain, to not vote for the sure-thing, to be unpredictable.

No bones about it, Hollywood is a machine, and the Academy is as much a part of that machine as anything else. I think the overwhelming saturation of Oscar predictors has chafed the Academy somewhat. It's like all these other awards shows and entertainment shows and experts are crashing their party, stealing their thunder. With slipping ratings and low box office, no surprises is simply unacceptable.

That said, Kenneth Turan's article was also very insightful, making some excellent points, and I don't deny that the least-controversial controversial movie is an easy one to reward (see: Rachel Weisz and George Clooney). And even though I would've, personally, preferred some love for Munich, I'm disappointed Brokeback Mountain didn't get the recognition it so richly deserves.