Monday, April 5, 2010

FotM: Oscar's Dark Side

There are times when I despair of writing about the movies at all. How can you take something that can be so vast and encompass it into a few hundred words of text on a white screen in such a way that someone, anyone, would actually want to read it? I guess I’m still trying to figure that one out. When I read the critics that I enjoy and respect most, there’s a sense of something greater at work. With Roger Ebert, it’s this idea that a movie can show us something about how to live our lives and what makes us more or less human. With Manohla Dargis, it’s this notion of how the movie she’s talking about fits into the scheme of things culturally and within the history of cinema. Peter Travers is kind of like everyone's secret hipster uncle giving it to them straight up, and if you like something he thinks is bad? HOW COULD YOU? Then . . . me. I guess I fit in there somewhere. It seems that, despite all the eloquent deconstruction I want to be good at, I should really just shoot from the hip until I get it right. In the end, all the imitation in the world isn’t going to add up to anything worth reading or worth writing.

Now, Best Picture. . .

I haven’t seen all 82 of the winners of the Academy’s big prize. I’ve only seen 34, which is less than I would like. I could choose one, watch it, and dissect it piece by piece (or, at least, I would like to imagine that I have that kind of dexterity at my disposal), but I don’t think that would be interesting.

Instead, let’s talk about the elephant in Oscar’s bedroom.


I didn’t see the film until a few years after it had won the Oscar in dramatic fashion, upsetting Brokeback Mountain, the heavy favorite and winner of almost every other “best film” award this side of kingdom come. It went something like this. I’m at the store looking at the DVDs and I see Crash. I’ve heard that it’s very good, so I start considering the idea of buying it, which is more of a foregone conclusion at that point, because I’m terrible at telling myself no when it comes to something like that. I text a friend to ask his opinion. He suggests renting it instead of buying it, as he’s seen it and knows a bit about what I like. I don’t listen, buy it anyway, and watch it either that night or later that week.

At this point, all I knew was that a lot of people were incensed that Crash had won Best Picture, and others had said that it was an incredible viewing experience. Now, suddenly, I understood.The Oscar is supposed to recognize excellence in filmmaking, and if we’re lucky, what gets that recognition will be of the best work of that particular year. Despite that, Crash was clearly not high-quality filmmaking, not the best work of 2005, and certainly NOT even that good of a movie on its own merits.

I’m not opposed to the idea of film challenging popularly held cultural beliefs and forcing us to see things we recognize within people we don’t know. I actually think that’s one of the highest functions that any art form can fulfill. Some of the best films I’ve ever seen have done just that to spectacular, unforgettable effect.

The trouble with Crash isn’t in the grandiosity of its reach. The problem with the film is in the clumsy, heavy-handed, and simplistic way it goes about doing it. The idea is straightforward. In Los Angeles, there’s a group of ethnically diverse people whose lives are suddenly and violently going to crash together. Along the way, the notion is that the film’s supposed to illustrate the inbred racial prejudices present within all of us.

This concept isn’t exactly brand-new. Robert Altman built a legacy on ensemble casts wandering in and out of each other’s lives. In more recent years, Paul Thomas Anderson has done much the same thing.

On some level, I get what people who dig this movie see in it, but I have a hard time believing that audiences really respond to such amateurish schlock. Despite my (shall we say) distaste for it, there are individual moments within Crash that are effective. The sequence where Matt Dillon pulls Thandie Newton out of a burning car was effective and even gripping. The scene where Anthony Pena comforts his infant daughter is touching. The bit where Don Cheadle buys groceries for his mother, even though she thinks his missing brother is the one doing it, is moving. . . and those are pretty much the only major examples I can think of.

Sadly, much of the rest of the film results in characters talking about how other people from different ethnic backgrounds don’t understand them, witnessing incredibly coincidental incidents that somehow just happen to bring them together, and then realizing that gee, we aren’t so different after all and maybe if we just stopped making assumptions based on race/ethnicity, the world might be a better place.

I could have told you all that, and I wouldn’t have needed an hour and fifty-two minutes to do it.

Paul Haggis, the film’s director and co-writer, certainly isn’t without talent. You’ve heard me wax long-toothed about my out-and-out love for Million Dollar Baby, one of my favorite films, and my admiration for In the Valley of Elah. I just don’t understand how someone who’s capable of such good work turned out something that plays like a film school student’s attempt at a feature film, albeit a student with an A-list cast to work with.

Three more things: First, know I texted my friend back and said, “I wished I’d listened to you.” I bet he loved hearing that. Second, Annie Proulx isn’t the sore loser I thought she was. Third, I sold the DVD as soon as I was able to. Crash is no longer is a part of my collection, thanks be.

A lot people don’t put much stock in what wins an Oscar. Even though I watch the show religiously every year, I have to admit that much of it is a popularity contest with a heavy slant toward films made by Brits or Americans. Despite that, a lot of times, I’m ok, pleased, or even thrilled with what wins.

Not here.


Chris W said...

I agree with you on CRASH. While I enjoyed it upon first viewing that soon gave way to me actually realizing as you put it, that it's really nothing more than a film school type effort with an a-list cast. Of course I thought BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN was WAY overrated as well. Two of the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year, MUNICH and GOODNIGHT and GOOD LUCK were FAR better films and I would have been estatic if either of them had one but they never stood a chance. Funny enough though I think both of them have held up far better than the two Oscar favorites that year.

Adam said...

Brokeback Mountain is on my to-do list, but I did see Munich and Good Night and Good Luck. I don't remember all of the films that were up for big awards that year, but Munich is a film that I have a ton of respect/admiration for. I don't think Spielberg has gotten near enough credit for how great of a film he made. Isn't your line the one about how "It's not my favorite of his films, but Munich is the best film Steven Spielberg's ever made"???

I know what you mean about the first viewing. I had a somewhat similar experience. I thought it was ok (3 stars/5), but any regard that I felt for it deteriorated quickly as I realized how poor of a film it really is.

Chris W said...

Yeah, that's exactly how I feel about MUNICH. I'm curious what you think of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I really like Ang Lee in certain ways and the film is absoloutely gorgous but I honestly think if you take away the homosexual slant it's not even remotely interesting, it's boring and dull with some good performances. If you made the exact same movie but about a heterosexual relationship no one would have cared. I guess that's my issue.

Megan said...

I REALLY dislike Crash. I feel like someone is sitting next to you the whole movie pokign you with a stick and whispering "racism is bad"! This is the epitome of why I dislike the average message movies.