I’ve spent most of today trying to deal with the painful remembrance of last night’s announcement of the middling Crash as Best Picture, alternating between a desire to take the matter head-on and denounce this abominable choice and a desire to forget that it ever happened and stop caring about the Oscars (I have, after all, been dreadfully disappointed three years in a row now).
And while it’s true that the Oscars don’t mean much in the long run, and the Academy rarely honors one of the years best movies, I can’t help but wish that the Academy would get it right for once. I suppose it’s time to give up that hope.
More important to me is the dialog which accompanies the Oscars, at least in the community of critics and moviegoers to whom the Academy Awards are a chance to analyze the year’s films, decide which ones were better than others and why. I can’t go on in life without believing that art criticism is vital to the social and cultural life of a people and a language; film critics especially commit their lives (always with the hope that it will make a difference to someone) to responding to one of American culture’s greatest, most popular, and most enduring art forms. Imagining life in modern America without movies is impossible; movies shape our lives in more ways than we imagine–and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And while big budget Hollywood films seem to get worse with the passing of time, we forget how many truly excellent films are produced each year. So many directors and actors are making art of the highest quality, so I can’t help but find it frustrating when this fact is not fully recognized by the institutions who were created to make such decisions.
At least the critics as a group don’t usually disappoint. For every institutionalized windbag, there’s two or three critics who know what they like, why they like it, and how to explain it with clarity and vigor. Last year in Slate, a handful of such critics exchanged a round of emails about 2005’s offerings. In an email, critic Scott Foundas explained his distaste for Crash; since I’m coming up empty today, I’ll post a lengthy bit:
David [Edelstein] opened the floor to suggestions of the year’s worst movies, and Crash is certainly a good starting point for me. Admittedly, Paul Haggis’ directorial debut wasn’t one of those so-bad-it’s-mesmerizing debacles, like Town & Country or The Bonfire of the Vanities, that Tony so lovingly remembered a few weeks back in the Times—if it had been, it wouldn’t have made my blood boil nearly as much. No, Crash is an Important Film About the Times in Which We Live, which is another way of saying that it’s one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that rolls around every once in a while to remind us of how white people suffer too, how nobody is without his prejudices, and how, when the going gets tough, even the white supremacist cop who gets his kicks from sexually harassing innocent black motorists is capable of rising to the occasion. How touching. Haggis is trafficking in much the same territory here as Michael Haneke is in Caché, only he lacks the guts to pull out his paring knife and fillet his bourgeois characters with the mercilessness they deserve. (Instead, when Sandra Bullock’s pampered Brentwood housewife accuses a Mexican-American locksmith of copying her keys for illicit purposes, Haggis doesn’t condemn her reprehensible behavior so much as he sympathizes with it.) People who say that Crash is an insightful portrait of life in Los Angeles clearly don’t live in the same town I do. Watching it, I wondered if Haggis hadn’t sat down with a copy of Thom Andersen’s brilliant essay film Los Angeles Plays Itself and deliberately written a script that reinforces every bogus assumption about life in the city—from the thesis that the only way people in L.A. connect with one another is by getting into car crashes to the depiction of the untold dangers of driving south of the 10 Freeway—that Andersen so skillfully shoots down. And in a year that brought many (and in some cases justified) accusations of racial insensitivity against movies from King Kong to Memoirs of a Geisha, it was Crash that gave us Larenz Tate and Ludacris as carjackers who view their actions as a form of civilized protest, and Terrence Howard as creepy embodiment of emasculated African-American yuppiedom. Not since Spanglish—which, alas, wasn’t that long ago—has a movie been so chock-a-block with risible minority caricatures or done such a handy job of sanctioning the very stereotypes it ostensibly debunks. Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, “A lot of my best friends are black.”
With this, I’ll hope to put the memory of last night behind me, and try not to get so excited about the Academy Awards from now on.
Then again, there’s always next year…..