You Idiots!

     March 6, 2006

When Richard Roeper turns up on the Oscars post-show proclaiming that, for once, the Academy “got it right”, you’ve got to figure something went very, very wrong.

As if this is any great surprise. Though I laughed at the notion of Crash being a legitimate contender until a couple of weeks ago, too many years of watching anodyne pap like Driving Miss Daisy, Gandhi, Forrest Gump and American Beauty win out over emotionally honest masterpieces like Do the Right Thing, Tootsie, Quiz Show and The Insider – and, yes, I know the Spike Lee picture wasn’t even nominated – has inured me to the whims of an Academy that would rather pat itself on the back for socially responsible PSA’s than reward visionaries seeking out the unvarnished truth (for those of you snickering about Tootsie, watch it again it’s a much tougher film than its reputation might indicate).

The reliable insufferableness of Hollywood liberalism was in ferocious fettle on Sunday night, peaking early in an “Ain’t we saints!” montage paying tribute to the industry’s willingness to tackle the tough issues in such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird, On the Waterfront and The Day After Tomorrow. That last part’s not a joke. They really, seriously honored The Day After Tomorrow. On the Oscar telecast. The Roland Emmerich movie. Where they outrun cold air. The. Day. After. Sweet. Christ. On. A. Chocolate. Covered. Cross. Tomorrow. Thank Carson, Jon Stewart was there to instantly deflate the self-congratulatory clip reel by authoritatively declaring, “And none of those things were ever a problem again”, thus setting up Academy President and producer of The Master of Disguise Sid Ganis to look like the world’s biggest jackass when he humorlessly attempted tolegitimize the montage’s smug posturing with his obligatory, show-halting speech.

Unfortunately, Stewart was but a brilliant, ironizing stopgap – memo to the show’s producers, you’ve got your man – for the evening’s repugnant display of the kind of bullshit do-gooder-ism that Pauline Kael used to savage so eloquently back in the 1960’s. Ostensibly honoring a “Return to Glamour” (which smacks of the redundant sloganeering of “Movies, Now More Than Ever” from Lifetime Achievement recipient Robert Altman’s The Player), the show was an almost unceasing parade of speeches and clips vaunting Hollywood’s invaluable worth as a force for societal improvement. And everyone, including the normally self-deprecating George Clooney, was in on it, which is why no one was laughing at Stewart’s punch line-free enumeration of the town’s Dionysian stereotypes in his opening monologue. In unison, their silence was chastening, “Not now, Jon. Not on our night.”

These remonstrations are useless. Though Hollywood liberals like to rise up in high moral dudgeon and look down at the rest of what they perceive as a monolithically conservative country, they’re just as incapable of nuance as the reigning Administration they so intensely loathe. If the rank-and-file had it in them to approach any given issue from multiple perspectives (those shoes in which Atticus asked Scout to walk around in from time to time), they’d have voted en masse for Munich, which was nominated as a sop to its legendary director and not as a recognition of its thematic complexity. And if they were comfortable with (relative) subtlety, they’d have gotten behind the chilly-until-the-closet-reveal Brokeback Mountain. Instead, they opted for Paul Haggis’s Crash. And we were shocked why?

I haven’t written much on Crash because I feel just a little complicit in its success. Several years ago, I wrote very complimentary coverage on Haggis’s screenplay for a foreign distribution company. Though I’ve since lost that document to a number of hard drive woes (no tears are being shed), I remember responding to what I perceived as the script’s very confident attempt at addressing race relations not so much in Los Angeles but in Middle America, where people of various ethnicities can easily avoid prolonged contact with their differently-descended countrymen. While undoubtedly derivative, it was a slick piece of writing reflective, for better and worse, of Haggis’s one-hour television drama background. And it spoke to my then struggles with a city far more spread-out and segregated than New York City, from which I’d recently moved. It was rare to run across a piece of material going at the issue of race on such a huge canvas, and I responded positively to it.

It wasn’t until I finally got around to seeing the finished film that I realized how thoroughly I’d been had. On its feet and in front of the cameras, Crash is a lie. Suddenly, the contrivances weren’t merely a borrowed device from Magnolia but a gimmick through which Haggis meant to shove his simplified view of racism right down the audience’s gullet. Even worse, Haggis proved a proficiently heavy-handed helmer of his own material, eliciting superb performances from most of his cast and glazing each implausibility with a dollop of high cinematic style. Whereas the great filmmakers are renowned as smugglers of subtext, Haggis came off as a master flim-flam artist. Even while I fumed, I had to tip my hat to the guy’s brilliantly manipulated narrative shell game.

This is why I feel a bit uneasy castigating the Academy for once again capitulating to palliative. If there’s a precedent for Crash’s win, it’s not the soft-and-cuddly Driving Miss Daisy but the bogus edginess of American Beauty, which gussied up its shallow satirizing of suburban discontent with two grandstanding lead performances and gorgeous cinematography from Conrad Hall. Like that film, Crash gives its viewers the thrill of engaging in transgressive thoughtby doing all of the intellectual heavy lifting for them, so that, when they walk out of the theater, they feel wiser and, most importantly, better as human beings for having been exposed to assiduously avoided hard truths. What’s more, they’ve been presented with easy answers that suggest what was a conundrum two hours ago has since been vanquished. It’s a bugaboo conquered – “And this issue was never a problem again.”

But movies like Crash and American Beauty are ultimately more annoying than dangerous. They might be the films of their respective moments, but they fade in memory. When 1999 is celebrated, it’s now for the daring of Fight Club and Being John Malkovich or the indisputable greatness of Toy Story 2 and The Insider. Similarly, when 2005 is reconsidered, Crash will pale against the glorious achievement of The Constant Gardener, Munich and Brokeback Mountain – movies that favored ambiguity over reassurance.

Hollywood’s love of the “problem picture” is nothing new the town has always been heavily invested in appearing concerned for the common good by paying glossy lip service to the social ills of the day – ergo, a vote for Crash was a solemn vow to end racism by acknowledging the racist within. This is the kind of empty-headed seriousness Mel Brooks torpedoed three decades ago in Blazing Saddles and that South Park takes to the woodshed on a weekly basis. And it’s the kind of ludicrousness that makes Hollywood Hollywood. Quality has never entered into it. That’s why Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir, Satyajit Ray, Howard Hawks and so manyothers never won Oscars for an individual work. It’s why Al Pacino loses for The Godfather, The Godfather Part II, Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon, but wins for Scent of a Woman (over Denzel Washington, who loses for Malcolm X only to finally win for playing a most detestable villain in Training Day). It’s why Mira Sorvino has an Oscar. Period.

In other words, when the Academy starts getting it right on a consistent basis, something will have gone horribly, horribly wrong.

(He says “consistent” because, well, they do occasionally get it right, which is a clumsy segue into congratulating Gavin Hood for his Best Foreign Film win. Viva Tsotsi!)

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