Monday, March 06, 2006

"Crash" into me, you stupid Academy...

Of all the potential surprises that Oscar night could have brought, the one upset that did take place was the one I was really, really hoping would not.

Many explanations have been tossed around for this turn of events. Among them:

(1) The Academy, for all its much-vaunted, much-pilloried liberalism, is secretly homophobic. Or at least enough of the more, uh, "traditionalist" members were to swing the balance. (I wonder if George Clooney would have modified his acceptance speech if he'd seen this coming?)
(2) The Academy, for all its much-vaunted, much-pilloried liberalism, is basically conservative in its tastes. As a group, they will always go with the "safe" choice over the more daring one: after all, this is the same body that rewarded "Forrest Gump" over "Pulp Fiction." (Though I've said it before and will say it again, stylistically, "Brokeback Mountain" is no envelope-pusher.)
(3) "Brokeback Mountain" was a victim of its own hype. Academy voters who saw it late in the game, restive under all the pressure to crown it king, rebelled.
(4) "Crash" had a lot of grass-roots goodwill among Academy members, especially among actors, many of whom recognized it as an actor's movie. After all, it won the Screen Actors' Guild award for best ensemble acting, beating out the favored "Brokeback." At the time, several prescient observers suggested that this might be a sign that "Brokeback" dominance at the Oscars was less than secure.
(5) Everyone in the Academy loves Don Cheadle (who was one of the film's producers, as well as one of its stars).
(6) Everyone in the Academy loves Paul Haggis.

Myself, I'm inclined to believe that the answer is a combination of all of the above, though Kenneth Turan of the L.A. Times makes a compelling argument for reason #2 as the decisive factor:

"Crash's" biggest asset is its ability to give people a carload of those standard Hollywood satisfactions, but make them think they are seeing something groundbreaking and daring. It is, in some ways, a feel-good film about racism, a film you could see and feel like a better person, a film that could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul, when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed and your preconceptions reconfirmed.

So for people who were discomfited by "Brokeback Mountain" but wanted to be able to look at themselves in the mirror and feel as if they were good, productive liberals, "Crash" provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what "Brokeback" had to offer. And that's exactly what they did.

God bless Kenneth Turan. He was one of the few critics ten years ago to call "Titanic" for what it was - the worst screenplay ever written - without flinching before the wrath of self-anointed "king of the world" James Cameron. Similarly, today he has no qualms in calling out the liberal guilt of the Academy. While it's impossible to prove empirically that that guilt was the reason "Crash" beat "Brokeback," I've no doubt it at least played a part - and I certainly think that as a critique of the movie it's spot-on. Paul Haggis wrote the screenplay while he was working through his feelings about being carjacked in L.A. by two black guys, and you can clearly see every drop of his own white liberal guilt poured into this movie. It was cathartic for him, and by extension, for all viewers like him. But apart from what it reveals about that particular psychological mindset, the movie doesn't have a damn thing to say about racism and interracial relations that the musical "Avenue Q" didn't say more smartly and tartly in one song.

"Crash" sets up stereotypes with the earnest idea that it's going to subvert them - then proceeds to do so in a manner that manages to be simultaneously programmatic and melodramatic. (And it never does subvert its stereotype of Asian Americans, who apparently can't speak ploper engrish, can't drive, and have no qualms about trafficking in human labor.) And never for a moment does it probe seriously into the "why" behind everyone's latent racism. If you're not going to explore that in any real depth, why bother showing it in the first place? For shock value? Just to show that it exists, even within supposedly enlightened, educated people? that it exists inter- and intra-minorities? that it can be a byproduct of poverty and hardship? that even racists can have redeeming qualities? Well, I hate to break it to you, Paul, my friend, but none of this is news, and nothing in the way you present it is hot stuff, either. Spike Lee strip-mined this territory way before you.

And while we're on the general subject of racial stereotypes, I have to say I'm also aggrieved by the fact that "Memoirs of a Geisha" walked away with 3 Oscars (admittedly, for what I call the "scenery" awards, but even that sticks in my craw, when you consider the particular cultural picture the movie's aesthetic perpetuates - floating cherry blossoms, flowy kimonos, etc.) while "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Munich" went home empty-handed. One of my fellow members of Cinemarati, where there's a very spirited Oscars post-mortem going on, put it best: "One of the winners for Geisha went out of his way to thank 'the people of Japan,' and I thought it was oddly appropriate. ‘Cause the whole movie is pretty much about thanking the people of Japan for being so exotic and strange." And the Academy saw fit to award that, too. Sheesh.

Oh well, I still won my Oscars pool, so there's some consolation in that. For once my last-minute change-in-gut (i.e., picking George Clooney for best supporting actor) paid off. And it didn't matter that I didn't have the same flash of insight for Best Picture, since no one else in my pool did, either.

On a lighter note:

Jon Stewart's mock-political endorsement ads rocked, - a clever way of integrating the brand of humor he's known for - even if he himself seemed a tad nervous throughout the entire show. The opening sequence - involving all of his predecessor Oscars hosts - was pretty funny, too.

The best quip of the night, though, was from George Clooney, on receiving his Oscar: "Wow, all right, so I'm not winning for Best Director."

Most hilarious presenter: Ben Stiller and his "green screen" magic. I'm not a Stiller fan, but that was sheer comic genius.

Fashion choices: Boring, meaning most people looked good. Exceptions: the growth on Charlie Theron's shoulder at the Golden Globes seems to be expanding and taking over her body, and Naomi Watts looked like she had shoestrings coming out of her bodice. Keira Knightley was stunning in that plum-colored gown, and for once her makeup actually worked, too. (How did she end up sitting next to Jack Nicholson? How much you wanna bet Jack had some say in that?) Salma Hayek, ravishing as always in an elegant blue number; Reese Witherspoon cute as a button; Michelle Williams too thin! but otherwise adorable, though I couldn't decide whether I liked that shade of orange she was wearing. Clooney was dapper as always, Eric Bana not quite as delectable as at the Golden Globes, but still dreamy; William Macy and Felicity Huffman definitely the cutest Hollywood couple there...with Reese & Ryan a distant second.

Acceptance protocol: Glad they ditched the asinine (and in my opinion totally disrespectful) notion of presenting the "lesser" awards to the winners in their seats. But what genius thought up the idea of playing music while people were actually giving their acceptance speeches? Maybe it was supposed to psych them out into thinking their time was up before the clock had even started to run.

Musical numbers: Once again, why they have an Oscar for Best Song is beyond me. So the Academy awarded a (mediocre) hip-hop song - yawn. Doesn't make them hip, sorry. I actually liked Dolly Parton's performance the best, though I'd never remember the song if I heard it again. At least they didn't try to stage it with zombies, à la "Into the Deep" from "Crash." Interpretive dance, indeed.

Montages: What was with all the non-sequitur tributes to Hollywood film traditions? I love noir and epics as much as the next person, but I don't recall any of this year's contenders being either.

Honorary Oscar - continuing the tradition of luminaries who were, arguably, too good for a standard Oscar. The Lily Tomlin/Meryl Streep riff on Robert Altman started off a little annoying, but ended up being an impressive and rather endearing performance. It helps, of course, to have those two doing the performing.

And finally, the only good thing about "Brokeback Mountain" losing Best Picture was the fact that we didn't have to hear that damn six-note motif AGAIN, as the parting sound in our eardrums. As it is, it was still twanging in my head all of today.


Blogger jchensor said...

Agree agree agree. The fact that Geisha and Brokeback won the same amount of Oscars, I believe, is quite infuriorating. I was already frustrated at seeing Geisha win for being as stereotypically Asian as possible, but after Brokeback lost, the whole night was shot for me. To know that Geisha shares the same number of statues as Brokeback is downright insulting. Good job, Academy.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

Actually I'm not that convinced that "Everyone's A Little Bit Racist" song you cite, Lynn Lee, is all that clever. I kinda prefer the more "subtle" commentary to be found in "West Side Story"'s "America" or "Cabaret"'s "If You Could See Her Through My Eyes." (The latter performing the neat hat trick of managing to comment on prejudice by means of a character who's obviously ridiculing the very plea for tolerance he's singing.)

But you are right. "Crash" is obviously one of the most dubious choices in Oscar history. And your analysis of the reasons it's so flawed is more on-target than most reviews I've read thus far.

Good job.

12:47 PM  
Blogger echan said...

Perhaps you've seen more discussion regarding this, but there was considerable silence regarding Ang Lee's best director win. He's the first non-Causasian (and Asian) to win the best director award. The press would be much different if Spike Lee garnered such a prize instead. Do you have a good expectation for this silence? Part of me thinks it's because of Lee's modest disposition. Another part of me thinks it's because Hollywood doesn't perceive itself as racist towards Asians and Asian Americans.

1:58 PM  
Blogger Tonio Kruger said...

You're right, echan. Ang Lee does deserve major props for being the first non-Caucasian and Asian to win the Best Director Award.

But your comment about Hollywood not considering itself racist towards Asians and Asian Americans seems kinda ironic considering the controversy surrounding the Asian characters in "Crash" and "Memoirs of a Geisha." And no, it isn't enough to excuse it all on the grounds that the stereotypes in "The Pacifier" were far worse.

For example, I consider it quite depressing that one so rarely sees a Hollywood movie--apart from Margaret Cho concert films--that depicts Korean-Americans as anything other than smallminded and greedy bigots.

You wanna talk about Asian-American racism? Fine. Let's talk about Asian-American racism. But, geez, not if your approach is going to be a direct crib from the chorus of "Chicago"'s "Cellblock Tango."

And if Hollywood is so concerned with racism, why has been no Hollywood movie about the Cuban-American racism and brutality that has caused so much trouble in Miami during the last twenty-five years? Police brutality controversies involving Cuban-American police officers and African-American victims have provoked at least three race riots since 1980. Yet Hollywood has yet to concern itself with this issue. Interesting...

8:24 PM  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

i think you would've seen more press about Ang Lee's distinction had his film not loss. That caused a total vacuum of interest in other stories.

2:41 PM  
Blogger ToastyKen said...

I bet you aren't as bitter about it as Annie Proulx is! :D

7:29 AM  

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