March 06, 2006

A Defense of the Oscars (sort of)

Okay, I like the Oscars. It was a special day for me; I made my predictions in all the categories on and kept score throughout the evening (correctly predicting 11 and missing 13). I changed my work schedule to make sure that I had it off. As far as I'm concerned this is my Super Bowl.

Is it fair to compare it to the Super Bowl? I have no interest whatsoever in football. As with religion, football fans are socialized into believing in it; there is nothing intrinsically interesting or valuable about the sport. Still, I wonder how highly it would be valued amongst most sports fans when it's not their team playing in it. The message that I'm getting is that it's not meant for football fans, it's meant to be for a collective mass audience. I skimmed the game and watched the commercials this year and I found myself very deeply depressed what I was seeing. We usually equate the lowest common denominator with the lowbrow, but in studying the commercials and half-time show we realize that the lowest common denominator works desperately to not offend. Their crutch is the shock celebrity gag cameo. I don't know any way that we could justify to any extent something as banal as the Jessica Simpson ad; and I would shudder to meet the hypothetical yokels who found it stimulating.

The Oscars haven't quite gotten that big. I think that there is still the idea that they're catering to a niche audience. It's more compelling television is what I'm saying. I here you protesting, "But Alex, Stewart relied on shock celebrity gag cameos as well in that intro." Quite right, but to much more of a limited extent. And some of those gags, like the one about Steve Martin's kids have a left-of-center absurdity that's missing in what I see during the Super Bowl. There's relatively more freedom here, more of a capacity to alienate. The collective mass audience appeal of the Super Bowl makes me feel lonely, the more limited (movie-loving) mass appeal of the Oscars makes me feel connected.

The passage of time and the maturing of my tastes in film really helped to wean me off the idea that the Oscars are rewarding the best in year's cinema. Really, I think that the three year win of the mediocre films Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago really clenched it for me. I don't take them seriously enough to get mad. I just don't think that they have that much power.

It helps, I guess, that at least one really good film gets nominated every year. Crash actually was my favorite this year, in some way it might have been the only real genre (sci-fi or fantasy) film this year. The musical number, featuring zombies wandering around a burning wasteland of crashed cars, was kind of eerie and wonderful I thought. Love it or hate it, that movie was a work of madness. Not saying that madness necessarily denotes virtue, Tyler Perry's Diary of a Mad Black Woman was a work of madness also and it was one of the worst films of the year.

Anyway...I also liked Brokeback Mountain and Munich. I would have been happy to see them take home more than they did. On average, a Best Picture nominee would earn three stars from me.


Crash: ****
Munich: ***1/2
Brokeback Mountain: ***
Good Night and Good Luck: **1/2
Capote: **

The Aviator: ****
Million Dollar Baby: ***
Sideways: ***
Ray: **1/2
Finding Neverland: **1/2

Lost in Translation: ****
Lord of the Rings: Return of the King: ****
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World: ***1/2
Mystic River: ***
Seabiscuit: *

You know, maybe only one or two of those each year will find their way into my top ten, but I have generally positive feelings toward the kind of cinema that the Academy recognizes. Maybe I’m just a glass half-full kind of guy. I’m not really bothered that Rocky won over Taxi Driver or that The English Patient won over Fargo; I’m genuinely glad that they were nominated and that that is swimming around in our cultural history.

The Chuck Workman montages and the memoriam and the Lifetime Achievement awards, those always electrify me. I feel good about film when I watch that stuff. I like George Clooney, I like Ang Lee, I like Phillip Seymour Hoffman. I like Jon Stewart. Spending three hours with them is a pleasurable experience for me. I guess that this is the long way of saying that it’s not what the Oscars actually award, it’s just the very idea that they exist that there is one night in the year that is devoted to the canonization of the art form.

This was, by the way, a better show than last year. Thank God that they quit that putting the “lesser” nominees on stage as the winner was being announced to save time. Save time for whom exactly?


Bill C said...

"The collective mass audience appeal of the Super Bowl makes me feel lonely, the more limited (movie-loving) mass appeal of the Oscars makes me feel connected."

You took the words right out of my mouth, Alex. In fact, where Walter says "Oscar Night, for cineastes, is fast becoming Valentine’s Day for the lovelorn," I personally would substitute "Oscar Night" with "Super Bowl Sunday," a.k.a. the day I'm always the only one at the multiplex.

Jared said...

You guys are spot on, my friend (who likes Crash and bought the DVD, even though he is acutely aware of its flaws) and I who absolutely hated Crash and would put it in a zero star level of shitty cinema (the hysterical Thandie Newton performance and Ludacris's sub Paul Walker delivery really deserve Razzie nominations if anything) always manage to get riled up about it despite our distrust for the Scorsese hating asshats who choose who wins and loses. We spent like an hour talking about how much the Oscars are bullshit and how mad we were that Grizzly Man, No Direction Home, and A History of Violence went totally ignored in favor of shit that pleases the system the night before and then like the next night we watched and talked about the winners anyway, at least with Jon Stewart there was an excuse to watch (and i also like to say i enjoy seeing the movie clips in high definition) but on a Billy Crystal year the only reason we're all watching is because it's a uniting thing for movie fans. And at least they still make an effort to pick films with some merit that people enjoyed, unlike the Grammy Awards that reward the record that sells the most copies to the idiot masses and gives Wilco an award for "Best Packaging".

And really Alex, a piece of earnestly retarded dogshit like "Million Dollar Baby" over "Sideways"? Come on man, and I was really starting to like you as a critic.

Oh and I haven't seen Capote but Phillip Seymour Hoffman is amazing and can win ten best actor awards for all I care, "Love Liza", "Owning Mahowney", and his supporting work in "Magnolia", "Punch Drunk Love", and a number of other films really deserves recognition even if Capote is total shit, and I'll get around to seeing that when the Kalamazoo Film Society screens it this weekend.

Alex Jackson said...

And really Alex, a piece of earnestly retarded dogshit like "Million Dollar Baby" over "Sideways"? Come on man, and I was really starting to like you as a critic.

Um, I said that they were both three star movies indicaiting that I didn't exactly prefer one over the other but saw them as being more or less on the same level. Million Dollar Baby was certainly much cruder and dumber than Sideways but it was also much more volatile. I'm wired to respond much more strongly to melodrama than most other critics, I guess. The two biggest crimes that a film could commit are 1. being boring, 2. being light and insignificant. Being unduly manipulative is not high on there, I oppose weight without velocity and velocity without weight.

Strangely enough, I always thought that the two films made a better red state/blue state combo then Fahrenheit 9/11 and Passion of the Christ. They're really two sides of the same coin. The conservative Eastwood attacking the culture of poverty and saying that the welfare system has given the poor a sense of entitlement and discourages social mobility. (How could conservatives and liberals alike miss this and latch onto the "right-to-die" controversy?)

The liberal Payne is less political and more glib, he just thinks the lower class is irrepairably diseased relative to his ennobled, human, culture of oenologists. The women are ugly and fat and have sex while listening to George Bush. It's a closed system, they're not us and they will never be like us, and the only thing we can do is point and laugh. Payne is getting to be the Joseph Goebbels of classism.

Sideways and Million Dollar Baby show the left and right sides of America's political spectrum joining hands to tell the poor to go fuck themselves. Fascinating to be sure and watchable films in their own right, but rather ignoble wouldn't you think?

As I mentioned though, my favorite of the nominees that year was The Aviator.

Bill C said...

"Payne is getting to be the Joseph Goebbels of classism."

Ha! You've got stones, man.

Jared said...

I figured the way you listed the films denoted preference, I'm sure there are some films you'd rate *** that you like better than other films you'd rate ***, right? I've always just seen that stuff in Payne's work as Bunuel homage, and hey, isn't Eastwood even harder on them in Million Dollar Baby when he shows us the ugliest sides of Maggie's economically depressed family?

Also, having never read the book of "About Schmidt" anybody know why Warren listens to Rush Limbaugh on the radio? I never got a political vibe from that film and that scene seems like it could be excised.

Seattle Jeff said...

The passage of time and the maturing of my tastes in film really helped to wean me off the idea that the Oscars are rewarding the best in year's cinema. Really, I think that the three year win of the mediocre films Gladiator, A Beautiful Mind, and Chicago really clenched it for me. I don't take them seriously enough to get mad. I just don't think that they have that much power.

Exactly Alex! Exactly my experience.

I remember my response to Gladiator was something along the lines of "Whaaaa??"

Walter_Chaw said...

Check this. Says it well.

Alex Jackson said...

I figured the way you listed the films denoted preference, I'm sure there are some films you'd rate *** that you like better than other films you'd rate ***, right? I've always just seen that stuff in Payne's work as Bunuel homage, and hey, isn't Eastwood even harder on them in Million Dollar Baby when he shows us the ugliest sides of Maggie's economically depressed family?

Well, they're both pretty hard and ugly. Eastwood at least provides a means for Maggie to escape her background. She can become a boxer!

There's no means for the characters in Payne's universe to escape their background. They're born that way and they will die that way, cultural almost genetic inferiors to you and me.

You're probably right that I was putting them in order of preference, but it's a small degree of preference. It's hard to say which I like better, I jump on one bandwagon I start eyeing the other. I'll give you that Payne is a more sophisticated filmmaker than Eastwood but he's also a bigger asshole.

My buttons were well pushed with Million Dollar Baby, I found myself hissing at Maggie's family. But Sideways was more of a...cultural artifact borne from an elitist sensibility. The Bush scene isn't button pushing, it's just working along side Payne's (and his theoretical audience's) innate prejudices against the lower class. It's a character piece, not a political film like the attack in Million Dollar Baby. The idea that poor people are garbage is just a given for him.

Nate said...

Nice article, Walter. I especially like how the average rating from 2500 users is 2 out of 5. Scary.

Alex Jackson said...

See, I actually wish that Brokeback Mountain won over Crash. I can't defend it to any extent just yet; I have all this other stuff that I have to do, but hearing all the backlash and most of the same arguments against the selection is getting me antsy.

James Allen said...

I'm waiting for Roger Ebert to write an angry article about the backlash.

I must say, I've seen disagreements about the quality of Oscar winners, but never quite one as heated as this one (The MSNBC article was fun and all, but why did it take until 2006 to convince the author of the Oscar's general irrelevency?). I suppose the crux of it here is the subject matter, and the general gist by many supporters (notably Ebert) that wathcing this movie will make you a better person an tap into all the unknowable truths about human behavior. (Not that this is the sole argument in favor of Crash, my friend liked the film for the performances and didn't walk away from it transformed.)

This'll be fun for about a week or so, but in the end like the Super Bowl (I like that analogy by the way) the spectacle will be a faint echo in most people's mind. Which is just the way I like it, anyway. And like Alex, I can't get all worked up over the winners and losers and whether I agree with the choices or not. It's kind of like watching the big game and exclaiming in shock, "I can't believe that ref missed that call!!" It's a sentiment that won't haunt me for all that long.

I mean, all you have to do is look at a list of winners from past 20 years or so, and you'll see a fair share of duds. Look at all the nominees from the last 20 years or so and you'll be scratching your head.

I just enjoy the general spectacle, and the amazement I feel at an industry saluting their best by producing an event of amazing stiltedness (the 4+ hour extraveganzas of the past were actually better, as you'd get a lot more bizarre indulgences that had the potential to register for more than 5 seconds.) I also am amazed these days about how every joke of the host is broken down more than the Warren Commission Report.

Oh well, the party's over. I guess I'll have some leftover champaigne and avacado dip. (Day old wheat thins hold up surprisingly well.)

jer fairall said...

I read Sideways as a sort of teen road trip sex comedy where the characters happened to be in their forties, with their arrested adolescence a product of the privileged class. That the movie really works (for me, at least) is, I think, due to the balance that Payne finds between being critical of his subjects without being disdainful of them. It's somewhat easier to like the characters in this film than the ones in Election (never mind the bilious Citizen Ruth) but they never quite come off as sympathetic as Warren Schmidt.

I actually didn't mind Million Dollar Baby either, though I'd certainly rate Sideways as quite significantly better. I was less bothered by Maggie's family than I was by the ugly subplot involving the borderline-retarded kid that hangs around the gym, exploited first for laughs and then for inspirational uplift. I guess I just like the kind of quiet, classical, meat-and-potatos quality of Eastwood's films. They work on their given level: I liked Million Dollar Baby as a better-than-average melodrama, and I liked Mystic River as a better-than-average murder mystery. Neither would make my Top Ten list of any year, but a world in which Clint Eastwood is the enemy would be a charmed one indeed.

Jared said...

Well although Sideways is far from Payne's most smartass and elitist work (that goes to his screenwriting credit on Jurassic Park 3) he's kind of right about the poor people in his films. Let's face it, they are always going to be grotesques and their personalities often match their outward appearances, people get their sympathies mixed up with the truth. Poverty does not equal nobility any more than wealth equals nobility (and by the way, isn't Miles in Sideways pretty poor? He lives in a shitty apartment and steals from his mom). And yes, it would actually be fairly easy to call Sideways like a upper middlebrow version of The 40 Year Old Virgin, it is very much a teen sex comedy, the scene where Miles walks in on Sandra Oh and Thomas Haden Church's characters especially drives this home. Still there's an interesting film there, plus it's a more aesthetically pleasing film than Million Dollar Baby. One of my friends said Eastwood's films are so dark because he wants to them to be like Bruce Springsteen songs on film, I told him that I never really cared for Bruce Springsteen anyway.

I think this year the Oscars didn't have an amazing film to pick and I think they went with Crash, contrary to all other opinions, because it's the one most people have seen. It's riding around 75 and rising on the IMDB top 250 where as none of the other Oscar contenders or King Kong 2k5 is close to cracking it. It's not as egregious as a year when a fairly good movie like Ordinary People beats an amazing movie top 10 of all time movie like Raging Bull.

Ebert by the way, did write the angry article you requested!

Jared said...

Oh and I know you were kidding when you said Eastwood offers Maggie a way out of poverty by "being a boxer". Getting hit in the face a lot is way better than being poor, she should join the army too while she's at it.

James Allen said...

Not much to say about Ebert's article really. I suppose there is a bit of a point to be made about some academy members voting for a "safer" choice with Crash, but in my mind, that introduces a false dilemma. Of the five pictures nominated, I don't know what the heck I would've voted for. Munich, I guess.

As to why Crash won, the theory posited by Jared above seems reasonable enough. It had the time and the groundswell of support (led in no small part by Ebert) to gain momentum, while the amazing attention to Brokeback Mountain (including non-stop jokes and parodies of it) may have just tired everyone out and blunted its overall impact. Who knows, I'm just guessing here.

In the end, since there was obviously no clear big choice, the awards were spread around nicely enough, illustrated the clearest by the director/picture split.

Bill C said...

I think MADtv spoke for the collective subconscious when they parodied the trailer for Last Holiday: "Roger Ebert says, 'I'm married to a black woman, so I loved it!'"

I find it a curious sign of the times that the beta test of Crash, the smarter but still stupid Grand Canyon, was all but ignored by the Academy fifteen years ago.

James Allen said...

Good point Bill. I keep forgetting about Grand Canyon, which I believe at the time it was released seemed bound to get a bushelful of nominations. I guess it seems to precious at the time, so soon (two years) after Do the Right Thing famously got snubbed by the Academy (and similarly championed by Ebert and Siskel.)

Jared said...

Unlike "Crash", "Do The Right Thing" is an amazingly gorgeous looking, intelligent acting film that holds up as a modern classic almost 20 years later. 20 years from now I think "Crash" will be all but forgotten. If you want a great example of Academy Politics look no further than a movie winning Best Picture where Morgan Freeman plays an old white woman's man servant and Spike Lee's radical film about race relations didn't even get nominated. Those awards also ignored "Roger and Me". Man, every time I re-evaluate the 80s I keep thinking it was a better and better decade for cinema.

And Lawrence Kasdan I'll defend to an extreme degree, I enjoy his flicks even the much hated in these parts I'm assuming "The Big Chill", plus let us not forget his underrated involvement in the good Star Wars movies. He's a poor man's Altman in terms of structuring a film but he sure is good with actors.

Alex Jackson said...

Oh and I know you were kidding when you said Eastwood offers Maggie a way out of poverty by "being a boxer". Getting hit in the face a lot is way better than being poor, she should join the army too while she's at it.

In Eastwood's eyes it is. I remember him even expressing the opinion that conservatives should have responded to his movie as it shows somebody pulling themselves up from the bootstraps.

jonathan said...

The only aspect of Ebert's inevitable defense of the Crash win that's at all interesting is that his premise for the piece is that the only people who've "savaged" Crash over the past two days are die-hard Brokeback Mountain fans.

There's a pot-and-kettle joke in there somewhere, but, without my invisibility cloak to hide behind, I'm not going to call anyone "black."

And I do love the implication that the only reason someone would say that Crash was the worst film of the year-- offhand, I only saw four or five I thought were worse-- is to support Brokeback Mountain. It's precisely that kind of gross overgeneralization about how other people think that makes Crash so repellant, so to see the film's loudest champion adopt the same rhetorical position seems a fitting conclusion for this hoo-ha.

Ultimately, what's so upsetting to me about the Crash win is that it guarantees that the film will remain a point of discussion far, far longer than it should. Ed Gonzalez, though he was clearly just trying to promote Brokeback Mountain, remarked on Slant that the sign of truly bad films is that they linger, and I think he's right-- like Million Dollar Cripple, my revulsion over Crash is now something that I'm going to have to explain to friends and family for years to come. It's a selfish reason to object to a Best Picture win, sure, but considering how often I have to go out of my way to defend my "artsy-fartsy" (to quote my sister) taste in film, I'd much rather something as aggressively bad as Crash have been forgotten by this time next year, the way that unsuccessful "prestige" flotsam like Proof already has been.

That's one reason, I suppose, that I can't get on board with Alex's sentiment that the Oscars are about the canonization of the art form-- call me Harold Bloom, but when you're ensuring that something like Crash (or Gladiator, or A Beautiful Mind, and so on and so on) stays in would-be "serious" conversation, what you're doing is making the conversation more about yourself (AMPAS, that is) and how you're getting things wrong than you're advancing a conversation about an art form.

And with so many other awards shows, and especially in a year like this one when all of those other awards come to the same conclusion about what's the "best" film of the year, it's hard to make a case that the Oscars have any greater claim on the "canon" than the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, SAGs, or AFIs. At this point, it might save the studios a whole lot of money on FYC ads and screener DVDs simply to defer to Ebert's The Great Movies books and be done with it.

Alex Jackson said...

By the bootstraps that is.

Also does anybody know what Spike Lee thought about Crash? I can see why many still hold that up as an anecdote to Crash; but certainly it's still a bit of a thin line. The dialogue is still very stylized and overt and Buggin' Out, Radio Raheem, Smiley, and Mother Sister seem like bigger than life caricatures. Yes, the film is ambiguous but is it considerably more subtle than Crash? I dunno, Martin Luther King and Malcom X on the burning pizzaria walls, the ending title cards, the "Fight the Power" title sequence, he's working with a hammer isn't he?

Bill C said...

I can defend Kasdan up to a point, Jared (and that point's name is Dreamcatcher). The Big Chill never did it for me; I hate watching yuppies dice vegetables to Motown, there's something unsettlingly paternalistic about it. His Empire Strikes Back script is indeed great, but it was also coauthored with Leigh Brackett; flying solo on Jedi, he didn't do so well. Soft spot for The Accidental Tourist, I Love You to Death is better than its reputation suggests, and French Kiss is one of the less insufferable Meg Ryan romcoms. And so on. I think I'd honestly rather see another picture from his son Jake, whose directorial debut (Zero Effect) I would actually rank above Lawrence's own (Body Heat), if only because it's the more inspired pastiche.

Alex Jackson said...

I thought that Dreamcatcher was pretty funny. It had aliens that speak with British accents, magical Scooby Doo loving retards, and aliens that pop out of your anus. Morgan Freeman almost single handedly killed the movie though, poor bastard. That was the only part for me that crossed over from good-bad movie to bad-bad movie.

Body Heat and The Big Chill were just plain fucking boring so I never really sought out much of Kasdan's work. I did stumble upon French Kiss though and yeah, it's not bad for a MRRC.

Bill C said...

Dreamcatcher also has the single-funniest ending theme of any movie in recent memory: the mystical retard's cry of "I Duddits!" is sampled over and over, backed by a techno beat. It's really a batshit movie, I don't quite know how it managed to see the light of day.

Dave Gibson said...

RE: Oscars. I kept score too, all of y'all did.

I’ve watched the Oscars since I was a (precocious?) nine-year old, and I agree that the big show is an intrinsic and unavoidable fact of being a movie lover. I don’t know most of the people on this blog personally, but I’d wager dollar to donuts that every last one of you is truly a romantic at heart. How can any one who cares, truly cares, about movies not be? The Oscars usually represent my annual break from (affecting) the practiced cynicism of a Thirty Something Movie Geek Who’s Been Burned Too Many Times. I’m the guy who wondered (aloud, for some reason) why “Cache”, “A History of Violence” and “Grizzly Man” were not nominated—but, I’m also the guy who was rooting for Lauren Bacall to keep it together for that film noir intro (It’s Lauren freaking’ Bacall, have some freaking’ respect, say I) and one who, yes, had a couple salty ones welling up as Altman spoke of his storied career and inherited heart. (What? He’s not a genius?) So, as a lifelong movie lover, I’m a study in contradictions, who’s always been aware that the Academy is well practiced in being predictably, inevitably—wrong. “Crash”? Yeah, I guess it meant well, stunk anyways—(though I’m still tickled by the site of the “Facts of Life” guy quoting Brecht.) But it wasn’t like “Forrest Gump” dropping “Pulp Fiction” or “Kramer vs. Kramer” over “Apocalypse Now” (And, all of those movies are infinitely better than “Crash”) I think the first Oscars I watched, the favourite that year was “Reds”, which lost to “Chariots of Fire” (the first of which has been forgotten entirely, and the second has been eclipsed by its theme music). Or hey, remember when Michael Cimino was the toast of the town? Liberal, milquetoast “message” films are the Academy’s bread and butter, so I’m not really chagrined by that disheartening fact. I’m more worried that we don’t even get GOOD sanctimonious claptrap anymore—“To Kill A Mockingbird”, “In the Heat of the Night”, “Gentlemen’s Agreement”, even the loathed “Driving Miss Daisy” (a film more loathsome in concept than execution)…these are Akira freaking’ Kurosawa films compared to “Crash” (or, come to think of it, any of the other five nominated films). They just don’t make mediocre movies the way they used to I guess. Ah well, Howard and Haggis may have the statues, but they’ll never have the stature. As for Ebert, I dunno—what did Leonard Maltin and Rex Reed think? The man publishes his own digital photos of the celeb parties for lawd’s sake! Ebert is no longer a movie critic, he’s a celebrity journalist (an oxymoron if there ever was one, no wonder he wasn’t boosting the Edward R. Murrow film) Just read his “recap” of the Oscar telecast—seems that each moment was more brilliant than the last. But, that’s the club he wanted to join, so be it.

Jared said...

I at least like how "Dreamcatcher" is just a friggin crazy almost slapstick comedy in places. It's like "Fire In The Sky" on acid. For some reason I had remembered that being a Jake Kasdan film and not a Lawrence Kasdan film, guess I was wrong. Yeah, I like Jake's two flicks too, hopefully he gets to work with Mike White again.

"Kramer vs. Kramer" is in the same "best picture" pond as "Crash", maybe better acting but the film is a pretty idiotic and emotionally sloppy mess. I dunno, I saw it last year and it's either outdate dor always sucked. In a year where we got "The Squid and the Whale" why freakin bother? You know. "Apocalypse Now" is still too incendiary to win a best picture award, I think that film's legacy is bigger than an Oscar win would've been at this point though.

Anyone else like the guy who does the blog at Ebert's website? I tend to find myself agreeing with him a lot and I think he wrote some of the most reasonable comments about "Crash" that i've seen, plus he loves "A History of Violence" but he sure stumped awfully hard for that Tommy Lee Jones movie.

petalumafilmcenter said...

I'm getting a little sick of the attacks on Crash, which benefited more from the attacks than it was hurt by it. The more misguided criticism, the more Ebert stepped out there with his Dickens' comparisons. And Ebert's recent darlings (Million Dollar Baby, Theron, Berry, the unbelievable nomination of Keisha Castle Hughes) have prevailed; so did Crash. Critics of the movie would have done better to prop up their favorite films.

Take that MSNBC litmus test that Walter linked. It makes its point, I guess, but that point could just as easily be made on A History of Violence, a movie in which our hero can kill three gangsters on his lawn a couple days after being a national TV hero and slip away in the night after he gets a phone call from dear old bro to settle a final score without the cops or the media sniffing around before he leaves or after he comes back. Now that's realism for ya.

Oh - but it's Cronenberg being Cronenberg, ya say. He's a brilliant director purposely contorting the plot in absurd, unlikely directions to deliver a searing examination of our nation's love affair with violence, replete with one-eye gangsters and rough, transgressive sex. The right angles and oddities are all part of Cronenberg's arsenal. That plot's about as believable as me starting at wideout for the Lions, but then Cronenberg's a genius.

And Paul Haggis is a hack for doing much the same thing?

Yes, the characters in Crash are over-the-top explicit. Yes, the story strains credulity in its absurd final half-hour. And its greatest flaw lies in marginalizing Asians as slaves, or slave-traders. But I think it'd be wrong to crucify the movie for doing an injustice to racism by presenting in dialogue what many Americans feel. Do The Right Thing absolutely treads the same ground -how else to describe a scene where characters look at the camera and yell epithets? - and Spike Lee revisits the concept in the The 25th Hour's best five minutes. Does something fundamentally change because the character is saying it to the camera and not to another character? That's a relevant question.

But to hit Crash for not being hyperbole is akin to rapping Kubrick on the knuckles for Eyes Wide Shut because random girls wanted to fuck the lead all night, New York streets are never that deserted and the lords of sex parties probably don't hire blindfolded piano players from Seattle. Haggis isn't nearly the artist Kubrick is, but I'm either going to a movie or I'm not and I'm smart enough to know when a writer-director is smooshing things together for provocation and when he's Shawn Levy or something.

And while I abhor Ebert's "better people" argument, I can say that "Munich" made me think a whole lot more about my faith and how it relates to US support of Israel, "Brokeback Mountain" made me care more about my spouse, "Cache" made think a little harder about how honest I am with myself and others, "Grizzly Man," in its grand absurdity, made me think about a lot of things. Movies actually do these things on occasion, and I fully believe some people emerged from "Crash" entirely manipulated and more thoughtful on the subject of race. And they weren't all idiots.

petalumafilmcenter said...

Here's the Ebert opinion:

And other various musings compiled by Ebert's blog guy (who does an all right job):

Ebert makes some commentary about Munich. I've said it on here before: "Munich" was, to me, head and shoulders above the other films in terms of craftsmanship, acting, sheer drama and subject matter. But it labored under secrecy and took a position on Israel that Hollywood (and America in general) probably couldn't fully grasp or appreciate. I saw it thrice, the second time hearing from a moviegoer as I left: "So was that saying we shouldn't kill these fuckers?" I presume that meaning the US, today, killing terrorists. Quite simply, well, yeah, I think the movie was arguing it may not actually work, and the final scene, where one character balks at further vegeance and is rebuked when he offers a breaking of bread, sums up brilliantly where we're at right now in global politics - sacrificing peace in the name of vengeance.

Too bad the academy doesn't publish numerical results, because I doubt Brokeback even finished second in the voting. It didn't win any of the acting categories. I wager Capote came in a distant second, followed by Brokeback, Munich and Good Night. Personally, I doubt the voting was all that close. But we'll never know.

Jared said...

The epithets directed at the camera in "Do The Right Thing" play more realistically than "Crash", the most incisive things you can point out about modern racism is that it's something that you keep private, you aren't going to talk about "prison tatoos" in front of the Mexican guy working on your locks, but you will talk about it when he's gone. Not to mention there is economy of characters in Do The Right Thing allows them to be just that, characters with 3 dimensions and not a "pampered suburban housewife" and "young black carjacker" and "mexican blue collar worker" or "latina maid" etc..etc.. and while Sal's camera monologue is him firing off invective racial slurs about blacks at alarming speed and precision we tell that he deeply, deeply cares for Mookie and his sister as well as the neighborhood that has made his business a success. He likes black people, he's just frustrated sometimes and he starts to pin interpersonal problems as racial things. It shows how we're capable of some sentiments we don't really mean, how the world around us shapes us. "Crash" is nihilistic, we all hate each other openly, the world is fucked, it'll take some sort of mass tragedy for us to get any understanding. I don't want to believe that. Man, someone PLEASE find me an interview with Spike Lee talking about Crash. He was even in town for Martin Luther King day when i was back home and i skipped out on his talk, i should've asked him then. My friend got his 25th hour DVD signed though. Spike said "Condoleeza Rice is on crack" at the thing" which makes me giggle a little.

And man, Ebert is driving me nuts, I'm going to have to pick up a Charles Dickens book again, but as I recall from high school Brit Lit, Charles Dickens tends not to have a whole heck of a lot to do with race relations in Los Angeles. The car crash metaphor is just driving me nuts too, every car crash i've been involved in has been with another white person and I've found ample reasons to want to tear their heads off for driving like idiots.

Plus after his thirty years in the business I trust Cronenberg's instincts, he's wilfully leaving stuff out, he's operating from Hitchcock's ultimatum that "drama is life with the boring parts cut out", it's 95 minutes, it's brisk, it's lean, it flies. Crash is bloated and is only about ten minutes longer.

Jared said...

Didn't get to see Munich, i don't think a lot of people did, for a "75 million dollar Spielberg studio film" which everybody was chastising it for being while nominated alongside all the independents it got lumped in with the massive Christmas releases and didn't play long enough for me to see it. I hope it gets a run through the dollar fifty theater before it comes out on DVD. It sounds like a film we need culturally more than a film that wants to preach the evils of homophobia and racism. More imperative at the moment at least, the world is really as fucked as Crash thinks it is if Bush's brother or even worse Bill Frist is our president in 2009.

Walter_Chaw said...

Yes. . . but isn't A History of Violence an indictment of that familiarity and Crash a sledgehammer supposition that we have none? Isn't the one a scourging of our base, carnal knowledge presented in intellectual binaries while the other is a burlesque vaudeville of talking-Janus-heads?

Cronenberg invites your disbelief, Haggis writes (confirms) your ignorance - that's not just a parallel turn of phrase, it's an analysis of A History of Violence as the kind of film that has doubles every pivotal cause/effect moment in its narrative for you to assess its effectiveness on you as compared to your expectations and experience - and Crash is a diary of no one's experience essayed in a way that's insulting and reductive.

"Do you prefer the boy dealing with the bully with wit, or the boy dealing with the bully by breaking his nose?"


"We're all racists and we're all saints. Especially Asians but not so much the second part."

You zero in as many have on the absence of media in the second half of the film - but you forget that there's only one local crew on Tom's lawn when he comes home from the hospital in the first place. Our own experience tells us that there would be dozens of crews camped out - for weeks - until the next big story called them away. It tweaks us, yes? We wonder about it and then we wonder why we know better. It's not a cynical film, per se, but it sure makes me cynical about us.

Is it plausible that Tom could kill half a dozen trained killers with his bare hands or is that just another convention that we accept in action films? (He's a cook, but he's also a black ops green beret!) And how about the scene where the town bullies turn away from the intrusion of the serial killers? There's a tacit agreement in the film violated in that moment that all the occupants of this Norman Rockwell midwestern American Small Town will act a certain way - the prologue introduces (in its own genre conventional way, but the wrong genre) the presence of real evil at its borders. Maybe A History of Violence, on top of all the other things it's about, is about how strange and insular (and ignorant and vulnerable) we've become in our paranoia. A Twilight Zone episode about a too-perfect burg or, better, Ray Bradbury's "Mars is Heaven" short story where it's always Summer in childhood's Springfield. . . until outsiders dare to intrude.

Crash is about bolstering that tacit, bucolic agreement to see things as black and white. Let's shake on it. You're an asshole and you're a saint.

You make characters that are black and white and you're not painting in subtleties, you're painting schizophrenic caricatures. They should pass out those blood donation stickers at Brokeback, they should pass them out at Crash, too. Not all of the people "changed" by Crash are idiots - they're just racists who either believe that they're not anymore or feel as though they're given permission now. You use the word "change" - into what?

I'm racist as hell and I didn't learn a damned thing from the film. What, other people are racists, too, but they're in deep denial about it? No kidding. Is this really a surprise to anyone?

Weren't you more surprised to cheer when Tom's kid kicks the shit out of the bullies? Or get a rise out of Tom raping his wife on the stairs and the wife sort of liking it?

Tell me that you don't see colors and I wonder about your sanity. Why would you presume, in any case, that I would want you to ignore my ethnicity? "Dude, I don't even think of you as a white guy." What's wrapped up in that outpouring of love and acceptance is a whole lot of aggressive marginalization, half-buried contempt, self-congratulation, and self-delusion.

Does Crash engage race on that level? Of course it does. Oh, and also that chinks are totally fucking evil. Stupid, too. And hilarious. And so it goes.

Walter_Chaw said...

Don't misunderstand, by the by, I think the treatment of Asians in Crash is raw and fascinating. It's the only honest moment in the piece where the actual prejudices of the filmmakers are put on proud, naked display. Racism is when it's so ingrained that you don't even know that you're doing it - any other kind is paternalistic, Seven Sisters, bumper sticker, pseudo-activist intellectualism and this disgusting desire to make a self-righteous pageant out of other people's real pain.

What if the whole movie was about that Chinese actress who was constantly, and only ever, cast as the crass, pidgen-talking dragon-bitch, comic relief/plot point in the middle of the "most enlightened year in Hollywood"?

Bill C said...

Funny, I've been working on a review of Lady and the Tramp, and one of things I noticed this time around is that it's very much set in a George Lucas universe where every single breed of dog has a different foreign (i.e. any country not located in an Asian territory) accent but they're mostly benign threats to Lady--except for the fucking cats (and Disney hated cats), who speak pidgin English and, courtesy of Peggy Lee, hiss a Dragon Lady song that perfectly encapsulates the Yellow Peril of the 1950s. (Presumably they'd feast on Lady, given the chance.) Still, I can't decide if I prefer this to the Crash template of Chinese immigrants only getting their due as slaves waiting for some ironic black man to come along and free them; I almost think I'd rather be feared than pitied.

Jared said...

Thank you, finally I think someone has officially shut "Crash" down once and for all, and I never really thought about the scenes with the son in "A History of Violence" in that light before, it's absolutely true that film (this film included in the process of exposing ourselves) makes us identify with aggressors and jeer victims/cheer their victimization. When Tom's son uses his words to defray a situation he's still a weak little pussy in our eyes, but then when he kicks ass he's a hero.

"I'm racist as hell and I didn't learn a damned thing from the film. What, other people are racists, too, but they're in deep denial about it? No kidding. Is this really a surprise to anyone?"-Exactly by the way, If i was ushered into Crash by someone wanting to change me and not because I was curious about the film I would've absolutely learned nothing, I would've seen the same black criminals, Asian comic relief, and low class Mexicans, cheap Arab (oh, i'm sorry, Persian!) shop keepers as before. I wonder what Sal from "Do The Right Thing" would think about Crash as he is a character that represents these contradictions but is a good man and shown three dimensionally.

"Mexican lady no know how drive! no have insurance!"-yep, I've been stating for awhile that I would've loved to see the movie Todd Solondz could've made out of Crash's screenplay, I think he would've actually kicked us in the ass with our own prejudices against Asians and other non-black/non-white races.

Alex Jackson said...

In case you're interested..

My Top Ten for 2005

Bemis said...

I watched the Oscars with two downstairs neighbors who both liked Crash. They're not hardcore film fans, so I value their opinions, and they both have generally good taste - they like what they like, you know? But I did find it interesting when one of them said "I cried so hard when the little girl got shot." Of course, no little girl was shot in Crash, and that's what I think makes it so criminally bad - it hits its audience with the blunt emotional impact of something like the death of a kid, then finds a contrived way to dance around the implications of such a moment. But what my neighbor, who isn't hyperanalytical and just wants to see a movie, can't even remember that the kid lived. Because in her mind, she rewrote the scene in a way that at least makes more dramatic sense.

petalumafilmcenter said...

Walter, you've written more effectively than the movie played. It may be that Cronenberg fully intended to have me, for example, as questions about the plausibility in an effort to realize that I know too much about the mass media. He had many of those same intentions in, well, a lot of his movies, but especially "Crash." Unlike that movie, which did a better job of using an unlikely turn-on to better analyze the ways we obsess over sex, A History of Violence seems sincere about catching Tom/Joey in his trap and examining the effects of duplicity before it just clears the field for a last half-hour of bloodbathing. It felt...commercial. Ah well.

Don't you think Crash is about anything else? There are four parent/child couplings examined, none of which really involved racism. I detected a throughline on the bureaucratic crush of our system-based society - HMOs, television, government.

At any rate, I thought both movies used the sledgehammer. I read neither movie as an indictment (as you read A History of Violence) nor neither as a calling to betterness (as Ebert claims of Crash).

Bill C said...

Sorry to switch gears, but did anyone read Armond White's ludicrous review of Running Scared. Once again, he proves that it doesn't matter if you agree with him: you're still wrong. He spins Tarantino's blurb about the film into an anti-Tarantino rant, despite the fact that he and Tarantino seem to draw the exact same conclusion about Running Scared: that it is "filmmaking from the pelvis." It's contrarian, hyperbolic, and maddeningly inexplicable--vintage White, in other words.

James Allen said...

I've been reading White faithfully for years now and I think I'm being obvious when I say you never fucking know where's he's going to be coming from on any particular picture. That alone keeps him a must read on my list.

Also, pulling quotes from his reviews is kind of tough; you really have to read the whole of his pieces to drink in the true majesty of it all (even if, and maybe especially if, you don't agree with him at all.)

James Allen said...

And speaking of guys who write for the New York Press, I just read Matt Zoller Seitz's column from this week's issue, which I think is the most reasonably measured take on this years Oscars that I've read all week (unlike some of the vituperation I've seen flying around.)

Alex Jackson said...

I never even heard of Armond White until I started reading Bill's reviews. I remember that he was featured in the book The Critics Were Wrong but only once and with Wild at Heart at that.

I really like him. He's passionate and angry, and I've forgiven him for a multitude of sins simply because he's helped me to like War of the Worlds without any guilt, and he panned The Forty Year Old Virgin for the exact reason that The Forty Year Old Virgin should be panned. It's not good filmmaking.

Jared said...

Alex I still don't understand your reasoning for hating The 40 Year Old Virgin. Comedy shouldn't be about filmmaking. Would you rather watch a piece of crap like the Austin Powers movies (Especially the most egregious Goldmember) that's painfully unfunny but slathered in coats and coats of expensive polish and gloss?

Bill C said...

That's a peculiarly anti-intellectual position to take, Jared, "comedy shouldn't be about filmmaking." Does that mean Leo McCarey, Frank Tashlin, and the Coen Brothers should pack up and go home? The irony is you use the example of the Austin Powers movies to prop up The 40 Year Old Virgin when they're pretty much aesthetically identical: like Judd Apatow, Jay Roach has these lavish sets and all he does is plop the camera down for standard sitcom setups.

Jared said...

You consider the Coens comedy filmmakers? Maybe that's why we're out of synch somewhere. I've always found something genuinely frightening and dystopian about their films up until they started getting light as a feather with "O Brother Where Art Thou?". They certainly don't fall in a genre too neatly. The worst way a comedy can fail is not being funny because unfunny comedy is an agonizing experience where you feel embarassment and pain for the people behind it. Maybe I'm lowering the bar but I feel like I genuinely enjoy films like Clerks and The 40 Year Old Virgin even if their directors are more or less hacks with a solid screenplay.

Also you're forgetting the fact that Peter Deming (Mulholland Drive, Lost Highway, The Jacket, From Hell, Evil Dead II) shot Austin Powers 1 and Goldmember, not that I blame you for not knowing specifics about that piece of crap. But there's not a pair of idiots behind the camera, just one, it may be genuinely stationary and blocked like an episode of "Friends" but it's boring shit with a pretty thick coat of polish on it.

Bill C said...

Ok, now you're getting a bit snarky, Jared, with your presumptions of ignorance. I know/knew that Peter Deming shot Austin Powers 1 & 3; Gordon Willis shot The Money Pit, what's your point? (And for what it's worth, I've said time and again on the site that I don't much care for Peter Deming's work.) I mean, Jack "Unforgiven" Green shot The 40 Year Old Virgin! The DP is at the mercy of the director; ditto the editor. And sometimes the director is at the mercy of the studio.

Yes, Raising Arizona is a comedy. I don't know where this "dystopian" stuff plays into Miller's Crossing, which, you got me, isn't a comedy. But I would argue that the Coens are primarily comedic filmmakers with the gift of transcending genre. When people go around quoting The Big Lebowski, I'm pretty sure it's not for dramatic effect.

Alex Jackson said...

Comedy shouldn't be about filmmaking.

All films should be about filmmaking. Even comedies. I wouldn't quite say it about the Austin Powers movies (I did find Goldmember rather unwatchably obnoxious) but certainly Barry Sonnenfeld on a bad day (Addams Family Values and what I've seen of Men in Black 2, haven't seen Wild Wild West) comes close to Judd Apatow on a good day (which is what I'm assuming 40 year Old Virgin is). You mention that "the worst way a comedy can fail is not being funny because unfunny comedy is an agonizing experience where you feel embarassment and pain for the people behind it." If you ask me shitty filmmaking is the perfect way to avoid ever taking that kind of risk.

Still, much would be forgiven if The Forty Year Old Virgin were actually as funny as you say it is. Or as interesting. Or as intelligent, thought-provoking, challenging. Or if it could survive comparison to the insanely superior Ghost World.

There's good stuff in it, particularly the performances by Steve Carell and Catherine Keener (who I had mentally typecast as only able to do bitch roles because she was so great at them. Hey, how about that though she's versatile! I'm impressed). Some of the jokes and even some of the attitudes in the film are good, part of me even likes the pro-abstinence message it's kind of sweet.

But the film is formless. It limps from one romcom convention to another sometimes non-sensically (the scene where Keener discovers the porn and decides on this evidence that the Forty year Old Virgin is a misogynist is among one of the most embarassingly moments of the year). Even on a writing level, it so incompetent on a base level that I could hardly credit it for having "a solid script".

Bill C said...

While I was typing a follow-up, Alex, you pretty much said what I was going to say and with more eloquence. I also didn't mean to be so reductive as to argue that filmmaking = camerawork, as that's a common misnomer I hate to perpetuate; but moreover, I think 40 Year Old Virgin is bad filmmaking because it never electrified me in any way. And it's just so slack, like the Austin Powers movies, although even they have the decency to check out after 90 minutes. (The Unrated Version of Virgin runs 133 minutes, for crying out loud.) I also loath its politics, but that's another story for a rainier day, and frankly beside the point.

Bemis said...

I liked The 40-Year-Old Virgin - I did think it was funny, and it had a handful of insightful moments - but yeah, everything you've both said is spot-on. For me, it's like Taco Bell - I know it's not fine cuisine, but sometimes it hits the spot. That said, I'm always going to prefer a movie that's hilarious and well-made. Raising Arizona is a great example, as sequences like the extended mid-movie chase are just astounding, and I find myself laughing as much at the sheer visual wit and inventiveness as at any of the jokes.

This is not to say that a comedy cannot benefit from the limitations caused by a tight budget - the running gag with the coconut in Monty Python and the Holy Grail is a perfect example. But I can't think of a comparable moment in Virgin.

James Allen said...

The 40-Year Old Virgin was, to me, mildly amusing in parts, mostly carried by the winning performance of Carell. Unfortunately the rather promising premise was betrayed by a lack of focus in the script. It's also (as many have pointed out) slackly directed and runs too long; the DVD is worse, treating the film like it's freaking Apocalypse Now Redux. Yeeesh.