Monday, March 06, 2006

CRASH wins. We lose.

It actually happened- the upset-happy hypesters have gotten their way. Sometimes there's a tendency in the entertainment press to turn the Oscars into two-horse races, if for no other reason than to drum up interest- did anybody really think Clooney wouldn't be getting that statuette? But this time around, it actually happened- the underdog vanquished the champ. The question of the day is- why?

Was it the much-ballyhooed homophobia of the voters that caused the BROKEBACK defeat? Was it that CRASH was set in Los Angeles? Were the voters just sick of hearing about BROKEBACK? Did they (heaven forbid) just like CRASH more? I'm not sure. But there's another possibility that hasn't been mentioned much, and this dawned on me last night, during the "issue movies" montage, when I first began considering the possibility of a CRASH victory. The voters thought that CRASH was a more Important movie.

Now I realize that most of the winners lately haven't skewed this way- most of the winners from the past decade have been large-scale entertainments, and the others were melodramatic. But Hollywood, as many presenters reminded us last night, has had some hard times lately. With box office down and more potential moviegoers taking their entertainment dollar elsewhere, movies don't matter to people like they used to. So voters began thinking about how future generations would regard their picks- as Clooney stated, Hollywood prides itself on being progressive and ahead of the curve when it comes to important issues. The nominees this year were unusually heavy on issues-heavy fare- homosexuality, terrorism, freedom of speech and the press, and racism carried the day. And more than the other nominees, CRASH wore its issues on its sleeve, the kind of socially concerned work that deserves to be honored, in their eyes.

BROKEBACK, on the other hand, treaded lightly in this department. Yes, its heroes were the victims of an intolerant era, which wouldn't allow them to love they way they could have, but it didn't preach. Much like last year's winner, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, it was about telling a story first and foremost, and any issues it raised were kept as subtext. That both BABY and BROKEBACK got the more vocal righties in an uproar due to their storylines is a subject for another time.

The only competition that CRASH had in the preachiness sweepstakes was GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK. But whereas Clooney's film was safely in the past, CRASH oh-so-boldly took place in the present. And yes, CRASH took place in Los Angeles, which was probably not lost on Hollywood voters. So CRASH, in spite of having characters foam about in elaborate speeches about racial issues on the streets of a big city (rather than keeping their damn traps shut at least until they closed the car doors), was interpreted by many as "reflective of the way we live now." The film became a sleeper hit this past summer. The phrase "CRASH moment" briefly entered the vernacular. Oprah, that eternal arbiter of pop-cultural significance, even invoked the film after she was denied after-hours entrance to an upscale Paris boutique to buy a $3000 purse for Tina Turner. I mean, we've all been there, right?

To my recollection, there was never any uproar over the film like there was over BROKEBACK. Maybe because CRASH comforted us with the idea that, deep down, we all have prejudices, but we need to learn to live together despite them. Awwwwwww, ain't that nice? But does being provoked then salved excuse the manipulative dramaturgy and jaw-droppingly shameless scenes given us by writer-director-Scots delicacy Paul Haggis? Obviously, to many, it does. Though not to me, and certainly not to this guy. But my opinions on the film itself aren't the issue here. It's not about who I would've picked, but why CRASH won. And I can't help but feel like a lot of voters forgot that the category was called Best Picture. BEST, as in most good, not most socially-concerned or most Important.

In one of his acceptance speeches last night, Paul Haggis quoted Brecht, saying that art should not be a mirror to society, but a hammer. That he considers his art a hammer goes a long way toward explaining how unsubtle CRASH is.

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