Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Best of Black Sheep: Remembering the year 2005

Written by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco
Directed by Paul Haggis

NOTE: This article has spoilers aplenty and should not be read by anyone who has not seen the movie.

I can still remember the feeling of my stomach dropping when Jack Nicholson announced that the 2005 Best Picture Oscar was being awarded to Paul Haggis’s CRASH, and not the frontrunner, BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN. I wasn’t the only one either who was floored; you could here the jarred pause in Nicholson’s voice when he announced it. The signs were pointing in that direction throughout the evening. First, CRASH took Best Editing, the only award it won that I genuinely feel it warranted, keeping all those simultaneously told stories in check and well balanced. Then it came along and took Best Original Screenplay. I say took but I really mean robbed considering there were three better screenplays that should have won (Woody Allen’s MATCH POINT, George Clooney and Grant Heslov’s GOODNIGHT AND GOOD LUCK and Josh Olsen's A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE). After those two wins combined with the previous win for Best Ensemble Cast at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, taking it all became a serious possibility. After it happened, the guests at my Oscar party could seriously see I was disappointed, distraught even. I popped Gustavo Santaolalla’s BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN score and began picking up after the mess.

It’s not that I don’t care for CRASH. I was just as mortified when Matt Dillon had his hands up Thandie Newton’s dress and just as gripped when he had to rescue her from her burning vehicle the next day. I was just as devastated when that adorable little girl was shot and just as exalted to witness the man-made miracle that allowed for her to survive. CRASH is not without its merits. Incredibly powerful scenes made all the more poignant by often surprising turns by Dillon, Newton, Terrence Howard and Michael Pena. To call it Best Picture though meant ignoring its condescending and manipulative storytelling techniques in favor of the ignorance it so aggressively draws to the surface. Of course race, prejudice and hatred are just as relevant now as they always have been despite the advances made, but Haggis, and I doubt he did it intentionally, preys on his viewer by using the inherent ignorance in each of us to make the film seem superior and revelatory.

CRASH takes place in a rough 24-hour period. In that period, a handful of Los Angeles inhabitants from all walks of life experience so much suffering that you would think the end of the world had arrived. Now, all that transpires is certainly possible but too darn convenient for me to swallow. Newton and Howard are seriously abused by a racist police officer (Dillon) one night and the next day, she ends up in a massive car accident and he ends up in a carjacking that turns into a run-in with the law. I bet the “Honey, how was your day?” conversation between those two had to be impressive after that. And imagine when Newton reveals that Dillon had to save her from the car and Howard is flabbergasted because Dillon’s partner (Ryan Phillippe) from the night before ended up saving his ass earlier that day. The scene between Newton and Dillon in the car cannot work as effectively if the previous scene they share doesn’t happen first but the odds are too overwhelming for me to accept. If this storyline stood on its own then perhaps it would be easier but taken with everything else, it all just feels as though Haggis is moving the pieces on the board one at a time to make the game play out as he needs instead of how it might.

The other writing technique that infuriates me more and more with further viewings of CRASH is the way Haggis delights in playing with his viewer’s ignorance. Larenz Tate and Ludacris walk down a trendy L.A. street at night and debate racial complacency and prevalence in modern society. They look like thugs but everything they’re saying about contemporary attitudes toward race make so much sense to me and must naturally appeal to my white liberal sensibility. It is so obvious that Haggis wants us to sympathize with these poor black guys who can’t get a break. Consequently, we are also supposed to feel disdain for Sandra Bullock and Brandan Fraser as they walk past in their fancy outfits toward their expensive car. Not because their combined acting performances cannot amount to anything more than embarrassment (which might explain why they are the least featured characters in the ensemble) but rather because they judged these fine, young gentlemen by the colour of their skin as they walked past them. They assumed that they look like thugs and therefore must be. Imagine the audience’s shock and disgust with themselves when the thugs actually are thugs and they steal the white people’s cars. Haggis spends all this time exposing the audience’s ignorance in hopes of opening their eyes to it but he finishes by simply reinforcing the stereotypes and insulting my intelligence.

I am aware that I am gay and I am siding with the gay-themed film but BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN had won nearly every major award leading up to the Oscars and was considered a near-lock. The win for CRASH only shows me that the mainstream Academy was not ready to bestow accolades so publicly on a gay-themed film. Not to mention, that as a gay man, I am still a minority, just an invisible one. This can get pretty ugly sometimes when people don’t censor themselves because they don’t realize that we are among them. I suffer prejudice; I am still fighting for some basic human rights because I am still seen as less than human. It is exactly this kind of hatred that makes it impossible for the characters in BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN to experience the love they are so obviously meant to. It is also the exact kind of hatred that CRASH tries so hard to bring to light but yet shines no light on the plight of the gays because theirs is not a racial issue. It still sure feels that way sometimes. As for the love that BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN fights so hard to foster, troubled or not, the characters in CRASH still get to have that and don’t even see for a second how fortunate they are for that opportunity. Despite this, they choose to live in their misery and all any of them can seem to do is blame everything bad in their lives on race.

Black Sheep’s 2005 Top 10

CAPOTE, Bennett Miller
MATCH POINT, Woody Allen
MUNICH, Steven Spielberg
WALK THE LINE, James Mangold


Ryan McNeil said...

Ah 2005...the wound that will never heal.

CRASH taking Best Picture is a particulary bitter pill to swallow. It's a bitter pill not just in the face of BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN...it's a bitter pill because any of the four other nominees would have been a worthier choice! BROKEBACK, CAPOTE, MUNICH, and GOODNIGHT/LUCK. every single one of them had something important to say, and every single one of them are films that have stayed with us in the years to follow.

That's the part that really stings...that if Oscar voters didn't want to reward "The Gay Cowboy Movie", they didn't have to...but there were three other better alternatives than giving it to an underachieving unoriginal fable of racial tolerance.

Great post - I'm really enjoying these if I haven't mentioned it already. Here's my post for 2005:


Black Sheep said...

Yes, I am certainly partial to Brokeback Mountain but you are right. Any of those other films were better than Crash. A win for any one of them would have been easier to handle.

I love seeing A History of Violence on your list. I'm a big fan. I never was a Cronenberg fan before that either. People don't always agree with me on that title. That said, I though Everything is Illuminated was one of the the worst films I saw all year. Perhaps if I had read the book, I would feel differently but I found the film to be self-indulgent, inexperienced filmmaking. Sorry, Liev.