Perhaps the only thing I love about the fact Crash won Best Picture is that it now affords us the not-so-rare chance to see the cultural classes trudge into the familiar 'circular firing squad' formation they snap into so reflexively just before cutting each other to ribbons. Depending on who you talk to, Brokeback Mountain didn't win because the Academy is a bunch of homophobes. Or, Crash won because the Academy wanted to pay attention to a film that talked about the real problems of racism as opposed to the boutique, bourgeois concern of homosexual civil rights. (Which, to digress, is why right-wing cultural commentators have it so easy: Because their potential opposition is busy fighting each other to death instead of closing ranks and challenging the dimwit, hateful, leaden screeches of well-funded idiots like Ann Coulter.)
Or, it was because Crash had showy parts for actors, who comprise the biggest part of the Academy's voting blocks, and it was set and made in L.A., and that put it over the top. Or over-hype for Brokeback poisoned the film's own chances. Or Lionsgate pulled a Miramax and, by spending $4 million dollars to send DVDs out to SAG and Academy voters, threw the vote by wielding the money stick and appealing to convenience-minded Academy voters, who could watch Crash at home without slumming among, you know, moviegoers – even as poor Jake Gyllenhaal was forced to mouth Oscar-night platitudes about how You gots to go see movies in the theater, folks! The truth may not be out there, but the weary conspiracy theories are.
So, progressively-minded culture watchers face off like the Jets and Sharks, accusing each other of ignoring homophobia or ignoring racism. Which is hi-larious to me; when asked by a friend for a quick take on Best Picture, I offered that "Well, I guess the Academy chose to honor a film that's not really about racism over a film that's not really about gay rights. ..." When Crash opened, I didn't hate it; I just found it as clumsy as it was bold. And I stick by my review: "(Director/co-writer Paul) … Haggis is a little too fond of the big moment, the big speech, the big scene in which the characters say exactly what we're supposed to be thinking about: "We miss [contact] so much, we just ... crash ... into each other to feel that touch." Thanks for making sure we got that, Paul; it's almost as if the film includes its own post-show discussion guide.
But Crash nonetheless tries -- to say something, to be about something, to depict something nearing the realities of L.A. and the complexities of life in general. So many movies these days play it safe -- simple or shallow, too cute or too ironic -- that a film as passionate and bold as Crash stands out; it may not be a diamond, but when held up against such a rough background, it can't help but look good."
The fact of the matter is that a film like Crash or, yes, even the far superior Brokeback Mountain, walks up to us and says the equivalent of "Hey, isn't X bad?" and we all nod our heads – because, yes, X is bad, and only a bad person would say it is not, and that is the end of the conversation. X can be racism, sexism, AIDS or homophobia or religious intolerance or any other complex issue, now captured in the simplest possible terms. A film like The Constant Gardener or Syriana, on the other hand, wanders over, fails to make direct eye contact, pulls us in with a seemingly-unrelated anecdote … and then mutters something like "Hey … have you ever thought about what goes on when you fill up your car? What it means? What the ramifications are? Or that company you buy your medicine from – how do you know what your money's supporting? Or how they act in countries with more loosely-woven regulatory networks?" And then it wanders off, and you are left to, God help you, actually think.
I don't expect a lot from the Oscars, and the words Forrest Gump do much to explain why. What this year's Best Picture win confirms is that people are now looking for – and getting – familiar transgression at the movies, where ideas and concepts are discussed in the most comfortable, unchallenging and rote way possible. Wyclef Jean's speech about education and responsibility to some students in Dave Chappelle's Block Party was, to me, a hell of a lot more provocative about race and community than anything in Crash – plus, it didn't feature Sandra Bullock trying to convey the deep thoughts of the comfortable class in crisis. Let me put it this way: I'll bet a hundred bucks that 10 years from now, more people are renting Brokeback Mountain or Syriana or The Constant Gardener than are renting Crash -- because while Lionsgate can, and did, spend the cash to keep Crash on people's minds between May and Oscar season, quality endures long, long after well-intentioned bleeding-heart hype finds a new, big, unsubtle movie to latch on to. Drop me a line in 2016; If I'm wrong, that's a hundred dollars that I'll donate to UNICEF or the Southern Poverty Law Center -- or some other organization that actually does something about social crises beyond just giving Matt Dillon a nice monologue and a little slow-mo at his moment of crisis.