Monday, July 6, 2015

Rating the Underrated: Why "Crash" Actually Deserved Best Picture

Don Cheadle is so sad and confused about why people hate this movie.
Perspective is an interesting thing, especially in an artistic context. What seemed brilliant once might, upon a future viewing, seem thoroughly disappointing as we grow as viewers and the medium evolves. Similarly, I can't even count the number of things which have been deemed "ahead of their time," and which have only received their deserved acclaim and recognition years after their initial release. This is perhaps most apparent when one looks at awards ceremonies of years past. The Oscars are well-known to be problematic, and their most reliable function is probably to serve as an indication of what people were responding to at a given point in history. In 1976, the country was still feeling betrayed by the government they once trusted in light of Watergate, and it showed in that year's Oscar ceremony. Films which are now considered among the best films ever made like Taxi Driver (about a dangerous psychopath who ends up becoming a national hero), Network (about, among other things, corruption in the media and its willingness to exploit its broadcast for ratings), and All the President's Men (about the Watergate scandal itself), all lost to the feel-good sports movie Rocky. Many people are still surprised by this decision, but it makes sense. Audiences were responding far more to the story of an inherently good underdog achieving success. It was uplifting at a time that the country needed it. Other times, historical context can't be used as an excuse and the Oscar decisions just seem baffling. At the 14th Academy Awards, for example, the rather forgettable How Green Was My Valley took home the award for Best Picture over other films which have aged with much more grace-- such as Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion, the noir gem The Maltese Falcon, and a little film called Citizen Kane that is generally considered to be okay.

Spoiler alert: it turns out that the Maltese Falcon was just a sled.

There has often been debate about whether or not films deserve the awards that they receive, and as time goes on a few movies are consistently mentioned as undeserved Best Picture winners. One such film that frequently appears in these discussions is Crash, Paul Haggis' ensemble drama which took home the top award at the 78th Academy Awards. Unlike with something like How Green Was My Valley, however, the backlash to this decision was almost immediate. It was a huge upset, and was instantly controversial. For one thing, Crash had not been a major player at most of the other awards, so its Oscar dominance came out of left field. The award was expected to go to Ang Lee's Brokeback Mountain, and it was felt that Crash, while a good film, "stole" the award which it shouldn't have received. But as time goes on, the reaction to the film has proven to be somewhat hostile. Consensus now, by and large, is that it is actually a bad film and its title of Best Picture is seen by many as one of the Academy's greatest oversights. Despite the title of this post (whooo clickbait titles FTW!!!!), I'm not going to try and argue that this was the best film of the year (although, I don't think that honor goes to Brokeback Mountain either-- for me, the best film out of the nominees is Capote) but I do think that the film has received overly harsh criticism. And, especially in light of recent events, deserves a reevaluation. Crash is, in my opinion, a great film and deserves our consideration and respect. As a film dealing with a subject as heavy as race, it may not be the best (that distinction, for me, belongs to Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing) but it earns its place as surprisingly strong supplemental viewing.

If "best film ever made about race" didn't intrigue you, well, Do the Right Thing has Giancarlo Esposito in it. Please watch this movie if you haven't already. It's so important.

First, lets' talk about the film's strengths. For a start, it is unbelievably well-acted. This is a star-studded cast and features some really fantastic performances. Not just that, but many of the performances are the highlights of these actors' careers. Matt Dillon absolutely deserved his Oscar nomination and gives a performance that remains the best of his career. And he's not the only one: Ryan Phillippe, Thandie Newton, Michael Pena, and Terrence Howard all stand out as actors whose performances here cast a new light on their talent. And I think this is an aspect of the film that even its critics would agree on-- these are great performances through and through. I would also argue that the Oscar-winning screenplay deserves merit. While parts of the script have been criticized (which I'll get to in a second) the plot is nonetheless ambitious and well-executed, and individual scenes are certainly well-written, at least in terms of dialogue.

Now here is where we get into the film's criticisms. From reading and hearing peoples' complaints about the film, there are a few problems that stand out. Many people think that the plot's twists and turns are unrealistic and, more pressingly, many take issue with the film's dealings with the subject of race. Which is a fairly big criticism to levy, since that's kind of the entire point of the film. A common criticism is that the film's depictions of racism are caricaturey and preachy-- coming across as holier-than-thou and, again, unrealistic. More troubling, though, is another criticism that the film actually mishandles its depiction of race-- that it provides a too simplistic view of the subject and, by glossing over the intricacies of the issue of racism it provides an incorrect and harmful view of the subject it is supposed to be shedding light on. But I would propose that Crash is a thoughtful consideration of the subject of race--certainly more so than other preachy Oscar-winning films starring Sandra Bullock

I am, of course, referring to Speed.

Let's start with the idea that the plot itself is unrealistic, as that is the easiest to discuss and, in this case, refute. I always find these criticisms boring and, frankly, just incredibly useless when applied to a discussion of film. Obviously, there are times when plot twist can be all too convenient and really test the audience's patience. I find this problem especially glaring when something is "all part of the plan." For example, in films like The Dark Knight or Skyfall (both of which, for the record, I enjoyed greatly) the villains orchestrate plans that work out perfectly in their favor but which have to account for WAY too many variables which are outside of their control. They make such little sense as to be completely impossible. But, even in these cases, I tend to just accept it in the interest of my greater enjoyment of the film. I feel that to hold any dramatic form to only the strictest rules of reality is, frankly, moronic. If films were 100% true to life, they'd be incredibly boring. Are some scenes and premises in films unrealistic in the sense that they probably wouldn't happen in real life? Absolutely. But that's why we're watching a film. And as long as the scenes are handled well and can further the plot and the characters, I'm all for them. In Crash, the many characters end up interacting with one another and, oftentimes, it is for the convenience of the plot, yes. But it is also to make a grander point. Crash may be set in the real world and may focus on real themes, but there is nonetheless a fable-like quality to it that allows for such conveniences. Would the events of the film happen in real life? Perhaps not. But, also, why not? Stranger things have happened. Nothing in this film strikes me as too much to swallow and, as such, I personally dismiss this particular criticism against the film as a whole. Some things might be coincidental, but it is a work of fiction and is allowed to take liberties. The film does not at any point extend beyond what is physically possible. So at no point did I personally find myself taken out of the experience.

Now is where we get into the nitty gritty of the film. Crash does not really follow a typical Aristotelian plot and storyline-- rather it is a general examination of race and racism as it occurs over a few days in Los Angeles. And the most prevalent criticism of the film is its depiction of racism. It's not that these characters are subtly racist, they are REALLY racist, and the film's critics say that the characters come across more as caricatures than as real people. There's the gun store owner who refers to a Muslim character as "Osama." There's the district attorney's wife (Sandra Bullock) who complains that the Hispanic locksmith is going to make copies of their keys and sell them to his gang members. Writer and director Haggis makes no attempts to veil these racist comments and, indeed, they are pretty blatant. But, I have to say, aren't these depictions accurate? While I think most would (hopefully) agree that they would never say such a thing, these are absolutely comments that still exist in our world today. Considering events in the news recently, I don't find anything caricaturey about them at all-- in fact, I find them brutally honest and accurately disturbing. Donald Trump saying that all Mexicans are rapists is not something that would seem out of place in the world of Crash, and none of the depictions of the racists in this film are out of place in the realm of reality.

Frankly, in a world where this man is running for president, you cannot say that ANYTHING is "unrealistic"

The problem in depicting such blatant racism, though, is that often it allows an audience to go "Well, I'm not like them because I'M not racist." But, Haggis avoids this problem admirably as the film goes on. It is no coincidence that a majority of this film's characters are policemen, and it is apt that the film ends with a white police officer shooting an unarmed young black man. While recent tragic events such as those in Ferguson have shed light on the issue of racism and brutality within the police force (which, I will be honest, is partially why I felt compelled to consider this film again and do this writeup) this issue has been present for a shockingly long time. But (spoilers ahead) the policeman who does the shooting is Officer Hansen (Phillippe) who has, until this point, been painted as an undecidedly "not racist." He's supposed to be the good guy. Earlier in the film, he requests for a transfer after his partner's racist remarks, and acts as an advocate during a previous police confrontation. This, again, is a moment that I have seen criticized a lot, the reasoning being that the act by Hansen feels too convenient and uncharacteristic. I disagree-- I feel it is very characteristic and important to show Hansen's own prejudices which come to light with this action. I thought back to the conversation he had with his superior Lt. Dixon (Keith David) when he requested a new partner. Dixon rightly calls Hansen out--is he doing this because he thinks that his partner's comments were truly wrong, or just because they make him uncomfortable? Hansen is not sure how to respond. It's a fantastic scene, and Dixon's speech about having to be a high-ranking black man in a predominantly white and bigoted environment strikes as heartbreakingly true.

"I'm really really not racist, you guys." Officer Hansen

The most overt example of racism in the film is Hansen's partner, Officer John Ryan, played by Matt Dillon (for which, as I already mentioned, Dillon earned a well-deserved Academy Award nomination). This character is an absolute creep. His bigotry and anger is well-documented throughout the film-- including a time when he demeans and insults a black doctor who is caring for his father for no reason other than anger and prejudice. When we first meet Officer Ryan, he asserts his power as a white, male officer of the law by molesting Christine (Newton) in front of her husband Cameron (Howard) after pulling them over. Cameron does not speak up out of fear of what the officer will do. I'm confused--is this the type of scene in the movie people feel is too "unrealistic?" Because if anyone feels that such a thing does not happen in the real world, then they are being far too naive at best and, at worst, willfully ignorant. But, at the end of the film, Officer Ryan happens upon a car crash and actually saves Christine's life. In the end, Officer Ryan is deemed a hero because of his actions, and that act is indeed heroic and selfless as he risks his life to save another. But none of that negates his previous actions. He may be a hero, but he is also the same bigoted, creepy epitome of toxic masculinity. And it's admirable to me that the film lets him be the one to actually earn this heroic reception. In a time when, after all, the "boys in blue" are often considered heroes despite the pervasive problems in our nations' police forces, it asks us to consider who our heroes are. And it reminds us that a single heroic act cannot negate the actions of the past. Hero cops are still a part of a problematic institution. Yes, to Christine, Officer Ryan will always be the man who saved her life. But he is also the man who molested her on the side of the road when she could not fight back. The moment where she has to decide to trust him when he pulls her out of the burning car is a brutal one. Newton's cries of "Anyone but you," are haunting. None of this strikes me as a caricature. It strikes me as a fairly accurate portrayal of some of the manifestations of racism in our world today, issues that a decade later still are not widely discussed in the world of film.

The defining image of the film, as Office Ryan saves Christine.

A more serious and, in my opinion, accurate critique of the film is that it does not go far enough in its commentary. While it may hold a mirror up to the problem, it offers no solutions to it and does not explore some of the major reasons why such prejudices are held. These are all fair critiques, but I don't think are inherent when discussing the film's success or failure. It is not Crash's responsibility to end racism, after all. Especially considering that it was written by two white men (which is in itself a problem, of course), I feel that Crash does about all that it could do. It is a movie about problems rather than solutions, and that's okay. If the film had examined the subject more closely, would it have been better? Most likely. But that's not what the movie was trying to accomplish. Crash was trying to tell a story that was, at its heart, quite simple, and in this regard it absolutely succeeds. It makes me think, in a way, of the Bechdel Test-- the now famous test for films. To those who don't know (are there people in the world who don't know about this still?), a movie passes the Bechdel Test if it contains a scene where two named female characters speak to each other about a subject other than a man. That's it. That's the only criteria. And it is shocking the number of films which fail these very basic rules (for the record, Crash does pass--the only nominee from 2004 that does). Many have criticized the test by saying that it is a poor example of feminism as this does not judge how feminist a film truly is. And this is true-- there are some incredibly offensive and specifically misogynistic films which pass the test, so just because a film passes, that doesn't make it not sexist. There are some very good films that fail the test, and that does not make them bad films. There are even some films which one could consider feminist which fail (an example that comes to mind is the recent film Gravity which features a mostly well-written female protagonist, and the film fails solely because there are only two real characters in the entire movie). So, the Bechdel Test is not about determining whether a film is feminist or not, it's simply there to point out an all too common trend. It is effective BECAUSE of its simplicity-- purposefully made basic so as to show how Hollywood is failing women under ever the most basic of conditions. This is a long-winded way of me saying that Crash's simplicity is not a failing, but a strength. By focusing on simply shining a light on some commonly-held prejudices, the filmmakers are able to perform this task expertly. Had they attempted to go deeper, that would have been a far more difficult task to accomplish and would likely have detracted from what Crash did so well.

Ludacris and Larenz Tate as a pair of philosophical carjackers
Ultimately, Crash is meant less as an in-depth discussion and more as a parable. Defined as "a simple story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson," I can think of no more apt a word for this film, and when viewed as such, it succeeds mightily. A great example is in a subplot that combines the story of a Persian shop owner, Farhad (Shaun Toub) and a Hispanic locksmith, Daniel (Pena). In a film where everyone is shown at their best and at their worst, Daniel probably comes across as the very best of the lot. He's a loving father, and an unbelievably kind man, who tries to calm his daughter's fears about the gunshots heard in their neighborhood by giving her an "invisible impenetrable cloak" that will shield her from harm.

No, this is a different Daniel with an invisibility cloak.

Many characters in the film are relatable and interesting, but he's easily the most universally likable. Daniel is hired to fix the lock on the front door of Farhad's shop, and tries to tell Farhad that the door frame needs to be replaced. Farhad, whose English is limited, does not understand, and thinks that Daniel is trying to cheat him. Daniel grows frustrated and leaves, thinking Farhad understood him. The next day, Farhad's store is ruined--it has been vandalized and robbed, with threatening words and slurs painted on the walls. A distraught Farhad believes that Daniel is responsible and attempts to shoot him using the gun he recently purchased with his daughter. As he goes to shoot Daniel, Daniel's daughter jumps in front of the gun, thinking her invisible impenetrable shield will stop the bullet.

Yeah, that's right, you're not smiling anymore, you little shit. This moment is fucking devastating.
As luck would have it, Farhad's daughter had purchased blanks for his gun as she was against the purchase in the first place. And so, to both Farhad and Daniel's surprise and relief, everyone is unharmed. Farhad realizes the irrationality of his actions and everyone is fine. I was surprised to learn, upon reading criticisms of the film, that this storyline is perhaps the least popular in the film. I suppose that the ending does feel a little too well plotted. "My, what a stroke of luck!" you imagine them saying and then Farhad and Daniel and Daniel's daughter all go out and get ice cream. But, as far as cheap emotionally manipulative moments go, this one is pretty damn effective. I remember the first time I watched the film audibly reacting in horror. But the main criticism people have is in the depiction of Farhad. They feel he comes across as a villain and that his actions are not explained. I don't see why anyone would reach this conclusion. Toub portrays Farhad with a lot of complexity. He is angry and upset, but his emotions are justified. He's an impulsive and volatile character, who acts on darker urges when provoked, but he's also an unmistakably good person. He remains a sympathetic character rather than a loathsome one. The story of Farhad and Daniel speaks to the almost fairy tale quality of Crash. These are characters, seemingly, brought together to act out simple stories. And these stories illustrate moral lessons rather expertly.

"I've made a huge mistake."

I feel that most of the anger against Crash stems less from the fact that it won Best Picture than from the fact that Brokeback Mountain lost, and the hatred towards it spiraled from that initial feeling of injustice. To compare the two films is always going to be a matter of preference-- I am not here to decide which film is better or worse. But I will say that Crash holds up much better than its recent backlash would suggest. Many feel it's outdated, but as racially  motivated crimes-- particularly amongst the police-- continue to occur with alarming frequency today, Crash feels, sadly, more relevant today. In fact, parts of it still feel ahead of its time, even a decade later. We can only hope that one day it will feel as outdated as people claim. Instead, it remains a poignant and well-thought out ensemble drama. One that is certainly worth another look.

This is not from Crash, but I still thought you'd want to know that Terrence Howard went on Sesame Street dressed as Elmo. You're welcome.

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