There are whispers that Paul Haggis' Crash might take Best Picture from Ang Lee's gentle-spirited presumptive frontrunner Brokeback Mountain. I really hope it doesn't, because if it does, I'll be so angry that I'll have to retire my long-term posture of benign condescension towards the Oscars and start hating them on general principle.
I realize the Academy has been making lot of wafer-bland Best Picture choices since the '90s (American Beauty, Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind, Chicago), honoring films that are slick and entertaining and perfunctorily "smart" but not the least bit resonant, films that don't hold a candle to at least 10 or 15 English language films from that same year that didn't win, and that certainly cannot stand proudly alongside such previous Best Picture winners as The Deer Hunter, All About Eve, On the Waterfront, Gone with the Wind, The Last Emperor, Amadeus, the first two Godfather movies, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and even The Silence of the Lambs and on and on and on. But compared to Crash, the recent batch of Best Picture winners looks positively brilliant. If Haggis' movie wins, it won't just take home a statuette, it'll claim a new title: the most indefensible Best Picture winner since 1956's tax shelter spectacle Around the World in 80 Days.
Yes, I admit, the movie's more primally exciting than, say, American Beauty or A Beautiful Mind or The English Patient, and more superficially "edgy." But it's also dumber and meaner and uglier, an Importance Machine that rolls over you like a tank. And it's lazy and simplistically cynical about its central subject, race, in that it promulgates a false idea of how Americans express racial attitudes in public. Cowritten by Haggis and Robert Moresco, Crash directly contradicts what we know about how race plays out in the U.S. today, not just in Los Angeles, but all over. In the name of Big Drama, it ignores the chilling effect of political correctness, which compels everyone who's not a fringe-dwelling hatemonger or a person pushed to the edge of his or her rope to express racist thoughts in code.
Ignoring this psychological given, Crash is set in Archie Bunker World, a nostalgic land where race is at the forefront of every consciousness during every minute of every day, where elaborately worded slurs are loaded into everyone's speech centers like bullets in a gun, ready to be fired at the instant that disrespect is given. The characters are anachronistic cartoons posing as symbols of contemporary distress. They seem to have time-warped in from the Nixon era, when the country's pop culture purveyors decided to roll up their sleeves and get all this race stuff out in the open and show we were all secure enough to call each other bad names and then laugh about it and move on. That was a nervous, belligerent response, an overcompensation that came from sitting on this stuff for hundreds of years and seeing it explode into riots and shootouts. But the contrived frankness served a valuable function at the time; it was a little taste of the poisons lurking beneath the American façade, a rhetorical inoculation designed to toughen up the body politic. And it's over now. We're still a racist country, but we're a hell of a lot more sophisticated about it, and the inability or unwillingess of Crash to admit this makes it both stupid and pernicious.
Racism expresses itself more subtly and insidiously now than it did in Archie Bunker's day. Neither the public nor the private language are the same; political correctness constrains people of Boomer age or older, while the younger generations are likely to view the multicultural future not with dread, or even idealism, but simply as a given. Notwithstanding the efforts of button-pushers like Bill O'Reilly and Al Sharpton, the Nixon mode of Racially Charged Public Theater hasn't made dramatic sense since Spike Lee's late '80s and early '90s race dramas, which were also obsessed with Getting Stuff Out in the Open in the bluntest manner imaginable. (Lee only got away with it because his movies were set in New York, which is more socially advanced than the rest of the country in some ways, but laughably backward in others.)
Haggis doesn't care about such distinctions because deep down he doesn't actually want to say something useful about the modern state of race relations. He just wants to be able to play with racially charged material and be acclaimed for his bravery. The up-to-the-minute realities of American racism are too subtle and elusive for Haggis and his cowriter to grasp, and require too much care to dramatize. Even if Haggis acknowledged the need for subtlety, he'd probably ignore it anyway, because it would clash with his preferred directorial mode, monumental primitivism. This filmmaker wants blood and thunder in CinemaScope and Dolby Digital. He wants to shake you up. So he lays bare the American psyche circa 1971, dresses it in 2005 fashions and hopes we're too stunned and moved to notice that he's lied to us.
"I can't talk to you right now, ma," says Don Cheadle's cop, pausing mid-coitus to take a phone call. "I'm fucking a white woman." "Holy shit," another character exclaims. "We ran over a Chinaman!" "I can't look at you," Matt Dillon's cop tells a black female paper-pusher, making like Peter Boyle's character from the 1970 white-man-on-a-rampage melodrama Joe, "…without thinking of the five or six qualified white men who could have had your job." Dyno-miiiiiiite!
Beneath our politically correct facades, Haggis says, we're all secretly as racist as Archie Bunker or George Jefferson, and we can't stop obsessing over skin color, ethnicity, religion, national origin and so forth. Say what? Over a decade and a half ago, when Spike Lee seized headlines with a series of incendiary films about race in America, astute critics were already questioning the truth of Lee's belief that this is how people think and talk about race, in New York or anywhere. The passage of time has made Lee's presumption even more ludicrous. Racism is still everywhere, but with infrequent exceptions, it cools its temper for survival's sake, inflicts its damage through evasion and omission, and otherwise keeps its true face hidden.
Haggis' depiction of a world where everyone's thoughts and words are filtered through a kind of racist translator chip—like a Spike Lee slur montage padded out to feature length—and then spat into casual conversation is ungenerous, because it depicts every character as an actual or potential acid-spitting bigot, and it's untrue to life, because it ignores the American impulse to at least pretend one isn't a racist for fear of being ostracized by one's peers. (That why hardcore big city bigots keep their voices down when discussing race in public; they don't want to get their asses kicked.)
Haggis' depiction of modern race consciousness is so wrongheaded in so many ways that the film's critical and financial success might actually inflict damage on the culture, by making apoplectic, paranoid racism seem like the norm and encouraging audience members (particularly the young) to think Haggis is tearing off society's mask and showing how things really are, all of which will allow those same ticket buyers to feel superior to the people in the movie and think themselves incapable of "real" racism, the type depicted in Crash. Quentin Tarantino was deservedly criticized for his no-big-deal early-'90s deployment of racist slurs, in otherwise unreal movies that had no defensible reason to include them. But at least his characters used the words in a jocular way that said, "Look, they're just words." That's a questionable assertion, but it's preferable to Haggis' apparent belief that slurs express the truth of individuals' feelings, and by extension society's feelings, and that people in all walks of life carry them around in their heads just in case they need to use them.
Having established that deep down, we're all racist, Haggis then muffs the questions of what that fact might mean and whether racist thoughts are ever justified. The DA and his wife (Sandra Bullock and Brendan Fraser), for instance, were right to be racist, since they get carjacked by the young black men (Ludacris and Larenz Tate) they suspect of being dangerous. The latino locksmith (Michael Pena) betrays no racist tendencies when dealing with the volatile Iranian-American shopkeeper, but fate proves him naive when the shopkeeper tragically misunderstands something he said, blames him for the racist vandalizing of his shop, and comes after the locksmith later with a gun. Even one of the young carjackers is later proved justified in fearing white people because he will be senselessly killed by one.
But wait, Crash cries, hold on: bile-spewing racists are people too, as evidenced by racist cop Matt Dillon's relationship with his kindly, dying dad and his willingess to save the life of the African-American TV director's wife (Thandie Newton) after groping her at at a traffic stop. "We're all racist," the movie proclaims, "except when we're not." Whatchoo talking about, Willis?
Haggis and the film's defenders can pretend this is evidence of complexity and contradiction all they want; it's really just evidence of Haggis' version of Powerful Dramaturgy, which mixes the schematic earnestness of an old afterschool special and the Zen pulp grandiosity of Michael Mann in full-on existential dread mode, complete with pulsing synth music, massive telephoto closeups and time-suspending action montages. This movie should have been called Mess.
But despite its pretensions to muscular lyricism, Crash doesn't even deserve the top prize when judged as pure filmmaking. It's nowhere near as brutishly powerful as Mel Gibson's roundly sneered-at 1995 winner Braveheart—in my view, not really a historical movie as Oscar typically defines it, but the first atavistic action film to win Best Picture; the sort of movie Cornel Wilde would have directed if during the 1960s he'd been given tens of millions of dollars to throw around. Nor is Crash as good as The English Patient, a classy timewaster that almost nobody wants to watch twice. It's a message picture conceived at the same jacked-up visual and emotional pitch as a Super Bowl ad or action film trailer; it's Stanley Kramer in a 'roid rage. Unlike other recent Best Picture contenders, Crash isn't slick, clever and safe, it's hot, stupid and dangerous, and slick and "powerful" in that peculiarly West Coast way that used to be showcased on Six Feet Under. The characters chatter bitterly, like drunk screenwriters trying to one-up each other with demonstrations of hardboiled cynicism about life but then rallying at the last minute to exhort each other to go forth into the world and Make a Difference. (Translation: "Get Attention.")
Amazingly, this movie has been embraced by some of the country's most prominent critics. "Along the way, these people say exactly what they are thinking, without the filters of political correctness," writes Roger Ebert, flattering Haggis by presuming that Crash is set in an alternative universe where people verbalize thoughts that would otherwise stay hidden, rather than calling the script what it is: a shortcut to dramatic power that evades the modern reality of its subject. "It shows the way we all leap to conclusions based on race—yes, all of us, of all races, and however fair-minded we may try to be—and we pay a price for that," Ebert writes. "If there is hope in the story, it comes because as the characters crash into one another, they learn things, mostly about themselves. Almost all of them are still alive at the end, and are better people because of what has happened to them. Not happier, not calmer, not even wiser, but better."
Variety's Todd McCarthy summed up the movie's moral and aesthetic confusion, praising its "…collection of powerful individual scenes" but noting that it "…seems to promote an ideology of victimhood, and shoves race-based thinking to the fore of every human exchange. In his earnest attempt to speak plainly about how racial stereotypes and ingrained prejudices play an often insidious part in everyone's daily lives, Haggis protests too much, and in the process contracts the scope of his film."
Which, ironically, is precisely why entertainment industry dumbasses who live in monocultural bubbles and experience race relations via news reports if they experience it at all would deem Crash a work of searing truth. If this movie wins Best Picture, the statutette should be headless.
Matt Zoller Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door.