Tuesday, March 07, 2006

It's Hard Out Here for a Gay Cowboy Movie

I'm not sure what to say about the surprise victory of Crash as Oscar's Best Picture of 2005. I don't even know what's been said, or if there's anything left to say—as a rule, I stay off of most Oscar-focused websites that aren't written by the close friends whose hype I actually believe, most of whom I watched the show with last night, and most of whom were clearly devastated. (Note: I wrote this entry a day before I could post it.) I've stayed off even their sites today, because I'm still sorting out my own response. I have to admit that, as agnostic about Brokeback as I am, and as cognizant as I was of Crash's sharp resurgence during the balloting period, I was still caught utterly off-guard by its victory, and I still haven't settled into any emotion beside surprise.

The truth is, I like and admire Crash and Brokeback Mountain about equally as films, and I think they're comparable as political platforms. Crash chases its human canvas of class- and race-based suspicion into some impressively bracing exchanges of dialogue, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing lack of aesthetic finesse. Brokeback Mountain distills its potent essence of sexuality- and class-based emotional prisons into some haunting tableaus of tragic reticence, however much it veers at times into an almost embarrassing surfeit of self-beatification. They both engender more than just devotion in their biggest fans, but a kind of epiphanic and deeply personal release; others are left utterly cold. I didn't feel more or less "manipulated" by either project, and I'm not sure that manipulation is such a terrible thing in art (or if it's ever even absent from art). Brokeback invests such compassionate confidence in its binding argument, that repressed desire wrecks not just couples but entire vicinities of people, that it permits itself some rather maximal emphases within its pretense of restraint. Crash also errs frequently on the side of exclamation, and occasionally, in its case, on the side of idiocy, though for all it can seem like self-flagellating liberal agitprop, I haven't yet heard a convincing one-line summary of the film's contentions, and some of the urban dismay it so amply uncorks more than justifies, to my mind, its tinniest rhetorical gaffes.

Everyone who cares about the Oscars will take his or her own measure of the films' respective merits, but even those who harbor no doubt, in either direction, about which is the better film do not seem to be responding to the Best Picture outcome in those terms. I know the theories that are probably flying, the ones that felt the most immediate and the most hurtful last night at Nathaniel's party, in a room literally full of gay men who were all expecting a watershed cultural moment. Even as one of the few who liked other movies better, I was surprised by how summary and instantaneous the loss of Brokeback felt, but at risk of willful naïveté or quietism about the perceived homophobia underlying Crash's win, I would like to submit the following, just as a partial tonic... not because I think I know better than anyone else, or because I doubt that homophobic discomfort with Brokeback's premise probably factored in, but just to assert that even if that's true, I don't think it's a full or even necessarily a primary explanation.

1. Two-for-One In the forty years from 1956 through 1995, the Academy only split the Picture and Director prizes five times, or roughly once every eight years. In the eight years since 1998, however, they've made the same split four more times, or once every two years. Clearly AMPAS voters are cultivating a taste for recognizing two films they love by divvying up their two top awards, virtually always by giving the more critically certified film the Director trophy: Saving Private Ryan, Traffic, The Pianist, and Brokeback, as compared to the more ephemeral but widely ingratiating Shakespeare in Love, Gladiator, Chicago, and Crash. Clearly there was strong Academy support for both Brokeback and Crash this year, and just as clearly, neither film appealed widely enough to power a sweep: Crash couldn't win a Song Oscar over a rap track about pimping, and the determinedly picturesque Brokeback couldn't swipe Cinematography over the disturbingly vacuous Memoirs of a Geisha, which won as many Oscars as Crash and Brokeback did (and King Kong, too, for that matter). I'm betting that both films inspired fierce factional support but not consensus enthusiasm. I seriously doubt Crash nicked the win by very much of a margin, especially as it wouldn't have required more than a few fence-sitters to lean the outcome in this direction. (I'm thinking that no one, no one, voted for Brokeback and Haggis.)

2. DVD Palooza Crash's early release date would have been a liability for a different kind of film, but for a word-of-mouth hit that friends pass to friends, and that sports easy points of entry for all kinds of viewers, it was surely a major asset. Academy members have had months, not weeks, to watch Crash on DVD, even before Lions Gate's carpet-bomb strategy with its DVD screeners during January and February, and not to mention that Crash retains its basic virtues on a small screen while Brokeback loses some of its own. For all the railing we heard last night against DVD culture, it's clearly shaping Academy tastes and behaviors as much as those of the public.

Note, too, that I am not necessarily arguing that voters who watched Crash, on DVD or otherwise, didn't watch Brokeback. But the chance to watch Crash earlier and more often; to have it be the film you watch because your friend or colleague exhorts you to, instead of the film you watch because it's a front-runner and it arrived in the mail; to have it be the film that seeps in and lingers, overriding the glut of movies you might be watching in the short space of awards season... this is a formidable advantage, especially for a film whose appeal rests entirely on empathetic connection, a gut-level response to contemporary life (and in the city where most voters are living and watching, no less).

3. Critics Groups Are Not Crystal Balls Oscar voters are people who vote their minds and hearts, and who are largely sure they know movies better than critics do, notwithstanding annual embarrassments like the Narnia Makeup citation. That Brokeback swept so many critics' groups and even the Guild groups (minus, crucially, the enormously influential Screen Actors Guild) needn't imply a huge amount in terms of the film's Oscar destiny, though it sure seemed that way. Ang Lee, having missed a Director nod for Sense and Sensibility and a widely predicted Director trophy for Crouching Tiger, to say nothing of Oscar's unceremonious rejection of The Ice Storm, is clearly not a unanimous pet of AMPAS—whereas, given Million Dollar Baby's triumphs last year, Haggis' writerly brand of morbid fatalism quite clearly plays to the group's appetites. It was always going to be close, even on grounds of artistic sensibilities. Moreover, the sheer number of critics' prizes won by Brokeback Mountain can be a misleading argument, both because there are so many more critics groups in existence now than there were even ten years ago, and because the smaller critics groups are even bigger copycats of each other than the Academy is of any of them.

4. And Yes, They Might Be Homophobic ...and anyone who is, or who just wasn't taken or moved by Lee's movie, wouldn't likely make the error of throwing a vote to certain bridesmaids Capote, Good Night, and Good Luck., or Munich. Anyone with a Brokeback beef could only look to Crash as a viable trump card.

So, adding all of this together, I don't know what, or whether, to make anything of Crash's come-from-behind Oscar coup except to say that in retrospect—fully admitting that I was as dumbfounded as anyone in the moment of its victory—it doesn't seem quite so unaccountable, whether or not Hollywood homophobia is ascribed as a motivation. I am positive that Hollywood, and the AMPAS voters in particular, are appreciably more conservative than their popular-media reputation as bastions of political and sexual radicalism would have us believe. Then again, though, the kind of conservatism that I expect predominates in Hollywood—a bottom-line conservatism eager for new niche markets, a self-congratulatory conservatism that enjoys the pathos of subversive subjects well-accommodated into benign and pretty packages like Brokeback's—could easily have endorsed Lee's film, if they really felt passionate about the picture. I'm just not sure that they did, and I'm not comfortable with assuming that sexual or political attitudes wholly explain the gulf between admiration (three wins, after all) and adoration (which no single film this year seems to have inspired).

And let's not forget, too, that even if we're totally displacing the myth that the Academy endorses the "Best" and focusing solely on their role as arbiters of the zeitgeist—and yes, I realized on Monday night that I really wanted their seal of approval, however dubious and no matter the film, to grace an accomplished and popular gay movie—that those of us, God help us, who measure social progress in Hollywood by the yardstick of the Academy came away with quite a few victories. For all the hoopla when Halle and Denzel won their dual Oscars in '01, where's the excitement that a non-white filmmaker has finally won Best Director? And doesn't Crash possess by far the most multicultural cast of any Best Picture winner, making a strong case for more films to be written and cast across the spectrum of race? It's easy to see actors, that massive plurality of the Oscar voters, being eager to champion that kind of cause, and if, as a white gay man, I didn't feel so immediately partial to the plights of gay representation, I might have had a clearer head through the weeks of Oscar build-up that a film with white American, Asian-American, African-American, Latino and Latina, and Arab-American leads was a strong dark horse for the top prize. Yes, I'd like for Crash to be better: on my own gradient of historical Best Picture winners, it hovers alongside films like Marty, Terms of Endearment, The French Connection, and Rocky, which exert a certain kind of competent populist appeal within quite evident limitations of style and form. Brokeback would have fallen into just the same zone, even though I can see now that for personal and communal reasons, I would have been happier to watch it join the constellation. But honestly, the grudge I feel about this is not very large, and the homophobia that may or may not play into it has nothing like the degree or the weight of much more destructive homophobias that are evident in so many other places. This isn't to step on the toes of anyone else's hurt feelings, especially people whose hurt feelings matter a lot to me, and whose reasons for being hurt I so fully relate to. But this is just my 2¢.

More Oscar responses later.

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Blogger tim r said...

I kinda thought a post like this was coming Nick, and despite the barely-serious comment I stuck up that night ("Where were you when they lynched Jack Twist again?") I wholeheartedly agree that there were all sorts of factors that must have lined up to clinch a shock victory for Crash, and that homophobia can hardly have been the greatest of them. Call me naive, but I honestly find it hard to believe that.

The thing is, I still think they picked the wrong movie. Crash's weaknesses are such that I think any other choice for Best Picture would have mobilised less outrage, and given Brokeback's fervent fans less of an excuse to jump to the harshest conclusions about AMPAS voters' motives. Crash says — and here I'm gunning, perhaps beyond hope, for your one-sentence summary prize: "We're all prejudiced — yes, even you, enlightened viewer — but we know that we are, and so realising, we can take steps towards making this a more harmonious world". There's something smugly ecumenical about the movie's overriding assumptions, in other words, and after two viewings, and conceding a certain degree of dramatic effectiveness and a fair bit of good acting, I can't abide how schematically it pursues its goals and sets about clapping itself on the back for doing so. I happen to think, cinematographically speaking, it's also the ugliest film to win Best Picture in living memory. The least like a movie. It's high-grade TV, is what it is.

Brokeback isn't perfect or especially progressive, and I'm with you on a number of its underappreciated failings, but it's certainly a movie. And if that shouldn't be the bare minimum requirement for winning a Best Picture Oscar, I don't know what should.

2:49 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

I admit that I don't take Crash to end on any particular note of progress or illumination—its world of uncorked epithets doesn't seem to unburden or enlighten any of its characters any more than our own world of inchoate and encoded racism does—so on those grounds, I take a really different meaning from the film than you do. Admittedly, this puts me at a fair distance from even the stated philosophies of the filmmakers: when Haggis and Schulman described their movie in terms of love and tolerance, I wasn't sure where they see much or any of that in the film, except perhaps in the implications of its existence: a conversation-starting film if ever there was one. I'll have to chase this particular idea more in a review.

I agree fully that "any other choice for Best Picture would have mobilised less outrage," but not for the reason that Crash is necessarily the worst picture. Rather it's the only nominee that steers in the exact opposite direction from the shared philosophy of Brokeback, Capote, and Good Night, and Good Luck., which all pinion a lot of their pride and ambitions on the attainment of formal elegance. Crash, for all the forced interconnectedness of the narratives, doesn't nearly do this. As you observe, the look it chooses for itself isn't at all prepossessing, and its verbal rhetoric hammers away at its themes. Its approach to filmmaking is the exact opposite of what Brokeback embodies, so it's no wonder to me that it's the most galling possible victor in the minds of Brokeback's biggest fans. (Munich to me is an interesting case, since that film is constantly swerving between the poles of elegance and pugilism.)

All of that said, I think Crash actually makes an interesting and in many ways commendable set of choices. I'm sure I'd actually like the film a lot less if it seemed more conventionally movie-ish, and I think that what I always call its Eugene O'Neill-ish conceit of characters spouting subconscious dialogue would never work in a more regulated, refined aesthetic (which would imply, or even apply, too much of a filter on the proceedings). Compared to my own least favorite of the nominees—Good Night, and Good Luck., whose fussy obsession with backlit cigarette smoke, sheeny black-and-white, and creamy jazz is such a stylistic cul-de-sac, in no way enriching the themes of the film—I think Crash finds a much better marriage of style and substance.

3:48 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger tim r said...

Very well put, but I personally don't think it marries them at all, or at least not successfully. (Shall we say that GNAGL, at best, forces an arranged marriage?) Nor do I find Crash's visual design unprepossessing, quite. The movie is in fact constantly groping towards visual ideas that Haggis and his cinematographers simply don't have the finesse to pull off, a problem sounded in the very first sequence with Cheadle in the car, where you get the sort of Michael Mann-ish urban alienation they're going for with lights being refracted through the rainy windowpane, but you're equally aware of how flatly and halfheartedly it's being done without a Dante Spinotti to give any real depth to the image. I can't really go along with the idea that Haggis is attempting some sort of rough-and-ready exercise in pugilistic dramatic rhetoric, because of how hard the movie is trying all the way through to make transitions and connections that are beyond its skill to forge in visual terms. I found Mark Isham's score did an awful lot of the work instead, thrust to the forefront by the markedly poor quality of the cinematography, and shoring up what moments of catharsis and provocation the film genuinely had. Obviously the choice of "Maybe Tomorrow" for the final sequence leaves open the possibility of "maybe not", and I'd agree that the film's characters haven't really achieved any notably positive epiphanies there, but I thought the clear indication of pulling back to the LA skyline was that all the city's other residents were meant to pick up the baton and take it somewhere better — that they, and indeed we, are meant to learn from these characters's mistakes, and that's where the messagey enlightenment comes in. I don't consider Crash a terrible film so much as a disappointingly crude one, finally, but I would argue that it's bullyingly presumptuous in all the ways that GNAGL was bullyingly complacent, and the latter at least had the virtue, however divorcable, of being appreciably well-made even while it was telling us exactly nothing we didn't already know. (It's my second least favourite of the five.)

All of which leads me to a last, chirpier observation: how much more fun is it to debate the merits of the Oscar nominees when the actual ceremony's done and dusted and we don't have to tax ourselves with predicting anything?! A lot more fun, I'm finding.

5:20 PM, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I concur!

5:37 PM, March 07, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be fair though, Nick, you've been a Brokeback detractor for most of the awards season. It's clearly not a film you care for very much, which is cool...but perhaps because of that, your arguments here allow a latitude in the Academy voting that implies this was in some way a qualitative choice...even as you admit that qualitative measurements are not really Oscar's bailiwick or reality. You also suggest that many voters may have skipped viewing the queer cowboys, which gives further dubiousness to the idea that they evaluated BROKEBACK and found it lacking...they can't dislike it without seeing it.

The problem with your possible explanations, for me, is that they have little to no historical precedent in the Academy's history (Nathaniel's covered this extensively), nor was Crash a major factor in any awards prior to SAG...which happened late in the season, when the anti-BROKEBACK media blitz was in full swing on the internet and late-night television. You can discount the guilds and critics if you want, but if CRASH were all that, surely it would have made an impression on *someone* prior to March 2006.

What I find most disturbing in the anything-but-homophobia defenses of CRASH I'm finding across the internet this week (mainly from hetero critics, but also from some gay ones) is the fragile myths of Hollywood being exposed...the myths of liberalism, the myths of L.A. centrism, the myths of quality. Oscar is not (and has never been, in the modern era) about quality. It is an odd combination of commericalism, social pressure and zeitgeist, as you say.

Homophobia fits into that Oscar equation naturally and understandably (if also regrettably). Whatever one thinks about BROKEBACK as a film, few can doubt its courage in showing a masculine, physically-passionate relationship between men and offering that not to the arthouse but to the mainstream cinemas of America. As a concept, it is dangerous, it is disturbing, and it is unsettling to the vast majority of America...including Hollywood.

What does not parse for me is the idea that 6,000 industry professionals -- people who do this for a living -- think CRASH was the most superb, most accomplshed, and most affecting cinematic effort of last year. I think it's preposterous to believe Haggis' film is than Lee's, but it's maybe more preposterous to think it is better than Lee's AND Miller's AND Clooney's AND Spielberg's.

Or Herzog's or Malick's or Haneke's or Cronenberg's or Weerasethakul's or Kore-Eda's or Wright's or Audiard's or Kar-Wai's or Giordana's or Desplechin's or a dozen others, for that matter.

So I'll buy the your DVD-distribution argument to a degree (Oscar voters are lazy, I get that), but the two-for-one, critics-are-wrong stuff doesn't wash with me.

Which does not mean that I didn't LOVE sitting with you throughout the awards, watching your beloved give THE performance of the year in his Geisha tribute. :-)

7:57 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger Javier Aldabalde said...

Surely art can and *should* be manipulative, but you can't possibly compare the movies of artists like Malick or Lynch, who *inspire* you to feel things, with something like "Crash" crudely sending its message across with one-note characters spewing racist commentary non-stop. Like Tim says, it's not so much a movie but a TV pilot, with images that completely fail to get across any meaning Haggis might have intended. It's an issue movie, and it is so inescapably superficial that it cannot even transcend its Big Issue (racism) to become something fundamentally more universal (like prejudice would be).

Unlike "Brokeback" which reads as a tale of love/repression/opression and not just homosexuality per se. Hence, anyone can relate to it.

8:43 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Tim: Super arguments re: Crash. Still, for all that you're contending that visual and formal virtuosity lie outside the reach of this film (and I'd certainly agree with you), I still don't think it loses much as you think it does from these particular limitations. I am no disciple, but I think Crash works ably within its chosen terms a good deal of the time. Its smudgily nondescript look doesn't, for me, get in the way of the film's missions, which seem to have so much to do with the acting and the writing. It's only when the writing is especially bad—in the Cheadle/Esposito bedroom scene, in the barely excusable child-shooting scene, etc.—that I think the film really clunks, because otherwise I think it holds to its own terms pretty well.

@ModFab: I hear you, and I feel the homophobic implications of Brokeback's loss more than I'm reflecting in this entry, because that argument is already being picked up by you, Nathaniel, QTA, etc., and no one who reads my site doesn't also read yours! I just think there are other dimensions to this, is all I'm saying: not instead of, but in addition to, homo-panic. Maybe I'm influenced by working day to day with students who are absolutely floored by Crash, who write about it in all of my classes, and for whom it feels as potent and personal as Brokeback does to Brokeback fans. One thing that I don't hear in a lot of the angriest or saddest responses to Brokeback's loss is the admission that Crash is not just a vessel for siphoning Brokeback votes but a movie that, whatever its flaws, hits people where they live, too, and was a lot of people's favorite movie this year. (Am I the only person who regularly hears people say this?) I didn't think it would win Best Picture, I don't think it should have, and I probably would have prefered Brokeback to take it, at least for symbolic reasons... but at the same time, given the kind of movie Crash is, what it's about, and the kind of word-of-mouth buzz it's continued to generate for almost a year, its winning and its bizarre manner of winning aren't hard for me to accept. I wouldn't ever expect a group like the NYFCC or LAFC to get behind it (too crude), or the Globes to care about it (too unstarry), or the Director's Guild to endorse it (too rudimentary in its direction), whereas it did predictably resonate with SAG and WGA. Since, as you say, the Academy cares about emotional impact as much as quality, why wouldn't Crash stand a strong chance with them? In fact, if any of the other films except for Crash has won, I would have felt the rejection a lot more painfully, because I almost never meet anyone who is heartily, hotly devoted to GNGL, Munich, or Capote.

Passion counted extra in a year where AMPAS showed so little unanimous favor to any film that Brokeback led the field with only eight noms, and no film managed to win more than three? (Best Picture aside, that hasn't happened at the Academy, either, since the days of many fewer categories.) I still don't see how voters in 1976 thought Rocky was better than All the President's Men AND Network AND Taxi Driver, but compared to the more sophisticated aesthetics and truth-to-power ambitions of those movies, the scrappier, more workmanlike, more word-of-mouth hit won out. I know Rocky had DGA and the Globe, but Crash had the WGA and the SAG, which isn't far off in predictive equivalence. (Beyond these four, I think critics' awards can make a huge difference in terms of what gets nominated, but I don't think they bear at all on what actually wins.)

Reading Brokeback's loss as an indicator of Hollywood's homophobia, a homophobia that dare not speak its name as such, makes a lot of sense to me, but reading it as an indicator only of homophobia, or even primarily of homophobia, makes me nervous. Actually, I think the big problem with both lines of argument is that they're basically unprovable and can both make use of all the same evidence. Remember how shaky things looked when BBM only got eight nods, missing out in categories like Editing where front-runners usually don't? We can see that as an early sign of BBM's lack of a mandate, or as an early symptom of AMPAS' homophobic rejection of it. And go round and round about it.

I totally take your point about Hollywood's homophobia, but I see it just as much when things like Will & Grace win Emmys for their problematic portrayals as when Brokeback loses its Oscar. Just like Hollywood's racism is just as clear when problematic texts like Driving Miss Daisy (or, for many people, Crash) win as when Do the Right Thing fails to get nominated. Their conservatism is a mainstay, exacerbated no doubt when a major threat or provocation like Brokeback emerges, but I don't think it's ever the only force at work in reaching their decisions. I'm not AT ALL trying to antagonize or brush off you or Nat or anyone else who's reading this as homophobia, just to propose what I think might be other, simultaneous facets behind what happened.

And I loved watching with you, too, babe. And I *love* not being the only person in a room who takes the Academy's choices extremely personally. When Braveheart won, I didn't speak to anyone, even my family, for almost a full day.

@JavierAG: I certainly agree with you about Lynch and Malick. They are great artists. Thank God for artists who escape manipulative tactics almost entirely. I only mean to say that criticisms of Crash that stop with "It's manipulative!" have still got to convince me that all manipulation in art is terrible, and of exactly what the movie is manipulating me to feel (what does it mean that I don't interpret the movie in the way so many people allege it *forces* you to interpret it?). One person's epiphany is another person's manipulation, and all year I've been meeting disproportionate numbers of people who feel both ways about both Brokeback and Crash. I can see why someone would vote strongly for or deliberately against either; I know people off the top of my head who would have filled all four of these roles: pro-Crash, pro-BBM, anything-but-Crash (whether they hated the rhetoric, hated the filmmaking, felt manipulated...), anything-but-BBM (tired of the hype, didn't feel the love, homophobic...). People voting against Crash could vote for anything else, since it wasn't perceived as the front-runner anyway; people voting against BBM, including the homophobes, would hardly have voted for anything except Crash, because it was so widely seen as the only movie with a prayer at being the dark horse.

10:12 PM, March 07, 2006  
Blogger qta said...

I LOVE you guys!

5:57 AM, March 08, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brokeback lost because of Hollywood's homophobia therefore I will never watch the Oscar's again.

5:49 PM, August 15, 2006  

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