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In defense of the year's 'worst movie'

Having selected "Crash" as the best film of 2005, I was startled to learn from Scott Foundas, a critic for LA Weekly, that it is the worst film of the year. Writing in the annual Slate.com Movie Club, a round table also involving Slate's David Edelstein, the Chicago Reader's Jonathan Rosenbaum and A.O. Scott of the New York Times, he wrote:

"Not since 'Spanglish' --which, alas, wasn't that long ago -- has a movie been so chock-a-block with risible minority caricatures or done such a handy job of sanctioning the very stereotypes it ostensibly debunks. Welcome to the best movie of the year for people who like to say, 'A lot of my best friends are black.'"

That group must include (understandably, I suppose) the membership of the African-American Film Critics Association, who didn't get the wake-up call from Foundas in time to avoid voting "Crash" as their best film of the year. "The films selected for 2005 boldly reflect a bridge towards tolerance," said Gil Robertson IV, president of the association.

That's what I thought about "Crash." I believe that occasionally a film comes along that can have an influence for the better, and maybe even change us a little.

"Crash" shows the interlinked lives of Los Angelinos who belong to many different ethnic groups, who all suffer from prejudice, and who all practice it. The movie, written and directed by Paul Haggis, doesn't assign simplistic "good" and "evil" labels but shows that the same person can be sometimes a victim, sometimes a victimizer. To say it "sanctions" their behavior is simply wrong-headed.

"Crash" is a film that depends for much of its effect on the clash of coincidental meetings. A white racist cop sexually assaults a black woman, then the next day saves her life. His white partner, a rookie, is appalled by his behavior, but nevertheless later kills an innocent man because he leaps to a conclusion based on race. A black man is so indifferent to his girlfriend's Latino heritage that he can't be bothered to remember where she's from. After a carjacking, a liberal politician's wife insists all their locks be changed -- and then wants them changed again, because she thinks the Mexican-American locksmith will send his "homies" over with the pass key. The same locksmith has trouble with an Iranian store owner who thinks the Mexican-American is black. But it drives the Iranian crazy that everyone thinks he is Arab, when they should know that Iranians are Persian. Buying a gun to protect himself, he gets into a shouting match with a gun dealer who has a lot of prejudices about, yes, Arabs.

And so on, around and around. The movie is constructed as a series of parables, in which the characters meet and meet again; the movie shows them both sinned against, and sinning. The most poignant scene is probably the one in which a mother can see no evil in her son who is corrupt, and finds nothing but fault with her son who is a kind man and good to her. She thinks she knows them.

When "Crash" opened, I wrote: "Not many films have the possibility of making their audiences better people. I don't expect 'Crash' to work any miracles, but I believe anyone seeing it is likely to be moved to have a little more sympathy for people not like themselves."

I believe that. The success of the film suggests it struck a lot of people the same way; opening last spring as a low-profile release, it held its box office and slowly built through word-of-mouth, as people told each other about it. It opened in May with a $9 million weekend, and by September had grossed $55 million. "Crash" and "March of the Penguins" were the two most successful "word of mouth" pictures of the year.

In my original review, I wrote: "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."

How, then, can this be the worst movie of the year? It is not only Scott Foundas who thinks so, but indeed even Jim Emerson, who edits rogerebert.com, said it made him gasp and guffaw, but allows, "at least it has the up-front audacity to dare looking ridiculous by arguably reaching beyond its grasp." And here is Dave White of MSNBC: "Kids, racism is really really really bad and wrong. Look, just watch this heavy, important movie about how everyone who lives in Los Angeles -- all 12 of them -- is super racist and awful; it's really funny when Hollywood decides to tackle a serious moral issue and throw star-powered weight behind something that everyone but Neo-Nazis agrees on already."

Foundas in his Slate.com attack says the movie is "one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that rolls around every once in a while to remind us of how white people suffer too, how nobody is without his prejudices, and how, when the going gets tough, even the white supremacist cop who gets his kicks from sexually harassing innocent black motorists is capable of rising to the occasion. How touching."

Of these three, Emerson is at least good-hearted, but Foundas and White seem actually angry at the film, even contemptuous. In a year that gave us "Chaos" and "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo," this seems a strange choice of target.

White's comments indicate, I guess, that racism is dead in America, except for neo-Nazis, and that anyone making a movie about it is a fool. How glib, how smug, how insular. It is almost impossible these days to get financing and backing for any sort of serious film; White seems to think Hollywood makes them for fun.

Foundas is too cool for the room. He is so wise, knowing and cynical that he can see through "Crash" and indulge in self-congratulatory superiority because he didn't fall for it. Referring to the wife who distrusts the locksmith, he writes: "when Sandra Bullock's pampered Brentwood housewife accuses a Mexican-American locksmith of copying her keys for illicit purposes, Haggis doesn't condemn her reprehensible behavior so much as he sympathizes with it."

This is a misreading of the film, but look at it more closely: Bullock is "pampered" and a "housewife," yet Haggis "sympathizes" with her behavior. Does he? No; I would say he empathizes with it, which is another thing altogether. She has just been carjacked at gunpoint and is hysterical. If Foundas were carjacked at gunpoint, would he rise to the occasion with measured detachment and sardonic wit? I wouldn't. Who will cast the first stone? And notice that the Mexican-American locksmith (Michael Pena) remains so invisible to Foundas that the actor is not named and Foundas has not noticed that the scene also empathizes with him.

Consider now Foundas describing the black TV director who stands by fearfully as a cop assaults his wife. Terrence Howard, Foundas says, plays the "creepy embodiment of emasculated African-American yuppiedom." Say what? As a black man in Los Angeles, Howard's character is fully aware that when two white cops stop you for the wrong reason and one starts feeling up your wife, it is prudent to reflect that both of the cops are armed and, if you resist, in court you will hear that you pulled a gun, were carrying cocaine, threatened them, and are lying about the sexual assault. Notice also, please, that the TV director's wife (Thandie Newton) makes the same charge of emasculated yuppiedom against her husband that Foundas does -- and her husband answers it. Their argument may cut closer to some of the complex and paradoxical realities of race in America than any other scene this year.

It is useful to be aware of the ways in which real people see real films. Over the past eight months I've had dozens of conversations about "Crash" with people who were touched by it. They said it might encourage them to look at strangers with a little more curiosity before making a snap judgment.

These real moviegoers are not constantly vigilant against the possibility of being manipulated by a film. They want to be manipulated; that's what they pay for, and that in a fundamental way is why movies exist. Usually the movies manipulate us in brainless ways, with bright lights and pretty pictures and loud sounds and special effects. But a great movie can work like philosophy, poetry, or a sermon.

It did not occur to many of its viewers that "Crash" was a "liberal" or for that matter a "conservative" film, as indeed it is neither: It is a series of stories in which people behave as they might and do and will, and we are invited to learn from the results. Not one in ten thousand audience members would agree with Foundas that "Crash" sympathizes with Bullock's character.

They are not too cool, but at room temperature.

Now back to those awards from the African-American Film Critics Association. They named Terrence Howard as best actor for "Hustle & Flow," and Felicity Huffman as best actress for "Transamerica." Hold on! Felicity Huffman is white! How could she be the best actress choice of the African-American critics? Because, Robertson says, they thought she gave the year's best performance. Is "Transamerica's" story of a transsexual merely one more case of Hollywood (let's get this right) throwing its star-powered weight behind something that everyone but Neo-Nazis agrees on already? Or could there possibly be a connection between such an award and the message of "Crash?" Now how about that.

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