THE BACK APGES

The collateral damage of Crash

When the L.A. drama beat out Brokeback Mountain, the big screen just got smaller

Brian D. Johnson April 3 2006
THE BACK APGES

The collateral damage of Crash

When the L.A. drama beat out Brokeback Mountain, the big screen just got smaller

Brian D. Johnson April 3 2006

The collateral damage of Crash

When the L.A. drama beat out Brokeback Mountain, the big screen just got smaller

film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

It's finally set ding down, the

Brokeback-lash against Crash winning best picture at the Academy Awards. But what was it all about? It’s hard to remember an Oscar vote that has produced such bitter acrimony. Annie E. Proulx, who wrote the story on which Brokeback Mountain is based, moaned that the Oscar went to Trash. David Cronenbergmiffed that fellow Canadian Paul Haggis had stolen his own Crash title, and robbed a nomination from A History of Violence—called the Academy decision “stupid.” The Academy is famous for stupidity. This, after all, is the group that preferred Rocky to Taxi Driver and Forrest Gump to Pulp Fiction. But its latest decision wasn’t another triumph of dumb sentiment over smart drama.

Everyone has been quick to point out that those conservative liberals of the Academy chose a safe movie about racism over a daring homosexual romance. Gay rights activists cried foul. And critic Roger Ebert, who believed Crash actually was the best picture of 2005, scurried to defend himself against charges of homophobia. Others pointed out that Hollywood, in its parochial wisdom, chose a movie shot in Los Angeles over a runaway production filmed in Alberta. It’s true that Crash, as a self-portrait of Los Angeles, appeals to Hollywood narcissism. The pivotal scene—of a bigoted white cop molesting a black woman in front of her husband—occurs as the couple is driving home from an awards ceremony.

But no matter what motivated the choice, its most disturbing consequence has nothing to do with racism or homophobia. In selecting Crash over Brokeback, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has voted against its own interests—by honouring the science of television over the art of cinema. Crash is a pretty good movie, well-acted and well-shot, but it looks like it belongs on TV.

And that’s how most of the Oscar voters would have seen it. Shortly before the ballot deadline, Lionsgate Entertainment sent Crash DVDs to all of the Academy’s members—some 6,000. Many would have also seen Brokeback on DVD, and—missing the detail of the big screen—found it strangely slow.

Crash was made by a man who’s spent most of his career writing for the small screen. And Haggis lends it the high-octane, episodic style of series drama. Much of it is shot in TV-style close-ups or medium shots. The telegraphic dialogue tells us exactly how its characters feel, and what we should think of them.

In giving the Oscar to a film that's more at home on TV, Hollywood voted against its own interests

Brokeback Mountain is a slow, subtle movie full of open space and awkward silence. Its characters don’t say much, and what they do say is often not what they mean:

Ennis: This is a one-shot thing wegotgoin’ on here.

Jack: It’s nobody’s business but ours.

Ennis: You know I ain’t queer.

Jack: Me neither.

Compare that terse exchange to this stretch of edifying reflection from Graham, the black cop played by Don Cheadle in Crash:

In L.A., nobody touches you. We’re always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss

that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something.

If that sounds more like a screenwriter than a cop, it’s because Haggis likes to use his characters to spell out his themes in boldface. The movie is an outlet mall of racial stereotypes—white, black, Hispanic, Iranian, Korean—which all implode with ironic twists. The message rings loud and clear: racial intolerance is a two-way street of road rage, an accident waiting to happen, and if we could only see past the displaced anger to embrace our common hopes and fears, we’d find there’s not much separating us.

Brokeback may have become the butt of talk show jokes as that gay cowboy picture, but no one could mistake it for a message movie. It’s a canvas of emotion, not ideas. And what’s exemplary about this film is not that it’s sexually transgressive, but that it’s so stubbornly old-fashioned. In a movie culture that thrives on fast cuts and special effects, Brokeback Mountain is an oasis of calm. It reminds us that the big screen should be a place to get lost in, not a wall of unrelenting stimulus.

Watching a movie with an audience in the dark is fundamentally different than viewing it on TV. Cinema holds us hostage. It requires us to submit to the screen, to “go under,” and ideally it’s a dream-like experience. TV lets us keep our distance. While it fights for our attention, the medium is in our control—literally under our thumb. We’re always conscious of the room beyond the frame, and it’s

easy to leave, or simply change the channel.

Brokeback owes its pacing to the western, in which the screen is aplace, an open range where silence carries as much weight as words. But the same can be said of Capote. I saw both movies on the same day, at packed world premieres during the Toronto International Film Festival. What amazed me was how they both cast such a quiet spell over the audience. That’s partly due to the civility of festival-goers. But it also demonstrated the subtle power of these pictures, which leave viewers space for their own imaginings.

You might argue that the styles of Crash and Brokeback just reflect their subject matter. One is a contemporary drama with half a dozen storylines colliding in the streets of L.A., the other a period piece about two men living a secret life in the wild. The action in Crash is jammed into two days; Brokeback sprawls over two decades. And cowboys, by nature, are less talkative than cops and carjackers.

But these movies have opposite goals for tragedy. As Ennis fondles the denim shirt once worn by his partner, his anguish comes to us unfiltered. Crash, which treats L.A. as a Middle East of American misunderstanding, can’t stop replicating irony and coincidence. In the end, as all the narrative lanes merge, its multi-track mix of racism, revenge, violence and pathos is compressed into a soft-rock aria of redemption. The movie has been compared to Robert Altman’s Short Cuts, but Altman is ragged, not smooth. Like television, Crash tries to synthesize the world.

TV and video are changing the grammar of cinema. From the ads and trailers to the movies themselves, Hollywood bombards us with sound and image. Movie-going etiquette disintegrates as viewers eat and talk. The megaplex, the food court of film, is the architectural equivalent of the remote, offering the illusion of infinite choice.

Meanwhile, the gap between popcorn movies and the art house has never been wider. It’s inspiring to see Brokeback and Capote seduce a mainstream audience without pandering to TV attentions spans. But long, uncut, realtime shots are becoming as rare as unfenced prairie. Some directors have made an avantgarde fetish of slow cinema, notably Gus Van Sant in Gerry, Elephant and Last Days—yet all those titles were, paradoxically, made for TV by HBO. While movies become more TV-like, specialty TV strains to be more cinematic.

One final irony. At the Oscar ceremony, Brokeback star Jake Gyllenhaal, serving as a pitchman to boost declining theatre attendance, introduced a montage of spectacular movie clips by saying “there’s no place to see them like the big screen.” So why show them on television? By the same logic, in honouring Crash, the Academy only proved that its own industry—the business of filling theatres— is surrendering to home entertainment. M