By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik January 16, 2006 at 2:35AM
Why can't we all just get along?
And I don't mean the evil, everyday racist folks that populate "Crash," but the critics who both love and loathe Paul Haggis' feature debut about the intersecting lives of several Los Angelenos. I have already made my opinions known about the film. And like the LA Weekly's Scott Foundas, who layed into the film hard in Slate's Movie Club, I think "Crash" -- to borrow his words -- "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."
But then there are those critics who praise the movie as among the best of the year. Of the over 240 critics listed on Movie City News's top-ten critic clearinghouse, I counted 25 "Crash"-lovers who placed the movie in their top five, the most famous, of course, being Roger Ebert, who listed it as #1. Ebert went so far as to take Foundas to task for trashing it in a recent column.
I can understand why critics disagree, and for Foundas and Ebert to bang heads, for they are very different critics. But the "Crash" wars are so bitter, so vehement and so widespread that I felt like this is a debate worth exploring. What is the difference between a "Crash" hater and a "Crash" lover? Who are these critics who treasure what Foundas, myself and a number of others think is complete dreck?
According to the top ten lists available, not a single critic who resides in New York or Los Angeles placed "Crash" in their top five. If I expand the criteria to those who placed it in the lower half of their top ten, only three critics -- Jack Matthews (NY Daily News), Ella Taylor (LA Weekly) and Claudia Puig (USA Today) -- come from the big entertainment coastal capitals.
So the vast majority of "Crash" fans come from everywhere in between: Aside from one vote from The Washington Post's Stephen Hunter and a couple from San Francisco, the rest of the critics hail from Arkansas to Austin, Cincinatti to Chicago, Des Moines to Palm Beach to Houston.
Are those of us on the coasts so alienated from the rest of the country? To be fair, I know plenty of Chicago critics who despise the movie -- Time Out Chicago listed it as one of their worst of the year -- despite the fact the film won best film among the Chicago Film Critics association. But obviously, there is some major critical disconnect going on between the coasts and the rest of America.
For a movie that's about Los Angeles, I do find it suspicious that so few LA critics placed the film on their top ten, whereas so many who live outside the city loved it. This could lend credence to Foundas' claim that the movie reaffirms stereotypes about L.A. for those who don't live there. (I'd like to observe the conversations in the LA Weekly offices between Foundas and Taylor on the film.)
There is also the issue of the African American Film Critics and blackfilm.com's hearty endorsements of the movie. I don't know where these critics live -- and I don't suppose Armond White is a member -- but it's clear the strong performances and the mere existence of the movie's racial themes has given these groups cause to praise it.
But when applauding a movie, it's important to remember craft, dramatic ability and narrative knowhow. And while I'm about to pick a fight with dozens of critics out there, the fact is that "Crash" fails miserably on all accounts.
In defense of his #1 movie, Ebert writes, "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. . . . 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."
With these remarks, Ebert helps prove the "Crash"-haters very thesis: the movie is manipulative, sermonizing, pedestrian, and call me elitist, but just because a movie appeals to the average Joe doesn't mean it's good. It means that it's mainstream; it means that it plays to the middle. While Ebert argues the box office success of "Crash" in some way justifies the film's excellence, I would argue the exact opposite: The $53 million gross justifies nothing more than the film's brainlessly pedantic, easily digestible politics.