In Praise of Hate

Crash Backlash

What the hell is happening with the delayed polarization that Crash has engendered? Nobody got terribly worked up about Paul Haggis’ sincere, overstuffed race-relations drama when it was released in April, but as critics compiled their year-end lists of best and worst movies, some shouting matches broke out. When Crash was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, few seemed to get chafed. But as the buzz started building that Crash might (gasp!) win, indignation showed its ugly face.

At The House Next Door, Matt Zoller Seitz elegantly rips the movie a new asshole:

“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.”

Meanwhile, over at Cinematical, Karina Longworth casually brushes aside the movie:

“For those who have not yet had the pleasure, Crash is a science-fiction film, set in an alternate universe that looks suspiciously like Los Angeles. This mythic dimension is populated exclusively by about a dozen men and women of various races and ethnicities; their only common trait, the compulsion to speak in stilted expository paragraphs.”

So why, all of a sudden, is it so urgent to dismantle and discredit Crash?

Obviously, people and critics who are foaming in loathing today dismissed the movie upon its theatrical release. It was only at the end of the year, when middlebrow, Middle West critics proclaimed it to be the shit, that some uppity folks got upset. In essence, those snobs got pissed because people liked the film and found it meaningful. So they berated them for their taste under the guise of attacking the movie. (I’m sure they resented the success of Forrest Gump, too.) This strategy is a loser, akin to telling somebody that it’s wrong wrong wrong! to like vanilla ice cream.

But even if this approach weren’t so denigrating, it’s important to note that the essential political arguments against Crash are weak:

  • Crash isn’t realistic. Well, what was the last movie you saw that was genuinely true-to-life? Movies are, by their nature, fabrications. And even the most realistic documentary or feature is a skewed, highly condensed version of reality.
  • Crash is facile. It’s a two-hour movie. Magnolia (a three-hour movie) is even more facile: Be nicer to people, and don’t repeat your mistakes. Cinema gives us relatively short, compact works whose profundity is severely circumscribed by their brevity.

What really seems to push the buttons of Crash critics, though, is that it has the audacity to not change the world. As Longworth put it:

“I lived in Los Angeles for almost 20 years, and I never saw any brand of racial conflict that a bad film could resolve.”

Well, I’ve spent nearly all my life in the Midwest, and I’ve yet to see any film of any quality that can “resolve” any real-world conflict, let alone one that’s been with us for millennia. Do the Right Thing might be the pinnacle of contemporary movies about race, but it ignited tons of arguments and settled few, if any.

Yet isn’t that the best we can hope for, and a good thing? Cinema that pushes us and prods us and leads to discussions, debates, and fights? That takes us places we generally don’t venture in polite discussion? Anything that gets people talking about race has a value.

In that way, Crash is wildly successful, even if it’s not a good movie. And, ironically, it’s wildly successful because people hate it so vehemently. The worst thing that can ever be said about a movie in the spirit of Crash is that people are indifferent about it.

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