Sunday, March 12, 2006

Guess Who's NOT Coming to Dinner

It took me a day or two to get over the slight of seeing a cloying, manipulative, "safe" film like Trash -- oops, I mean Crash -- win the Best Picture Oscar a few nights back (03-05-06). There, I had been thinking, I was fairly certain, that this particular Academy Award belonged to the gay-themed Brokeback Mountain. I should have guessed the outcome when the voting members handed out the Best Screenplay award to Crash, many of my objections to it having their basis in the movie being an annoying concatenation of unlikely, unbelievable plot twists, "coincidences" that called attention to their own improbability. But of equal concern to me was the "dated," almost anachronistic subject matter. I mean, Crash would have been daring and even radical in, say, 1967. That's when the studios gave us Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, a cloying, manipulative, "safe" picture (which, incidentally, did not get the Best Picture Oscar, either). No wonder the hype for Crash emphasized that it was "years in the making." It might have been groundbreaking 20-30 years ago.

Although it initially suffers a tad from the sort of wishful thinking and wouldn't-it-be-pretty-if... tone of optimism that mars some "gay lib" rhetoric today (an equal amount of it being marred by shrill, "bruised fruit" rhetoric), the following in some respects sums up my feelings about Oscar's slighting of the story of Ennis and Jack ("Homo on the Range," as one wag dubbed it). That is to say, the posting (I was not informed if it came from a blog, an email, whatever) sums up my feelings about why the skittish Academy members ignored the mountain for the hills of racist Los Angeles. I suspect this will come as a bit of a surprise to right wing pundits and fundamentalist religious bigots, but Hollywood remains a bastion of homophobia. In any case, this missive was written by someone named Lamar Damon, and it came to me from a friend of a friend under the subject line, "Could Not Have Said it Better Myself." Neither could I. Here it 'tis:

"Sometimes you win by losing, and nothing has proved what a powerful, taboo-breaking, necessary film 'Brokeback Mountain' was more than its loss Sunday night to 'Crash' in the Oscar best picture category.

"Despite all the magazine covers it graced, despite all the red-state theaters it made good money in, despite (or maybe because of) all the jokes late-night talk show hosts made about it, you could not take the pulse of the industry without realizing that this film made a number of people distinctly uncomfortable.

"More than any other of the nominated films, 'Brokeback Mountain' was the one people told me they really didn't feel like seeing, didn't really get, didn't understand the fuss over. Did I really like it, they wanted to know. Yes, I really did.

"In the privacy of the voting booth, as many political candidates who've led in polls only to lose elections have found out, people are free to act out the unspoken fears and unconscious prejudices that they would never breathe to another soul, or, likely, acknowledge to themselves. And at least this year, that acting out doomed 'Brokeback Mountain.'

"For Hollywood, as a whole laundry list of people announced from the podium Sunday night and a lengthy montage of clips tried to emphasize, is a liberal place, a place that prides itself on its progressive agenda. If this were a year when voters had no other palatable options, they might have taken adeep breath and voted for 'Brokeback.' This year, however, 'Crash' was poised to be the spoiler.

"I do not for one minute question the sincerity and integrity of the people who made 'Crash,' and I do not question their commitment to wanting a more equal society. But I do question the film they've made. It may be true, as producer Cathy Schulman said in accepting the Oscar for best picture, that this was 'one of the most breathtaking and stunning maverick years in American history,' but 'Crash' is not an example of that.

"I don't care how much trouble 'Crash' had getting financing or getting people on board, the reality of this film, the reason it won the best picture Oscar, is that it is, at its core, a standard Hollywood movie, as manipulative and unrealistic as the day is long. And something more.

"For 'Crash's' biggest asset is its ability to give people a carload of those standard Hollywood satisfactions but make them think they are seeing something groundbreaking and daring. It is, in some ways, a feel-good film about racism, a film you could see and feel like a better person, a film that could make you believe that you had done your moral duty and examined your soul when in fact you were just getting your buttons pushed and your preconceptions reconfirmed.

"So for people who were discomfited by 'Brokeback Mountain' but wanted to be able to look themselves in the mirror and feel like they were good, productive liberals, 'Crash' provided the perfect safe harbor. They could vote for it in good conscience, vote for it and feel they had made a progressive move, vote for it and not feel that there was any stain on their liberal credentials for shunning what 'Brokeback' had to offer. And that's exactly what they did.

"'Brokeback,' it is worth noting, was in some ways the tamest of the discomforting films available to Oscar voters in various categories. Steven Spielberg's 'Munich'; the Palestinian Territories' 'Paradise Now,' one ofthe best foreign language nominees; and the documentary nominee 'Darwin's Nightmare' offered scenarios that truly shook up people's normal ways of seeing the world. None of them won a thing.

"Hollywood, of course, is under no obligation to be a progressive force inthe world. It is in the business of entertainment, in the business of making the most dollars it can. Yes, on Oscar night, it likes to pat itself on the back for the good it does in the world, but as Sunday night's ceremony proved, it is easier to congratulate yourself for a job well done in the past than actually do that job in the present."

As Ennis or Jack might say...'Nuff said.

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