On the behind-the-scenes featurette on the Crash DVD, producer/screenwriter Bobby Moresco says, "We made a choice early on if we were gonna talk about race and not deal with it directly then we're not really talking about race; we're trying to be politically correct." I would respond that there's a difference between political correctness and artistic integrity. It is possible to have artistic integrity without being politically correct; in fact, I would argue that a lot of great art isn't politically correct, that political incorrectness could be considered one of the hallmarks of great art (not that great art has to be politically incorrect, and not that anything that's politically incorrect is automatically great art) because one of the purposes of art is to stir emotion, and one way of stirring emotion is by making people angry. But on the other hand, I think art should stir people's emotions to a certain purpose; otherwise it's just pushing people's buttons for the hell of it, and that's not only not artistic, it's mean and stupid. Now, I know the makers of Crash WANTED there to be a purpose to it, I know they didn't want to push people's buttons just for the sake of pushing people's buttons, but what purpose does it serve to have your characters constantly talk about race, race, race, and nothing but race? I can tell that they're trying to make a point, but the point's getting lost because after a while all the dialogue starts to sound the same.
What Moresco and Haggis and everyone else in the Crash camp don't seem to understand is that your film can make a direct statement about a subject without your characters talking about it directly. When I first heard those words coming out of Bobby Moresco's mouth, I was reminded of something that BBM producer James Schamus said in the behind-the-scenes featurette on the Brokeback DVD: "One of the things we said from the very beginning is 'we're not going to make a movie which shies away from what this movie is about, which is...a love affair between two men.'" It's kind of eerie how similar the two sentiments are, and yet each movie dealt with its subject in vastly different ways. I think Schamus and the BBM filmmakers were successful in making a movie that doesn't shy away from the subject; is there any doubt in anyone's mind what this movie is about? Is it not clear from the beginning (or at least the first half hour)? I don't see how anyone could deny it unless they really weren't paying attention. And yet, the characters almost never discuss the subject directly. They discuss it by suggestion, innuendo, euphemism. Why? Because if you give it a name, it'll be real, and then you'll have to deal with it. If you don't give it a name, and don't talk about it, you can deny it indefinitely. It's just a couple of fishing trips a year, what could be more innocent than that?
Generally speaking, people don't just come out and say exactly what they are thinking. There are exceptions to that of course; certain cultures are more direct than others and some people just don't seem to have filters between their brains and their mouths, but while a lot of our communication takes place non-verbally, a lot of it is also often conveyed through the connotation of words rather than denotation. As it is in life, so it should be in art. In Erik Lundegaard's post-Oscar analysis (if that's not too mild a word for it), he said that people rationalized the clumsiness and obviousness of Crash's script by saying, "this was a movie, after all, not a book, and in a movie you can’t show characters thinking." This kind of makes me want to bang my head against the wall, because that's arguably the very definition of acting, to reveal to the audience what the character is thinking when he* says those words. There's an exercise in the Stanislavskian method1 in which the actor goes through all of his* lines and writes down the real meaning, or subtext, which they will then attempt to convey in their acting. The subtext in BBM is so rich that scoring the script like that would almost be like translating it to another language. However, I feel sorry for any of the actors in Crash who may have tried scoring their scripts, because there's just nothing there, or at least very little.
An actor's performance of a role is called an interpretation, which makes particular sense if you think of subtext as though it were another language. Having strong subtext in a script also opens it up to interpretation by the audience and that, I believe, is a necessary criterion of great art. Now, do I believe that Crash is not open to interpretation? No, I can't say that I do. What I do believe is that it lacks sufficient scope for interpretation. It's difficult, if not impossible to find any deeper meaning beneath the words, and often the characters' motivations are so vague that it's difficult, if not impossible, to figure out why they do the things they do. Because of the vagueness of the characters' motivations, you can certainly conjecture as to why the characters do the things they do, but you'd be hard-pressed to back it up with any evidence from the movie. As for the lack of subtext, what Haggis and Moresco are saying to us, intentionally or otherwise, is that they do not trust us to come up with our own meanings for the things that are happening in the movie. They don't trust that we'll come up with the "right" interpretation, so they have to tell us how to interpret it. Even though the subject matter is adult, the tone of it is very reminiscent of those films made for children and teens that are meant to be educational but also try to be entertaining and just come across being silly and condescending. Crash tries to make a comment about the evils of prejudice, but, ironically, in the end all it does is pass judgments on most of its characters: Ryan Phillipe started out good but now he's BAD! Matt Dillon started out being bad but now he's GOOD! Sandra Bullock started out bad, but now she's learned a valuable lesson. (Gee, is it any suprise that Paul Haggis used to be a writer on The Facts of Life?)2
Brokeback Mountain on the other hand, treats its viewers like adults. It just puts everything out there, and the tone is ambivalent; the filmmakers are saying, "Take it or leave it." Are the characters good? Are they bad? That's up to you to decide. Probably both. One of the nice things about it is that you can continue to discover new things about it and gain new insights from it. For example, the first couple of times I watched it I didn't find Alma to be that sympathetic, because I was putting myself in her position, rather than trying to see things from her point of view. And when I put myself in her position with my current viewpoint, I found her to be harsh and begrudging. But then I tried to see things from her point of view, and when I did so I realized that her point of view was not so different from what my viewpoint was before my older brother came out. Again, this made sense, because I was raised in the same culture where we don't talk about it and we pretend it doesn't exist, and if we are faced with it we just deny it until we can't deny it anymore. And that's what I did; I knew deep in my heart that my brother was gay long before he told me, but I refused to believe it, I made excuses, because I didn't want to have to re-evaluate my world view.
Anyway, I'm getting off-topic. I said I didn't have much to say on this topic; maybe I had a little more than I anticipated. I was going to rewrite a scene from BBM in the style of Paul Haggis, but that'd be more for laughs than to prove any sort of point, and while it would be very funny, it would also be mean-spirited. So I won't. Unfortunately I'm lacking a snappy ending for this entry, so for lack of 'zazz I'll just link to Stephen King's post-Oscar analysis from Entertainment Weekly, because I don't think I have yet. He hits a lot of the same points I do, but more concisely and in a more entertaining manner. I enjoy this piece all the more because of the Brokeback-Shawshank parallels3 I expounded upon in my first essay this week. So, enjoy. All hail the King! (how's that for a snappy ending?)
1 At least I'm pretty sure it's Stanislavskian, but it's been a while since I took Basic Acting, and I never did this technique again because it's time-consuming and dull.
2 For the record, I really like "The Facts of Life"; I just don't think it's great art.
3 There's something else I didn't mention because it's not so much a parallel as it is a coincidence (and certainly not unprecedented), but in some of the trailers and TV spots for BBM they played the Shawshank score in the background.