Save for the storied contretemps between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris, film critics are generally far too busy reviewing the new movies that open each week to spend much time reviewing each other. So I was understandably surprised to read your January 8 Chicago Sun-Times editorial “In Defense of the ‘Worst Movie of the Year,’?” in which you lambasted my opinion of Crash, a movie you have repeatedly praised as being the best of 2005. Specifically, you were referring to comments I made in the recent Movie Club forum at Slate.com — a discussion about the past year in film that also included contributions by critics A.O. Scott of The New York Times, Jonathan Rosenbaum of the Chicago Reader and Slate’s own David Edelstein. As your headline suggests, I wrote in the Movie Club that Crash was among my least favorite movies of 2005 and called it “one of those self-congratulatory liberal jerk-off movies that roll 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.”
I stand by those words and, as you point out, I am not alone in such sentiments. Your essay quotes negative Crash reviews by MSNBC critic Dave White and even the editor of your own Web site, Jim Emerson. To which I would add that, upon its release back in May, Crash received mixed-to-negative reviews from Edelstein in Slate and Scott in The New York Times, as well as from many other critics writing in the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The New Republic, among other publications. In the 2005 Village Voice poll of more than 100 major North American critics, Crash was cited by only four participants as one of the year’s 10 best films, for an overall 66th-place showing in the survey. And lest anyone surmise that this amounts to some sort of contrarian backlash against a widely praised film, I should note that way back during the 2004 Toronto Film Festival, three-quarters of a year before Crash arrived in commercial cinemas, Variety critic Todd McCarthy wrote that the movie offers “a narrow, ungenerous and, finally, unrepresentative view of the world, one that suggests people are correct in suspecting others as having only the worst motives.”
I couldn’t have put it better myself, but maybe you, Roger, could have. In describing Crash, you’ve written: “A white racist cop sexually assaults a black woman, then the next day saves her life. His white partner, a rookie, is appalled by his behavior, but nevertheless later kills an innocent man because he leaps to a conclusion based on race. A black man is so indifferent to his girlfriend’s Latino heritage that he can’t be bothered to remember where she’s from. After a carjacking, a liberal politician’s wife insists all their locks be changed — and then wants them changed again, because she thinks the Mexican-American locksmith will send his ‘homies’ over with the pass key. The same locksmith has trouble with an Iranian storeowner who thinks the Mexican-American is black. But it drives the Iranian crazy that everyone thinks he is Arab, when they should know that Iranians are Persian. Buying a gun to protect himself, he gets into a shouting match with a gun dealer who has a lot of prejudices about, yes, Arabs.” That, in a nutshell, is as succinct a summary as I’ve read of everything that’s wrong with this picture. If only you’d managed to mention that the two carjackers who, when they’re not perpetrating grand theft auto, engage in animated debates about black-on-black racism and hip-hop as “music of the oppressor” — scenes aptly described by the name of one of the actors featured in them: Ludacris. (To answer your rhetorical question, Roger: If I were carjacked at gunpoint by these two guys, I wouldn’t “rise to the occasion with measured detachment and sardonic wit.” I’d merely wait for Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punk’d.)
I’ve said that Crash, which was co-written and directed by Paul Haggis, doesn’t accurately reflect the city of Los Angeles as I’ve come to know it after more than a decade of living here (during which time I’ve made lots of meaningful connections with others, none of which have been the result of a car accident). But as I think back on the film, I’m not even sure that it reflects life as we know it on planet Earth. The characters in Crash don’t feel like three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood human beings so much as calculated “types” plugged by Haggis into a schematic thesis about how we are all, in the course of any given day, the perpetrators and the victims of some racial prejudice. (Nobody in Haggis’ universe is allowed to be merely one or the other.) They have no inner lives. They fail to exist independently of whatever stereotype they’re on hand to embody and/or debunk. Erudite carjackers? A man who can’t remember his own girlfriend’s ethnicity? You may see such things as “parables,” but I call it sloppy, sanctimonious screenwriting of the kind that, as one colleague recently suggested, should be studied in film classes as a prime example of what not to do.
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But then, Roger, perhaps all of us detractors are simply, as you put it, “too cool for the room.” According to you, we critics must bear in mind “the ways in which real people see real films,” the same people who you say enjoy paying to be manipulated. (And who’s to argue, when the officials currently holding our nation’s highest elected offices offer living proof that many of us enjoy being manipulated for free?) You go on to say that you’ve talked to dozens of viewers who were touched by Crash, and while I don’t deny that, I have had my own conversations about Crash with plenty of “real people” who feel less touched by the film than manhandled by it. Among e-mails I’ve received from Slate readers, one goes so far as to speculate that people are afraid to admit they don’t like Crash for fear of being considered racists themselves — and I think the film is engineered to make viewers feel that way — while another, somewhat more charitable correspondent quotes Oscar Wilde’s maxim that “all bad art is sincere.”
Finally, you express surprise that anyone could feel contempt toward a movie like Crash in the same year that witnessed the release of Chaos and Deuce Bigalow, European Gigolo. But as I stated in Slate, by calling Crash the worst movie of the year, I don’t mean to suggest that it’s entirely incompetent or even a catastrophic all-star debacle on the order of The Bonfire of the Vanities or Town & Country. No, Crash asks (and expects) to be taken much too seriously for that kind of rote dismissal. So, why contrast Crash against two unrepentant, bottom-of-the-barrel stinkers — one a no-budget horror movie that took pride in using bad reviews as part of its promotional campaign and the other a lowbrow Rob Schneider comedy — rather than placing it in the context of those other movies from 2005 that so much more subtly and intelligently (and no less sincerely) grappled with the effects of race and class on our daily lives? I’m thinking, of course, of Michael Haneke’s brilliant Caché — my own pick for the best film of last year — and also about George Romero’s Land of the Dead, both of which are studies in how (mostly white) people of privilege attempt to seal themselves off from society’s “undesirable” elements (who just so happen to be people of color). And while we’re on the subject, I might as well mention Lars von Trier’s soon-to-be-released Manderlay, which premiered at festivals in 2005, and is about the very kind of psychological enslavement that might lead a group called the African-American Film Critics Association to present Crash with a best-picture award.
Haggis is right about one thing: None of us is without prejudice. You’re right that in my notes on Crash, I neglect to mention the name of the actor who plays the Mexican-American locksmith; in your editorial, you say with the utmost certainty that “when two white cops stop you for the wrong reason and one starts feeling up your wife, it is prudent to reflect that both of the cops are armed and, if you resist, in court you will hear that you pulled a gun, were carrying cocaine, threatened them, and are lying about the sexual assault.” These are indeed troubled waters, but if Crash is what qualifies as “a bridge towards tolerance,” excuse me while I phone my auto-insurance agent and increase my premium.