Wednesday, March 01, 2006

OSCARS....let's talk CRASH

'Crash' owes a debt to Dickens

I was reading Charles Dickens the other day,EDITOR'S NOTE: CAUSE THERE WERE NO NEW BOOKS OUT? (BLAH BLAH BLAH...CLASSIC..BLAH BLAH BLAH. GIGGLE)and realized in a different way why "Crash" is such a good and useful film. Dickens is the best storyteller in the history of the novel, and although I've read him pretty much from end to end, I got into an argument about the character in "The Squid and the Whale" who tells his son that A Tale of Two Cities is "minor Dickens." I thought this opinion was correct, but I re-read it for the first time since I was a child, and found that it was not minor Dickens after all.

Dickens wrote melodramas and romances, comedies and tragedies, usually within the same story. He was a social reformer, filled with an anger that had its beginnings when his father was thrown into a debtors' prison and young Charles was yanked from a happy family into a precarious existence as a child laborer in a blacking factory.

His targets were corrupt educators, exploiters of children and defenseless women, windbags, cheats, hypocrites and toadies. EDITOR'S NOTE: SO WHO'S LEFT?! (HE CERTAINLY HAS MOST OF THE CURRENT POPULATION OF WASHINGTON D.C. COVERED THERE).He painted them with broad strokes, and assigned them names to reflect their weaknesses: Mr. Gradgrind was a cruel schoolmaster, Scrooge the archetypal tightwad, the Cheeryble Brothers saw the good side of everything, Miss Havisham got a sham instead of a husband, and I don't know why Uriah Heep's name makes me think of bodily wastes, but it does.

These characters had flaws that defined their personalities. They occupied plots in which coincidence was the bedrock of the story. It was absolutely necessary that characters turn up precisely when the plot required them, and that those with shady pasts turned out to be concealing the very secret that was needed in the present. "Masterpiece Theater" is currently serializing Bleak House, in which many scraps of paper are thrown out, but not the crucial one; in which a young woman's mother turns out to be the very person she is required to be; in which only those conversations are overheard that must be preserved; in which an orphan's protector fortuitously holds the key to her happiness.

Caricatures and coincidences are not weaknesses in Dickens but his method. And "Crash," one of this year's Oscar nominees and my choice as the best film of 2005, uses exactly the same tools. The film's critics believe its characters are caricatures and say its Los Angeles seems to be populated by 20 people who are always crossing paths. Surely life is not a nonstop series of racist confrontations and coincidences?

Well, of course not. But the movie is not about life in general. It is about how racism wounds and stings, and makes its victims feel worthless and its perpetrators ugly and vicious. All true enough, but the brilliance of the movie's method is that victims and victimizers change places, and "Crash" demonstrates how in a complex multiracial society there is enough guilt to go around. EDITOR'S NOTE: PLUS, IT'S A MUSICAL COMEDY! (SNICKER....)

The storylines involving the two cops (Matt Dillon and Ryan Phillippe) and the upper-crust black couple (Terrence Howard and Thandie Newton) have inspired the most discussion. On one day, Dillon stops Howard for DWB (driving while black) and commits a sexual assault against his wife, while the other two men stand by impotently -- Howard aware that if he challenges the cop, he could get arrested or killed; Phillippe a rookie who is intimidated by his brutal partner.
We follow the characters into their lives. Newton and Howard have a lacerating argument in which each says unforgivable things, and each blames the other for pain and ugliness that was certainly not either's fault. Dillon is seen in all the frustration of trying to care for his dying father in the face of heartless HMOs. Phillippe is seen as a decent cop trying to distance himself from Dillon's indecencies. And then, the next day ...

Well, either you know what happens, or I should not tell you. The point is made that in different situations the same people behave in different ways. One life is saved, another lost, not in the way we anticipate. The film does not forgive Dillon's character or excuse his crime; it simply shows that on both days, he has done what it is in his nature to do. The film deals here and elsewhere in irony, in the bitter truth that human nature doesn't divide us into heroes and villains, but gives us situations in which we behave badly, or well.

Many of the film's scenes involve misunderstandings. Many of the racist assumptions are incorrectly aimed; a man of Iranian (i.e., Persian) descent is infuriated that anyone would think he is an Arab, but he leaps to immediate suspicions about the ethnic identity of the young man changing his lock. And then the locksmith ...

I get in a lot of discussions about films with strangers. "Crash" is the one that keeps coming up. Those who dislike it assume it should be more "realistic," reflect "the Los Angeles I know," be less "manipulative," "not celebrate paranoia," not be so "facile."

Those who admire it have a different tone in their voice. They say the movie made them think, made them look within themselves, made them realize that society has shuffled the packs of good and evil and made it more difficult for the good to always be Us and the evil to always be Them. The movie invited them to see that everyone has a story -- a story that does not excuse or justify their actions but places them in a context. EDITOR'S NOTE: MY VOTE WOULD BE THAT BOTH OF THESE PERCEPTIONS OF THE MOVIE ARE VALID. IT IS SOMEWHAT FACILE AND OVER-RIPE. BUT IT IS ALSO TRUE AND SCARY AND POWERFUL.

People wrote me. I heard from a black woman who was surprised to find herself sympathizing with the Sandra Bullock character. Well, why shouldn't she? You don't have to be white to be paranoid after a carjacking (to think you do is racist).

I heard from a Canadian with a North American Indian background ("First Nation," as they say in Canada). Because of his appearance, people can't immediately identify him by race, but sometimes they think they can, and he is treated in different ways by those who think he is Asian, Latino, Arabic or African-Canadian; he learns at first hand about the subtleties of racial prejudice.

"Crash" is not a movie with answers, and maybe not even with questions. Maybe it is all made of observations. In a time when we are encouraged to draw sharp lines and leap to immediate conclusions, here is a movie that asks us to think twice, to look again, to look also within ourselves. "It made me think," a lot of people say. EDITOR'S NOTE: AND DONCHA JUST HATE THAT!?

Yes, you can dismiss it, deplore its contrivances, think that by exposing its methods, you have invalidated the film. You can demolish Dickens in the same way. But social arguments are not won by drawing subtle logical distinctions. He brought about actual changes in British laws involving education, child labor, bankruptcy, insanity and legalized theft from estates.

Dickens did it with caricature, coincidence, exaggeration, honesty, passion and truth. "Crash" is using the same methods with the same hopes. It is not an unworthy undertaking. EDITOR'S NOTE: WELL SAID (OF COURSE....EBERT). AND HERE'S HOPIN.....

From crazy idea to the Oscars: The journey of 'Crash'
By Mark Caro Tribune entertainment reporter

All five of this year's best picture nominees are underdog stories (even Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was a risky proposition, as is being borne out at the box office), but none took such a long, unlikely path to the Oscars as "Crash."Here's a movie that no studio or independent distributor wanted to make and few wanted to pick up once it actually was finished. This racism-themed ensemble drama was a surprise box office hit after its release at the cusp of the summer blockbuster season, but it had received little end-of-the-year awards attention until a few days in early January catapulted it into the thick of the Oscar race."Crash" wound up receiving six Oscar nominations and is widely thought to be the chief rival of "Brokeback Mountain" for the top prize.

"It is the little movie that could," said LA Weekly movie critic Scott Foundas, tipping his hat to a movie he despised so thoroughly that Roger Ebert, who named "Crash" the year's best film, wrote a column specifically to tear into Foundas' criticisms that the movie is didactic and exploits racial stereotypes. EDITOR'S NOTE: SEE ABOVE, NATCH.

When it comes to "Crash," the passions are as overheated off the screen as on -- and passion is what earns a film Oscar nominations and statuettes.

Cynthia Swartz, a principal in the public relations firm The Dart Group, said Lionsgate hired her and her colleagues to consult on the movie's Oscar campaign back in June.

"The intention was always to go for best picture," said Swartz, who used to coordinate Miramax's highly effective Oscar efforts. "One week, four academy members I know said to me, 'I loved "Crash." I loved that movie.' When you see passion like that, that's when you go, OK, maybe we have something here."

Lionsgate President Tom Ortenberg said he also thought of "Crash" as an Oscar contender from the moment he first saw its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2004.

So everyone's a genius now, but the movie world thought a lot less about the film's prospects back when director/co-writer Paul Haggis was spending years trying to get it made.

Haggis, 52, was a Los Angeles-based television writer and producer, having worked on series such as "The Facts of Life," "Due South,"EDITOR'S NOTE: SNIFFLE...ONE OF MY DEARLY-DEPARTED-ONLY-I-WAS-WATCHING-IT SHOWS. "EZ Streets" and "Family Law."

"I came up with the idea early 2000," he said. "I started at 2 o'clock in the morning, and at 10 in the morning I had the entire story. I didn't think it was a movie, though. I thought it was a television series. I didn't know what the hell it was. I pitched it to a couple of networks, and they didn't have any interest in it."

That first effort included the carjacking that had happened to him and his ex-wife 10 years earlier; the story about an African-American director (ultimately played by Terrence Howard) dealing with racial stereotyping ("something I witnessed on a studio lot"); and the white racist cop (Matt Dillon), who was inspired by "a piece of hate mail I received while doing a television show."

"It was just things I'd been gathering," Haggis said. "I'd been really intrigued that year about how you affect strangers without knowing it. You and I are driving down the street. You cut me off. I flip you the finger. You go right. I go left. What happens to you?" EDITOR'S NOTE: I WONDER IF I'D HAVE DEEPER THOUGHTS IF I LIVED IN L.A. AND WAS STUCK IN TRAFFIC ALL THE TIME?

Nothing happened with Haggis' initial pitch, so he moved onto another project that wound up taking an equally circuitous route to Oscar glory.

"I optioned `Million Dollar Baby' and took eight or nine months to write that," he said.

Afterward he called his friend Bobby Moresco, showed him the "Crash" treatment and the two got to work.

"We wrote the script very quick, in a couple of weeks," Moresco recalled while in Chicago preparing for last week's opening of his play "The Way of the Wiseguy" at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts.

Hearing the words
They took the script to Moresco's Los Angeles theater company, the Actor's Gym, to hear the actors read it aloud, then finished another draft in a couple of weeks.

"That gave us the script pretty much that we shot," Moresco said.

Now all they needed was for someone to finance the filming.

"All the studios turned it down pretty quickly," Haggis said. "All the smaller studios turned it down. All the independent producers turned it down."

Finally, their agent got the script to Bob Yari, a producer starting his own production company. Yari agreed to make the movie -- after more than a year of discussions. The main condition was that Haggis, who was determined to direct "Crash," had to assemble a name cast to guarantee the movie's bankability.

The breakthrough came in early 2003, when they got the script to Don Cheadle, and he agreed to co-star and more.

"I asked him to produce it with us because I thought he'd be a really good guiding hand on this project, and he'd be able to attract other really good actors because everybody wants to work with Don," Haggis said.

So the rest of the cast came together: Dillon, Howard, Sandra Bullock, Thandie Newton, Ryan Phillippe, Larenz Tate, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, Jennifer Esposito, Tony Danza -- and still they didn't have the green light.

"It wasn't until we had Brendan Fraser that we could get financing -- even with Sandy Bullock," Haggis said.

Ortenberg's Lionsgate was one of the companies that gave "Crash" a pass.

"We loved [the script], but we thought it was very execution based," he said.

Translation: It would take a talented director to film such a dense, challenging script, and Haggis was too big of a question mark. EDITOR'S NOTE: THANK HEAVENS FOR THE TRANSLATION, BECAUSE I WAS TEMPTED TO DRIVE OUT TO LA AND SLAP THAT MAN SILLY. (WELL...SILLIER).

But Lionsgate got a second chance at the Toronto festival and bought the film the morning after its premiere, edging out a couple of other interested parties. Ortenberg, who professed surprise "that there wasn't a fierce, all-out bidding war," said his company paid $3.3 million for its North American rights (theatrical, home video, television).

Haggis hoped to get "Crash" into theaters by the end of the year (when it would have been competing with "Million Dollar Baby"). Instead, Lionsgate opted to wait till the following May so it would have more time to mount a publicity campaign.

"Our feeling was `Crash' will be an awards-contending film no matter what time of year we release it in, and there was no reason to rush it out in the fall if we weren't ready," Ortenberg said. "And we didn't feel like we needed awards for the movie to be a success."

He was right. When "Crash" finally came out, it received mostly positive reviews -- with some notable exceptions. Ebert gave it 4 stars, the Tribune's Michael Wilmington 3 1/2, and Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly (who's no pushover), wrote, "The stunning, must-see drama `Crash' is proof that words have not lost the ability to shock in our anesthetized society."

Surprise success
Audiences fell in with the majority viewpoint, and "Crash" became one of the summer's sleeper hits, grossing $55.4 million in North America. Since its September home video release, it has sold more than 4 million units. The key to its success, many agree, is that it provokes viewers to inject themselves into the movie's racially charged situations so they examine their own prejudices and discuss them.

"I think any movie that gets people arguing and talking after the movie stays with people and has an effect on them, and `Crash' did that," said Tom Rosenberg, who produced "Million Dollar Baby" as well as the upcoming Haggis-scripted comedy "The Last Kiss."

As the movie took off, Lionsgate hired Swartz and crew and set its sights on Oscar, despite Haggis' professed misgivings.

"Six months ago, probably in September, Lionsgate said, `We're going to go for best picture,'" the director recalled, "and I said, `Don't humiliate me. Don't take out ads like that because that's just embarrassing. We're not going to get it. We might get something for the actors.'"

Haggis' prediction appeared accurate as "Crash" seemed barely on the awards radar toward the end of the year. It received just two Golden Globe nominations, for the screenplay and Dillon as supporting actor, and Ebert's top ranking aside (and a subsequent Chicago Film Critics Association best picture award), it wasn't a mainstay of many critics' top-10 lists.

In the Village Voice's year-end poll of 100-plus North American critics, "Crash" ranked 66th among the 2005 releases, behind "Jarhead" and ahead of "March of the Penguins." Among the other best picture nominees, "Brokeback Mountain" was No. 11, "Good Night, and Good Luck." No. 13, "Capote" No. 16 and "Munich" No. 31. ("A History of Violence" was No. 1.)

Yet when guild nominations were announced in early January, "Crash" cleaned up, snagging nods from the Directors Guild (historically the most reliable best picture Oscar predictor), the Screen Actors Guild (for its ensemble cast plus Cheadle and Dillon for best supporting actor), the Producers Guild, Writers Guild and American Cinema Editors.

Suddenly "Crash" was a shoo-in Oscar nominee.

The key strategic move, many agree, was that Lionsgate turned the perceived disadvantage of its May release date into an advantage: Because the film was out on DVD, the distributor could send copies to guild and academy members without fears of piracy, unlike those companies campaigning movies still in the theaters.

Lionsgate initially mailed out about 30,000 DVDs to those doing the nominating for the various guilds (aside from the directors, who don't allow screeners). Once "Crash" received those nominations, the company sent out more DVDs, most notably to the remaining 90,000 SAG members who could vote on the final awards.

All in all, Lionsgate distributed 130,000 DVDs -- and "Crash" won the top SAG prize. Given that actors make up the largest academy branch, the mailings also no doubt helped the movie's Oscar prospects.

"That is the biggest voting bloc, and it's a real actors' film," said Sony Pictures Classics Co-President Tom Bernard, whose company distributed the best picture nominee "Capote."

"The fact that they revealed that they sent out 130,000 DVDs certainly helped them. When I saw that, I thought, OK, they've got a heck of a shot."

Now, Ortenberg said, the strategy is to get any remaining academy member stragglers to see the film and otherwise to remind everyone else how much they liked it.

"We're using the tag line: `"Crash," remember how it made you feel?'" he said. EDITOR'S NOTE: UMMM....DEPRESSED AND WITH THE WEIGHT OF SOCIETAL FUTILITY ON MY SHOULDERS?

To Haggis, who was nominated last year for his "Million Dollar Baby" screenplay, this whirlwind end to this improbable journey is mind-boggling.

"I love it," he said. "I'm not going to say I don't. But it's hard to comprehend."


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