Any pretensions the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had at achieving some degree of social relevance was spectacularly shot to hell last Sunday night, when presenter Jack Nicholson announced to a visibly surprised audience the winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture: Crash. Paul Haggis’s slick and shallow tableau of race relations in modern-day Los Angeles triumphed over Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the overwhelming favorite to win since it opened to thunderous acclaim and boffo box office last December. At the risk of giving the Oscars too much credence, Crash’s win represents a collective failure on the part of the Academy. Given the option of honoring a universally-embraced and culturally important film, they chose the well-trodden path of inconsequent self-congratulation.

No matter what anyone says, a Best Picture win does mean something. The Academy is not so much a trendsetter as a trend-confirmer, a sign that whatever new or provocative notions a film has stirred up have begun to be accepted by the mainstream.

In the case of Brokeback, American audiences have taken a film that was once deemed a punch line and career suicide for the actors involved and embraced it as their own.

Brokeback Mountain has become ingrained in the national culture. The haunting guitar score acts as the new shorthand for thwarted love. “I wish I knew how to quit you” has ascended into the ladder of instantly recognizable romantic film quotes, joining Jerry Maguire’s “You had me at hello”. Debates over whether the film can be seen as a “gay love story” or a “universal love story” cause people and pundits alike to question whether the two can even be separated. A Brokeback Best Picture win seemed inevitable both because of its quality and its position in the national dialogue.

I’d challenge anyone to put forth the same claim for Crash.

Admittedly, many very intelligent people have become strong fans of Crash. In a recent column, Roger Ebert compared the film to the works of Charles Dickens. While Haggis and Bobby Moresco’s Oscar-winning screenplay (shudder) may possess a cast of characters that are Dickensian in breadth, Crash certainly lacks Dickens’ biting social commentary. The film’s overly schematic structure sets up a multitude of conflicts, adding a light coating of racial epithets to give them the sheen of “edge.”

Dig beyond the plot convolutions, however, and Crash’s lack of true insight becomes painfully clear: the rich-bitch housewife finds a “true friend” in her Hispanic maid; the successful African American producer gets to teach an impromptu sociology lesson to the black thug who harassed him a day earlier. Can’t you hear the strands of “We Shall Overcome” swelling in the background? Crash’s web of racial and ethnic dilemmas are spicy enough to pass for “relevant” in the eyes of the Academy, even as they lack the artistic bravery to follow through on their own dark implications. How perfect! A film that feigns at addressing issues while ultimately pandering to the audience’s sense of moral superiority!

It helped that Lions Gate, the studio behind Crash, blitzed Academy voters weeks before final ballots were cast, sending out a record number of screeners. West Coast voters may have appreciated the film’s Angeleno-centric focus. Any way you slice it, though, it’s clear that a vote for Crash was a vote for simple-minded self-satisfaction, social relevance for dummies. To throw weight behind Brokeback, a film that genuinely challenges deep-set notions of sexuality, masculinity and love within American mythos, proved a bridge too far.

No doubt this will have little impact on either film. If current reaction is any indication, Brokeback Mountain will possess a healthy shelf life, both remembered for its precedent and revered for its quality. Crash’s future remains murky; I’d argue it will not age particularly well. No, the only lasting impact this will have will be on the reputation of the Academy. Throughout the evening, in a series of montages so relentless that host Jon Stewart insisted the producers had literally run out of film clips to splice together, the Academy continually re-enforced its position as a cultural renegade, boldly leading the progressive fight. Naming a film as toothless as Crash the year’s best picture critically undermines this sentiment, unmasking the fatuousness of those perpetuating the lie. The Academy would like to have us believe it has its thumb on the pulse of America, even as their choices reveal a shallow self-regard that borders on the masturbatory. The Oscars more than dropped the ball; they placed pleasant fallacy over clear-eyed truth, self-absorption over significance.

In the evening’s most memorable speech, George Clooney commended the Academy for being “outside the mainstream.” “I think it’s probably a good thing,” said Clooney. “We’re the ones who talk about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular.” He concluded by remarking he is, “proud to be part of this community and proud to be out of touch.” Good thing Mr. Clooney made these comments early in the evening. By night’s end, it became clear what path the Academy has settled on: the road to irrelevance.

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