Madison Movie Talk

Once in a while, my friend Jan and I host a call-in radio program about film on a Madison, Wisc., public radio station. I dig it, and not just because I love the opportunity to sound off like a would-be expert. These lefty listeners for the most part still fight the good fight, effortlessly achieving heights of indignance that I haven’t been able to scale since I was an undergraduate. It’s good to be reminded of what I’ve become inured to — namely that plastic surgery and at least a mild eating disorder are practically casting requirements for both men and women; that women get the short end of the cinematic stick; that most people still view films as a little desert at the end of a legitimate workday rather than ye olde bread and butter. But one film that I found myself vehemently disagreeeing with the old-school progressives about was the overdetermined, overwritten, overwhelmingly underwhelming Crash, which I still contend is a pat ensemble film about LA racial dynamics that could have been written for Lifetime TV in 1991.

When Jan and I trashed it on the show, the lines lit up with a score of indignant callers chomping at the bit to set us straight. One guy said: “You just don’t understand race relations in America.” A comment that raised not only my hackles but a set of genuinely unfacetious questions: Does he? Do you? Just who does understand race relations in America right now? (Besides Cornel West, anyway?) And does the film really understand race, or even purport to?

Although I find Haggis’ movie so clichéd as to be possibly harmful, does the fact that these folks found it useful mean, as Jan tactfully suggested while I jumped all over the poor caller, that it can’t be quite so easily dismissed? It’s my final question here, I guess. None of these callers could specify what they found so helpful or useful about Crash. Rather, they just averred it was a “worthy topic.” And just because a film takes on an admittedly worthy topic, does it thus become a worthy film?

You know my answer is no. Otherwise, I’d be singing poor John Sayles’ recent movies’ praises.

On another note, callers liked that damned penguins movie, too. And more than one listener confessed s/he wouldn’t be seeing Murderball because of its title. Too bad, because that really is a worthy film — albeit one with an admittedly futile title. I’ll say this for the Maddy listeners: They do value their foreign film. Let’s hear it for the Midwestern independent theaters, no matter how poorly air-conditioned they apparently are.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy