[Editor's Note: The Conversations is a monthly feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.]
Jason Bellamy: In David Cronenberg's Crash we are given a collection of characters with often overlapping but not always similar sexual fetishes. There are characters turned on by automobile crashes—either as foreplay or as self-contained experiences. There are characters turned on by pain. There are characters turned on by scars and disfigurement. There are characters turned on by the turn-ons of others. There are characters turned on by the prospect of being caught having sex in public and there are others turned on just by having sex in cars in public places, seemingly oblivious to whether anyone will notice. The film has sex. The film has nudity. The film has oddity. This is what Crash is. But what is Crash about?
Seeing the film for the first time since its 1997 release, that's the question I asked myself over and over. What is this about? What is the meaning of this? Are these demonstrations of peculiar eroticism an ingenious metaphor or are they self-evident? Is Crash an examination of something or simply an exhibition? I suspect that our discussion of this film will repeatedly come back to these questions, but it seems this is where we must begin. And so I repeat: What is Crash about?
Ed Howard: That's a good question to start with, though I'm not sure it has a single right answer, or even a right answer at all. The most challenging aspect of Crash, for me, is its utter refusal to express its ideology in unambiguous terms. Sure, there are expressions of ideology, mostly from Elias Koteas' Vaughan, but it's by no means clear what the film's perspective on him is, either. He even contradicts himself, first maintaining that he's interested in remolding the human body through technology and then later saying that mantra was just a ruse, and what he's really after is unleashing the sexuality of the car crash. In a way, the two purposes of Vaughan reveal the film's true roots, in the dialectic between the worldviews of author J.G. Ballard, whose novel is being adapted here, and David Cronenberg, who's adapting it. Reshaping the human body through science and technology is of course a central theme of Cronenberg's oeuvre, from the head-exploding telepathy of Scanners to the televisual mutations of Videodrome to the species shift of The Fly. Cronenberg continually returns to this idea: the ways in which our very minds and physiology have been drastically altered by the tireless advance of modernity. On the other hand, Ballard, though also concerned with the changes wrought by modernity, is more interested in the sexual component of this material: the extremes that people are willing to go to in search of eroticism in a media-saturated, spectacle-numbed age. These two tendencies, not unrelated but not entirely overlapping either, create the film's central tension.
That tension, I submit, is one reason why the film is so hard to figure out. That's not to say that the film isn't also anchored by an elegant metaphor—I'll leave it to you to decide if it's "ingenious"—that makes its sexual excesses more than mere exhibition. That metaphor is the film's most common occurrence (besides sex, maybe): the car crash. For Cronenberg, as for Ballard, the car crash is an emotionally and thematically rich event, a moment fraught with multiple possibilities and meanings. It's the moment, most notably, when the modern technology we rely on the most betrays us in a profound and disturbing way, not only in the most obvious sense, but because it shatters the barriers of isolation that technology places between us. As you point out, the film's characters have different fetishes and obsessions, but one thing they share is the sense that they're alienated from normal sexual, romantic and interpersonal relationships. Even before they become involved in Vaughan's car crash manias, James Ballard (James Spader, playing the novelist's stand-in) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an abstracted, stylized sexual relationship based on telling each other stories about their adulterous trysts. These people are at a remove from their sexuality; in the opening scene, Catherine seems as aroused by the cold, sleek surface of a phallic airplane nose as by her lover's caresses.
The car, and the highway, is a perfect metaphor for this disconnection: all those people encased in metal, speeding across the pavement, surrounded by others like them but with no possibility of ever making a connection with any of them. No possibility, that is, but a car crash. That's why the crash between Ballard and Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) is staged as a moment of startling, uncomfortable intimacy, their eyes locked, Remington inadvertently flashing her breast as she struggles to remove her seatbelt. The car crash is so important to these people because it's an escape from their isolation and lack of affect, a way to feel something, even if it's pain and perverse arousal.
JB: Yeah, I've considered that reading, but it doesn't quite work for me. The problem I have with it is that we don't really have any on-screen evidence that these characters are lost or isolated, at least not in any painful or unwilling way. Yes, the characters of this film seem removed from the world around them, to the point that we almost have to remind ourselves that a larger world exists, but that's true of most films. Crash is about its characters; there's nothing unusual there. And so I'm left searching for a moment that shows these characters looking at the world around them and feeling like they don't belong or can't connect, and I can't find it.
Of course, your reading is tempting because it's the best way to rationalize—to whatever degree it's possible—the peculiarity of the characters' fetishes, obsessions and behaviors. "Why would these people go to these extremes?" "It must be because they can't connect otherwise." But as convenient as that answer is, and as logical as it feels, I don't think it's earned. I don't think it's in the "text" of the film. Instead I think it's an understandable knee-jerk attempt to try to place Crash into a somewhat familiar dramatic arc or genre type. Because, again, I don't think Cronenberg actually establishes that these people can't connect. In fact, I'd argue he does the opposite. All we see are these characters connecting, again and again and again. They just happen to connect with each other in what happens to be a niche group. As a result, since Cronenberg doesn't develop this loneliness, longing or isolation, when we suggest that these characters resort to this behavior because they can't connect we are dismissing their urges as the product of some kind of deficiency. And the problem I have with that is that it puts us in the same position as the bigot who assumes that homosexuals couldn't possibly be born with homosexual urges and so must have suffered a childhood trauma or lacked proper parenting. (Ditto bisexuality or sadomasochism or any other sexual orientation or behavior that's outside of the heterosexual-missionary-position "norm.")
A somewhat similar but different way to look at the film is provided in a particularly good review by Roger Ebert, who suggests that Crash is, in effect, "a dissection of the mechanics of pornography." He argues that by presenting characters who are "entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no one has," and "by deliberately removing anything that an audience member is likely to find even remotely erotic, Cronenberg has brought a kind of icy, abstract purity to his subject." In other words, rather than getting consumed by our own arousal, we are able to analyze arousal itself.
Now, I have some problems with this, too, because Crash of course does include things that many audience members will find incredibly erotic. For starters, there's nudity—and if we're not supposed to be in any way turned on by what we see, Cronenberg wouldn't cast someone with the body of Deborah Kara Unger. Secondly, there's arousal; seeing people sexually stimulated is often sexually stimulating in itself. Furthermore, deviance, or any behavior outside of the politically correct "norm" (whatever that is), is for many people a significant source of arousal (which is partly what's on display in this film). Sure, the car crash stimulus might be impossible for almost anyone to relate to, but some of the other fetishistic arousals portrayed here aren't that far outside of fairly standard sexual urges. Just as I suspect there are more men who consume pornography showing women being simultaneously penetrated by multiple men than there are men would actually feel comfortable engaging in that kind of activity, I suspect that many people would feel aroused by James Ballard's ogling of the vagina-esque scars of Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), even if they don't share his specific arousal. Nevertheless, Ebert's analogy at least explains the, um, auto(mobile) eroticism in a somewhat more satisfying way. What do you think?
EH: I think that's all very interesting and relevant, all part of a film that can be read and understood in multiple ways that aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. It's possible that in talking about the film in terms of isolation, I'm carrying over my impressions of Ballard's Crash rather than looking solely at the text of Cronenberg's film. Cronenberg adapts a lot of his dialogue from Ballard but of course elides the narrator's interior monologues, which communicate much of the novel's thematic core.
Nevertheless, there is evidence that these characters feel disconnected even in Cronenberg's film. Before James' crash, he and Catherine have a chilly and abstracted relationship where most of the sex occurs outside the marriage. They talk to each other in flat, affectless tones about their indiscretions, and seem more turned on by ideas, by words, than by anything concrete. I'd say that's the definition of disconnection from the world: a preference for the abstract over the tangible. The crash seems to awaken them both to other erotic possibilities, as a continuation of the games they were previously playing to keep themselves at a distance from one another. It's a step towards the world, though not all the way. Instead of getting aroused by abstractions, they're aroused by inanimate objects, but they're still not exactly connecting with other people except in ways mediated by technology, by cold metal and pavement. In saying this, I don't want to judge the characters, and I don't think Cronenberg or Ballard want to either. If there are "deficiencies" in these characters, they're shared by the whole of our media-saturated, stimulation-numbed modern society.
Anyway, I hadn't read Ebert's review previously, but I've also always thought of this film as being closely modeled on pornography. It even follows the structure of porn: a scene, often brief, establishing some hint of character motivation or narrative advancement, followed by a sex scene. Orgasm, then repeat. The film cycles through most of the possible pairings by the time it's through, and there's a degree of mechanism in this exchange of partners: Catherine with a lover, then James with a lover, then James and Catherine, then James and Helen, James and Catherine again, then Vaughan and Gabrielle are added to the mix as well. There are even gay encounters between Vaughan and James, and between Helen and Gabrielle, though these are curiously chaste in comparison to the heterosexual matches. At one point there's a ménage a trois of fondling between Gabrielle, Helen and James. In other scenes, James takes on a voyeuristic role watching Vaughan with a prostitute or Vaughan with Catherine. It's as though Cronenberg is systematically examining the possibilities of the porn form and the sex act, parodying the rote set-up/sex scene structure of the average porn feature.