Porn was of course very much on Ballard’s mind in writing the novel, as well. In his 1990 annotations to his pre-Crash collage novel The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:
”[S]exual imagination is unlimited in scope and metaphoric power, and can never be successfully repressed. In many ways pornography is the most literary form of fiction—a verbal text with the smallest attachment to external reality, and with only its own resources to create a complex and exhilarating narrative… Pornography is a powerful catalyst for social change, and its periods of greatest availability have frequently coincided with times of greatest economic and scientific advance.”
In some ways, that sounds like a good description of Cronenberg’s Crash, especially the part about the disconnect from “external reality.” I’m more doubtful about whether Cronenberg would agree with the last sentence: his Crash is many things, but a “catalyst for social change”? So if Cronenberg’s film mimics the form of pornography, as I agree it does, what’s the purpose of this mimicry?
JB: That’s a good question. But before we get into that, I’d like to talk more about the characters and how they connect with one another, or don’t. Because while I wholeheartedly agree with you that the relationship between James and Catherine is “chilly and abstracted” at the start of the film, I would disagree with any implication that their relationship ever evolves from that point (or even that they evolve individually). Sure, James and Catherine have a passionate looking sex scene near the middle of the film, but even in that scene they are essentially fucking someone else. Their arousal is just as individual as it was before and is just as tied to one another’s other sexual pursuits as it was before. (Catherine spends the whole time getting turned on, and turning on James, by describing him having sex with Vaughan.) One could say that they are having intercourse with one another but having sex with someone else, if you know what I mean. And this isn’t unique to James and Catherine. Over the course of the film we see these characters continue to explore their sexual desires, but do we ever see them connecting? In the backseat of a car, James and Helen have sex in which he’s little more than an apparatus—both in emotion and in use. James has sex in a car with Gabrielle, but he’s attracted to her scars, not to her, and she’s turned on by his attraction to her deformities, not by him. The most engaged sex in the film, “curiously chaste” though it is, might be between James and Vaughan, in that they both of them seem to desire one another—rather than using one another as stand-ins for someone or something else. But maybe I only think that because Cronenberg stays at a distance, not allowing me to observe their vacant expressions during intercourse.
All of this indeed means Crash is very much like porn, because there’s little evidence that there’s any engagement between partners beyond the explicit pursuit of sexual gratification. That is, these individuals aren’t looking to connect with one another; they’re looking to be aroused by whatever means necessary. This is significant because the scenes that would be used to suggest connection are hard to distinguish from the ones that would suggest disconnection, which leads me to one of my problems with this film: I fail to detect any interesting evolution. The characters don’t change. Only the specific focus of their arousal changes, from having sex in public places in the beginning to car crashes by the end, plus some other harder to define stuff in between. There’s no real metamorphosis here. Instead it’s like watching a drug user switch from heroin to crack. At the root, there’s no difference in impulse, desire or behavior.
I don’t mean to imply that films need to be about characters growing, learning or evolving. But when I find no deeper significance in Crash’s fifth sexual encounter than in its second, it feels all too close to porn to me, but in all the wrong ways—repetitive, empty, untitillating.
EH: Well, I never said any of the film’s characters actually succeed in overcoming their disconnection, just that all these car crashes and fetishes are ways of trying to find something more authentic, more satisfying. James’ car crash is a triggering event that unleashes some new sexual possibilities, but nothing that happens here necessarily constitutes a deep human bond. I think you’re right that throughout the film, none of these people experience a true emotional connection to another person, though the mutual fascination between Vaughan and James comes close. So does the enigmatic last scene, which has more than a hint of nihilistic, apocalyptic finality, but also contains, in James’ urgently repeated “maybe the next one,” a faintly optimistic suggestion that they’ll keep trying: to feel something, to connect to each other, to kill each other? Who knows? The point is they’re trying; they haven’t given in to the general deadening of sensation and instead keep looking for increasingly outlandish ways to reawaken their numbed sensibilities.
In The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes a great deal about this distanced modern condition. After listing a number of body parts and isolated descriptive details about a woman, one of that book’s characters says:
“There are one or two other bits and pieces, but together the inventory is an adequate picture of a woman, who could easily be reconstituted from it. In fact, such a list may well be more stimulating than the real thing. Now that sex is becoming more and more a conceptual act, an intellectualization divorced from affect and physiology alike, one has to bear in mind the positive merits of the sexual perversions…[C]heap photo-pornography is in fact a vital literature, a kindling of the few taste buds left in the jaded palates of our so-called sexuality.”
I think this is the spirit of Cronenberg’s film and his sex scenes, portraying people who have become numb to conventional emotional and sexual pleasures, and thus turn to inventive extremes for some satisfaction. The film, like Ballard’s fiction, documents a world where sex, like every other aspect of human experience, has been obsessively catalogued into lists, charts, data and words rather than feelings and sensations. Ballard compares this situation to the pop art of Andy Warhol and Tom Wesselmann, the latter of whom is especially relevant, with his paintings of plastic-looking nudes, like desexualized naked Barbie dolls. It sounds, though, like you believe Cronenberg’s film is simply a surface presentation of this phenomenon, a reflection of the flat colors and slick surfaces in Wesselmann’s work rather than any kind of commentary on or response to the situation.
JB: Yeah, I suppose that’s what I’m saying. See, we still disagree about what we’re actually looking at here. You say that the characters are “trying to find something more.” And that’s true, to a point. But I see characters who just want more, and I think there’s a difference. The way you describe the movie implies that these characters are reaching for something, as if they’re on a quest, as if their search might actually have a destination that will leave them satisfied. The way I see the film, these characters just want roughly the same sensation over and over again, and the only reason their interests or desires might seem to evolve is because their satisfaction requires them to push their limits just to stay in the same place. They’re like the drinker who used to be able to get drunk on two beers who now needs five shots just to feel buzzed. That drinker isn’t trying to connect. There’s no deep significance to the drinking. There’s no attempt at growth. The significance is only that they want to get drunk. They want to satisfy an itch.
Now, it’s here that I find Ebert’s analysis applies well. He writes, “There are no moments of healing sanity because the characters are comatose with lust and fascination. They follow their self-destructive courses because they do not want to stop. If you seek to understand them, ignore their turn-ons and substitute your own.” Using this logic, Crash could be seen as metaphor for any destructive activity, particularly drug abuse. “Why would someone risk injury to their family, their job, their reputation, their body, etc, to abuse a drug?” “Because when the compulsion to scratch that itch is so overpowering, everything else is irrelevant.” The trouble is, I find Ebert’s description of the film more fascinating than the film itself. And just because depth can be implanted into this film, I’m not sure that means the film has much if anything to say on these themes. I think it might be telling that in order to find rewarding complexity in Cronenberg’s film we’ve had to draw upon the written work of Ballard (not to mention Ebert). On screen I don’t find much there. So what I am I missing?
EH: Fair enough. I keep returning to the Ballard novel because, frankly, the film is most interesting to me in relation to its source (and to other texts and films), and even Cronenberg seems to know it: it only takes until the film’s second scene before somebody asks, “has anybody seen James Ballard?” So, yeah, maybe that’s damning. Regardless, I certainly think there’s a lot of interest right up there on the screen. Cronenberg removes the novel’s intensely internal focus, taking away our ability to see within the mind of James Ballard, who narrates the book. The result is that the film is resolutely concerned with exteriors. How you feel about the film probably depends on how you feel about this refusal to get inside these chilly, distant characters. For me, this decision makes the film more abstract than conventionally narrative. Because in normal terms, you’re right, there’s not much character development here, there’s not much of a dramatic arc.
Instead, Cronenberg presents these bizarre porn scenarios with a deadpan lack of commentary, watching with the same mechanical fascination that we see in James Spader’s eyes as he arranges Gabrielle’s stiff, metal-encased limbs in the confined space of her car. In that scene especially, Cronenberg’s perspective on this material is clear. He’s subtly warping it to his own interests, examining the ways in which the technology of the car, and of advanced reconstructive surgeries, have created new hybrid forms for the human body. In the midst of Gabrielle and James’ grappling, Cronenberg inserts a shot of the complicated system of metal rods and levers under the steering column, the special tools Gabrielle needs to be able to drive. It visually rhymes, not only with phallic imagery (another current running through the film) and with the metal surrounding the woman’s legs, but with the similar system of metal rods that had earlier been digging into and supporting James’ own post-crash leg wounds. By highlighting these images, Cronenberg makes these characters look like cyborgs, merging with the metal that’s holding their bodies together and which allows them to get around. As a result, they come to identify as much with steel and electronics as with other people.
Later, James caresses a vagina-like wound in the surface of his wife’s car in exactly the same way as he had with the scars on Gabrielle’s legs: this sign of Vaughan’s presence is as sexual for him as anything organic. The film is packed with subtle parallels like this, linkages between the organic and the artificial, like the way, during the car wash scene, Cronenberg draws a connection between the white foamy liquid streaming across the windshield, and Catherine’s cum-sticky hand after her violent sexual encounter with Vaughan. Cronenberg’s images consistently bring together messy human exigency with mechanical and artificial cleanliness: Rosanna Arquette, delivering the film’s best and most playful performance, seeming to have sex with a showroom car, rubbing her ass against its sleek surface and suggestively spreading her stiff legs as she leans against it. Visually, the film is all about these kinds of junction points between human softness and the hard lines of the objects and technology surrounding us.
So what are you missing? In focusing on the film’s undeniable lack of affect and pornographic structure, you’re maybe missing out on the ways in which Cronenberg’s imagery cleverly plays with the themes and ideas at the film’s core. There’s a streak of perverse playfulness running beneath its icy exterior, like the way James’ time spent as an invalid on his balcony, watching cars go by through binoculars with an elegant blonde by his side, mirrors the basic set-up of Rear Window—with the obvious and thematically important difference that Hitchcock’s voyeur was watching his fellow humans, while James’ voyeurism is directed at cars.
There’s also the great scene where Catherine, James and Vaughan are wandering through the dreamlike, fog-shrouded scene of a car crash, curiously unhindered amidst all the chaos. At one point, Catherine sits down next to a female accident victim, smoking, and Cronenberg shoots both women in profile, the accident victim slightly blurry in the foreground, turning to the camera to reveal her scarred visage, offsetting Catherine’s blank, perfect features in the background. By framing the two women like this, Cronenberg makes it look like a before-and-after photo, foreshadowing Catherine’s future and suggesting the fragility of her flawless, plastic beauty.