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.
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.
Basically, I think the film opens up and becomes far richer when considered on a shot-by-shot basis like this rather than looking at the big picture. Cronenberg’s film is precise and very formalist: he carefully frames his images, carrying certain visual motifs through the film in order to express the thematic undercurrents of this material. As much as I love thinking about the film in relation to Ballard and American car culture and other outside reference points, this shouldn’t obscure the extent to which Cronenberg explores his ideas, subtly and without exposition, in the visual choices he makes.
JB: What’s interesting about your latest comments is that they contrast with what was going to be my next complaint: I don’t think the film is visually interesting. If it were, the lack of character (never mind character development, because there’s hardly character establishment) and the lack of interesting commentary within the film (in my opinion) wouldn’t be such a problem. As before, I found your latest descriptions of what Crash does to be more interesting than Crash itself. That said, I don’t want this to come off like a slam of your analysis, but in large part couldn’t we narrow down many of your observations to a single sentence? Couldn’t we simply say that Cronenberg eroticizes car parts (or the scars of car crashes) in all the places where we’d usually see body parts? So instead of caressing a breast, someone caresses the hood of a car. Instead of semen, we get car-wash foam. Instead of jerking off to porn movies, people get off to car crash videos. Instead of role-playing human sexual encounters, we get reenactments of car crashes. And so on.
Is this clever? Sure. More on that in a bit. But it’s also the same technique/gimmick/joke over and over again, which makes Crash like a stationary bicycle. We go round and round but we don’t get anywhere. You would disagree, obviously, because you’re fascinated by how Crash falls in line with “Cronenberg’s own interests,” as established by looking at his career as a whole. I get that, and I wouldn’t want to suggest that’s invalid. Context is significant. Awareness should be rewarded. But there’s a difference between saying that the best way to appreciate Crash is to see how it fits within Cronenberg’s oeuvre and saying that an understanding of Cronenberg’s oeuvre is essential to one’s appreciation of this film. Because within Crash itself I don’t see much exploration of, or comment on, Cronenberg’s interest with “new hybrid forms for the human body.” I see where you see it. I realize how Crash overlaps with, say, The Fly, and I assume that’s what drew Cronenberg to the project. And so if we were examining Cronenberg’s career, I’d say that’s an important thread weaving through his filmography. But, within Crash itself, do I think that subject is confronted in any compelling way? No. Within Crash itself it’s an irrelevant byproduct of the technology-for-flesh eroticization swap.
In terms of that swap, Crash is indeed quite successful. As I said earlier, there is cleverness in the number of ways that traditional human eroticism can be translated into automobile form, which is why I’d like to propose that Crash is best enjoyed as a comedy. Except I’m hesitant to do so. Though I have no doubt that there is some very intentional humor here, I’m a little unclear about how much. There are times when I wanted to be laughing with Crash but had a guilty feeling that I was laughing at it instead.
EH: Well, if you don’t find the film visually interesting, we’ll have to agree to disagree on that front. I think of the most prolonged sex scene between James and Catherine—the one where she dispassionately monologues about her husband having anal sex with Vaughan—and I can only marvel at Cronenberg’s formal precision. The scene opens with a tracking shot where the copulating couple is first seen through a segmented window that chops up their naked bodies into Cubist fragments and overlays the sex with a lit-up urban skyline, phallic skyscrapers layered over the jumble of limbs, which blend together with the tangled sheets and pillows. We hardly know what we’re seeing at first. Then throughout most of the sex the camera remains in closeup on one partner or the other, capturing their unreadable facial expressions, before Cronenberg brings them together into the same shot for the, ahem, climax. The shot sequence implies a coming-together, a connection, but of course the running dialogue throughout the scene only reinforces the couple’s isolation from one another, the extent to which their marital sexuality is still defined through stories and fantasies about other people and objects. There’s a push-and-pull tension here between connection and disconnection, just as there is in the film as a whole. Scenes like this, with these meaning-charged compositions and the interplay between dialogue and image, belie the idea that Crash is lacking in visual or thematic complexity.
Maybe Cronenberg does return to the same well again and again throughout this film, consistently substituting technological eroticization for more conventional erotic images. Must we fault the film for this single-mindedness? It’s a film about sex in the modern, technological era becoming increasingly disconnected from human feeling, so of course it keeps returning to these images where people feel more of a connection with metal constructs than with other people. It’s almost like you’re dismissing the film’s whole central concept—that sex in the age of technology is wound up as much with our surroundings as with the people involved—and then asking what’s left. Any film or idea can be reduced to a single reductive sentence, like your accurate summary that “Cronenberg eroticizes car parts… in all the places where we’d usually see body parts.” The film is concerned with the examination of this one idea in detail, and personally I find a great deal of interest in Cronenberg’s relentless exploration of this theme.
As for Crash’s place in Cronenberg’s career, as I’ve suggested, I think this film is best understood as a junction point between Cronenberg and Ballard, which perhaps accounts for some of its more schizophrenic tendencies. There isn’t the purity of The Fly and Videodrome, both films where the hero literally transforms under the influence of modern technology, at first unwillingly but eventually with the eagerness and passion of a convert. The ending of Videodrome, in particular, is inflected with a strain of apocalyptic optimism, a cathartic celebration of the way the hero takes what’s violent and ugly in our televisual culture and appropriates it into a new sense of identity. In Crash, Cronenberg’s enthusiasm for this kind of spectacle is tempered by Ballard’s influence, which encourages more of an observational, coldly voyeuristic perspective. Both Ballard’s Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition are full of lists, clinical recitations of various possibilities for car crash injuries and sexual experiences. It’s this emphasis on pseudo-scientific jargon and structural repetition that gives the film its form, shaping Cronenberg’s examinations of sexual perversion and relational disconnect.
All of which would probably be rather dry and formalist if not for, yes, the film’s darkly humorous streak. I’m with you there, though for me it’s unquestionable that Cronenberg (and Ballard, for that matter) recognizes the humor in this material and intentionally plays to it. The scene where Gabrielle toys with a nerdy car salesman is a perfect case in point: she intentionally flaunts her unconventional sexuality, getting into the car in an awkward way that hikes her skirt up to reveal the black panties beneath, then penetrating the vinyl seat with one of her leg brace’s metal hooks. It’s played as sexual comedy, no question about it, and Arquette’s broad, smirking performance only drives home the humor. The same goes for the sudden insert of the stunt man Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) feeling up his fake, bra-clad breasts, or the sardonic look on the face of a tattoo artist after James asks her where he should put his tattoo (“where the sun don’t shine,” is the answer implied in her deadpan expression). By the same token, I don’t think Cronenberg takes Vaughan’s ranting, apocalyptic speeches nearly as seriously as Ballard does; by chopping up Ballard’s prose into bite-size fragments and having Vaughan spit out pretentious monologues at every opportunity, Cronenberg makes him a vaguely silly and ludicrous figure, less menacing than absurd. There are signs here that Cronenberg recognizes the absurdity of his premise, that while these people’s obsessions might be deadly-serious for them, they are, after all, getting hard from watching car crashes.
JB: Oh, I have no doubt that Cronenberg is having fun with the material. My favorite moment of obvious humor comes just after that sex scene between James and Catherine, when Cronenberg leaps from one of the film’s longest and most passionate sexual encounters to one of its shortest and blandest. We see Hunter’s Helen, centered in the frame and staring straight at us, writhing up and down as if we’re the person she’s straddling. “Have you cum?” she asks a then-anonymous partner behind her, clearly lost to her own interests. “I’m alright,” an obscured and utterly disinterested James responds from the shadows, as if he’s turning down the offer of a sandwich. That’s great stuff, and clearly it’s comedy by design. But other times I’m not so sure. For example, that sex scene between Catherine and James, when she informs him that “some semen is saltier than others.” Is that eroticism or humor or just casual conversation? I can’t decide.
While we’re here, I want to stick with that Catherine-and-James sex scene for a bit to get back to your praise for Cronenberg’s “formal precision.” I will agree with you that the initial through-the-window shot of the couple that bathes them in light from the cityscape behind them is absolutely gorgeous. Beyond that, however, the scene you describe isn’t the scene I see. According to your description, the couple is apart and then comes together at the moment of climax. But that’s only half true. Yes, at the start of the scene both James and Catherine get their own closeups. Yes, at the end they share the same shot. But in between Cronenberg uses several wide shots of the couple fucking that suggest they are connecting, and he goes to the two-shot closeup of them rather quickly. So where you see “visual and thematic complexity,” I see a director who goes wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, wide-shot, closeup, etc. Pretty standard. The best compliment I can give to that scene’s design is that by using only about four shots—Catherine closeup, James closeup, Catherine-and-James wide shot and Catherine-and-James closeup—within a four-minute scene, Cronenberg keeps us at a scientific distance from which we are more likely to study these actions rather than get swept up in their passion. Other scenes have even fewer camera movements, like the one in which James inspects the body of a bruised Catherine after her tumble with Vaughan, which is little more than a zoom.
In your last response you suggested that I am unfairly dismissing the film for single-mindedly focusing on exactly what it’s about—dismissing its central concept and asking what’s left. Looking back, I admit I’m guilty as charged. I agree that most movies are as single-minded as Crash, but it seems to me that few movies are so flat and vacant, and that’s where the problem lies. We agree there is little character development. In fact, as I said, there’s hardly any character establishment. Spader and Unger strip out as much emotion as possible, even in the throes of passion. Hunter is almost equally robotic. Koteas provides a demonstration of postures more than a performance. And that leaves Arquette, whose smirk constitutes the majority of her portrayal. This is all by design, I realize. Fair enough. But studying the faces of these characters is like getting lost in the expressions of mannequins, and to this we add Cronenberg’s minimalist camera movements. The result is that just about the only thing worth sinking our teeth into is the film’s theme. But I didn’t find my bites very savory, and by the midpoint I was full.
EH: That’s admittedly an understandable reaction. Though I’ve been defending the film thus far, I realize that it’s not without its problems and limitations. As much as I enjoy its rigidly framed imagery, and as stimulated as I am by its thematic depths, I recognize that it’s intentionally working within a very narrow range. Cronenberg, there’s no doubt, has made richer and better films, films where his own sensibility is undiluted and raw. As in his adaptation of William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, seeing Cronenberg confront another equally strong artist head-on is fascinating, but doesn’t necessarily lead to a fully satisfying film that can stand up with the director’s masterpieces like Videodrome,
This brings me to one of my problems with the film, essentially the same problem that Iain Sinclair highlights in his deeply ambivalent BFI book. Sinclair shifts, throughout his book, back and forth between the Ballard original and the Cronenberg film, and ultimately concludes that Cronenberg’s Crash “depoliticizes Ballard’s frenzied satire,” making its “pornography safe and elegant.” As much as I admire Cronenberg’s chilly, abstract take on this material, I think that’s a fair criticism. Earlier I brought up Ballard’s quote about pornography being “a catalyst for social change,” but we kind of got detoured into other subjects. I want to bring it back up because this political context, this sense of revolutionary provocation, is arguably what’s missing from Cronenberg’s Crash.
For Sinclair, Cronenberg’s Crash is a more conservative work than its source novel, and not only because it sanitizes and downplays much of the homoerotic content, shifting the central relationship of the work from James/Vaughan to James/Catherine. (Cronenberg would also remove the homosexual content, with much more questionable results, from Burroughs’ Naked Lunch.) More than this process of sanitization, though, the film is somewhat lessened by its lack of context. Some sense of Ballard’s radical political screeds would likely go a long way towards making the work’s “point” clearer to those, like you, who find it mostly pointless as is. In his annotations for The Atrocity Exhibition, Ballard writes:
“A huge volume of sensational and often toxic imagery inundates our minds, much of it fictional in content. How do we make sense of this ceaseless flow of advertising and publicity, news and entertainment, where presidential campaigns and moon voyages are presented in terms indistinguishable from the launch of a new candy bar or deodorant? What actually happens on the level of our unconscious minds when, within minutes on the same TV screen, a prime minister is assassinated, an actress makes love, an injured child is carried from a car crash?”
These ideas, so vital to Ballard, are at best an undercurrent in Cronenberg’s Crash. The interest in celebrities and media still percolates in the background, especially in the hauntingly staged scene where Vaughan re-enacts James Dean’s death, or in Seagrave’s cross-dressing Jayne Mansfield fantasies, but it’s not the driving force of the film the way it is for Ballard in his novel. That’s OK, of course, since Cronenberg’s interests lie elsewhere. But it still creates a sense of absence at the film’s core, which Cronenberg’s more formalist engagement with this story can’t quite fill.
JB: I think all of that folds into my previous complaints that the film, in and of itself, doesn’t have much of anything to say. That passage you cite from The Atrocity Exhibition ponders how the “ceaseless flow” of stimuli might cause the barriers between non-homogenized elements to disintegrate, to alarming results. And that’s interesting. But that’s not Cronenberg’s Crash. Instead of focusing on the “problem,” Cronenberg only shows one result. The damage, if you will, has already been done. James and Catherine wander through this netherworld of automobile erotica, but there’s no glimpse of what their life might have been otherwise, no sense that a world exists beyond this one. To go back to something I said earlier, James and Catherine are users searching for an erotic high from the very start, and all that changes is their drug of choice. My complaint isn’t that Cronenberg eschews a conventional conflict-and-resolution arc—though that might give the film some needed lift. My complaint is that, as you said, this film is without context. It’s like watching Planet of the Apes without Charlton Heston. If all we see are apes, the unusual is usual, and so what’s the point?
This lack of context or sensationalism, this suggestion that these characters are essentially as normal or abnormal as the rest of us, works quite well along the lines of Ebert’s analysis, because by failing to relate to these characters we can better study their behaviors. But it hurts Cronenberg’s film at the same time because we have nothing to compare these actions against. Are we supposed to be horrified by what we see here? Why? These characters partake in activities that seem to improve their happiness and that endanger only them. Their actions are so extreme that we can take them seriously but not personally.
If this is a cautionary tale, it’s one I don’t need. There’s very little in Crash that suggests this could be my destiny. (You might as well tell me to beware becoming the best golfer in the world and having multiple affairs with waitresses because my Swedish model wife might someday chase me out of our house with a golf club. It’s all so alien to me.) I do find Crash interesting on some level, but it’s a lot like watching expressionless fish swim by at an aquarium. I sometimes enjoy the view, but I never worry I’m going to end up in the tank or think that their experiences on the other side of the glass say much about the world I live in.
EH: I don’t know. Is Cronenberg’s film as thematically rich as Ballard’s novel? No, definitely not. And I can understand if you don’t see yourself in these characters; if I remember correctly, you had the same reservations about Trouble Every Day, albeit not as strongly in that case. I don’t think Cronenberg is presenting a “cautionary tale” here—that’s not his style. The more important question is whether it’s really so important that we see ourselves in these characters. The film presents the characters’ sexual perversions and their icy disconnection without telling us how to feel about them, without providing a definitive interpretation. Maybe that’s OK; maybe we don’t need to settle on one interpretation or feel like we’re seeing our possible future selves on the screen.
Throughout this conversation, we’ve wrestled with a few possible readings for Cronenberg’s film, none of them entirely satisfying and none of them necessarily exclusive. There is another possibility, of course, which is the one you’ve been advancing. Sometimes a film, or a work of art, doesn’t need to engage so directly with the world, or tell us anything about ourselves. Sometimes a work of art is, like Cronenberg’s Crash, just its own weird, self-contained object, creating its own rules and its own skewed way of looking at things. Where Ballard’s Crash engages with the world, commenting on the omnipresence of media and the warping of sexuality by modern conditions, Cronenberg’s Crash seems to exist in its own strange world, cut off from ordinary reality. It seems we agree on that much. We just disagree about whether that’s a worthwhile approach.
My question for you, then, is whether you see any value in a piece of art that simply is, that doesn’t necessarily relate directly back to reality or tell you anything about yourself. Way back in our conversation about Solaris, we talked about Stanislaw Lem’s idea that “we don’t want other worlds… we want mirrors.” So is that it? Does our art always have to give us mirrors? Or can it—should it—sometimes provide us with a puzzling, enigmatic glimpse of something else altogether, some strange alternate world that exists at right angles to our own?
JB: It’s a good topic, and it’s neat that we’ve done enough of these conversations to see them beginning to overlap. (If it hasn’t happened already, I feel like we’re only a conversation or two away from me totally contradicting myself. But I digress.) Obviously when art acts as a mirror, at least to some degree, it’s easier to identify with the material and thus be “moved” by it—cerebrally, emotionally, erotically, whatever. In my case that’s what I’m looking for: to be moved. But I don’t think I need a mirror to do that. Not at all.
I think Crash is in rare territory, because it offers an unusually low number of opportunities for connectivity or empathy or any other kind of vicarious emotion. I’m not just talking about something as specific as the characters and their interests. I’m talking about the general structure of the film. Crash is ambiguous, but it isn’t a mystery. Crash has some confrontational scenes, but it isn’t combative. Crash has scenes with life-or-death implications, and yet the film isn’t suspenseful. (Perhaps the only suspenseful moment comes in the reenactment of the James Dean car crash when we wait to see if Vaughan and his driver survived the stunt.) And so when I say that the film doesn’t move me, affect me, provoke me, my lack of identification with these characters and with the film’s themes is only part of the reason.
That said, I believe that Cronenberg intends for Crash to be chilly, distant and even boring. He’s certainly trying to avoid giving us mirrors. He doesn’t want us to identify with these characters, I don’t believe. He wants us to observe them and focus on their behavior. And so it is that Crash feels to me like some kind of cinematic experiment more than it feels like art. I am impressed that Cronenberg manages to make an explicit NC-17-rated film about sex and car crashes that is less stimulating than your average television commercial, but I’m not moved, affected or provoked. Not on the whole, at least. Crash might be inscrutable on some level, but I don’t find it puzzling. It doesn’t convince me that it contains hidden depths worth discovering.
EH: For me, on the other hand, Crash is an interesting artifact, not so much for what it has to say but for its own sake, and for its interesting resonances with other reference points, among them its own source material. The film, like the novel before it, comments on the romance of the car crash: the modern-day obsession with this most modern of deaths and the celebrity lives it has claimed. More than the novel, however, Cronenberg’s Crash also exists as a part of this continuum, as another entry in the media and artistic fascination with the car crash and its implications. Cronenberg thus draws, like Ballard, not only on real-life stories—James Dean, Grace Kelly, Jayne Mansfield, JFK (“a special kind of car accident”), Albert Camus—but on the cinematic and cultural heritage of the car crash’s representation.
In particular, Cronenberg and Ballard are heirs to Jean-Luc’s Godard’s late 60s fascination with the car crash. Brigette Bardot is referenced in both Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, inevitably recalling her appearance in Godard’s Contempt, particularly the famed scene when the actress lounges in bed while her lover expresses his affection for her as tributes to her individual body parts, enumerating one by one the individual elements that together add up to his desire and love for her. It’s sex as an equation, a concept that reverberates throughout Ballard’s work. Cronenberg echoes this scene in the one where James and Catherine have slow, mechanical sex while Catherine enumerates her fantasies about James and Vaughan. Of course, Contempt ends with an ostentatiously phony car crash, a crash where the artifice is so obvious that it’s a stylized symbol of a crash rather than the real thing. Similar scenes proliferate in Weekend as well, scenes where the audience’s only possible reaction is a distanced, clinical observation of body postures and crushed metal sculptures.
Cronenberg is crafting his own modern take on Godard’s 60s studies in alienation and disconnection, and also drawing on other New Wave-era studies in ennui—all those films, like Godard’s A Married Woman or Alain Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad or Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’avventura, where blank, disinterested middle class people struggle to find a way of jolting some life into their emotionally flat-lined existence. If Cronenberg’s film sometimes seems to be something of a blank slate, a mystery with no solution, maybe that’s exactly the troubling feeling the film seeks to engender.
This article was originally published on The House Next Door.
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