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.