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.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.