Director / Screenplay: David Cronenberg (from novel by J. G. Ballard) / Editing: Ronald Sanders / DP: Peter Suschitzky / Music: Howard Shore
Cast: James Spader / Holly Hunter / Elias Koteas / Deborah Kara Unger / Rosanna Arquette
Scream If You Wanna Go Faster!
If anyone’s to blame for the controversy whipped up by sensationalist tabloids over Crash’s UK release, it’s surely author J.G. Ballard, for having published the original, even more daring novel way back in 1970. All David Cronenberg did, was adapt & direct it for a more populist medium. Little did he suspect, that the film would end up being one of – if not the – most controversial of his career to-date.
As I understand it, Ballard’s original premise appears straightforward enough. Written at the time of the first moon landings, in a political environment riven by the Vietnam War, Ballard could be forgiven for imagining a bleak future. His, is one in which Mankind has assimilated ‘Technology’, to the stage that a new, fetishistic sub-culture emerges as a natural by-product. This manifests as a sexual urge, the release of which, is channelled by the ‘thrill’ of being involved in a car accident. Any injuries sustained, it would seem, merely add to the ongoing fetishisation of the kinetic event. Which is the point over which Cronenberg’s film lost any goodwill in the Press: after all, a film which promotes the willing inducements of car crashes in the pursuit of thrills should be banned. Shouldn’t it?
Well… There’s a principle of free-speech at-stake here, worth defending: a position taken by the British Board of Film Classification (‘BBFC’). In conjunction with the film’s UK distributors, the BBFC engaged with a senior judge, a panel of experts and even a representative group of disabled viewers, to gauge whether the film’s representation of disability was in any way derogatory. After NO objections from any party were raised, they passed the film uncut in the UK, which led individual local councils to ban screenings, if they felt their own inhabitants would be adversely affected. It led to the bizarre, if not perverse situation, where the London Borough of Westminster banned the film, yet Londoners merely had to walk a few streets into adjoining boroughs where it WAS showing! This sorry tale was repeated in prudish councils across the UK; all undoubtedly out of concern for the fragile mental health of their populace and NOT, in any way, with a view to how affronted citizens might vote in local elections…
Not that such controversy dented the film: ‘any publicity is good publicity’, after all!
A Canadian director with a storied career grounded in horror cinema, Cronenberg’s filmography is littered with tropes & perspectives, which collectively repackage darker truths for mass acceptance. Typically, a Cronenberg movie will revolve around the alteration of the human body through ‘Science’, i.e. Scanners (1981), Videodrome (1983) and, most notably, his superb remake of The Fly (1986). Viewed in this context then, Crash is the definitive article.
The film opens strongly, showing Deborah Kara Unger become aroused by caressing a light aircraft’s wing with her exposed breast; one of several parked in a hangar. She’s alone in the hangar, until an un-named man (later inferred to be her flying instructor) appears to, err, ‘indulge her from behind’.
This is followed by a scene in which James Spader enjoys hurried, furtive sex with a girl in his office (incidentally, this single scene is all the film’s going to show of either lead’s workaday world). Later, in an apartment, our heroes are revealed to be a married couple – James & Catherine Ballard… Which leads directly to an obvious question: Why would Ballard lend his own name to this character? Was he being mischievous for its own sake, or was the book some form of licentious wish-fulfilment? A definitive answer evades investigation which is frustrating, as I think it could shed light on Ballard’s original inspiration & motivation.
Anyhoo, they’re exchanging notes on the day’s varied distractions and it’s obvious, even now, that they’re a perfect foil to each other. There’s a mechanical, wooden edge to them, even this early in proceedings. Both are bored by their lives, to the point where a kind of moral & emotional lassitude has swamped them of anything finer. Cronenberg chose to begin his film with soft-core porn, but it’s devoid of eroticism. We’re simply watching these two people – these actors – go through the motions as if automatons. As if machines… See where this is going?
Things step up a gear, after James has a ‘real’ car accident; a head-on collision, that ends up with a fatality: the passenger in the other car. Yet, even in the immediate, numbing aftermath, he latches-on to the other driver, with whom he collided. Through the crazed windscreen, James sees her modestly – almost reluctantly – tuck a bare breast into her blouse, whilst staring fixedly at him. There’s an unreality about this scene. Another form of artifice, that Cronenberg is either hiding behind, using for effect – or both.
Take JB’s hospital ward, for example. He’s the only patient and it’s left to Catherine to explain that ‘it’s usually reserved for the victims of airline crashes’. Well, that’s handy… James’ leg has been badly broken and he now has it pinned together in a rehab cage, which itself triggers a turning point in their marriage. The cage represents a more invasive form of technological intervention; a more intimate fusing of the human machine with the artificial. Cronenberg is warming to his theme.
Whilst exercising in the empty corridors, James meets the other driver: Dr. Helen Rimington, played by the wonderful Holly Hunter; probably the last person I expected to find in a Cronenberg picture but, then again, maybe that was the point! Helen’s accompanied by an odd-looking orderly, Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who, it turns out, is anything but. As a new sexual relationship forms between Helen & James, she introduces him to Vaughan’s own sub-culture. Chief among his tribe, is Gabrielle, played by the quirky Rosanna Arquette. A victim of another car wreck some years before, Gabrielle still wears callipers on both legs, along with a fibreglass bodice, that’s equal-parts medical support and fetish gear. She has fully embraced Vaughan’s worldview of the coming evolution in Mankind’s psyche, taking every advantage to pursue titilation whenever – and wherever – she can find it.
Yet Vaughan remains the instigator here. The primal, catalytic force that will drive the rest of the film, actor Elias Koteas imbues Vaughan’s scarred, ashen frame with a fatalistic impetus that ensnares all who encounter him. His character sets the tone, first by staging an illicit recreation of the car-crash that claimed the life of Jimmy Dean. A small, rapt audience watches from makeshift bleachers; among them sit Helen & James as they witness Vaughan’s full-throated commitment at first-hand. This commitment later widens, when Vaughan rapturously encounters a major crash on the freeway. Oblivious to the rescuers milling around him, Vaughan’s free both to touch the wrecks and photograph the gory details for his scrapbook. With enhanced sexual liberation as part of the ‘new psychology’ that Vaughan believes he’s discovered, the film moves inexorably to an inevitable, dark conclusion. As the risks taken for thrills get more extreme, so the penalties for misjudging situations, become graver.
Which brings me to the first thought I had, as the end credits rolled: had this all been a dreamlike fantasy in James’ mind? But then another idea quickly gained supremacy: were all these characters dead and existing in some ‘nether-realm’?
Maybe. I’ve already mentioned the lack of emotional reciprocity in the opening, but how to explain the ability of James to avoid legal trouble after driving into oncoming traffic? After all, there was a fatality involved. Then, after being allowed to resume driving, he buys the same model of car a second time and has an affair with the widow! Consider also the eerily empty hospital with the leaden atmosphere of a morgue. Or the performers in the recreation of Dean’s crash, who should’ve sustained injuries as a result, but who got to walk limp away. Then there’s the frequent allusion by characters, to the volume of traffic on the roads; the implied menace it provides when it’s present. In one late scene, the unexpected lack of traffic is noted, immediately prior to a road-rage incident, as if the traffic ‘knows’ it has to back-off, in order to give the incident time and space to unfold.
What is Crash? According to Martin Scorsese, it’s one of the ‘Ten Best Films of the Nineties’, but for this reviewer, such fulsome praise is harder to bestow. For all that it’s a puzzling if not bravura piece of film-making (with a marvellous score by Howard Shore), at its heart it remains a sketchy, shaggy-dog story about how, for a select group of jaded libertines, the ‘correct’ sadomasochistic response can only be triggered through intimate involvement with a car-crash. They’re driven to accept, if not welcome, bodily disfigurement as the price to be paid for the final integration with The Machine.
Trouble is, with the benefit of twenty five years of hindsight, how many of us are still willing to pay that price? The intervening years have seen the rise of Information Technology and the decline in primacy, of the very machines on which Ballard based his vision.
For now we nurture our smartphones with such addicted fervour, that it’s easy to see where future integration will most likely occur. For some, the price is far higher than seen in Crash, yet many are paying it, all too freely.
In some ways, then, Crash can be seen as a cautionary tale for the ages. It’s reminding us that we should be careful what we wish for.
Because we might just get it…
Maybe the next one, Darling. Maybe the next one.