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Cronenberg’s Crash

[1]2,219 words

I remember the moment in 1996 when I first heard about David Cronenberg’s Crash on National Public Radio. I exploded in outrage. I thought the story of a group of people who made a sexual fetish of car crashes had to be the stupidest movie concept of all time. Not decadent or perverted, mind you—although it was obviously trying really hard in that respect—but just stupid. I had the sense that Western decadence, like a 16,000-page burlesque by the Marquis de Sade, was finally running out of perversions, and Cronenberg was desperately trying to come up with a novel tab and slot combo, perhaps by employing some sort of random content generator, like picking words from a book at random. “Sex and . . . car crashes. Yeah, that’s the ticket.”

Of course, I was wrong about all that. Culturally, things have gotten so much worse since 1996, that a film about attractive white people who get off on car crashes seems almost wholesome in retrospect. As for where the story came from: Crash was based on a novel by J. G. Ballard, which explains the try-hard geekiness of the concept. But maybe Ballard was the one using the random perversion generator. I have not read the novel, and I don’t know how faithful the film adaptation is, but I am commenting here on the movie alone.

Of course, the connection between sex and car crashes is not random and accidental. Both are objects of voyeurs, which is what Crash makes us, the audience. But most viewers rebelled, and Crash was a huge commercial and critical flop. Virtually everyone, audiences and critics alike, found Crash unintelligible, unsexy, repellent, and sometimes downright ludicrous.

Thus it was some years before I actually saw Crash, and to my surprise, it is truly an excellent movie. I would rank it as Cronenberg’s best, alongside A History of Violence [2]. The story of Crash is much less satisfying, but I give it extra points for avant-garde audacity and sheer visual style.

Crash had me from the opening credits, which loom up like signs along a nighttime highway, accompanied by Howard Shore’s spiky, metallic, percussive theme scored for an ensemble of electric guitars.

Then we are inside an airplane hangar. The camera languidly stalks and caresses the bulging, sleek, riveted surfaces of small planes. Then we see Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), a beautiful but cold and ferret-faced blonde, expose one of her breasts and press it against the surface of the plane as a lover takes her from behind.

Then we are inside a television studio. People are looking for Catherine’s husband, director James Ballard (James Spader at the peak of his attractiveness and charisma), who is in the camera room having a quickie with a crewmember, which is interrupted.

Next we are on the balcony of the Ballard’s posh modern apartment in a high-rise overlooking a busy expressway near the Toronto airport. Catherine is looking out over the expressway. The couple tell each other of the day’s sexual adventures, as a prelude to their own love-making. As James takes her from behind, Catherine commiserates with her husband about his interrupted tryst. “Maybe the next one,” she repeats consolingly.

Maybe the next one will work out, for there will always be a “next one.” James and Catherine are clearly compulsive serial sexual adventurers. Both of them are highly attractive, affluent young professionals in a large city. Birth control and abortion have separated sex from procreation. Sexual liberation has unchained hedonism from morality. At thirtysomething, they have already racked up hundreds, if not thousands, of partners and are beginning to get a little jaded. As long as they avoid venereal diseases, though, they can keep rutting until they look like Keith Richards.

Many critics have remarked on how unsexy, unarousing, and unpornographic Crash is, citing it as evidence that Cronenberg is an inept director. But they have missed the point. Crash is not a “sex positive” film. It is an anti-sex film. It is a film about addiction and degradation. Expecting Crash to make sex addiction sexy is like expecting Requiem for a Dream to make drug addiction alluring.

In the next scene, an indeterminate time has passed. James is driving home from work on a rainy night. Idiotically, he is trying to read through papers as he navigates the freeway. Suddenly, he loses control of his car, heads down an embankment, and ends up in oncoming traffic. He collides head on, and the man in the front passenger seat of the other car shoots like a projectile through both windshields and into the passenger seat of James’ car, dead. Seriously injured himself, James sits stunned as the female driver of the other car claws away her seat belt and exposes her breast.

Next we see James in the hospital, black sutures spiking up from deep, blue-black bruises, a shattered leg being held together by a hideous metal contraption with spikes buried in his flesh. Catherine tells him that the driver of the other car, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), is also in the same hospital. Sometime later, James is up and walking and encounters Dr. Remington in the hallway, walking with a cane, her body horribly twisted. He speaks to her, and she grips her cane in rage, as if she wants to thrash him with it, then totters on, silent.

With her is Vaughn (Elias Koteas, who looks like Chris Meloni’s homely brother), a tall, lurching figure in doctor’s whites with horrible scars on his face. He carries a file filled with photos of lacerated and sutured accident victims. Vaughn remains behind to inspect James’ leg brace and examine his other injuries, deeply invading James’ personal space, smirking and leering at his injuries, and ending with an inappropriately long gaze directly into James’ eyes. One is left feeling this is not so much a medical examination as a pick-up.

It becomes clear that James has been changed by his brush with death. While in the hospital, he rebuffs Catherine’s sexual advances. While convalescing at home, he says to Catherine, “Is the traffic heavier now? There seem to be three times as many cars as there were before the accident.” Helen Remington later reports the same experience to James: “[The traffic is] much worse now. You noticed that, did you? The day I left the hospital I had the extraordinary feeling that all these cars were gathering for some special reason I didn’t understand. There seemed to be ten times as much traffic.”

Crash is masterful at communicating the sense that through their trauma, James and Helen have, in effect, entered a new world. Of course they are still on planet earth. They have entered a new world in the Heideggerian sense of world: a new context of intelligibility. The same things surround them, but their meaning has changed completely. The crash is what Heidegger calls an Ereignis, an event that transforms the meaning of everything.

When James and Helen meet the second time, they are at the police lot where their wrecked cars are impounded. James has revisited the accident not only by seeking out his wrecked car, but also by buying a new car of the exact same make and model. Because of his crash, James cannot relate sexually with Catherine, but he can with Helen, because they have shared the same experience. They end up having sex in James’ car in an airport garage. Then, when James returns home, he has sex with Catherine in the same seated position.

Then the movie gets really weird. Vaughan reappears as the impresario of a reenactment of James Dean’s fatal car accident. After the crash, the police appear, the spectators scatter, and Helen and James escape with Vaughan and the driver of the Dean car, Seagrave (Peter MacNeil), who is seriously injured. When we arrive at Vaughan’s lair, we meet Gabrielle (Patricia Arquette), another crash victim who wears hideous braces that look like bondage gear over black lace lingerie. All of these crash victims live in the same altered world of meaning, in which they reenact their traumas—and historic versions of their traumas, like the deaths of James Dean and Jane Mansfield—until first Seagrave then Vaughan are killed.

Catherine, who is the only member of the cast who has not been in an accident, wants to join the rest of them, and they want to bring her in as well. Catherine is run off the road by Vaughan, but she is not injured. Then, after Vaughan is killed, James fixes up the car that Vaughan died in and uses it to run Catherine off the road again.

All these crashes are interspersed with increasingly kinky sexual encounters: James fucks Helen (again). Vaughan feels up Helen in his car while James watches. Vaughan fucks a prostitute in his car while James watches. (Creepily, Vaughan flexes one of the prostitute’s legs, clearly taking pleasure in it simply as a hinged object, like a pocket knife.) Vaughan fucks Catherine in a car while going through a car-wash while James watches. (With his greenish corpse-like complexion and scars, Vaughan looks like Frankenstein’s monster deflowering his bride among the instruments of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory.) Then James fucks Vaughan in Vaughan’s car. (Followed by Vaughan ramming his car into James.’) James also has sex with Gabrielle in a car, skipping her vagina and inserting his penis into a deep scar on Gabrielle’s leg. Then Helen and Gabrielle have a bit of lesbian action in the back seat of the wrecked car in which Vaughan died. And despite the physical hotness of the various actors (under all the scar tissue and prosthetics), none of it is remotely arousing, and a lot of it is downright distasteful—which, I maintain, is Cronenberg’s brilliantly realized intention.

If Crash is just a movie about sex and car crashes, it rapidly becomes tedious, then ludicrous, then just meaningless, then people stream toward the exits. For Crash to hang together and be meaningful, there has to be a deeper connection between sex and car crashes than just the word “and.”

And no, the fact that both are subjects of voyeurism is not enough. People move quite comfortably from sexual voyeurism to sex, but nobody moves from accident voyeurism to accidents.

Also, when people have brushes with death, they often snap out of self-destructive behavior patterns, such as sex addiction. But in Crash, brushes with death simply lead to the intensification of addictive behaviors, infusing the accidents themselves with sexual energy so that they too are obsessively repeated until some of the characters are actually killed. And no, I don’t think it is enough to simply trot out some Freud talk about neurotics being drawn back to and repeating primal traumas, because that is just a description of what is happening in the film not an explanation of why it is happening.

So what is the connection between sex and car crashes? My answer is simple: in Crash the car crashes are not car crashes, they are sex acts too, specifically unsafe sex acts that lead to the transmission of HIV. For me, the meaning all fell into place on the second viewing when James, lying in his hospital bed, says, “After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda, it’s almost a relief to have found myself in an actual accident.” James, of course, is a sex addict, and sex addicts are also bombarded endlessly with safe sex propaganda, especially AIDS awareness propaganda. And while road safety propaganda does not make driving less pleasurable, safe sex propaganda does cast rather a pall over things, since condoms reduce pleasure and addicts cannot simply stop having sex. This means that they often feel relieved once they catch HIV, so they can cease worrying about it and really throw themselves into their addiction. Once you crash a car, you don’t want to crash a car again. But once you have unsafe sex, you want to have it again, and if you no longer fear HIV, you are free to make a fetish of unsafe sex with HIV positive people. Indeed, even though most of the couples are male-female, I think Crash is really about homosexual men, for the simple reason that practically every sex act in the film is from behind.

This interpretation throws a lot of light on the end of the movie. Vaughan has died. James buys the car in which he died and gets it running again. Then he runs Catherine off the road. Her car goes down an embankment and flips. She is thrown out of the car. James rushes to her side and asks if she is hurt. Although dazed and bloody, she says that she is all right. James then slips her panties down and enters her from behind, repeating her consoling words from earlier in the film, “Maybe the next one, darling, maybe the next one.” None of this makes any sense psychologically if car crashes are just car crashes, but it makes perfect sense if Catherine is “bug-chasing,” because there will be a next one, and a next one, and eventually she too will crash through the disease barrier and enter the realm where hedonism, shorn of its last inhibition, is free to become a full-blown death cult, in which its devotees grind themselves into oblivion.