Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Cronenberg Blogathon: Reassessing Crash (1996)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: Reassessing Crash (1996)

by Dusty McGowan

[Trickster Dusty McGowran has an interesting take on movies. You can read more about his private obsessions at the Playground of Doom.]


All right, so here’s my clever conceit for this blog entry. I’m going to write about Crash (1996), a film I haven’t seen in a good twelve years. I will write what I intend to be Part One first, covering what I can remember of my first impression of this film. (Assuming I have anything like an honest memory.) Part Two will be my impressions after seeing this film again all these many moons later.

Now let me pat myself on the back for my own ingenuity.

I’m patting myself on the back. You just can’t see it.

Part One: Oh, Youth....

Sometimes I wonder if the reason a movie strikes such a chord in your soul has to do with the context in which you first saw it. So let me paint a portrait of the context in which I first saw Crash. I would have been seventeen years old, an early high school graduate. This might be bordering on too much information, but I was pent up, overly imaginative, ridiculously sensitive, and easily seduced by what I thought were depictions of the dark corners of the world. I had been “sent away” to college..., which really wasn’t true at all. I was just living in student housing in my hometown. But my family lived on the other side of the city. So, you know, freedom! And I happened to notice that Crash was playing at the Student Union movie theater.

Now I had heard all about Crash. It was apparently a movie about people who really got off on crashing their cars. In my world at the time, that translated into an absolute must see. I had also grown up loving the world of Cronenberg, home of exploding heads and melting body parts (as well as social commentary I was still too young to grasp). But Crash had played in a dank corner of the local multiplex for about half a day and then vanished. I missed it!

But I would see what I had unfairly been denied. And I didn’t need to tell my parents I went. (Or tell them what the film was about.)

There were exactly three people in the showing: a really shabbily dressed, rather seedy old guy (who had a long conversation with the ticket taker about just how dirty the movie was); some cute glasses-wearing Art Major girl (who girlishly giggled through out the whole movie); and me. The lights went out, the movie screened, and I stumbled out of the theater a changed man.

Now what I am getting at in this long and horribly rambling diatribe?

Crash really impacted me. The movie shed some light on a segment of the population I didn’t need to know existed. It had rendered their psychology almost accessible. I’m not sure if I liked these people, but in a weird way I felt like I understood them by the time lights came up. It was was was about…

Actually, I didn’t really know what it was about thematically. But it hardly mattered. My mental gears (yes, this is a car metaphor) were well oiled. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I didn’t really know anything about the technical side of filmmaking, or the creation of a good script. But I was astute enough to know when something creates an atmosphere, when images burn themselves into your psyche. And I would like to think I knew when something is truly good. But....

I haven’t seen Crash since that fateful day.

There are a lot of different reasons I suppose. Primarily, it’s not exactly something you pop in after a long day at work. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy a difficult watch, but this is a particularly draining experience. Secondly, I couldn’t find the uncut version anywhere. It’s not that I had to see every single naughty bit again. I just felt that Cronenberg’s original vision should be undiluted. Lastly, I’m almost afraid to sabotage my perfect memory. This movie filled me with such an excitement about film itself. The possibilities of it as an art form. The potential for the medium to house truly artistic visions. The fact that you could make something this raw and bruising, and get away with it was simply mind blowing. It was a great film going experience. Due in no small part to the fact that I really believed this movie was a masterpiece. What if I watched it now, and it didn’t stack up to my original opinion of it? Getting sentimental about a movie centered around people with a masturbatory attachment to their automobiles?

You betcha!

Well, my friends, the time has come...

Part Two: Nostalgia, How You Have Failed Me, or Thoughts after Seeing Crash Again

So this isn’t the searing, insane masterpiece I remembered from my youth. It is, however, an incredibly bold but ultimately confusing film. Bold because of the subject matter that Cronenberg and his incredible actors tackle in such an unflinching manner. Confusing because I’m really not sure, upon this fateful second viewing, what Cronenberg was intending to communicate with this film. My biggest area of contention: I’m not sure if this is supposed to be a dark, psychosexual drama (like Sex, Lies, and Videotape) or a satire.

There are various “snicker” moments, in which I found myself laughing at the audacity of the movie; a sort of “Really, they went there?” response. But yet there is interplay between the characters. And that interaction is the haziest thing about this movie. I know that the reason for having kinks and fetishes can be inexplicable, but I would have liked at least an inkling about why these characters behave in such a manner. What are they thinking about when they undergo these acts? There is no real emotion in the film present. I’m sure that is mostly for effect. These characters are supposed to be ciphers. But what do I learn after two hours of watching them? When the two main characters (Ballard and his wife) spiral out into full blown dark obsession at the end, I can’t exactly say I care about them.

I mentioned the “snicker” moments previously. These are mainly due to the character of Vaughn, who obsessively recreates deadly celebrity car crashes. There is a commentary there about the public’s obsessive fixation with death and celebrity culture. It’s grim and funny stuff. Vaughn comes the closest to articulating a real philosophy about cars and sex, but it’s extremely muddled. He’s clearly got a case of full blown insanity. Cronenberg, I assume, wants his audience to draw their own conclusions. And it’s entirely possible that this movie functions on a level that is above my head.

Still, I have a lot of admiration for this movie. It’s an achievement of filmmaking if nothing else. And it opens and closes with two stunning sequences that I won’t reveal. I have to give all the credit in the world to Mr. Cronenberg for that. He plunges head first into this material. I can’t think of another relatively mainstream director who would have the nerve.


Joel Bocko said...

Well, I enjoyed "this long and horribly rambling diatribe." Aside from the film, which I haven't seen and can't comment on, there is something fascinating about comparing old memories and fresh experience, the euphoria of an unexpected encounter and the letdown of a return visit that doesn't yield the same returns.

ytje said...

Last night i watched "Crash" for the second time in 12 years, seriously. And then i stumbled upon your blog! My experience is more or less the same as yours. I imagined scenes that weren't even in the movie. Memory, such a tricky thing. There's a boldness to the movie and i still respect that. But i did remember the coldness, the distance between the persons. I did enjoy Vaughn though, he's truly mental.

Francoleon D said...

I recently downloaded Crash and I must say I really digged it.
Of course Cronenberg can`t dissapoint anyhow.
I liked your blog about it, I did needed an overall perspective of it, and your blog did just that.
So by this Thank you for sharing.
I enjoyed the movie, and have it now in my collection.

Unknown said...

I think your second conclusion is the correct one. I've always found this film to be very funny. It's so stylized and cold that you can't really take it any other way. Like most of Cronenberg it is ambiguous enough thematically as to be endlessly fascinating. I wonder what we'll all think in another ten years or so.

Having said that, I felt that the press reaction to this film was nothing less than puritanism. Hollywood puts out great volumes of morally and esthetically questionable, if formulaic, material. When a film like Crash thwarts nearly every expectation, the industrial-criticism complex is bound to react this way.