by Chris Voss
[Chris Voss' blog, Celluloid Moon, is one of those which lays dormant for a time before a post pops up, but when it does, you can be sure it is worth taking the time out to read. Today, he contributes a post on one of Cronenberg's most controversial films.]
Discussion around the films of David Cronenberg typically fall into two categories: the early "body horror"/SF films, up to and including his brilliant 1986 re-imagining of The Fly, and the late 2000s resurgence into the mainstream, marked by 2005's A History of Violence and 2007's Eastern Promises. Poke around a bit and you'll find a few places like Criterion extolling the virtues of Dead Ringers (1988) and Naked Lunch (1991), which (rightly) have their devoted followings. 1998's eXistenZ has been getting a fair amount of play lately, perhaps due to the renewed argument of video games as art, but generally speaking when it comes to David Cronenberg there's talk a-plenty about his early work and almost as much about his most recent output.
That leaves a pretty substantial gap that, taken as a whole, shows a director bravely modifying his style, searching for new ways to express his obsessions and over-arching themes: the transformation of the physical body both as a response to and as a reflection of the mind, the nature and question of identity, and the fascination with the grotesque and the forbidden. The films in this transitional period like Spider (2003), M. Butterfly (1993), and the aforementioned Naked Lunch and Dead Ringers, all to varying degrees show Cronenberg shifting away from straight genre, where his ideas could more easily be expressed, and into a more realistic universe where the trick becomes harder but, because he's working in a world we readily recognize, more effective.
Crash (1996) marks to my mind the flag in the ground, the point where Cronenberg successfully marries his vision into a narrative free from the conventions of genre that pigeonholed him as a director of "body horror" or science fiction. Adapting the notorious 1973 novel of the same name by J.G. Ballard, Cronenberg fashions a cold, precise look at the lengths to which we go to satisfy our desires, how we are enslaved by our fetishes, and how these cravings and desires ultimately affect the way we see each other and the world around us. Deliberately paced so as to make the viewer feel like one of the millions of rubberneckers at the scene of an accident, Crash methodically explores these themes with scenes of brutal intensity, held together with lines of dialog that gleam like the lines on a new car, matched by a fantastic score (courtesy of longtime collaborator Howard Shore) that sounds constructed of angles and degrees alien to to conventional movie soundtracks yet perfectly captures the underlying pressure of each scene.
The film opens with the infidelities of James Ballard (interesting how the two major literary works Cronenberg's adapted himself have protagonists sharing the name of the real-life authors) and his wife Catherine, each thrilled more by the risk of being caught in the act than the act itself. Shortly after during their own coupling, they discuss their adulteries with a clinical detachment that echoes the feel of much of the film. James is involved in a horrific car accident, the driver of the other vehicle shooting through the windshield and coming to rest in James's own car. Helen, the driver's passenger (played by Holly Hunter), looks across the cars to James and, in a spastic fit rips off her seatbelt, breaks open her jacket to expose her breast. It's a powerful moment, meant to shock us out of the horror we've just witnessed, but at the same time challenge us to question the appropriateness of our feelings, and whether there's such a thing as "appropriate" at all in our own minds.
James' time in the hospital is marked by the emptiness in his own life: he lies alone at the end of a row of empty beds. His wife never looks at him even as she attempts to masturbate him under the bedcovers, intent instead on James' leg and their own empty conversation. Cronenberg's camera lingers over the metal brace that frames James' shattered leg, caressing each pin and joint with its lens in a manner realized in the flesh a few scenes later when James meets Vaughn, a man who poses as a medical photographer and examines James' scars and wounds as would a new lover. When Helen and James meet later at his wrecked car, he offers her a ride. They narrowly avoid another accident, and wind up having frantic sex in an airport parking lot. It's the second sign of being truly alive for James, and he makes the perhaps inevitable connection between the two, as Helen had done before him.
From here on in, James is drawn into a world where people search for sexual euphoria in the ripping of steel and rubber, the drip of gasoline, and the shatter of safety glass. Helen brings James to a reenactment of James Dean's fatal car crash. Vaughn is both ringleader and active participant and, as brought to life by Elias Koteas, is mesmerizing every second he's on screen. Sensing a kindred spirit, Vaughn brings James in on his life's mission: the ultimate realization of sexual euphoria through the destructive powers of a car crash. His broken and scarred body is a map of his attempts to achieve this through the reenactments of celebrity car crashes. Nowhere is this desire better represented than in a crucial scene where Vaughn, James, and Catherine drive past a massive traffic accident. Not content to takes pictures from the car, Vaughn leads James and Catherine into the accident, where they walk ghost-like amongst the victims and rescue workers. Vaughn poses Catherine inside the vehicles, while James walks as if in a trance, exquisitely aware of what the environment is doing to him.
This is where Cronenberg shines. The accident scene ranks up with the best pieces in any of his films, as he conjures a scenario at once frightening familiar and yet completely foreign at the same time. Even as it comments on our own morbid fascination with disaster, the almost clinical way he approaches the shots act as a refusal to comment, forcing the viewer to actively engage with what they're seeing and gauge their own response. This lack of judgment is critical to Cronenberg's most successful films, and a key reason why so many people categorize his work as uneasy or amoral. It's uneasy because it refuses to tell you what or how to feel about what you see on screen. It's amoral because—especially in Crash—it refuses to provide a baseline for what its characters define as "moral;" morality has little if nothing to do with their actions.
As James becomes further entwined in Vaughn and his friends' plans, he is forced to make the same judgments the audience has to and decide if he is willing to go to the lengths Vaughn is to achieve what he believes is the quintessential experience. The second half of the movie following the accident scene plays like a sexual jigsaw puzzle as James and then Catherine engage in deeper and more disturbing acts, where violence, pain, and open wounds become the tools of the act. It's challenging stuff to watch, and a real credit to the performances that everything comes off as it does—in particular Elias Koteas' Vaughn, who manages to be alarmingly charismatic even during the most despicable moments, such as his brutal sex scene with Deborah Kara Unger, who plays James's wife Catherine. If there's another standout performance in Crash it's hers. Although we view the story through the character of James, it's Catherine who shows us the consequences of James and Vaughn's brushes with vehicular ecstasy. Both Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette turn in great supporting performances, but Crash stands firmly on the shoulder of its three leads, including James Spader as the author/protagonist exuding a quiet sensuality that's the polar opposite of Vaughn's more forward urges.
The climax, where Vaughn attempts to draw both James and Catherine into his "final ride," threatens to move into familiar territory, but Cronenberg wisely steers away from an easy Hollywood resolution, instead leaving us with a final scene that again, like the best of his work, refuses to let us off the hook. It forces us to confront the extent to which we are attached to our own desires. Equally vilified and championed by the critics upon its release, Crash took home the Special Jury Prize from Cannes and after a flurry of controversy, quietly floated into the background while Cronenberg went on to other projects. Too bad, as Crash proves to be not only a key film in David Cronenberg's development as a filmmaker but an excellent look into the forbidden rooms we keep in our mind.