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

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Cronenberg Blogathon: Revisiting Crash (1996)

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.


Adam Zanzie said...

Interesting how Cronenberg, like Steven Spielberg, was able to use a J.G. Ballard novel as a springboard into an entirely new phase of his career in which he would experiment with several different categories. I've never read anything by Ballard (RIP), but both Crash and Empire of the Sun are such exquisite films that they have made me ponder about whether Ballard's prose is something to seek out.

You've done a swell job here of illuminating on just how special of a film Crash is, I must say. I've seen it twice, thanks to IFC, and with each viewing I remained fascinated--and unsure what to think. The film, as you say, DOESN'T give any easy answers to what's going on, but it keeps me ever so curious. I suppose I was disappointed when I later read Ebert's review and he pointed out that probably nobody in reality actually has this kind of fetish; being as in the dark about fetishes in general as I am, the film had me convinced it was a real phenomenon. Cronenberg's film is surreal and yet pretty damned believable.

I still quote Koteas' "Don't worry, that guy's gonna see us" speech from time to time. It's haunting stuff, and among the best dialogue in Cronenberg's screenwriting. But the hardest scene to watch might have the rough sex-from-behind scene between Spader and Unger--just because Cronenberg's dialogue in that scene gets really, REALLY sick. Can you imagine being Cronenberg himself and asking Deborah Unger to say things like "would you sodomize him", etc.?

There's actually a lot of sex from behind/anal sex in the movie, which had me looking around for reasons until I found a quote by Cronenberg himself, in Sight & Sound, in which he explains:

It´s the choice I made. I liked the way it looked. It felt right, getting both the actors looking towards the camera and not at each other. It helped that sort of 'disconnected' thing. It´s been suggested that I´m obsessed with asses, but I like everything, you know. I don´t think I´m too overly obsessed with asses. It´s more, "How do you have sex when you´re not quite having sex with each other?" That kind of thing.

Huh. I then found a feminist article by Barbara Creed, in which she charges of the film:

Woman´s desires merge with those of the man/car - but this opposite is not true. There is no parallel scene in which man takes the place of woman for another woman. Nor is there a scene in which lesbian desire - or any form of female desire - is explored convincingly in relation to Vaughan´s erotics of the wounded body. Crash thus speaks male, not female, desire; its visual style is brilliant, its subject matter is confrontational but its sexual politics are phallocentric. If, as Vaughan argues, the crash is truly liberating, or fertilizing event, then ideally it should be liberating for both sexes.

Again... huh. But it's all a testament to the divisive power of this film.

SFF said...

"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."

You're right. Cronenberg challenges us.

I really enjoyed your observations. It was great to read an analysis on this film. I remember seeing this when it came out and it was disturbing, yet I did enjoy it.

Chris said...

Adam - I was so caught up in my head about the connection between Cronenberg's adaptations of Naked Lunch and Crash I never even thought about Spieilberg's similar move - that is fascinating!

I agree it's a very uncomfortable film to sit through at times, and that it's as much due to the dialog as the visuals. I think the choice of sexual positions makes a lot of sense in the context of the film - these people are not so much interested in connecting with each as they are with some quasi-unobtainable Nirvava, so why look at each other in the eye?

Thanks for the comment - it stands as a great addition to the blogathon on its own!

Sci-Fi Fanatic - thanks for the kind words...I was very disturbed and consequently not very appreciative of the film when I saw it on its release, perhaps due to being young and admittedly not very knowledgeable about film at the time. I think the distance from all the controversy helps the film stand on its own two legs (or wheels, or whatever), and I'm glad you found a liking for the film, too!

Tony Dayoub said...

Chris and Adam, I'd just like to counter the notion that either Cronenberg or Spielberg used "a J.G. Ballard novel as a springboard into a new phase of [their careers]." I would argue both began one film earlier with Spielberg's THE COLOR PURPLE, and Cronenberg with DEAD RINGERS.

Chris said...

Tony - I thought long and hard about that. The reason I discounted DEAD RINGERS (although I still think it's an excellent movie, and in some ways better overall than Crash) as the "flag" was its connections (small admittedly) to the horror genre, specifically the nightmarish gynecological tools and the more dream-like imagery - both factors feel more indebted to overt horror than something like Crash, which feels completely in this world, like his most recent work.

That being said, I can definitely see an argument where CRASH couldn't exist without DEAD RINGERS.

Chris said...

Also, I should just come out right now and shamefully admit I've never seen THE COLOR PURPLE. I've heard so many arguments for and against it as a film - is it worth the look?

Tony Dayoub said...

I see what you mean, Chris, but all of the horror imagery is drug-fueled as opposed to it being "genuine" in his earlier films.

THE COLOR PURPLE is flawed and maybe not the wisest film for a white man to tackle given its subject matter, but it's definitely worth seeing. I enjoy it every time I watch it.

Unknown said...

Excellent analysis of this challenging film! I remember seeing this and thinking, Wow, James Spader really has a thing for thought-provokingly kinky sexual movies. There's CRASH and, of course, SEX, LIES & VIDEOTAPE and then SECRETARY. He really is not afraid to go out there and challenge traditional representation of sexuality. Same goes for Cronenberg with so many of his film right from his early films (RABID, THE BROOD, etc.) and right on up to CRASH which is such a perverse but fascinating film.

Anyways, great write-up! I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Chris said...

J.D. - Thanks, and right back at you, re: your excellent NAKED LUNCH post, which rather than comment on here, I'll do so on your own thread.