Crash (1996)

Dir. David Cronenberg. Starring James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas

This is a review of an NC-17 film and as such contains discussion of some topics which are better suited to mature readers.

There’s a scene a little more than halfway through the movie which defines Crash for me, one which sticks the film’s thumb firmly in the eye of several other movies which are blandly vanila by comparison. At this point, Ballard (Spader) has been sucked up into the world of the crash enthusiasts, becoming involved with them alongside his wife, Catherine (Unger) and sometimes lover, Helen (Holly Hunter). The king of the crash enthusiasts is Vaughan (Koteas), a lean man with scars all over his face and body. Vaughan is driving his old Lincoln around at night with Ballard in the passenger seat; the two of them are talking almost familiarly by now. Ballard has made a oddly funny comment calling the Kennedy assassination a sort of car crash, which Vaughan agrees with emphatically. “This is all very satisfying,” Ballard says. “I’m not sure I understand why.” Previously, Vaughan had traced for Ballard the roots of his crash enthusiasm: it came, he said then, from “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” This is the kind of thing which was interesting when people like Donna Haraway talked about the idea of contemporary cyborgs in the ’80s. Even in the mid-late ’90s, this sort of reshaping is interesting yet hardly original. By now, the reshaping of humans by technology is so commonplace that the people who decry the proliferation of screens, for example, are given the same looks as horse-and-buggy fans in the 1920s. When Vaughan drops a new phrase, referring to car crashes as “liberation of sexual energy,” Ballard’s a little confused. What happened to the reshaping of human bodies by modern technology, he wonders. Vaughan scoffs kindly. “That’s just a crude sci-fi concept,” Vaughan replies. “It floats on the surface and doesn’t threaten anybody.” Thus does Cronenberg raise up both middle fingers and stake his turf. He’s planting his flag here, in the movie about people who get off via car wrecks. In the face of this sort of boldness, even good films – The Matrix, Tron, Logan’s Run, even Apollo 13 – seem trite. Technology changes people. Sure. Sometimes it even threatens them. But Crash dares to be so much more aggressive than virtually every other film which considers how people and technology interact. It doesn’t make it a great film, necessarily, but it builds strength in the movie’s blood. Crash is powerfully provocative: it makes us think and recoil simultaneously.

I don’t pretend to be a Cronenberg expert. This is only the third film of his that I’ve seen, and it’s by far the earliest. (My reviews of A Dangerous Method and A History of Violence can be found elsewhere on this website.) Yet a running thread which I’m able to see in his work, beyond the wild sex or the remarkable violence, is this need for scientific accounting, deriving as much pleasure from that as from the copulation or carnage. A Dangerous Method is self-explanatory in this way, as its principals are all old-school psychologists by the end of the film; A History of Violence turns Tom/Joey’s ability to beat large numbers of people into puddles of ectoplasm into a rapid, yet traceable, series of motions. Tom/Joey’s cognition about killing is what’s fascinating, not the actual act thereof. In Crash, Vaughan has an encyclopedic knowledge of car crashes. He lives in his car, as we find out, but he has a workspace outside of it where he keeps great ledgers of photographs of wrecked cars, photographs of their bloodied and bruised (and occasionally dead/dying) passengers, videotapes of crash dummy footage. One of the film’s funniest sequences – and Crash lives for humor so dark you can’t believe you’re laughing – features Helen fighting with a video cassette to make it continue playing, winning, and then sitting down and grabbing the groins of the people on either side of her. Our second introduction to Vaughan, and first by name, occurs when he and two other men recreate the James Dean crash without seat belts, helmets, or roll cages. The scene itself is totally electric. The realization of “Oh my word, they are really going to do this” is a head rush. Vaughan’s introduction to the crash, as is fitting for any six seconds of terror to follow, is lengthy and dramatic. His voice is breathy; if Vaughan’s interest was taxidermy, he would be profoundly campy. “That guy’s gotta see us,” he repeats; apparently these were Dean’s last words. This appears to be something of a hobby for Vaughan, who intends to recreate that Jayne Mansfield crash some other time. (He finds his friend killed on the highway one night, with a bloodied blonde wig next to him. In a moment even more darkly funny than the aforementioned Helen vignette, Vaughan cries out his epiphany: “You couldn’t wait for me? You did the Mansfield crash without me!”)

In one scene, while Ballard is driving Vaughan’s bloodied car through a car wash later that night, Vaughan and Catherine go at it in the back seat. It might be the most frightening sex scene ever put on film. Catherine is a healthy looking woman who, amusingly enough, opens the film by having sex leaned up on the wing of an airplane. (I couldn’t help but laugh; Cronenberg knows what half his audience is going to come for once they find out what it’s about, and he begins in an aircraft hangar instead of a garage.) Earlier in the film, she manages to get herself off primarily by talking through sex with Ballard, wondering about the salinity of one of Vaughan’s bodily fluids. She doesn’t find out here, though it’s her best shot to have done so as far as we know. Vaughan is very much in control of this encounter. Cronenberg focuses especially on his hands, which are gray. The grayness of his skin, the ever-present scarring, the toothy kissing: all of it is very much like if Frankenstein’s monster was in the back seat of the car, and Catherine reacts much the same way. Vaughan will die in a car wreck later on, which we all saw coming, but he is mostly dead and ambulatory now. Ballard watches without screaming, somehow. When he and Catherine get home, he places his fingers over the yellow-orange bruises which Vaughan leaves on her inner thigh.

Ballard spends a lot of his time watching. More and more frequently throughout the movie he drives as someone goes at it in the back seat of a car. By the midway point he is consuming as much vehicular pornography as anyone else in the crash enthusiast community. This is not uncommon even for those of us with blander tastes, which I imagine includes the vast majority of folks. Yet Ballard is a little different; he loves watching an especially violent sort of activity, to liberate his sexual energy. Cronenberg, to his credit, does not spend much of his time indicting anyone for what they say or do; probably he recognizes that his viewers will make those judgments for themselves without his help. As Ballard witnesses his nth sexual encounter (and bow howdy, this movie has more sex scenes than I thought were possible in a narrative film) or high point based on the kind of violence most of us hope never to involve ourselves in, I couldn’t help but wonder at how many of us yearn to witness violence in other forms. The year after Crash entered theaters, Titanic broke all box office records by telling the story of a maritime disaster beyond the pale and indulging in the deaths of 1,500 innocent people. Two years after CrashSaving Private Ryan was renowned for its gory, if realistic, opening sequence. Less than ten years after Crash debuted, The Passion of the Christ would open and become the highest-grossing R-rated movie in cinema history; we couldn’t even take our religion without the red stuff. Cronenberg doesn’t condemn any of his characters for the way they get off, but he sure as heck finds a way to make his viewers condemn themselves.


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