Crash (1996) writ. and dir. David Cronenberg (adapted from the novel Crash by J.G. Ballard, pub. Jonathan Cape, 1973) cine. Peter Suschitzky music. Howard Shore star. James Spader (Ballard), Debra Unger (Catherine), Holly Hunter (Helen Remington), Vaughan (Elias Koteas), Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette)
crash: the re-invention of lust
What was James Dean's greatest scene? His raked '46 Ford chicken run in Rebel Without A Cause or the car crash that took his life while driving his Porsche Spyder to a race in Salinas, California, back in 1955?
The plot of Crash is simple: a young TV ad director, James Ballard (Spader), falls in with an avant-garde theatre group led by a former expert in computerized traffic systems called Vaughan (Koteas), who stages clandestine re-enactments of the crash-deaths of famous media icons such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. The reinvention of Antonin Artaud (Theatre of Cruelty)and/or Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (The Futurist Manifesto) as a bi-sexual lunatic who uses his car -- a '62 Lincoln Continental, Kennedy assassination model -- as a phallic bondage weapon of pleasure and pain, is only one of several totemic characterizations in this sex and death montage of humans entering the Cyborg Era of evolution.
There is James Ballard, sexual drifter, movie director and post-modernist totem for the author of the brilliant and prophetic novel on which this movie is based. Ballard has never made a secret of his use of trauma in his fiction. "All my characters are trying to escape whatever situation they find themselves in... their way out is to construct a kind of psychosis which dramatizes their own predicament...." (J.G.B, 1998) The mythology behind the statement is as personal as it is existential, as meaningful as it is meaningless. The evolution of narrative art into autobiographical formalism isn't something Ballard or Cronenberg invented; or even Henry Miller (Tropic) or Frederico Fellini (82).
Cronenberg quickly establishes tonality with the opening credits (metallic software fonts whose sheer angles contain occasional dents in a sly anticipation of the bent story to come) and the neoclassical funeral score of 13th chords (whose metallic shimmers are like the movement of prosthetic limbs). The first sequence is in an aircraft hangar, the camera slowly navigating the glossy fuselages of the parked aircraft like a stalker before closing in on Catherine Ballard pressing her exposed nipple against a wing, her sexual ritual aided by an anonymous lover (her flight instructor) who sensualizes her from behind.
Those familiar with the erotic fashion photography of Helmut Newton (White Women, 1976) immediately recognize the influence, if not the rip-off. Newton's presence in the art direction becomes obvious as we see more sex scenes using his favorite mise en scenes of automobiles, balconies, city-scapes, the sex organs of beautiful women exposed in homage to their environment as much as for the pleasure of their lovers or the phantom audience for whom they are continually performing. It's the sexual landscape of the voyeur, where the participants are lost in a solipsist masturbation of the Self.
Cut To: Ballard at the film studio, having it off with an oriental girl in a back room.
Cut To: Catherine on the balcony of the condo watching the traffic on the freeway, her ass exposed as Ballard joins her
Cut To: Ballard driving on the freeway, his head-on crash with the Remingtons
Cut To: close-up of a steel leg splint, Ballard in hospital -- the cyborg transfer of man into car, human into machine, underway
Catherine: (low) There's not much action here...
She proceeds to masturbate Ballard, unaware of the irony in her statement, and the chain of events her husband's car crash has initiated. It's in the hospital that he meets his next lover, Helen Remington, and his next guru, Vaughan. Vaughan is masquerading as a technician in order to secure photographs of crash victims for his portfolio.
When he goes to the parking lot to recover his car, Ballard encounters Remington (Hunter). She's a recurrent character in J.G.B's fiction, the fantasy professional woman who in the novel is a doctor, but in the movie an Immigration Officer. She's wearing a white coat which has the coiffure of a Calvin Klein creation, a lab coat rendered chic for the surgically hip. They drive to the airport, have sex in the front seat, the injured Ballard getting pumped back to life by the spastic assault of this widowed beauty... who, like all the characters in this movie, is now living in an accelerated state of erotic tension, as if stoned on the brutalist industrial architecture and the retinal strobe of the cars on the freeway.
"Everything that acts is a cruelty" (Artaud)
Cut To: The Fatal Crash of James Dean, the most interesting scene in the movie, that is, the staging of the James Dean death crash by Vaughan and his partner Seagrave on a lonely road which just happens to have some bleachers for the small audience of Crash Theatre devotees. As Ballard and Remington watch, Vaughan recounts the details of the Dean accident in the reverent tones of a TV evangelist. He will play Dean's mechanic, while Seagrave will play Dean. Both climb into the Porsche, drive in one direction as the extra who plays Turnupseed (the young student whose car Dean hit) drives the Oldsmobile (script error? Turnupseed was driving a Ford) in the other. As they watch, the cars turn, accelerate towards one another, collide in front of the stands... are they dead? Injured, yes... but dead -- not yet.
Vaughan: (coming back to life) James Dean died of a broken neck and became immortal.
As sirens sound and the police arrive, Vaughan and Seagrave escape into the woods. Ballard and Remington follow.
They retire to a house beside an auto wrecking yard where Seagrave and Vaughan discuss their next play, the Jayne Mansfield crash (Mansfield was decapitated in the back seat of her Rolls when it collided with a truck). Vaughan shows Ballard his folio of crash photos as they share a joint.
Vaughan: It's a reshaping of the human body by technology.
Ballard: Do you see Kennedy's assassination as a special kind of car crash?
Vaughan: The case could be made.
They examine the Mansfield photos.
Vaughan: That's the future, Ballard, and you're already part of it... there's a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us... for example, the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible for any other form.... To experience that, to relive that -- that's my project.
Ballard: What about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology? I thought that was your project.
Vaughan: (dismissive) That's just a crude Sci Fi concept.
Now recruited, Ballard joins Vaughan as he picks up a hardbody hooker in a parking lot. As Vaughan and the hooker have sex in the back seat, Ballard drives the Lincoln -- a post-modern chauffeur in a pornographic universe. Catherine also falls under the influence of this "hoodlum scientist", also has sex with him in the back seat as Ballard drives the freeways. The fact that Vaughan previously attacked her with his car, tried to run her off the road, only serves to excite her further. In this curious world of the hunter and the hunted, it's difficult to separate sadist from masochist, perpetrator from victim, the undead from the dead.
When Vaughan sexes Catherine, it's like a rape and murder, the fulfillment of a fated movement in Nature. Later, as she lies naked and stunned in their condo, Ballard places his hand on her thigh, his print matching exactly the bruise left by Vaughan. As a narrative loop, the scene reverses the earlier one in the hospital when Ballard is recovering from his car crash.
the new voyeurism
Soon they are recklessly driving the freeway with Vaughan, come across an accident. Victims totter near the smoldering wrecks like zombies as firemen use power saws and hydraulic pliers to get at the trapped. Just as a vampire must have blood, Vaughan must have photos. As he investigates the crash site, he discovers that the main victim is Seagrave in transsexual disguise -- annoyed yet appreciative, Vaughan realizes Seagrave has done the Jayne Mansfield crash play without him.
Now Vaughan is fated for a final solution, and fully intends to make Ballard part of it.
The issue of murder versus suicide becomes moot in these acts of lunacy with their homosexual narcissism and heterosexual politics, and like Ballard, the viewer is radicalized into a new threshold of spectator cinema -- in this circus, who leaves the tent, who stays? With the globalization of illiteracy in favor of a neo-primitivist pictography of computer icons, TV and big screen movies, film drama becomes the artist's weapon of choice. Long associated with sensation rather than reason, the filmic articulation of sex and violence as an aesthetic becomes the true realization of The Theatre of Cruelty. Like Ferrara's Bad Lieutenant, Cronenberg's movie becomes part of the new voyeurism.
the cyborg: sex and prosthesis
Distracted by further kink sex with the cyborg Gabrielle (Arquette), Ballard neither cares about nor anticipates the movement from imitation into actualization. When he has intercourse with "the voluptuous cripple" in the back seat of the Lincoln parked in an auto wrecking yard, we are reminded of the play by the absurdist dramatist Fernando Arrabel and the alien paintings of Geiger. At Vaughan's suggestion, they visit a tattoo parlour and Ballard gets the Lincoln Continental cross engraved on his chest in a prophetic gesture whereby he becomes Vaughan's successor. Later he and Catherine are hunted on the freeway, rammed by Vaughan in a cyber-sexual frenzy as he loses control and crashes from the ramp onto a bus below, killing himself.
The final scene has Ballard ram-slamming Catherine's silver Miata sports car, flipping it onto the grassy embankment between the curvatures of the freeway system. As she lies damaged in the umbra of the overturned car, her husband tries to console her.
Ballard: Are you hurt?
Catherine: Think I'm alright.
Ballard: (fondling her) Maybe the next one, darling... maybe the next one...
They have sex as the camera draws back into a panorama view, then fades to black as a prelude to the production credits... and the public outcry that predictably follows.
It should be noted that in 1969 Ballard staged an exhibition of wrecked cars at The Institute for Contemporary Arts in London.
The ending, of course, is different from the novel although not in intent. In the novel, when Vaughan tries to run Ballard down (after they have sex), he eventually dies in pursuit of the film actress (Elizabeth Taylor) whom he has been stalking:
"I saw no more of Vaughan. Ten days later he died on the flyover as he tried to crash my car into the limousine carrying the film actress whom he had pursued for so long. Trapped within the car after it jumped the rails of the flyover, his body was so disfigured by its impact with the airline coach below that the police first identified it as mine..." (Crash, the novel)
While Ballard is a master of metaphor, Cronenberg skilfully makes up for the atmosphere of language with somber lighting and the melancholy tonality of the soundtrack. The internalized nature of the sets -- cars, parking lots, low-lit rooms, night scenes, wet pavements -- helps reinforce the anatomical metaphor that drives the novel. The characters converse in near-whispers, the dialogue flattened, isolated to maxims and irony.
This movie must seem prescient in terms of Princess Di's death in a car crash in the late summer of 1997. Yet there are some troubling things about the form, about the intellectual paradigm. What exactly is "a benevolent psychopathology"? (L.S.D?) Vaughan, for example, is about as benevolent as Casanova with Aids, or Jack Palance with an auto-mechanic's license.
It might be insolent to suggest that the action is too obscure at a key junction in the script. As it stands, the narrative is essentially four crashes (Ballard's, the Dean play, the Mansfield play, Ballard's wife's) chained together with ten or eleven sexual encounters. While the myth of James Dean is still quite current, and the dramatization gives us all we need to know, Jayne Mansfield's role seems obscure by comparison. It's as if there is missing scene (or scenes), needed exposition for a generation fixated on Madonna. And perhaps to substantiate some of the psychology, especially Ballard's.
Cronenberg concedes that the repetition of sex scenes polarizes the audience as "only in porno have people seen sequential sex scenes."
Despite the public outcry against the iconoclastic imagery and the techno-nihilism, Ballard himself is very happy with the dramatization. In a letter to Cronenberg he says, "In many ways it takes off where my novel ends, and is even more artistic and mysterious."
© LR 96/99
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