in Profiles | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33


Columbia TriStar, noarea

in Profiles | 04 MAR 97

Concerning a film producer (named Ballard) who, having survived a head-on collision, is gradually initiated into a mysterious group of car accident survivors who obsessively plan and re-enact crashes for their ultimate sexual pleasure, J.G. Ballard's 1973 Crash is a cult novel in more than one sense. But David Cronenberg's film adaptation is a model of cool austerity. Its multiple scenes of decorative, disconnected sex and erotic contemplation of injured bodies and shattered car forms are realised with stylised artifice and art-movie severity. If this is a film about cars, fucking and violence, then it's about them as states of mind. Cronenberg is no moralist - his films have always fused the calm rigour of scientific research with the visceral shock of transgression.

Parodying Western culture's symbiotic relationship to and psychic dependency on the automobile (with all its sexual connotations), Crash (1996) grounds its elliptical, dreamlike narrative in principles of interiorisation, suspension and inertia. The car ceases to be a mechanism for travel and communication and becomes a prop in the performance of rites of erotic self-destruction, a perversion of the fantasies of freedom, enclosure and invulnerability the car represents. Crash unleashes the repressed carnal forces of a multitude of sleek, soothing car commercials.

America may have long since traded in the drive-in movie for the theme park ride as the preferred metaphor for cultural spectacle, but Crash conflates the technologies of the cinema and the automobile, both of which emerged about 100 years ago, to produce a characteristic Cronenberg mutation - the car as mobile movie theatre, its windshield a screen on which is projected the rapture of disintegration. Triangulating death-trip satire, the pathos of marital estrangement, and sci-fi transgression, its through-the-looking-glass narrative smoothly cruises an urban night landscape that evokes the erotic dread of the unconscious. When its husband and wife protagonists finally re-emerge into the light of day from the crash-fetishist underworld, there is no release, no breaking of the spell, no reaffirmation of domestic/marital order - they have been irreversibly transformed, implanted with a self-destruct programme.

Cronenberg certainly has a long established penchant for surreal, authentically disturbing horror/sci-fi conceits, from the telepathically exploded heads and popping eyes of Scanners (1980) to the mysterious vaginal orifice in James Woods' chest which receives and discharges video cassette and assassin's gun alike in Cronenberg's magnum opus, Videodrome (1982). Jeremy Irons' vicariously symbiotic twin gynaecologists in Dead Ringers (1988) are the first of a succession of co-dependent Cronenbergian marriages that encompass junkie William Burroughs and his accidentally slain wife in Naked Lunch (1991), the self-deluded diplomat and transvestite Chinese opera singer in M. Butterfly (1993) and now James Spader's Ballard and his vacant trophy wife in Crash. If Cronenberg has made it his business to probe the murky and fertile crevices of the psyche in the early 'pure' genre movies and the subsequent, more arty psychodramas alike, it's still difficult to see what exactly is so shocking about this film. It's equally impossible to deny that for it to have provoked the moral outcry that it has in the UK, Crash must strike a nerve somewhere deep in the Establishment's psyche.

As so often with 'problem' films, it's partly a question of aesthetics - specifically Cronenberg's dazzling, almost oppressive formal control. Ballard's first-person narrative is both episodic and relentlessly stream-of-consciousness, its incantatory language fixated on rehearsing a fantastically morbid rhetoric and morphology of human and automotive interaction. Ballard's recapitulation of his characters' imagined scenarios of exaltation through impact, disfigurement and sexual violation isn't attempted in the film. Cronenberg's de-personalising sensibility is too clinical, detached and ordering for such promiscuous mayhem; his set-ups and cutting have never been more inhumanely deliberate and exact. This exquisitely sombre film's subdued, metallic designs, stark electric guitar score, insinuating camera movement and dazed, trance-like acting maintain a tone of chilled, dreamlike suspension and attenuation with the narration determinedly disjunctive from scene to scene.

As a car aficionado and sometime vintage Formula One racer, perhaps Cronenberg's offence is that he adapts the dissociative elegance and visual ingenuity of the state-of-the-art car commercial to the impersonality and episodic monotony of pornographic video. The synthesis evokes crash fetishism - equal parts S&M underground, trainspotter enthusiasm and consumerist chic. Warhol clearly sensed these glamour-sex-death connections in his car wreck silk-screens. Inspecting a crash site tableau vivant with a connoisseur's eye, Vaughan (the leader of the crash survivors) marvels that 'this is a work of art'. Earlier Vaughan has performed in a clandestine stunt car re-enactment of the James Dean death crash. (Reinforcing the Warhol association, the book's Vaughan is meticulously planning a fatal head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor's car.)

More fundamentally, as a character in Videodrome observes about a mysterious S&M snuff transmission, 'it has a philosophy... and that is what makes it dangerous': Crash traffics with irrational and anti-social impulses, yet is articulated with a kind of rational, indulgent objectivity, as if Kubrick had directed a Buñuel screenplay. And, as ever, Cronenberg's propositions are unnerving: the compulsion to dissolve the boundaries between individuals and their imprisoning subjectivities, the submergence of self in extreme, unimaginable forms of communion, self-reinvention as Other - the urge to merge - permeates the Cronenberg oeuvre in the form of telepathy, shared identity or obsession and mass abandon to the most basic impulses. Crash's prevailing spiritual malaise and near-death trauma-induced transformation harks back to Cronenberg's first feature, Shivers (1974), also set in a world of numbing urbanism and which posited its condo inhabitants' infection with aphrodisiac parasites as a collective liberation from their repressed existences. Perhaps more than Ballard, Cronenberg adopts a value-neutral attitude, like a good scientist: for him Crash's band of outsiders are taking a logical evolutionary leap forwards in a post-technological environment; transcending society's limited definitions of selfhood, they rush headlong towards death and identity's dissolution.