In a serendipitous moment last week, having narrowed myself down to two choices, Frank Tashlin’s Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter or Cronenberg’s Crash, I found a connection between the unlikely pair. As the existence of this article might hint, that night I opted to let Cronenberg once again take the reins but, within his controversial, psycho-sexual drama, a key scene is derived from the real-life death of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield, Tashlin’s female lead. It only reinforces the core tenets of Crash, the ubiquity of celebrity, technology and the mythos we so enjoy enveloping them both in.
Opening in tremendously ominous fashion, the metallic letters of the credits slowly pull towards the screen, some bearing disfiguration – twisted and damaged from some unseen altercation. Frequent Cronenberg collaborator, Howard Shore, plays his unsettling theme over affairs, a jangling, discordant concoction that gently develops a deep sense of unease. The blue of the title screen suffuses the film, becoming the chromatic foundation of the entire exercise. Within a few minutes, the stage is set. Without a hint of exposition or reference (aside, one might admit, from crediting J.G. Ballard as the author of the original source material) we know that what will follow will be cold, subdued and discomforting.
Our two protagonists, a married couple, are introduced in separate locations but both are indulging in the same act. Sporting the surname of the original author*, James Ballard (James Spader) is a director who finds himself sexually entangled with a technician in the props room. Elsewhere his wife Catherine (the statuesque Deborah Kara Unger, a perfect casting coup), a pilot in training, indulges in more than just matters of aviation with her instructor, pressed against the steel trim of a plane’s wing. Later the two reunite, not to conceal the details of their day but instead to fully recount them to one another. The two find themselves dissatisfied, not just with each other but with their chosen lovers. Only by recounting their extra-marital affairs can they muster up excitement to fuel their own bouts of coitus.
Acting as a transformational catalyst, Ballard finds a new world opening up to him when his car bounds over the median and smashes headlong into an oncoming vehicle. The crash injures him and kills the driver of the other car leaving behind the widow, Helen Remington (Holly Hunter). She will be the one to introduce James and Catherine to the mysterious Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Vaughan is obsessed with car crashes, the injuries they wreak and the possibilities they hold. With a small group of followers he re-stages famous car wrecks – the death of James Dean in his ‘Little Bastard’ Porsche and the aforementioned grisly end of Ms. Mansfield. Joining his group, also featuring Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), the various actors find themselves engaging in increasingly risky behavior, sublimating the sexual into steel. While Vaughan becomes more aggressive, his sinister charisma suggestive of some kind of incarnation of Charles Manson as a sexual therapist, it would seem that everyone involved understands the price of their obsession. The entire point of the exercise is to enamour death.
Adapting Ballard’s controversial novel seems utterly natural for Cronenberg. If anything, it’s surprising he didn’t make this film sooner, so closely does the text conform to his personal themes and outlooks. One wonders what differences an adaptation by a younger Cronenberg might make. This question comes to light not because what we have now is somehow lacking but rather because the film we have now is decidedly different from his more confrontational, visceral early-to-middle work. For all its controversy, Cronenberg’s film is toned down from the original book. Sequences such as the sexual penetration of a woman’s thigh wound are here only hinted at through the vulvar wound sported by Gabrielle – further fetishised with a fishnet stocking wrap. Cronenberg, to a degree, refrains from open indulgence in the book’s more radical imagery even as that same imagery finds reflection in his earlier work.
Crash then, is a good signifier of the shift in craft that Cronenberg managed in the final few years of the 1980s and on through the next decade. With his earliest work, the most visceral, he dabbled openly in genre cinema and fully embraced the tropes of horror cinema. One need only recall the zombie hordes of his fabulous feature debut Shivers (aka They Came From Within) or the sexual vampirism of his less-than-fabulous second feature, Rabid (aka Rage) to recognise how closely he stayed to easily marketable formulas while finding expression for his own concerns**. With Videodrome he reached the apogee of this period and began searching out new details in his fascination for man’s intermingling with machine and the machinery of the body’s own designs. Eventually, his chosen study of the body evolving and/or mutating would develop a decidedly psychological tinge, resulting in a key career highpoint in Dead Ringers. Even further along, even after Crash, Cronenberg would eschew entirely his typical technique of depicting aberrations in human pathology manifesting themselves physically with another career highpoint, the quietly tragic, Spider. These days Cronenberg seems to be developing a social/ethical edge to his work with varying degrees of success. A History of Violence generally held up while Eastern Promises couldn’t help but seem ham-fisted and overly concerned with exposition.
Located somewhere in this transitional period, where the psychological has taken the foreground but physical deformity has not yet fully relinquished its hold, lies Crash – for better or worse, unashamedly a film of surface. Ironically it is its apparent superficiality that provides the key to its inner-workings. It provokes response based on that necessity rather than precluding further investigation. The focus on surface is fundamental – flesh and metal, folding, enveloping and meshing as one. Although they’re easy to overlook, two major figures have helped to cement Cronenberg’s stature as one of the most impressive film artists working today and nowhere more than here do their contributions take absolute centre-stage. I’m speaking of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and composer Howard Shore. I’ve already mentioned Shore’s eerie score, a triumph and a cornerstone of the unfolding drama, but Suschitsky’s glacial visuals also require reference. Both men had cemented themselves as Cronenberg regulars before this project. Suschitsky’s inaugural project with Cronenberg was the quite remarkable Dead Ringers and that film—and the cinematographer’s contribution—set the tone for much of the director’s later work. With a palette that favoured primary colours, blues interspersed with violent swathes of red, it’s hard to imagine Dead Ringers, M. Butterfly and, above all else, Crash without Suschitsky’s evocations.
It is not just the colour scheme that defines the film but also the careful positioning of the camera within. Accenting the lifeless, anemic performances of the main characters, the camera hovers around them, never penetrating into their experiences. As they drive their cars or couple within them, the camera usually remains outside, often observing through the vehicle’s window. It renders us spectator and perhaps unwilling conscience to unfolding events. The surgical cleanliness of certain features, the chrome of leg braces or the geometrically perfect bobbed haircut and pristine white coat of Remington, combine with rugged, sensual attributes, none more so than the labial folds of twisted metal each collision leaves behind. As Remington caresses these undulations she leaves her gloves on. Surface, touch, contact, resistance, everything tactile is what fuels this film more so than the often bemused lines of dialogue uttered by the cast. Lines invariably delivered in hushed tones, as if they were worried someone might overhear or gain an insight into their person.
Crash seeks to outline a theoretical exponent of modern alienation. Ballard (the author) posed in his original text, why do we allow these mechanisms, cars, which can cause so much destruction, so much room in our daily lives? Cronenberg jumps off from that idea, of our dependence on these machines and our fascination in how they can change us. As he stares out at the highway from his apartment balcony, Ballard (the character) wonders, “Is there more traffic now?” Visually there would seem to be, as compared with similar shots found earlier in the film, but we’re really not given enough information to form a complete answer. Perhaps he only notices now, as he recognizes his own growing dependence upon them, the constant flow of cars by his house. Seeking to rejoin society, Ballard finds the once-typical act of driving a source of tension. The act hasn’t changed, nor have the cars around him, an endlessly migrating civilisation that consume vast swathes of our world’s landmass. What has changed is his relationship with this once-normal act. He now recognises the alien nature of our dependence, our unassuming marriage with these machines. Such is Ballard’s, and thusly Cronenberg’s, vision of the car as a new vessel for human emotion and interaction.
Vaughan philosophises further, allowing Cronenberg a quick jab at himself. Originally the character states that his field of interest is, “the transformation of the human body through modern technology,” but he later recants, stating that that was, “just a ruse.” His real interest lies in the explosive sexual potential of colliding bodies, of car accidents. No matter how you dress it up, Vaughan slyly insinuates, it’s really all about orgasms. This meta-referential nod is perhaps the film’s sole recourse to humour***. Nodding disapprovingly, many might dismiss this film and Cronenberg’s larger oeuvre based on that very notion. Nonetheless, while Crash at times feels like it’s wearing its material thin, it remains a strangely sensual and compelling package.
The strange paraphilia depicted within branches out into more immediately recognizable facets of our modern malaise. The legend of James Dean and the death of Jayne Mansfield provide reference points fusing celebrity culture, sexual appetite and rent steel. The apparent schism between these attributes is specifically what Ballard and Cronenberg seek to close. Here, the binding agent is the explosion of colliding bodies, as in M. Butterfly it was the protagonist’s fevered romance with a fictitious woman, idealised and projected onto a man. In attempting this they reflect our strange predilection for tragedy and the unfeasible.
Cronenberg’s film certainly took the media by surprise. The controversy that arose in its wake**** suggested that it drew uncomfortably close to the taboo. Unsurprisingly the tabloid press in the UK drew themselves up to their full hypocritical height and relentlessly condemned it. It may be that the seeming lack of a fully developed central thesis undercuts Cronenberg’s film. That suggests to some that it is merely exploitation and hyperbole. That misses the point, I think. With its winding narrative and full-bodied aesthetic, Cronenberg has created a what-if, a perchance, a perhaps-so, of a film. It sublimates the full frontal assault of Ballard’s original text into something ethereal and, in its finest moments, unapologetically erotic. It is a strange aside to the predicament of the modern human.
*A pseudo-biographical feature that is also found within Ballard’s original text.
**And those films were considerable domestic successes even as they provoked a certain degree of outrage in political departments who realised these rather unsettling, sexually and violently graphic films were produced in part through grants designed to spur on domestic Canadian cinema. So what if the grants were doing just that? Surely, politicians must have blindly hoped, Canada had nicer, more morally upstanding films to make?
***Although the sight of a dead man, sporting a blonde wig and a bustier complete with fake breasts, carries a certain grisly humour too. Also, just to throw it out there, the film certainly gives Gary Numan’s most famous song a whole new edge.
****Wikipedia expands on this Here with particular attention being focused on then-Daily Mail critic Christopher Tookey who called for boycotts and bans.