David Cronenberg's Crash is a film about desperate people in a situation that is beyond desperate. It is, according to J.G. Ballard's introduction to his source novel, a work of pornography, but also a cautionary tale, as well as a political one. The automobile has long been a sexualized object, sports cars and gargantuan sports utility vehicles (rest in peaces, Hummers) viewed as displays of male insecurity and overcompensation, dilapidated, low-speed compacts the polar opposites of chick magnets. In how many films and television programs (including so-called reality series) have we seen gearheads treating their rides with more care than they ever show a significant other, or a group of ready and willing ladies who get off on nice motorcycles and fast cars? Crash takes this idea to the extreme, crafting an underworld below the excessive tedium of driving in a traffic-stuffed world where people respond not simply to cars but to car wrecks. It's the sort of fucked-up premise that screamed for an adaption by David Cronenberg long before he signed onto the project, but it's still surprising just how thoroughly he adapts the source material while fleshing out themes and styles that mark his auterial preoccupations and approach.
Of course, one cannot simply leap into so out-there a concept as the sexuality of car crashes, so Cronenberg eases us into the story by opening, separately, on the Ballards: Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) stands in an airplane hangar having sex with a man, while her commercial-producing husband, James (James Spader), boinks a camera girl in his office. Later that day, the married couple engage in sex with each other, without any of the passion of the illicit couplings, intensifying only when they describe their affairs to each other.
On his way home another night, James looks at some storyboards while driving and crashes head-on with another car. Like all the crashes seen in the film, it's over in a flash. The man driving the other car dies instantly, and James looks out to see the driver's wife (Holly Hunter) staring at him intensely. She reaches for her seat belt and instead rips open her dress an exposes a breast. Is this accidental, the result of a dazed attempt to remove a seat belt, or is she a member of the warped section of society we meet later? Cronenberg leaves clues when James and the woman, Dr. Remington, later forge a sexual bond through their experience, and Remington's sexual encounters -- on- and off-screen -- in cars makes clear her infatuation with the fetish.
But there's always a bit of mystery in the character, thanks to Hunter's constant look of shellshocked confusion; you're never quite sure to what extent she participates in these activities out of awakened lust and how much she might simply be too stunned to do otherwise. She, like the rest of the actors, is perfectly casted: Unger effortlessly projects an air of detachment, while Spader has long been a symbol of sexual perversity (that sounds odder written down than it does in my head) and moral erosion in such films as sex, lies & videotape and Less Than Zero. He plays a character who simply cannot exist in the real world, not because I am too prudish to accept or even comprehend the fetish that drives these poor souls but because of the nature of Spader's character.
In order to figure out what about car wrecks so excites them, James and Remington make their way to a secret exhibition run by Vaughan (Elias Koteas), whom we met earlier posing as a medical photographer taking loving pictures of James' leg brace. Vaughn restages "classic" car crashes such as James Dean's death for a small but dedicated crowd of crash enthusiasts sitting in bleachers hollering as if NASCAR fans got turned on by all the wrecks they hope to see. James and Remington immerse themselves fully into this sub-section of society, and soon they peruse photographs of crash sites and view crash test footage as if viewing pornography.
The camera frames these characters in flattened compositions, completely removing us from any possibility of a connection with the people on the screen. Likewise, the score, which alternates between ethereal strings and a demonic electric guitar that makes Neil Young's Dead Man soundtrack sound like a collection of Billy Joel songs, distances us further. That the car crashes are over so quickly is the grand irony of the film considering the extent to which the characters fetishize them, and even as Cronenberg glides his camera smoothly over the aftermath of the wrecks, we cannot understand what about this carnage so excites Vaughan and his followers. Vaughan claims that he sees his fascination with crashes as a means to examine the "reshaping of the human body by modern technology" (a common theme in Cronenberg's films, highlighted in the still-ahead-of-its-time Videodrome and the creature feature The Fly), and in this sense we can view the characters' hangups with the mutilation of car wrecks and the detached direction as reflections of the corrupting influence of increasing coldness in the world due to our fascination with gadgets and gizmos. The eroticization of ripped metal and torn bodies speaks to the growing cult devoted to the worship of all the capitalist idols erected around us.
In the end, though, it's all about the sex, and even Vaughan admits it. He chases the thrill of a good crash because it offers an intensity that transcends sexuality. Indeed, both Remington and James experiment with homosexual affairs in the heat of the moment. The wounds and scars do not typically bleed, and for all the horrific wounds these characters suffer we only see a bit of the red stuff. These dry scars become both reminders of the sexual thrill and representatives of the emptiness of the passion they conjure. One of the crash fetishists, played by Rosanna Arquette, must wear braces on both legs,and she sports a scar on her leg that looks remarkably like a vulva, and James uses it as such in one of their sex sessions. There's nothing erotic about this, only disgusting and sad. Let us return to the nature with which Cronenberg films the crashes: as viewed from the erotic angle, the brevity and instant intensity of the wrecks serves as a sexual release. Vaughan and James tease out their crashes, tailgating and swerving behind intended targets as if acting out foreplay and sex. But actual ejaculation, the moment when all the pain builds to its full climax, lasts less than a second. So, the equation of violence with sex, of Vaughan's belief that a crash is a "fertilizing" act instead of a destructive one, makes for some oddball pornography, but for all the naughty bits on display in the film, is it reasonable to call something porn when it eschews titillation for confrontation?
Crash caused a bit of a firestorm when it premiered, accused by some critics and audience members as exploitative filth. But in an artistic world that constantly weighs the merits of sex and violence in debates of censorship and public acceptability, can the film's reception be at least partially be explained by its commitment to erasing the distinction between the two? Besides, I don't see how anyone could argue that the film exploits any of its grisly -- but never gory -- imagery. It's too detached, too critical, too afraid of what it's showing to glorify anything we see. If anything, it can only look on helplessly as these characters (the ones still alive anyway) seal their fate in the end, as James and Catherine finally bond through a car crash. As James brushes his fingers lovingly over his wife's bruises and scrapes, he wistfully sighs, "Maybe next time." Cronenberg, so removed for the entire film, suddenly seems unsure of what to do, not in an artistic way but in the sense that someone confronted with a terrifying truth about an acquaintance does not immediately know what to do or say. James and Catherine have finally reached a stage of normalcy and love in their marriage through the least normal of circumstances, and their reunion is made possible only through the recognition that they will continue on their path until they kill themselves.