CRASH

Directed and written by David Cronenberg

Starring James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter and Rosanna Arquette

***1/2

The word must be said. CRASH is "controversial." Awarded a "special prize for audacity" last year at Cannes, banned in several English cities and denounced by Ted Turner, the owner of its distributor, Fine Line Features, it opened in the U.S. after having already played Canada and most of Europe. Faithfully based on J. G. Ballard's 1973 cult novel, CRASH centers on a group of characters who sexually fetishize car crashes: James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife (Deborah Kara Unger) are introduced to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the group's heavily scarred ringleader, and Gabriele (Rosanna Arquette) by Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) after James kills Dr. Remington's husband and injures her in a car accident.

The NC-17 rating is certainly earned. However, Crash is bound to disappoint anyone expecting an exact translation of Ballard's loving descriptions of genital mutilations. Despite its reputation, it's far from being one of the most violent and/or sexually explicit films ever made. The horny, impressionable teens who populate Ted Turner's nightmares are far more likely to walk out after half an hour once they realize they're not watching a porno than to find themselves suddenly aroused by car crashes. The sex scenes, although plentiful and perverse, are not particularly explicit, and there is little on-screen violence. The rape scene in SHOWGIRLS is infinitely more offensive than anything in CRASH. It's obvious that nothing scares the guardians of public morality more than taking sex or violence seriously. Casual, bloodless violence doesn't really raise anyone's ire; attempting to communicate the experiences of bodies in pain is another matter altogether.

Another word must be said: "tenderness." It's present in director David Cronenberg's slow pans and tracking shots, in the way he finds visual analogies for the diffuseness of boundaries between humans and machinery and in the film's slow, hushed pace. It's even present in some of the sex scenes.As Cronenberg himself suggests, the sci-fi aspects of CRASH come more from the characters' psychology than from any visual evocation of a future world. If James, Catherine and their friends initially appear vacant and affectless, it quickly becomes apparent that their personalities are a bit more complex than that. Rather than being emotionally dead, they have an enormous ability to aestheticize pain, even (and especially) their own.

For Cronenberg, personality exists on a moment-to-moment basis, and its roots are well-hidden. The film's minimalist approach to character is a bit reminiscent of Robert Bresson's use of the blank faces of non-performers and fragmented close-ups of gestures to suggest hidden depths of spiritual intensity. Cronenberg's screenplay omits anything resembling a backstory, and leaves out much of the book's social context. Vaughan's fascination with celebrity deaths is only touched on (in a bizarre scene where he restages James Dean's car accident in front of a live audience); his obsession with imagining Elizabeth Taylor's death has been completely elided. As CRASH goes on, it begins to seem more and more mysterious. A number of questions emerge: why do these people act this way? Why do they wear their sexuality on their sleeves and keep their emotions buried?

In the past, one sometimes sensed two Cronenbergs battling it out: a pansexual anarchist and a distanced, Puritanical conservative. At present, the anarchist seems to be winning the battle. Cronenberg's films have often been attacked by both conservatives and leftists. The ways in which they challenge conservative ideas about sexuality are quite obvious; the connections CRASH makes between Eros and Thanatos and its suggestion of the fatal consequences of fulfilling one's fantasies are challenging to "sex-positive" notions about the inherently liberating power of sexuality. However, it's a bit facile to suggest that CRASH blames its characters' problems on loveless promiscuity or the abuse of technology. Rather, these are creative, if dangerous, responses to a cold, alienating world. Although the film is never very erotic, it's far more seductive than the book's endless procession of flat, clinical sex scenes. Despite Vaughan's near-psychopathic behavior, he's not without a certain charisma and beauty, undiminished by the masses of scars on his face and body. Although Gabriele is a relatively minor character, she's a particularly refreshing one: a "disabled" woman who uses her full-body rubber support suit and leg braces as a means of flaunting her sexuality.

CRASH doesn't offer many safe identification points. Although it's certainly a dark film, it doesn't wallow in nihilism or adolescent notions of "transgression." By the end, two things become clear. First, James and Catherine are genuinely in love: with each other, with cars, and with Vaughan, Helen and Gabriele. Second, they are probably destined to die very soon. Neither of those points cancels the other one out. The surviving characters are unlikely to see the error of their ways and run off to join a 12-step group. This is bound to strike some as amoral. On the contrary, it seems to me that Cronenberg's project is a profoundly moral one: to get the audience to recognize ourselves in a point of view whose values are likely to be alien (indeed, repulsive) to us. At a time when so many films specialize in flattering the audience's complacency and smugness, it's not only a moral project, but an increasingly rare one.

Originally published in slightly different form in THE EXHIBITIONIST #1.