Crash (1996) (Reissue Review)

Cronenberg’s notorious adaptation of J.G Ballard’s equally notorious novel has been shocking and delighting audiences in equal measure for over twenty-five years. This extreme, transgressive – yet unnervingly existential – drama confronts the viewer with a journey into apparent depravity as it explores ever blurring lines between sex, death and destruction. It is a chaotic parable for the modern world that feels just as challenging – and unique – in 2020 as it did in 1996.

David Cronenberg shifts Ballard’s novel from the UK to the US – a smart decision and one that sharpens its critique of modernity and numbing capitalist-dystopia. The spirit of the book (a favourite of mine) is kept intact, alongside its more brilliant flourishes. One of the most wonderful, provocative touches of the novel is to have the protagonist’s name be the same as the author. It is a book that questions our relationship with fame and reality, that explores our inner extremities and taboo busting desires; this simple naming choice makes the whole thing feel so much more real, and therefore dangerous. This, of course, does not quite have the same effect in the film – though Cronenberg does have protagonist Ballard be involved in the movie business, and matches the character’s first name, James, with his actor, James Spader. This carries just enough of the meta-edge of the novel while still retaining the important link to the original author.

There is a fair amount of narrative crossover between film and book, though neither works gain their power through story. This adaptation captures the uncanny mood of the source text, translating its essence more completely than any straight adaptation could. Crash speaks through cinema, with dialogue often functioning transactionally: the feel of the words and the desires they disguise being more important than any literal meaning. The narrative is compelling though: a chronicling of a married couple’s descent (or ascent, perhaps) into a subculture based around the erotic appeal of car-crashes, and of re-enacting famous automobile accidents – the staging of the death of James Dean and the later staging of the death of Jayne Mansfield being twisted highlights. These moments really confront the viewer with our joint obsessions with sex and death: Dean and Mansfield being two sex-symbols famed for their deaths, through which – as the enigmatic Vaughn (the leader of the group of car-crash obsessives, and the character around which the plot revolves) declares – they gained ‘immortality’. Death is presented as some sinister destination, as a release and a relief, echoing back on the banality of existence. To live large and to exit in an explosion of violence becoming a concept the characters lust after.

This also makes us, as viewers, question our relationship with sex and violence on screen. Violence is core to so many films, pornographically so as it provides voyeuristic thrills – yet sex is a taboo. Cronenberg’s film is, in construction, very openly pornographic. It is full of artistically shot, explicit sex – and this sex is presented as an extension of our violent desires. This is a not a film about sexual violence, not at all, it is a film about destructive and violent impulses, about a want for power and control and how those wants link to our sexual desires and behaviours. The film presents modern life as numbing – convincingly so. We see shots filled with endless, monotonous traffic and we stick to industrial locals. The world of Crash, and by extension our world, is a grey, concrete dystopia populated by big, brash automobiles. Our only conventional locations are roads, brutalist concrete structures, soulless hospitals, airports, car parks and movie-sets (we do get a view of the underside of society, but even these locals are grimy and industrial as modernity provides no escape). This is presented as our day to day world: capitalistic, materialistic, and soul crushing modernity where technology has overtaken our lives. This is a familiar Cronenberg trope (the film even jokes about the science-fiction root of our fear that technology will consume us) but it is expressed very differently: the technological here is used to further the idea that society is machinelike.

Through visual language, and through snapshots of superfluous dialogue (before our characters escape, and their dialogue feels much more earnest. A terrific touch is the flat dialogue of our couple juxtaposed with the breathy, and expressive, voice of Elias Koteas’ Vaughan), society is presented as rote and repetitive, as a looping machine. Our needs have become so easy to satisfy: we start with shots of planes that have satiated our desire for flight; we have cars which satiate a want for speed and accessible travel; we even see stacks of pornography that represent how easy it has become to satiate our base pleasures. This prosaic gratification, in which the modern world has met our needs in the most clinical sense, is shown as deeply dystopic. It is akin to Huxley’s Brave New World in which the availability of generic pleasure leads to apathy. We are numbed by convenience, dulled by it and homogenised. The film starts with two sex scenes, both explicit and both framed as performance. These sex acts are semi-public, taking place in locations where those involved could so easily be disturbed. But, the potential for disturbance seems to be the real thrill – the actual sex seems more like process; again, life has been dulled to the rote and mechanical. We then find out that these two scenes were the Ballards engaging in affairs, that they then relate to each other at their home, quizzing each other on whether they really felt anything, as they try, desperately, to add spice not to their relationship but to their existence.

This is why the transgressions of Crash feel so powerful. When the leads discover an underworld of sex and violence, of erotic destruction, they are able to feel something. They gain purpose and agency – the extreme nature of their behaviour functioning as an extreme metaphor for the pernicious nature of our pacifying society of empty modernity. Society is a prison here and our characters are finally able to be themselves, to follow atypical desires and exist as liberated individuals. A thesis of the film is that people are pushed to unhealthy extremes as encroaching homogeneity – the motifs of car parks, lines of cars on slow moving roads, rows of hospital beds and the like really pushing this idea – comes to define our everyday. Yes, our needs are being met, but in the most soulless and unoriginal ways. As humans, we seek the unique – we seek the exciting. Linking sex and the erotic to vehicular violence and injury is disturbing, but there is a twisted glee in the film as the characters have found something – there is no sense, from them, that they are in a spiral or in a tragedy. If anything, it is the othering of the atypical that has led to these violent releases. The film openly explores fluid sexuality, and presents this as a deviation from the aforementioned homogeneity of society. You get the sense that if society had more personality, was more accepting and was more vibrant, these destructive outlets would not be necessary and would not be so destructive.

Because the heart of this film is a yearning for destruction. Once again, modernity is a form of pollution in Crash – which is why the gas-guzzling cars are the perfect central symbol. Society has normalised the motor car, its dangerous potential out of mind alongside all of the sharp edges of existence. Yet, as a society, we are obsessed with the motor car; we push for beautiful designs and derive pleasure from driving – wanting the adrenaline. Crash presents the logical – yet uncomfortable – conclusion of this, confronting us with our fetishisation of technology and evoking a necessary discomfort. The love of the car is also an expression of power, we feel powerful behind the wheel and that power comes from the possibility of destruction – from the taste of danger. Throughout Crash, we have characters taunt each other on the road, using their cars as an expression of themselves and bashing into each other in a violent ballet. These moments follow sex scenes and often involve the same characters. This teases at our want for connection, and how modernity twists that, and how technology has become an extension of self. It also presents sex as inherently linked to power, that being the feeling that everybody is after – even if that power is just self expression or just hurtling towards destruction. The filmmaking is so tactile, marked by peculiar close-ups and camera movements that match the movements of machinery (one of the most striking moments is how a female character undressing is framed by a convertible car coming back together, before the camera pans to the back to watch the car finish its process), that the jostling of cars on motorways feels physical in a human way. The way that the Ballards use vehicular jousting for control and excitement reflects how they use everything else. In Crash, we have a portrait of a society which has been made to facilitate us, to make life easy – and in the film we see how outsiders use this, and how everybody is trying to use everybody and how the things we use start to use us. Obsessions get tangled and we get lost to primal instincts – falling ever deeper into destructive spirals and loving every minute. Whether it is restaging car crashes, whether it is getting tattoos, whether it is creating scrap books of violence: reality is a stage that we express ourselves onto. And if we can’t express ourselves in a conventional way, the unconventional will flourish.

All of these wonderful ideas, the balance of comfort and discomfort alongside the allure of the extreme are elevated by Howard Shore’s exceptional soundtrack. His music sends shivers of discomfort down your spine, enhancing the overall icy-chill of the film. This is a cold movie, a clinical one that reflects a soulless modernity in which we are all striving for feeling – and ultimately for escape. The music almost feels speculative, with lingering motifs that feel lifted from the score to a detective movie – it is a melody of questions with little resolution, with refrains that feel beautifully unfinished and haunting (always lilting upwards and rarely tumbling back down) . This eerie soundscape is used to, more often than not, accompany society and the everyday. The repeated footage of motorways, car parks and concrete structures made to feel colder still and even more alien. The moments of escape, and extremity (here, its own kind of escape), are often linked with the more soaring moments of music – the more outwardly conventional. It is a powerful auditory metaphor for modern society being a numbing prison that demands to be transgressed.

This is the beauty of Crash, it is one of extreme cinema’s most venerated figures making an ode to the extreme, using cinematic extremity as a metaphor for self expression and the need for originality. This is a strong critique of social malaise and the numbing trap that is capitalist living. The enduring images of Crash are the juxtapositions between broken machinery and explicit sex; destruction and violence surrounds us, and we are numbed to it. Crash places the exotic in the smashed corpses of capitalistic symbols. The destruction of a car is, of course, a deeply symbolic act. It is the destruction of an ideology, a world view and of a crushing political system. No wonder this destruction is presented as erotic, as something to be lusted after. When the world denies our humanity, we long instead for destruction and that is all the characters of Crash are left with. They exist ephemerally, chasing their next high and trying to feel something. Hurling themselves into sex and destruction until everything collapses into an explosion of feeling, of excitement. Crash is a challenging film, and an alarming one, but it is not hopeless or pessimistic. It hates modernity (what modernity has ended up as) but it has a twisted respect for the ingenuity of humanity. Everything is robotic; everything is numbing; everything is homogenous but, well, life finds a way.

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