Saturday Editor’s Pick: Crash (1997)

by on January 27, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick


Playing Sat Feb 4 at 6:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]

 

Winner of a one-off Special Jury Prize at Cannes “for originality, daring and audacity,” Crash kerfuffled inept, easily scandalized critics the world over. Author J.G. Ballard, for his part, called it “A stunning, shattering and brilliant adaptation of my book.”

 

Nathan Lee, for his part, has ruminated again and again. In his feature for Alt Screen:

The most inexhaustible movie I know– it never stops changing. If we take “favorite” to mean the film you most endlessly return to, the one that never stops disclosing new problems and pleasures, then all roads point to Crash. There is something in the curious affective register of Cronenberg’s films that rewards coming back, a rich indeterminacy of tone forged in the application of scrupulous classicism to the most outrageous scenarios. At once bluntly matter-of-fact and deeply fucking weird, Crash takes this beguiling ambivalence to apotheosis.
 
Seriously – or maybe not so seriously – what the fuck is Crash? Meticulous realism or free-floating psychodrama? Wish fulfillment or cautionary tale? Diagnostic or symptomatic? Satirical or speculative? The answer is: YES. Crash doesn’t operate by either/or; it follows the logic of and. Ridiculous and sublime. I’d puzzled over the movie three or four times before watching it at a 2002 Cronenberg retrospective at Anthology Film Archives, and remember being annoyed at the capacity crowd for whom, apparently, this was the funniest shit imaginable. And it is funny, though what you’re laughing at isn’t the outlandish kinks of this particular “psychopathological” project. It’s the comedy of sexuality itself.

 

 
Geoff Andrew for Time Out (London):

Arguably the closest commercial Western cinema has come to Oshima’s Ai No Corrida – what ‘story’ there is consists chiefly of a series of obsessive, claustrophobic, transgressive sex-scenes – Cronenberg’s film of JG Ballard’s novel is both imaginative and, notwithstanding its ‘scandalous’ content, strangely ‘respectable’ (in terms of fidelity and finding appropriate solutions to problems of adaptation). Basically, it’s about a couple (Spader and Unger), already so disenchanted by notions of conventional sex that they tell each other in detail about their various other liaisons, who are further aroused when they encounter Hunter (widowed victim of a car collision with Spader) and Koteas, a near-crazy car-crash freak who introduces them to the perverse erotica of scars, wrecked debris and the threat of violent death itself. It’s a dark, disturbing, languorous movie, as ludicrous, hermetic and repetitive, perhaps, as Ballard’s original, but admirably assured and true to itself.

 

Luc Sante for Slate:

Ballard’s complex, image-driven fiction partakes of surrealism, hovers within the orbits of sci-fi, and laps at the outré. Change “fiction” to “movies,” and the same formula can apply to David Cronenberg, whose best work (Videodrome, Dead Ringers) is as disturbing as any avant-garde literature you care to name, even as it has been commercially viable. Cronenberg’s films have gone places and done things that today’s gutless independents could never imagine. Who else could have filmed Crash? Who else would have wanted to?

 

 

And here’s some fun with offended sensibilities:

“To say this movie is sick is too facile. Let’s just say it’s perverse. Crash is a grotesque film filled with vacuous characters and a destitute theme.” – John J. Puccio, Movie Metropolis

 
Crash is a landmark in cinematic pornography because it will encourage those who have a sadistic sexual bent (or discover they have one as a result of seeing this movie) to feel that they are not alone, that attractive people feel the same way, and that no significant harm will come to others as a result of sado-masochistic acts.” – Christopher Tookey, Daily Mail

 
“So far from being involving or compelling, so intentionally disconnected from any kind of recognizable emotion, that by comparison David Lynch’s removed Lost Highway plays like Lassie Come Home.” – Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times

 
“Cronenberg has said that he made the film to find out why he was making it. You may watch it for the same reason.” – Barbara Shulgasser, San Francisco Chronicle

 
“[There] are movies which are utterly without value, movies that may even offend your sensibilities. For me, Crash was just this kind of film.” – Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat

 
“Vulnerable on almost every level: taste, seriousness, even the public-safety risk of promulgating such a perverted creed… A film that is immoral by any standard, unsafe at any speed.” – Alexander Walker, Evening Standard

 
“The film has so little merit, so little reason, it adds so little to the sum of human knowledge, condition or even entertainment, that it is hard to see why David Cronenberg, his financial backers and distributors have drawn breath to bring it before the public.” – Nigel Reynolds, Daily Telegraph

 


 

Janet Maslin tries her best to roll with it, for The New York Times:

Mr. Cronenberg, who will now rattle audiences even more powerfully than he did with ”Dead Ringers” or ”Naked Lunch,” cannot be dismissed as a twisted panderer despite the clear leanings of ”Crash” in that direction. As Mr. Ballard did, he envisions a work of sexually charged science fiction. The ”Crash” characters sleepwalk through this story in a state of futuristic numbness, seeking extreme forms of sensation because familiar feelings have long since failed them. It’s a chilling, ghastly possibility that manages to exert a grim fascination.

 
”Crash,” which is disturbing in both its initial recklessness and ultimate timidity, still deserves to be taken seriously as part of Mr. Cronenberg’s bravely idiosyncratic career. At the very least, it is quite literally a striking oddity. When not orchestrating strangely impersonal human couplings, the film maker stages scenes in traffic, which called for the wrecking of 25 automobiles. According to Elinor Galbraith, the film’s set director, ”We discovered why everyone should drive a Volvo.”

 
Siskel and Ebert totally go at it:

 
Ebert continues his defense, for the Chicago Sun-Times:

If you can imagine the state of mind I’m about to describe, you will understand David Cronenberg’s “Crash.” It is that trancelike state when you are drawn to do something you should not do, and have passed through the stages of common sense and inhibition and arrived at critical velocity. You are going to do it.

 
“Crash” is about characters entranced by a sexual fetish that, in fact, no one has. Cronenberg has made a movie that is pornographic in form, but not in result. Take out the cars, the scars, the crutches and scabs and wounds, and substitute the usual props of sex films, and you’d have a porno movie. But “Crash” is anything but pornographic: It’s about the human mind, about the way we grow enslaved by the particular things that turn us on, and forgive ourselves our trespasses.

 
It’s like a porno movie made by a computer: It downloads gigabytes of information about sex, it discovers our love affair with cars, and it combines them in a mistaken algorithm. The result is challenging, courageous and original–a dissection of the mechanics of pornography.

 

 
MUST READ! Andrew Hultkrans interviews Cronenberg and Ballard for Artforum.

 
Harlan Jacobson talks to Cronenberg for Film Scouts:

“In most films,” says David Cronenberg, director of “Crash”, “the movie stops and you have the sex scene. Then it continues. And you could take out the sex scene and not change a thing.” “Audiences begin to wonder ‘When is the movie going to start?'”, Cronenberg says. The sex scenes in the film, which was greeted by walkouts and boos in its screenings at the 49th Cannes Film Festival, “are the movie. The characters and their philosophical concerns are all revealed in them,” according to Cronenberg, who adds “And I didn’t give their inclusion much thought other than the difficulty in filming them.”

 
Cronenberg differentiated the result from the typical over-researched Hollywood product and “Crash”. “Typically, a studio tests and does screenings and lets the audience tell you what they want. But if you do that, you only meet the audiences preconceived expectations… You need to lead the audience,” Cronenberg countered, “to a place you yourself are discovering.”

 
That place he continues, involved setting in motion characters “who are disconnected, who can’t connect, but who have discovered a way to bring themselves back to life” through what he called a new emotionality and sexuality. “Variety”, the trade paper, has a word for it: “Auto-eroticism.”Cronenberg spells out his thoughts on sexuality, saying it began as a “biological fact, but now we do not even need to meet to procreate. Sex has become a human invention, an art form, a form of technology no longer having a biological basis. These characters explore” that development, he says.

 
The cinema and the automobile, Cronenberg notes, were both born 100 years ago. Each brought unparalleled freedom to explore, and each compressed time and space.

 

 
Jonathan Rosenbaum for the Chicago Reader:

Even though Ballard’s novel and Cronenberg’s film are in English, both might be said to speak a foreign language. Now that I’ve seen the film again, I’m inclined to think that respecting Ballard’s radical content is a formally adventurous move. Even if the problem of monotony isn’t entirely licked, the audacity of the conception gets you over some of the more mechanical and repetitious parts. For a lot depends on one’s point of reference. Compared with the novel, the movie might seem predictable. But compared with other movies, it stands alone.

 
Almost as pared down and purified as late Bresson, Cronenberg’s Crash focuses on half a dozen individuals who aren’t so much characters as separate versions, aspects, or stages of the same character. Crash is a minimalist work, and a perfectly realized one. Its art-movie ancestors are the bumper-car sequence in Bresson’s Mouchette, the anonymous battles and tournament crowd in Bresson’s Lancelot du lac, and the flirtatious “cruising” of the heroine in a car by the hero in a plane in Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point.

 
The fact is it’s difficult to say what Crash is. Ballard doesn’t know, and neither does Cronenberg. Not even Turner or I can slap on a ready-made label like “pornographic” or “cautionary” and make it stick. It looks romantic but isn’t, feels pornographic but isn’t, appears to be set in the present but isn’t — at least not exactly. (There are also times when it appears to be a parody of or critical commentary on romanticism, pornography, and the present day, though not consistently.) That’s what makes it so interesting, even if it leaves us all in a critical quandary. It’s a project in search of its own definition — like America, one might say, except that Cronenberg’s movie is Canadian and Ballard’s novel is British. Though far from being PC or humanist, Crash is a no-bullshit movie that neither insults nor exploits its audience. Wacky as it is, it’s a work of passion and integrity.

 

 
Gavin Smith for Film Comment (March/April 1997):

Ballard’s feverish book is nothing if not lurid, but for all its tableaux of dispassionate, automated sex and mangled car bodies, Cronenberg’s film exemplifies cool, hieratic austerity. His setups and cutting have never been more inhumanely deliberate and exact. This exquisitely somber film’s metallic designs, stark electric guitar score, insinuating camera movement, and dazed, somnambulist acting maintain a tone of dreamlike repetition and attenuation. In its subdued, subtractive minimalism and almost oppressive formal control, Crash toys with the possibilities of enervation and entropy.

 
Simultaneously parodic and mournful, freakish and familiar, Crash‘s narrative is elliptical, trancelike, interiorized. Characteristically, there is no final narrative release – only dissolution. If this is a film about cars, fucking, and death, then it’s about cars, fucking, and death as a state of mind, desecrating the automotive fetishist’s fantasies of freedom, enclosure, and invulnerability. Never moralistic despite satirical tendencies, Cronenberg’s films fuse the calm rigor of scientific research with the visceral shock of transgression.

 
Cronenberg’s is a philosophical cinema based on subversive imagination, yet one that requires the viewer to grapple with the experience of deep revulsion. His films are studies in fantastic pathology that are typically punctuated by some pivotal gross-out or unimaginable physical violation. In Crash, a scar on Rosanna Arquette’s thigh that briefly serves as a sexual organ. These are not frivolous shock-value effects, although they convey authentically hysterical excess. In the context of his disruptive film strategy, Cronenberg is simply devising the most extreme and graphic visual manifestation imaginable for his anarchic pathologies. These scenarios of trauma, estrangement, and disintegration articulate the shock of the New Flesh, as it’s dubbed in his magnum opus Videodrome – in which, fittingly for his entire oeuvre, a character observes: “It has a philosophy…and that is what makes it dangerous.”

 

 
Rob Nelson for City Pages:

Confession: I was nervous about seeing Crash, as I’ve been before all of David Cronenberg’s films. But it wasn’t until after surviving it that I knew why. More than anything, Cronenberg movies (e.g. Videodrome, Dead Ringers, Rabid, and The Fly) play like coming attractions of our inevitable demise, focusing on the excruciating period between the knowledge of death and its occurrence–which is why they’re so much scarier than the sum of their (severed) parts. Hitchcock has his sadomasochistic showmanship and Lynch his indelible surrealism, but it’s Cronenberg’s existential intensity that makes each of his films equivalent to a long panic attack. Yes, we do tend to “rehearse the difficult things of life” (in both panic attacks and movies), but death is a reality for which there’s no script. Crash dares to attempt writing one. At its most innovative, Cronenberg’s film paves the way for a consideration of your own end of the road; at the least, it removes any feelings of invincibility from your drive home.

 
The irony is that Crash, despite its well-earned NC-17, is in fact a deeply abstract film masquerading as a literal one. As much of the vehicular mayhem occurs offscreen, Cronenberg’s style is minimalist in the extreme: He limits the human population to his half-dozen principals, so that the world of Crash seems a projection of the characters’ imaginative psyches, and his. Befitting the film’s subject of experimentation, it’s an experimental film. If you read the film (and particularly its ending) literally, Crash becomes the superficial story of a couple who spice up their sex lives by doing kinky and dangerous things with their cars, ’til death do them part. Indeed, it’s one of Cronenberg’s countless dares that he risks earning such an interpretation. But, in that the movie’s unorthodox narrative and unprecedented level of provocation is almost guaranteed to cause a shitstorm, there’s a sense in which Cronenberg’s ambition transcends the film itself. Assuming that it does get released, as planned, in multiplexes on Friday (which still seems hard to believe), Crash will have succeeded at nothing less than obliterating the boundaries of what can be projected in Area Theaters. Ultimately, sex and car crashes don’t have that much to do with it. In other words, if this is the story of people who flirt with disaster to reinvigorate their lives and their “art,” it’s a metaphoric one. The making of the film, however, is the real thing.

 

 
J. Hoberman, originally for the Village Voice:

Its tone perfectly sustained throughout, Crash manages the tricky feat of feeling like sci-fi while looking like Now. Most of the movie is set in the generic nowhere of Toronto’s bland, highrise-cum-industrial outskirts—an antiseptic location rendered all the more dreamlike by the characters’ activities (as well as the lush drone of Howard Shore’s atonal score). Having survived their accident to land in an otherwise empty airport hospital, both James and Helen conclude, pace Invasion of the Body Snatchers, that something is different: The world is filled with ever more traffic.

 
A highway cloverleaf may subsequently seem creepily organic but, scarcely a gross-out, Crash is too stylized for splatter and too astutely edited to be porn. And, despite several choreographed instances of highway bumper cars, it’s hardly an action film. “This is a work of art,” Vaughan exclaims as he raptly photographs the vast multivehicle pileup that Cronenberg has devised. So, too, are the movie’s fastidiously created scars, suggestively oblique montage, seductively fetishized surfaces, and deadpan fantastic medical devices. The impact is largely cerebral—Crash is one witty, poetic, brilliantly worked-out film.

 
Uncompromising in its melancholia, Crash establishes a profound sense of seeking comfort in the crevices of a lacerating, metallic world. In the context of this brilliant science fiction, our species is imagined as vulnerable bits of oozing, sucking, coupling, retracting, yearning protoplasm. Does the thought disturb you? Shown on a double bill with a blithe futurist entertainment like Speed or Star Wars, Crash would emerge as the infinitely more honest and moral movie.

 

 
Jeremiah Kipp for Slant:

The characters are treated with all the sympathy of amoebas seen through a microscope, and are less important than the sensations they pursue. Vaughan and Catherine fondling each other in the back seat while Ballard drives through a car wash, gazing at them in the rearview mirror, feels like a head trip back to the womb. When they stop, minutes later, to visit a car accident that’s all hunks of smoking metal and busted-up, non-communicative survivors, Vaughan rages through taking photographs—and somehow his gum chewing seems the sleaziest thing here. It’d be grotesque if Cronenberg weren’t viewing it all dispassionately, with that passive, obsessive, strangely Canadian voyeurism. It doesn’t feel icky because it asks the question, “Let’s see how it all works,” and that these weird beings are forging some sort of new community out of their collective desires.

 
The minimalist storytelling feels hermetically sealed, somehow. As if giving the characters any passion outside of what Cronenberg is interested in would humanize them and make them vulnerable to our judgment as audience members. Instead, we’re told that this is the world they’re in, without excuses or pity. The cinematography and score, by longtime Cronenberg partners Peter Suschitzky and Howard Shore, respectively, feel distant and tinged with an unusual combination of grayish metal and sensual longing. This provides the essential soulful quality of Crash, and elevates it above a story of sick individuals resorting to the most primitive mating rituals as fantasy or escapism. Cronenberg takes them seriously, and if he takes himself and his thesis a little seriously too, at least he parcels out a certain kind of egghead intellectual humor. When Ballard questions Vaughan about “the reshaping of the human body by modern technology,” Vaughan snickers that his B.S. theory was a clever ruse to get curiosity seekers through the door. In other words, psychobabble is cheap. Just shut up and fuck me.

 

 
Walter Chan takes the light approach in an interview with Cronenberg for Film Freak Central:

Compare the adaptation of J.G. Ballard to the adaptation of Burroughs.
Unlike Naked Lunch,which was a compendium of a lot of Burroughs’ writings and also his life, Crash was strictly an adaptation of a book, so I felt very different doing it. I kind of avoided doing Crash for a long time because I was afraid that it’d be very difficult–when I started writing it, though, I found to my surprise that it distilled very easily. That once I got into the process it just sort of flowed very easily so in terms of writing it was simple–not in terms of shooting, but writing was easy.

 
On a personal note, I have to confess that I took my homecoming date to Dead Ringers and a first date later in college to Crash–bad miscalculations, both.
(laughs) Yes, I’d imagine so–not so much a date movie, either of them. If you’d had the right person, though, it would have been a great date. If you’re just looking to get laid, it’s bad, but if you’re looking for a lifelong partner it’s probably a very good test.

 
Even if you do get laid, it’s probably not the kind of sex you want.
No, that’s true. (laughs)

 

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.

by

Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.

by

Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

by
View All →

Reviews

Theaters