AGAIN AND AGAIN, inevitably, some dummy always asks: What’s your favorite film? Depending on my mood, I’m often tempted to say Flowers of Shanghai, or North by Northwest, or Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle. But the answer never changes because it –the most inexhaustible movie I know–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.
Since the night a crappy VHS of Videodrome blew my lurid teenage mind I’ve been an unrelenting David Cronenberg nerd. That I never get bored of armpit parasites terrorizing Montreal surely says as much about me as the particular excellences of the auteur formerly known as Dave “Deprave” Cronenberg. But there is something in the curious affective register of his 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.
The vertiginous complexity of Crash is enabled by it disconcertingly simple scenario. Adapted from J. G. Ballard’s 1973 novel, the movie concerns “…sex and car crashes,” per Janet Maslin’s hilariously blunt pullquote on the cover of the DVD. This is truly an ideal gloss: Crash is indeed about sex and car crashes, full stop period. The opening scenes establish a situation – tonal, rhythmic, structural, thematic – sustained to the final shot. Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) gently releases her boob onto the sleek metal surface of an airplane wing while a man enters her from behind. Cut to: James Ballard (James Spader) on the set of a TV production hastily banging a woman between takes. Cut to: Catherine and James on the balcony of their high-rise apartment describing their fucks. Flesh and machines, sex and spectacle, repetition and recreation: these are the terms Crash will cycle through without the slightest clarification, explanation, or motivation.
Crash approaches pure, plotless montage. It doesn’t really go anywhere. Things happen, of course, but they feel like arrival of just that – things, not developments. James has his car-crash meet-cute with a weirdo doctor (Holly Hunter), followed by hospitalization and handjobs. Then there is the sudden materialization of Vaughn (Elias Koteas), an inexplicable super-perv devoted to restaging the vehicular death of celebrities as part of a vague “project” involving…Automotive fetishism? A kinky repetition compulsion? The death drive on wheels?
“It’s something we are all intimately involved in,” Vaughn explains to James: “The reshaping of the human body by modern technology.” A few scenes later Vaughn offers a different formulation. “There’s a benevolent psychopathology that beckons toward us. For example, the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that’s impossible in any other form. To experience that, to live that, that is my project.” What about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology? “That’s just a crude sci-fi concept that kind of floats on the surface and doesn’t threaten anybody. I use it to test the resilience of my potential partners in psychopathology.” The resilience, for example, of the audience of Crash.
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.
Ballard and Cronenberg only do half the lifting to pull off this indeterminacy. Crash is a tour-de-force of ensemble acting; perhaps the key loci of its inexhaustibility are the faces of Spader, Unger, Hunter and Koteas. Shorn of motivation, development or internal reflection, the actors perform their maximalist behaviors with minimal affect, but their blankness is of a different, more mobile type than one sees in the models of Bresson, the minimalism of Tsai Ming-liang, or the desultory deconstructionism in a Godard film. They give, simultaneously, boredom, horniness, jealously, indifference, curiosity, amazement, incredulity, connect, disconnect, all of the above, none of the above. Among so much else, Crash is treatise on the unfathomable erotics of acting – an intensity impossible in any other form.
Nathan Lee is, for our purposes, a Contributing Editor to Alt Screen.