Sex Drive

The automotive eroticism of Crash.

Directed by David Cronenberg
A Fine Line Features release

Like some smutty art film of a bygone era, Crash arrives on American screens preceded by lurid headlines–hailed at Cannes, banned in England, its U.S. release nearly aborted by Ted Turner. The rumors started even before the movie went into production, without the benefit of hired publicists. After all, the first American edition of the 1973 novel by J.G. Ballard on which the film is based was pulped in toto, its second publisher announced it and then balked, and the house that finally undertook it seems to have dispatched most of the run directly to the remainder tables (I bought my copy not long after publication for 79 cents). It concerns, of course, the eroticism of automobile accidents. Could you conceive of anything more sicko-weird? But cars are sexual objects, obviously, and if their essence is speed, consummation can be achieved only through impact. Every car commercial on television is an invitation to a Liebestod.

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?

His adaptation is extremely faithful to the novel. Its protagonist, James Ballard (the book’s hero, played by James Spader, bears the same name as its author), is a producer of TV commercials. He and his wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), have one of those open marriages. Driving home from the set one day, James skids into oncoming traffic and crashes head-on into another car, killing its driver, whose widow, Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), stares in shock. During their respective hospital sojourns, both survivors encounter Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a scientist who had been a well-known TV personality until a near-fatal motorcycle accident made him obsessed with the erotic possibilities of highway crashes.

Vaughan’s preoccupation leads him to not only ponder the sexually charged road deaths of the famous (James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus), but to hang around accident sites, photographing them and later replicating the contorted postures of the victims in his trysts with prostitutes. As James, Helen, and eventually Catherine are drawn into Vaughan’s world, they discover that he leads a cult of sorts, which includes Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), who gravitated toward Vaughan after an accident that left her encased in a complicated leather-and-steel body brace. The votaries smoke pot, watch test-crash footage, read journals of pathology, and re-enact celebrated accidents.

I n the movie as in the book, much of the action thereafter consists of an increasingly intense spiral of couplings among these parties, punctuated by tearing metal and shattering glass and inevitably climaxing in death. The book, however, is internally powered by Ballard’s patented transformation of cold into hot, turning medical and automotive jargon into spectacularly baroque metaphors: “Thinking of the extensor rictus of her spine during orgasm, the erect hairs on her undermuscled thighs, I stared at the stylized manufacturer’s medallion visible in the photographs, the contoured flanks of the window pillars.” A movie can’t really do that sort of thing.

Of course, comparisons don’t get any more invidious than those between movies and their source novels, and critics should abjure the temptation. I purposely hadn’t reread the book before seeing the film, and furthermore resolved to forget Cronenberg’s previous adaptation of a famously impossible work of literature, the contrived mess he fashioned from William S. Burroughs’Naked Lunch. But as much as I enjoyed Crash the movie, I found that my keenest pleasure came from imagining the potential reactions of others. I pictured, say, its eventual pay-per-view screening being accidentally beamed out on the wavelength of a devotional network. Although the frissons were all present and accounted for, there was something missing.

This isn’t the fault of the cast. Spader is a bit too sincere and boyish to play the jaded libertine Ballard, but he’s a fine actor and unquestionably game. Unger and Arquette are well cast, and the protean Hunter extraordinarily so. Koteas was born for his role, just the right mix of crudity and sophistication. The cinematography is surgically precise, the editing crisp, the music moody and unobtrusive. The dialogue, much of it straight from the book, is full of terse humor (when a cop comes by to interrogate Vaughan about a hit-and-run, Catherine brushes him off: “Vaughan isn’t interested in pedestrians”). Nevertheless, the movie seems all too reducible. Despite such calculated outrages as the scene where James fucks the wound in Gabrielle’s leg, the film’s darkest images are the views of endless traffic on the arterial roadways that make up the entire landscape around the Ballards’ high-rise flat.

One major reason for this is that car-crash erotica has become so routinely available in the quarter century since the book was written. Many people who wouldn’t dream of seeing Crash derive the very same thrills covertly, from an inexhaustible supply of PG titles ranging from The French Connection to the latest generic Lethal Weapon; they will, of course, hotly deny any tumescence. And Crash can often seem like Lethal Weapon, plus sodomy minus plot. For a filmmaker who in Videodrome and Dead Ringers so elegantly broached the unspeakable, Cronenberg has here made a picture that is all surface. For purposes of comparison, rent the video of Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend–amid all the chatter is a brief scene of Mireille Darc emerging from a flaming wreck that, as a crash-sex icon, beats anything in Crash. And in the mostly ludicrous 1987 opera-video movie Aria is a sequence by Ken Russell, of all people, that conveys sheer rococo horror: A young woman sees herself being anointed and bedecked with jewels, but we then see that she is in an emergency ward, and that her jewels are in reality car-crash wounds.

In his book, Ballard was not only toying with some kind of ultimate transgression; he was also responding to the arguments advanced by pop art. James Rosenquist’s paintings and Richard Hamilton’s drawings of rearranged car parts could hardly be more explicitly sexual (a finger poised by a dash-mounted gearshift, a talk balloon filled with an orgasmic “Aah!”: Hamilton, 1962). Another pop artist, John Chamberlain, exhibited the actual voluptuous hulks of wrecks. It is tempting to imagine Crash as if it had been made a generation ago, starring Laurence Harvey and Vanessa Redgrave. The pop works still look great, but their implicit text is no longer news, having filtered down to the pure stimulus-response of all those Lethal Weapons. Ballard’s novel goes further, forcing the reader to acknowledge complicity–every consumer a pervert. The movie, though, is only a movie, and Cronenberg lets the viewer walk away momentarily stunned, but unscathed.

Auto-eroticism explained (18 seconds):
Sound03 - 681794.avi or Sound04 - download time, 1.25 minutes at 56K {Sound01 - movie-crash01.asf for sound only

Sex in the car wash (37 seconds):
Sound05 - 681796.avi or Sound06 - download time, 2.75 minutes at 56K {S{{Sound02 - movie-crash02.asf for sound only