Broken on the Wheel: Cronenberg and Ballard's 'Crash'
No one has driven the metaphor of automotive eroticism harder, faster and farther than underground British writer J.G. Ballard. His notorious 1973 novel, Crash, exposed the sexual frisson to be found in the carnage by the side of the road. The novel has just been brought to the screen by director David Cronenberg, despite efforts to squelch the controversial project.Crash, saddled with an NC-17 rating that will automatically limit its audiences, now and on video, represents modern cinema at its riskiest. Other filmmakers (see sidebar) may have nibbled at the ideas of BallardÕs best-known novelÑand some even anticipated the authorÕs ideas. But Crash deserves praise for being an uncensored work in a very querulous age.CronenbergÕs artistic stature is solidified by his willingness to wave a red flag at one of most powerful men in the business, Ted Turner. The film had been ready for public release by Fine Line Features (a subsidiary of Turner Entertainment) since last May, when it won a special prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, it has been under the movie-industry equivalent of house arrest; Crash was released months ago in CronenbergÕs native Canada, but itÕs been held up in the United States until now.When contacted two months ago, representatives of Fine Line (now part of Time Warner) wouldnÕt comment on the widely spread story that Turner had ordered the company to hold the film back. Turner is reportedly also personally stalling the theatrical release of Anjelica HustonÕs film version of exÐSanta Cruzan Alison AndersÕ Bastard Out of Carolina because it contains incest scenes. (The warning signs were there from the moment that Turner ordered the painting of BogartÕs face.)ItÕs no wonder that Crash makes distributors, theater owners, media moguls and cultural critics so nervous. CronenbergÕs cinematic icicle represents an almost-perfect transformation in tone and image of BallardÕs shocker about the lubricious joys of vehicular mayhem.ItÕs a provocation, this film, full of pornographic leg braces, spectacular bruisings and mechanical couplings. With its fetishistÕs-eye view of the world, Crash transpires in an aura of complete amorality, where endangering and killing bystanders for part of your sexual pleasure doesnÕt even raise a qualm.Crash is bound to be too much for audiences if they take it literally. Sufferers of actual car crashes might feel that Cronenberg and Ballard are among those who jest at scars while never having felt a wound. Despite its deliberate shocks, however, Crash is actually a sand-dry satire on our wheeled society, a hyperbolic story about joining the winning side in the war between automobiles and people.Roadway death takes so many modern livesÑa trauma that in America equals the Vietnam War death toll every yearÑthat it is curious how infrequently the subject of all of that loss appears in popular art. On those rare occasions when a movie tries to sum up the drama and horror of car crashes, the artistic terms used are almost always some reflection of BallardÕs novel. Ballard was at least 20 years ahead of his time, perhaps more than that.The release of Crash the movie is thus a signal event. Various warring sub-subcultures -- Goths and punks, modern primitives and modern futurists, science-fiction fans and horror buffs -Ñ will all be brought back together to see this long-awaited adaptation. Paradoxically, the film is as much a look in the rearview mirror at the excesses of the Õ70s, when the novel was written, as it is a glimpse through a shattered windshield at the millennium careening our way.Scar-tangled Bashers Ballard and Cronenberg were made for each other -Ñ like Myrna Loy and William Powell. Cronenberg is the most obsessive and creative director of horror films since the 1930s. His inspired notion was to take horror out of the gothic castles and put it into the clinics and hospitals. What might happen to you in a hospital is a hundred times more terrifying than anything Dracula or Jason could do to you.The hospital sequences in CronenbergÕs work have scope beyond mere frights. TheyÕre as sorrowful as the passages of a manÕs recovery from a coma of several years in The Dead Zone. TheyÕre as alienating as the scenes in Crash of an airport hospital thatÕs empty and clean -Ñ as if the plastic wrapping had just been stripped off the furniture -Ñ waiting with its empty rows of beds for victims of a jet disaster.In his masterpiece, The Fly, Cronenberg transforms the mossy old-movie tale of a scientist undone by his experiment into a metaphor for cancerÑthe next lump you find on your body could bring you that close to changing into something else. ÒLord, we know what we are but not what we may be,Ó as Ophelia says in Hamlet. Best known for his most atypical work, his memoir Empire of the Sun (made into a technically inspired but typically feel-good film by Steven Spielberg), Ballard is one of the finest speculative-fiction authors. He has lived through catastrophe, surviving the invasion of Shanghai by the Japanese in WWII and witnessing the atomic glow from Nagasaki across the East China Sea on that August morning in 1945.BallardÕs books consider the possibility of human life becoming cheap beyond our worst imaginings. In his short story ÒThe Drowned Giant,Ó a perfectly formed human giant washes up on a beach like a dead whale. Passersby are at first awed by the find, but eventually they vandalize the corpse, carrying off bits of the giant like souvenirs, pissing on it and carving their initials on its bluing body. Humanity is reduced to the level of crabs.The sleek novel Crash inquires into the sexual nature of collisions as lusted after by jaded swingers who find themselves wrapped up in a cult of car crashers. CrashÕs influence can be traced to its canny combination of sexual explicitness and high-church European alienation.In the novel, sex is remote, conducted under circumstances of sterility, artificiality and pain. In the movie, Cronenberg makes explicit what Ballard rendered abstract. And on screen, even often impersonal sex is sexy. (Any movie with a long, slow kiss between Rosanna Arquette and Holly Hunter probably justifies itself.)The opening of Crash makes CronenbergÕs intentions clear. Remember those ghastly posters of bikini models sprawled backside-up over the hoods of red Lamborginis? (The cars may not have been Lamborginis, but they were always red.) The models were splayed like dead deer not yet trussed to the front of the car.We see Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) being had from behind while she embraces the fuselage of a small plane. The smooth, curved surfaces of CatherineÕs thighs seem to meld with the sleek, cold surfaces of the aircraft. The cinematography by Peter Suschitzky (Mars Attacks!) brings softness to the crass image, blurring the reflections of the skin and the hangarÕs cold lights. This tableau prepares us to accept the mind-set of a small cult of car-crash fetishists.The protagonist is named for the author. James G. Ballard (James Spader), a film director of some sort, and his troublingly beautiful wife, Catherine, live in a high-rise condo overlooking a vast freeway. Both pursue separate adventures during the day; both come home in the evening for some impersonal rear-entry sex, complete with heavy fantasizing aloud about other partners. ItÕs the next best thing to sex with other people.On his way to work one day, Ballard is injured in a crash that kills the other driver. His leg repaired with dozens of metal rods, Ballard beginsÑan affair? sleeping with? no, fucking is the only proper wordÑDr. Remington (Holly Hunter), the physician who is the widow of the man he killed. Through Remington, Ballard and Catherine encounter Vaughan (Elias Koteas), the grubby, scarred leader of the cultistsÑpeople who stage car crashes, thrill to them and live through them. One member of the group, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), especially fascinates Ballard. SheÕs bolted into a variety of black braces and crutches, and wears a cutaway black breastplate of shiny vinyl. ArquetteÕs lewd mechanical slouch and very dirty grin make her look like the robot Maria from Fritz LangÕs Metropolis all dressed up for bondage night.In the novel, Vaughan dies in the opening paragraph trying to ram his car into a limousine carrying Elizabeth Taylor, who watches, a gloved hand on her cheek, as Vaughan expires. In the movie, the subplot about celebrity worship is transformed into VaughanÕs fixation on the crash that killed James Dean. His accomplice, a stuntman named Seagrave, gets dressed in the red jacket, white T-shirt and blue jeans of Dean for a re-enactment of the famous accident. Seagrave is fat and bald, and the outfit doesnÕt complement him at all. Seeing him so dressed is the best joke on rotting 1950s fame since the Jack Rabbit Slim sequence in Pulp Fiction.The Dean crash sequence is the funniest thing in the movie. CronenbergÕs handling of the too-cool spectators is especially morbidly witty, and KoteasÕ low-grade showmanÕs spiel describing the circumstances of the crash has that self-possession you see in one of Bill MurrayÕs creeps. But the nostalgia invoked by the reference to Dean is telling, because Crash is a strangely nostalgic movie. The early Õ70s are all over the movie, reflecting the heyday of sexual ambivalence and open relationships. At times, its moods are as dated as the stash box hidden in GabrielleÕs alluring leg brace.BISEXUAL CHICI read Crash when I was young, and good American that I am, what repelled me most about the book was not the violence but the bisexual open marriage of Ballard and Catherine. In his far-too-clean 1991 version of Naked Lunch, Cronenberg replaced William BurroughsÕ wild sex with a peaceful shot of Peter Weller snoozing innocently with a boyfriend. In Crash, both Ballard and Cronenberg take a different tack -Ñ they want to make your flesh creep with bisexual panic.In bed with her husband, Catherine plays a game of ÒletÕs you and him fuck,Ó using the clinical words Òpenis,Ó ÒanusÓ and ÒsemenÓ as she tantalizes Ballard with the idea of a tryst with Vaughan. Crash shows its Õ70s roots most clearly in the way it equates the promiscuous with the anonymous.The Õ70s were, as some rascal (probably Paul Krassner) once noted, a hotbed of hotbeds. The science fiction of the day, reacting to the sexual revolution, took matters to extremes. Robert SilverbergÕs frightening, vertiginous novel The World Inside, for instance, was about the future denizens of mile-tall apartment towers wandering the halls at night to ÒtopÓ their neighbors. The novel chillingly posited blind promiscuity as a tool of social control.What could be scarier than the most profound thing in our lives -Ñ the most profound thing in the lives of us atheists, anyway -Ñ becoming so common as to lose all emotional weight? But because of AIDS, open marriages donÕt flourish as they once did, even though the subject of open marriage is used by tabloid talk shows to make audiences froth. Cronenberg courts spookiness with the bed games the couple plays, but the resonance isnÕt as strong as it once might have been.CrashÕs visions of scarred lovers is far more timely, however. Much of the film is sex with scar tissueÑnumb sex, as when Ballard tries to mate with a deep, vulvic scar running down GabrielleÕs braced leg. Scarred lovers represent our own end-of-the-century terrors, the ÒneuroticaÓ (to use a word coined by the band Redd Kross) of artists in understandable dread of a new eon. Scars make a love object hard and wounded at the same time. When self-inflicted, as in piercing and tattoos, the scars frame that sexually irresistible state of being young and doomed.The survivors in Crash are like Count Almasy, the crashed and burnt hero of The English PatientÑthe softer version of CrashÕs neurotica. Almasy is, like Vaughan, so scarred that he doesnÕt feel any pain anymore. In Crash as well, the pain is transfiguring; the victims arenÕt in obvious pain but are instead high, stoned out from some indefinable shock.Crash isnÕt as much of a good time as, say, the other strange and sexually twisted signpost of 1997, Lost Highway. David LynchÕs heavy, beautifully composed surfaces conceal a sense of passion and choler. LynchÕs fury and trepidation are something of a comfort when youÕre out having your mind probed at an art movie.BallardÕs writing is cold and often quite pure, and Cronenberg has captured the metallic sheen of those clipped sentences. Still, Crash is the cinematic equivalent of those chrome vibrators you sometimes see in porn. Persuasive, no doubt -Ñ to some people terribly thrilling. But I think most would prefer something a little warmer.BRIDGE OF SCREAMSDespite the aged quality of the way Crash uses an open relationship to scare viewers, the filmÕs mood accurately captures the spirit of our times. But Crash has only one mood and one facet -Ñ you canÕt talk of acting styles in this cinematic gathering of the zoned-out.More convincing than the by-now much-used trope of marital alienation is the successful way Cronenberg has preserved BallardÕs imagery of apartment towers surrounded by moats of freeways. The film suggests a truly frightening future. SpaderÕs Ballard comments on how bad the traffic is getting. Watching him drive, you think: Freeways are six-laned now; will they be 12-laned in 20 years?Thanks to CronenbergÕs skill, the film sometimes seems like that bridge to the 21st century that politicans love to prattle about. Unlike most people who have imagined such a metaphoric link, Ballard and Cronenberg understand the real implication of the phrase. Once youÕre on a bridge, you canÕt turn around.----------OPTIONAL SIDEBARAlways Crashing in the Same Car: Automotive Lust and AlienationJ.G. BallardÕs Crash has inspired a spectrum of tech-obsessed writers, artists, moviemakers and musicians, including David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division. The NormalÕs minimalist 1978 hit, ÒWarm Leatherette,Ó urged listeners to Òjoin the car-crash set.Ó Woody AllenÕs Annie Hall includes a fine satire of Ballardesque writing in Christopher WalkenÕs little speech about how he wants to die in an aesthetic car wreck. (What a Vaughan Walken would have made!)In the unjustly neglected Aria, a 1988 selection of short films set to opera scores by such directors as Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard and Derek Jarman, Ken Russell borrowed brilliantly from BallardÕs theme of sexualized car wrecks. There is no dialogue in the Russell sequence, which is staged to ÒNessun DormaÓ from PucciniÕs Turnadot (the same music that Nick Nolte listened to as he obsessed over Rosanna Arquette in New York Stories). In a symbolist neo-Egyptian ceremony, a woman (Linzi Drew) is robed, encrusted with red sequins and crystal rhinestones, crowned with windshield glass and finally branded as Queen of the Car Crash. The rhinestones turn to broken pieces of safety glass, and the veils on the servants turn into operating-room masks. The injured woman is hallucinating the whole thing in an emergency room. The physical horror of a car crash here is more terrible here than it is in all of Crash.Ballard wasnÕt working in a vacuum. The model for Ballard and CatherineÕs open marriage could be found in the early sexual-revolution plots of AntonioniÕs trilogy LÕAvventura, La Notte and LÕEclisse, as well as in many other European films of the 1960s, with their stories of dead, unaffectionate, bourgeois marriages propped up with cynical affairs. Jean-Luc GodardÕs Weekend (1967), a one-fingered driverÕs salute to the internal combustion engine, is the film that most directly anticipates Crash. GodardÕs often-merry combination of roadway mania and sexual decadence unfolds as a series of sketches about roadside atrocities, jammed roads and murderous guerrilla activities held together with a discourse on politics. The famous tracking shot past an absurdly long pileup is a gorgeous foolÕs parade scored to braying horns, at the head of which is a bloody car crash.Incidents throughout Weekend directly anticipate Crash: sex next to upside-down cars, adulterous couples watching a traffic accident from their balcony and a sequence in which a wife describes a threesome to her husband. BallardÕs apolitical, morbid, ironic tone is more in tune with our times than GodardÕs Marxist gags, but Weekend has a point of viewÑnaive though it might be -Ñ and Crash doesnÕt. The cartoonish Òeat the richÓ cannibalism Weekend endorses is closer to the love and rage that cars inspire than the refrigerated, sexually parasitic marriage of Catherine and Ballard.CAR-CRASH PORNOne of the frustrated motorists in Weekend tells her husband about an affair she had, complaining that Òcuddling in a car is dreary.Ó Maybe so, but movies love the look of cars; they love to record the highlights of their shiny hides, love to make the equation between automobiles and sex. Throughout the Õ70s, there are numerous examples of more deliberate car-crash porn. The love between man and automobile was specially strained during those years.Count backward and consider the movies of the era: first, The Blues Brothers (1980), in which more than 60 cars were destroyed and a genre was ended through sheer wretched excess; the stupid last half hour of the otherwise superb Used Cars (also 1980); Smokey and the Bandit (1977); Moving Violation (1976); Gone in 60 Seconds (1974); The French Connection (1971). Steven Spielberg, who, along with George Lucas, pioneered the special-effects orgasm, made his name with his superb handling of car chases in Duel (1971) and The Sugarland Express (1974). There were external reasons for the car-crash decade in movies. An Arab oil embargo of 1974 resulted in gas rationing and lines at the gas pumps. Annual crops of oversized Detroit lemons, built for cheap gas, rusted on the asphalt. The 1970s saw massive crude-oil spills and the beginnings of the ecology movement.BallardÕs novel was just the most artistically precise expression of the eraÕs automotive angst. ItÕs no surprise that during these disturbances, people once lined up at theaters to watch automobiles be slaughtered by the score, smashed into each other, slammed into concrete, tossed into lakes or burned alive.