‘David Cronenberg’s ”Crash” suggests exploitation at its most disturbingly sick’, wrote the NYTimes, the Daily Mail raged ‘Ban This Car Crash Sex Film!‘ and Roger Ebert explained ‘All of the key characters in “Crash” live in such a trance; they are hopelessly fascinated by a connection between eroticism and automobile accidents. Now of course there is no connection between eroticism and automobile accidents’. I beg to differ. The movie CRASH by DAVID CRONENBERG (Naked Lunch) had been booed off screen when it premiered in Cannes in the year 1997 (it still managed to get the Special Jury Prize), not because it was a horrific piece of garbage, but because the audience wasn’t ready for this type of movie. They just didn’t understand it, just like today 20 years later; many moviegoers rather crucify the movie, instead of giving it another thought.
G. BALLARD: ‘It may be the doorway to something more interesting. That’s always been the message of my fiction. We need to explore total alienation and find what lies beyond.’
This movie has a lot in common with BLUE VELVET (David Lynch, 1986.). On the surface is the common world, a ‘standard’ world, but underneath, hidden deep underground lurks the darker side of humanity, full of perversion and evil. Albeit neither of the two films fits the profile at first sight, both can be considered fairy tales.
G. BALLARD: ‘It [Crash] is a cautionary tale.’
It’s not clearly defined if the movie the audience is seeing is realistic or an alternative universe. A ‘what if’ story with a sarcastic undertone, showing a possibility and not the reality the audience is expecting.
DAVID CRONENBERG: ‘I’m giving you a reality, but then I’m saying, ‘It’s not really the reality’.’
Many signs hint that the movie is just an option and not the reality:
- It is very stylized
- It has unemotional characters, they have no eye contact
- It has a dreamlike editing
- The film is self-aware
The characters don’t change throughout the entire movie, because they represent symbols, not real people. The main themes of the story are about jealousy and understanding. Gaining acceptance and changing values. After a serious car accident, JAMES BALLARD is strangely attracted to cars and soon he finds himself inside a group of people which are turned on by car accidents. Ballard’s wife CATHERINE feels excluded so James tries to re-connect with her through his strange attraction.
DAVID CRONENBERG: ‘It’s an existential romance.’
The goal of the movie is to connect the people involved, but not through love. Someone wants to connect through sex, others through raw energy and some through awareness and rationality.
THE CHARACTER OF JAMES BALLARD
JAMES BALLARD (named after the author of the book is played by James Spader, which may seem odd, but it’s just the writer’s ego talking) has an open relationship with his wife and he likes it when she tells him every little detail of her sexual adventures with other men. He doesn’t seem to mind his wife being unfaithful, ’cause he knows he is a boring douche with no imagination whatsoever that could spark up their rusty relationship into other, more mature dimensions. He is very sincere with his wife, but it’s her who is in control of their relationship. Somewhere along their marriage both of them got extremely bored of one another, but instead of going to couples therapy, they try to find alternative, more joyful ways to re-connect.
When he experiences the crash which turns his life upside down, he feels traumatized, behaves like a scared sissy and can’t get a grip of what’s happening around him. Some kind of paranoia sets in and he feels like he managed to escape the ‘matrix’. The purpose of his life shifted as he has to be around cars, in contact with or inside cars, exercising coitus. He can’t explain why he feels like that and VAUGHAN, his new best friend, tries to explain it to him, but that explanation isn’t satisfying enough. So, he decides to accept everything that comes his way. Experiencing a turn-on by crash test dummies? No problem. Getting a personalized tattoo of something he didn’t think of before? Yes, please. Getting to fuck his new bff? Sure, why not. Maybe one day he will understand why.
JAMES: ‘It’s all very satisfying. I’m not sure I understand why.’
CATHERINE BALLARD’S CHARACTER
For an open minded and adventurous wife, CATHERINE (Deborah Kara Unger) became jealous of her husband in a split second. It’s not hard to imagine that she manipulates James all along, before as well as after the accident. Before the accident their marriage wasn’t the same anymore, no thrills, no emotions, but they didn’t want to separate, because they understood each other perfectly. She suggested spicing up their sex life with random sexual encounters, as seen in the first scenes of the movie; she is courageous enough to expose herself in the airplane hangar to her flight teacher, not knowing how he would react to such a sight. Seeing James in the airport hospital after the accident, she didn’t care about his emotions or his pain, she only wanted to help him masturbate, because it gives her the kicks, but was eventually disappointed when he refused to go through with it. Gee, I wonder why. When James found his ‘accidental’ friends, she felt jealous because he was having all the kinky fun and she was excluded from the ‘CCC – Car Crash Club’.
Her manipulation skills reached a new high when she is having sex with James, but is talking about Vaughan like she wants James to have intercourse with him, not her.
CATHERINE: ‘Would you like to sodomize him? Would you like to put your penis right into his anus? Just thrust it up his anus?’
In the end, she desperately wants to belong to the Car Crash Club, because now that Vaughan is gone, she can ask James if he can cause a car crash hard enough so it would qualify her to be a member of the CCC. James, of course, was gentle and careful. He didn’t want to kill her, only slightly induce a fear and some light injuries, but she was disappointed and began to cry. James tries to comfort her by saying ‘Maybe the next time’.
DAVID CRONENEBERG: ‘He asked ‘Are you alright?’. ‘I think I am alright.’ Because she really don’t want to be alright. She wants more, more of a crash, more, closer to death. It’s of course critical that you listen to what he says. His last words in the movie and understand what that means.’
‘Maybe the next time’ is the one which will bring James and Catherine the ultimate adrenaline kick to spark a new life to their emotionless relationship, so that they can continue to live their lives just as they used to when they became husband and wife.
He is a psycho. Period. For reals. Exclamation mark. VAUGHAN’S (Elias Koteas) explanations are unreliable. He is a voyeur, a criminal, a manipulator, a scammer and on top of it, a killer. Before he and James became buddies, Vaughan was inside some car crashes himself. He developed a fascination about crashes, so he began to investigate the victims and their behavior. He photographs and collects everything that has any kind of connection to car crashes and he develops a theory on why it’s important to have a collision inside two metal giants.
VAUGHAN: ‘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 intensity that’s impossible in any other form.’
Throughout the years he himself became emotionless with his car crash fetish. It is best shown in the scene where the CCC gang watches a Swedish tape of crash test dummies performing accidents. Everyone inside the room is mesmerized with the crashes, like they are addicted to it; it even turns them heavenly on, everyone but Vaughan. He doesn’t even pay attention to the Swedish car exploitation flick; he is worried about the Jayne Mansfield car crash stunt that he will perform. That is because he got bored from car crashes, but got interested in car crash deaths instead. That is the reason why he recreates famous car deaths.
VAUGHAN: ‘No, I mean a crashed car with a history. Camus’ Facel Vega, Nathaniel West’s station wagon, Grace Kelly’s Rover 3500.’
He drives a Lincoln car, just like the one in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated. And his dream is to die inside a famous car in some spectacular way, shape or form (unfortunately it didn’t happen).
THE TURN ON
How can someone be turned on by a car crash? Basically, he or she is not turned on by the car crash itself, but with everything connected to it. Take James Ballard for example. He didn’t have a connection to cars whatsoever, but he had a connection to sex; a lot of it, in various shapes and forms.
So, in the moment when he experienced a car crash, he didn’t have an emotional reaction to the man that came crushing through his windshield, no, he made a connection with HELEN’S (Holly Hunter) exposed breast.
After that, his wife paid a visit to the hospital he was taken care of and there she tried to satisfy him by giving him a hand job. First of all, let’s put aside the moral dilemma that it’s inappropriate to have any kind of sexual practice inside a hospital, but to choose to describe a demolished car after an accident in every little detail so the patient can be turned on, well, that is peculiar. Why would Catherine do that? Because the hand job wasn’t meant for him, so much as for her, so he stopped her.
Not even a few days after that James works up the courage to see his car wreckage and he accidentally meets HELEN, the woman from the car accident. Feeling all guilty about killing her husband and being the one responsible for ruining her life, he offers her a lift to her workplace. On the way there, they encounter a near car collision. Both, pretty shocked, but glad to be alive, park the car and have a little of the old ‘in and out’ game. So, he was a string of a hair away to get killed again, in a car, with the woman he had an earlier accident with. The combination of a near death experience and remembering Helen’s exposed breast culminated in this sexual endeavor.
From that point on, he hangs out a lot with Helen and she introduces him to Vaughan. After seeing what Vaughan is all about, he doesn’t flinch, or freeze, he isn’t even shocked. He thinks ‘It’s a new way of experiencing sex, something that could bring me closer to my wife’. He sealed the deal to be the member of the gang, by accepting the cigarette Vaughan offered him, because James doesn’t smoke.
MARK KERMODE: ‘The thing with Crash is this it’s one of these movies, it’s hard to find anything wrong with it at all, but it’s also quite a hard film to like.’
Just like before, I can’t agree with that. For most audiences it was very hard to follow this movie. It didn’t make sense and it delivered outrageous premises. The problem wasn’t in the ideas itself; the problem lies in the script.
- The photo of the mysterious woman
Who is she? Why is she important? Why would James of all the things inside his car wreckage try to retain this photo? The women may be important in the book, but in the movie, it seems out of place. The audience is expecting to see her during the film, but never gets that satisfaction.
- No love story between James and Helen
These two characters meet by chance, through an accident. They are somehow connected through the emotional trauma they’ve been through. They even think alike.
JAMES TO CATHERINE: ‘Is the traffic heavier now? There seem to be three times as many cars as there were before the accident.’
HELEN: ‘It’s much worse now. You noticed that, did you? The day I left the hospital I had the extraordinary feeling that all these cars were gathering for some special reason I didn’t understand. There seemed to be ten times as much traffic.’
After they encounter a near accident together, they have a wild sex session in the car. Being somehow connected, they begin to hang out more and enjoy the same things. At least the movie is going in that direction, but somewhere in the middle of the movie Catherine takes over and Helen is completely forgotten. Everything was pointing to the possibility that James and Helen would end up together, because of their unique circumstances, but it never happened.
- The death of the Pedestrian
In the second half of the film, Vaughan was interrogated by the police. Catherine overheard their dialogue and she said:
‘Accident at the airport. A pedestrian was killed. They think he was run over intentionally. Don’t you think he looks a bit shaky?’
Assuming that there is evidence that Vaughan killed that guy, like him being afraid of the questions of the police officers, or the blood on the car handle James detected, even the fact that the pedestrian was run over, why the hell would he do that? There is exactly zero scenes in the movie which suggest that Vaughan had a grudge with someone, or that someone despised him. He was into recreating car crashes, not into killing people on purpose. The pedestrian element has nothing to do with the film the audience is watching.
- No emotional reaction of the characters whatsoever
When a film comes along, where most of the information isn’t blurted out by the characters through exposition, the moviegoer has to rely on reading the information from the emotions given by the characters. In this flick, none of the characters feel any emotion, so the audience stays confused during the whole show. The people feel no pain, or fear, nothing is out of the ordinary, they just except what lies before their eyes without questioning it. So, the spectator is confused all the time, because he can’t gather information vital for constructing the story. It feels dreamlike, which isn’t bad, but the dream is constructed by unconnected frames with no clues to create a goal or any meaning.
- Vaughan’s spectacular death
Vaughan has allowed himself to be fucked by James. James was the one penetrating Vaughan, just as Catherine predicted. Vaughan fell in love with James because of that dominance and got jealous of James’s wife, so he bended her car as a sign of rebellion.
James and Catherine decide to find Vaughan to get an explanation for his misbehaving. Vaughan waited for them behind the corner of a highway street, so he can tail them when they cruise by. Day suddenly switches to night and Vaughan appears behind James and Catherine. They have a small car chase where Vaughan pushes their car a few times, but not hard enough to cause an accident. Now, after some pushes, Vaughan seem to get bored and decides to leave them alone, only to take a stage dive with his car down the road where he crashed through the roof of a bus. Everything goes into flames and just as once Vaughan was, he isn’t anymore. What are his motives for his suicide? Why would he do that, when didn’t he plan every single detail? The death is so unspectacular, it left the audience cold. It should have mattered, because throughout the movie he was obsessed about famous car crashes, that every other option to die is immediately disregarded. The ending was changed from the book, cause in the book Vaughan crashed into the limousine of Elisabeth Taylor, so it is very spectacular, but what the audience witnessed in the film, was a lost opportunity.
OTHER ODD CREATIVE DECISIONS
Numerous elements in the film caused a shock in the audiences. Although the ‘heavy’ scenes are only implied people went into rage mode. Not one penetration was explicitly shown, so the audience can’t label it being porn. It has many sex scenes, but they can’t be taken outside the context of the film. Each sex scene advances the plot, so their purpose is clear. What audiences didn’t understand is that the film should have entailed even more outrageous scenes to get the message across. For example, the ‘getting aroused by cars’ part.
ELIAS KOTEAS: ‘I thought it didn’t go far enough.’
There are exactly 105 known paraphilias and one of them is called MECHANOPHILIA – a paraphilia involving sexual attraction to machines bicycles, motor vehicles, airplanes.
There is no scene in the film where the characters are really turned on by cars. They do have sex in cars, which is pretty common, but you don’t need to undergo a traumatic experience to get laid in the backseat. There is no scene where the characters stalk a car, pet it, make love to it or have any masturbatory sensation solely with the car, because the car themselves are not important; not the brand of the car, not the colour of the car, not even the leather inside the car. The characters don’t have sexual intercourse with vehicles, but they do have a lot of sex with the people.
Also the whole theory about ‘men merging with technology’ falls completely apart, because none of this endeavor is shown inside the film. If it were true, at least one of the characters would inflict injuries on themselves, so they would get a metallic arm, or foot a clavicle. By feeling addicted to being closer to technology and merging with it, the character would try to find ways to get a complete makeover and turn into a cyborg kind of being, but that didn’t happen. Also, GABRIELLE (Rosanna Arquette) isn’t half woman, half machine. She has appendages which help her to walk at least, because her body was scattered in a car crash, but she isn’t a ‘metal woman’, nor does she want to be.
If it were true that car crashes arouse the characters, why wasn’t there at least one sex scene after the ‘James Dean’ performance? Granted, it is a simulated car crash, but real enough to get the juices flowing. None of the characters felt any urge, or sudden energy, not even a sexual reference was given. The same applies to the ‘Jayne Mansfield’ crash. No one was aroused by it, the characters were only fascinated by the look and ugliness of the crash. They stayed put and watched voyeuristically every move the policeman and the fireman were doing. Afterwards, it was obvious that Catherine wanted to have sex with Vaughan in the car James is driving, but not because she was aroused by the accident they witnessed, but because she was planning it for a long time. She was turned on by James’ kinky buddy the moment she saw him. He represented danger, excitement, the forbidden fruit and that gave her the right to approach him by exposing her breast as a sign to ‘take her’.
With that being said, the scene where the CCC watches the Swedish crash test dummies tape, makes no sense. It should show how car crashes are arousing to our beloved characters, but in reality it is the only scene which tries to convey that thought and it translates as rather funny and campy scene instead of a serious paraphilia the characters are experiencing.
THE OPENING SCENE
The opening title sequence is created in such a way that the names of the people involved in making these films come like cars from afar to the screen. There is even a light in the background which simulates other cars in the background of the ‘highway’. Each name has a fender bender to the font. The spectator is put into the position where he feels like being inside a car on a highway. The names ‘cars’ are coming directly at the audience, which induces an uneasy feeling, right from the start of the film. It engages the audience to get into the character’s shoes to understand why they do, what they do.
THE MYSTERIOUS NUMBER THREE
IAN SINCLAIR: ‘It’s a loop: sex acts arrive, like London buses, in threes: balconies, six lane expressways solitary aircraft like detached quotations from a Surrealist Poem.’
NUMBER 3 – Three is a moving forward of energy, overcoming duality, expression, manifestation and synthesis. Three is a birth of life, death, beginning, middle and end. An ancient wisdom says: ‘Messages or events that come in three’s are worth noticing’.
- Ballard’s parking spot – 435 added together is 12, added once again is 3
- Ballard’s car wreck number – 1983, added together 21, once again 3
- Vaughan’s license plate number – 867, added together is 21, which is 3
- Catherine has sex with three people in the film – Her airplane instructor, James and Vaughan
- Vaughan has sex with also three people in the film – Prostitute, Catherine, James
- Three people die inside the film – Helen’s husband, Seagrave, Vaughan
- James has the opportunity to drive Vaughan’s car three times in the film
IAN SINCLAIR: ‘There are numerological hints everywhere…’
Everything is somehow connected to the airport in the film. No one is leaving anywhere; they don’t even talk about the airport, so it has to have a different meaning for why it’s important. It is a metaphor for something very crucial to our characters.
- Helen Remington works there
- James’s wife has aircraft instructions
- Vaughan is picking up prostitutes from the airport
- James is oddly transferred into an airport hospital after the accident
- Many of the characters use the airport parking everyday
‘In a society where the richest always seem to get the most advantages in life, the average person is often trying to find a situation where they can escape this feeling of oppression. As they try to leave their everyday lives to perhaps take a vacation, they are often confronted with a direct metaphor of the society that they are trying to leave; the airport.’
The airport is a place of beginning, a new phase in life, a new state of mind and big expectations.
Throughout the entire movie the shots are designed to look like a vertical line. It is important, because they tell more information about the characters in the film.
‘Diagonal lines are unbalanced. They are filled with restless and uncontrolled energy. They can appear to be either rising or falling and convey action and motion. Their kinetic energy and apparent movement create tension and excitement. Diagonal lines are more dramatic than either horizontal or vertical lines.’
DAVID CRONENEBRG: ‘Even where I place the camera and how I compose the frame of someone sitting behind the wheel is quite off. It’s not normal. I don’t think you’ll see that very often – the way I framed these things.’
The movie deals with fantastic ideas and if it weren’t for the illogical details thrown inside the movie, it would have been more acceptable for the audience. The taboo theme would be still present, but it could be interpreted in many other, more exciting ways. This existing cut misses the beat after Catherine takes over and everything that was established up to that point is abandoned for the sake of getting the movie done. It is a very gutsy and bold decision of David Cronenberg to go down that route and it wasn’t in vain. Although the movie seems like a straightforward midnight joint, it has a lot more to offer than a linear fucked up story.
IAN SINCLAIR: ‘…there are many numbers and sounds from the grid through which Cronenberg’s Crash has to be interpreted.’
The movie has a specific tone, energy and atmosphere that are hard to duplicate and which hopefully will be remembered for a long long time.