Why I Love… #45: Crash

Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and James (James Spader) find new avenues of sexual communication together
Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) and James (James Spader) find new avenues of sexual communication together

Year: 1996

Director: David Cronenberg

Stars: James Spader (James Ballard), Elias Koteas (Vaughan), Deborah Kara Unger (Catherine Ballard), Holly Hunter (Helen Remington), Rosanna Arquette (Gabrielle)

Genre: Drama / Literary Adaptation

I’ve wanted to do a piece about David Cronenberg’s Crash for a while now. Since I started this series, actually. Oddly the main, ahem, driving force that has provoked me into actually doing it has been Werner Herzog’s 1976 film Heart Of Glass in which he reportedly hypnotised his cast. It’s a strange, uneven viewing experience, one that moves at a snail’s pace. I don’t mind that; many of my favourite films are slow, deliberate affairs. Yet Heart Of Glass (which borders on the downright tedious at times) is oddly disturbing for the zoned-out performances given by its actors. Every emotion appears reached at half-speed, is either subdued or bizarrely heightened. It’s a woozy film, one which almost lulls the viewer into a trance-like state, and it made me ask myself which film had most thoroughly hypnotised me?

The answer is Cronenberg’s Crash.

Not to be confused with the Oscar-baiting film of the same name that appeared around a decade later, Cronenberg’s film is based on J.G. Ballard’s seminal novel in which a  middle-class professional couple discover a subculture of people who are sexually aroused exclusively by cars. The extreme apex of their movement is a man named Vaughan, a former television personality who is fascinated by the orgasmic possibilities of a car crash. Ballard, casting himself as his own protagonist, explores a strange, disquieting world in which obsession overrides rationale. Both the novel and it’s adaptation unsurprisingly courted controversy.

Cronenberg changes little in his adaptation, aside from transporting the setting from Greater London’s suburbs to generic North America and omitting Vaughan’s celebrity past, as well as his obsession with Elizabeth Taylor; one of the only affectations which dates the book firmly in the mid 20th century. Resisting the urge to enforce the usual narrative constraints on his film, Cronenberg’s movie is as much a tone poem as Ballard’s novel – a series of interconnected scenes that are about expressing moods and ideas over a conventional story. Sure, the first half an hour takes it’s time to (expertly) set up who the characters are and how they are connected, but from there we’re into more languid territory. Set piece after set piece pile up like wrecked automobiles in slow motion.

The technique used to achieve this is astonishing. Cronenberg was by this time nothing if not a creature of habit, surrounding himself with a tried and tested company. He had already developed a visual shorthand with director of photography Peter Suschitzky, and here it is at its most accomplished. The camera glides serenely around the characters and their vehicles, instilling an atmosphere of almost euphoric calm. This, coupled with Howard Shore’s remarkable, deliberate guitar-driven score, creates that hypnotic effect. It draws the viewer into this world. Any unease if offset by the quixotic flavour of bliss concocted between sound and image.

Enhancing the mood is the look of the film. From the Ballards’ minimalist modern apartment to the clinical car showrooms to Vaughan’s distressed hideout and filthy Lincoln, the set decoration and production design hint at a strange near-future, despite nothing in the film being especially ‘sci-fi’. Crash feels like a film accelerating toward a new and dangerous ideology. This is expressed  as much in the design elements as it is in Vaughan’s menacing conjecture about the “reshaping of the human body by modern technology”.

Whilst we’re on the subject of Vaughan, let’s turn to the performances. Everyone deserves credit for their committed work in what could’ve turned out very differently. As much as the production aspects are key to what makes Crash work, they’d be nothing without the actors nailing the characters. Particular praise must go to Deborah Kara Unger’s unflinching portrayal of Catherine. She appears icily fearless. Holly Hunter takes the lead female credit for her fame, but Unger upstages her in every scene. Seductively detached, she commands great screen presence. But then there is Elias Koteas as Vaughan.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Koteas’ work in Crash is probably my favourite screen performance by an actor. The film’s content and subject matter may have closed doors at many of the more conservative award ceremonies that year, but Koteas deserved any and all supporting actor gongs going. He is astonishing. Speaking softly, slowly, calmly, yet projecting a formidable sexual confidence, his Vaughan is a lumbering, sincere behemoth. He takes the character from Ballard’s book – already a vivid creation – and makes more of him. It’s breathtakingly charismatic. If I ever had a movie man-crush…

The aforementioned sincerity is what glues this all together. Cronenberg approaches Ballard’s investigations into obsession and the darker shades of the human psyche with scientific seriousness, making Crash feel almost like a documentary from another dimension, or some grave reconstruction of actual events. By focusing the characters’ fixation on something abstract like the erotic potential of a car crash, both Ballard and Cronenberg allow us to view it unfiltered, in all it’s reckless, untamed force. This is human behaviour. The absurdity of obsession.

For these characters there is no arc, no ‘realisation’ or ‘return to the light’. There is no folly. Crash follows them down the rabbit hole. By the end of the movie James and his wife haven’t learned some moral lesson, they are more dedicated to cause than ever, comforting each other after breaching a barrier and tumbling down the embankment that “maybe the next one” will be the one. A perfect union in death – the ultimate climax.

The campaign to ban Crash here in the UK by the Daily Mail was as feeble and pointless as it was wearily predictable. Cronenberg’s film though frequently explicit is never pornographic. This is cinema as art, posing questions, evoking ideas, asking the audience for a response. Everything has a point to make. Whilst no single image here is any more gratuitous than anything to be found in so many softcore videos, it seems it is the coalescing of sex and death which ruffles feathers.

As such you’re probably the best judge as to whether this is a film you’re going to be able to appreciate. No, it’s not for everyone, but those who enjoy provocation and who are intrigued by debate will find reward here. See past the tabloid hubbub and the gaudy quotes on the film posters and DVD jackets and you’ll find disquieting food for thought and astonishingly constructed cinema. David Cronenberg’s best film, in my eyes.

Hypnotic.

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