The Cathode Ray Mission: Crash and the End of History
It should be no secret that I’m embedded deeply within the David Cronenberg cult, the title of these criticism articles being a reference to Videodrome should be a dead enough giveaway. For a man whose career has honed in on all the goopy, gory, erotic multitudes of human psychology and physiology, Crash (1996) might still be his most extreme effort, which is a feat to consider. Based on J.G. Ballard’s 1973 novel of the same name, Cronenberg’s Crash strips away everything that we think defines movies — plot, character, genre, etc. — to get to the heart of what he believes drives human behavior: the twin compulsions of sex and death.
This is usually the part of the essay where I would give a brief outline of what happens in the film so that I can have a foundation for future points to refer back to, but that’s wholly unnecessary in this case. Crash is not a movie with a plot or really a narrative progression of any recognizable sort, it’s an alternating series of soft-pornography and violent car crashes. Instead of defined goals motivating character behavior, and by extension plot, the prime motivating forces are sex and death and the ever-increasing proximity between the two. Crash earned a reputation of controversy upon release, even being banned outright in certain parts of the UK, and even twenty-four years on from its release it remains a genuinely shocking film, even to someone like me who is well-versed in Cronenberg’s boundary-pushing sensibilities.
One of the main reasons for this reputation is in its extremely graphic display of sexuality. Almost nothing is left to the imagination, but beyond just the extremity of what is shown is how non-normative the sexuality is. This is a movie about people with a fetish for car crashes, and the sex is treated fetishistically — cold, detached, dispassionate, impersonal. The proximity to death conjures associations with necrophilia, and while the necrophilic act doesn’t occur, there are all sorts of other deviant sexualities on display. The main characters, James (James Spader) and Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger) both have many sexual partners, and describe their polyamorous encounters to each other after a long day of fucking and sucking. Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) and James each indulge in homosexual acts, and a homoerotic undercurrent moves through most of the film between James and Vaughan (Elias Koteas). There’s also a sexualization of physically disabled people, culminating in James having intercourse with a scar on Gabrielle’s (Rosanna Arquette) leg suffered from a car accident. To try and consider the sexualities on display in Cronenberg’s films along normative categories like heterosexual or homosexual is a gross simplification, as they move far beyond everyday categorizations and approach the deeply uncomfortable furthest boundaries of sexual conceptions, in doing so becoming a sort of referendum on human sexuality itself. What drives human sexual desires? What can be hoped to be gained? At what point do two consenting adults go too far?
The other side of the equation of Crash are the car crashes, and while less frequent than the sex scenes they are no less important, beginning with the first crash where James runs head-on into Helen’s car, launching her husband through both windshields and killing him instantly. It’s a moment that is shockingly visceral, the explosion of glass and the crumpling of metal and the crushing of bodies is so immediate and violent it’s difficult to watch. It feels glib to say that this is a movie about sex and car crashes, but besides being accurate, it’s not something that’s treated lightly. Every car crash is an incredibly traumatizing event, but the trauma is part of the attraction. If the threat of actual death wasn’t real, it wouldn’t be worth it, and scars and braces and limps become marks of virility as much as they are physical handicaps. The ending of the film shows James pushing Catherine off the highway over the embankment, after which he runs down and lies down next to her. “Are you alright?” he asks, and she, bloody and bruised, replies “I think I’m alright,” to which James responds “Maybe next time.” There are many ways to interpret this final exchange, but one of the more apparent ones is that serious injury was an intended result of the crash, that because Catherine is alright the experiment was a failure. The violence has become inextricable from the sex, and in fact is what gives it any value anymore for the characters.
Beyond just being some stylized, extreme pornography, Cronenberg’s formal approach to the material transforms the film into something much bigger in its aims, something closer to a diagnosis of a subject within a postmodern landscape. If Videodrome works to show the way that the perception of reality has been forever changed by our collective exposure to media and technology, Crash works to survey the wreckage of that exposure and understand what we do in the aftermath, in a world where reality is shifting and uncertain and where people have been reduced to mechanistic functions instead of individual subjects.
Everything in the film, from the literal opening credits on, has a feeling of sickly smoothness, untextured and glossy, all steel greys and cobalt blues. The landscape of the film is nothing but high-rise apartments and highways stretching on endlessly into the expanse. The only element that resists this quality is Vaughan, who argues that “prophecy is ragged and dirty” and occupies a cluttered home with some of his collaborators, but he succumbs to his own prophecy and passes on, nothing more than a bump in the road. This iciness extends to the sex as well. In the words of Roger Ebert, Cronenberg is “making a pornographic movie without the pornography […] He’s taking the form of a pornographic movie without the function or the content.” There’s a lot of sex on-screen, but virtually none of the eroticism there should be with it, even the foreplay is unbearably clinical and joyless. Sex becomes something performed mechanically, an act performed not for pleasure or reproduction but for the sake of itself; all of the blood-pumping excitement is displaced onto the car crashes, made clear practically everywhere in the film but especially when Helen, Gabrielle, and James are watching an old crash test videotape that freezes up as the battering ram is about to collide with the vehicle. Helen stands up, and somewhat frantically tries to get the tape to continue playing, to see the collision occur. For lack of a better term, she’s edging, and she’s anxious that she’s been interrupted before the climax of the video when the penetration of the ram into the car will occur. When the tape fixes itself, she calms down, and is visibly relieved when the crash happens and happens over again in replays.
“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,” is how Vaughan describes his grand plan. What has happened to these characters is that they have been dulled down, whether they realize it or not, to the point that whatever could previously inspire an emotional response in them no longer can, and that only something of such force as a car crash and the sexual energy released from it can satiate their libido. They strive for ego death through bodily death. It’s a fatalistic and ultimately apocalyptic vision, Mad Max filtered through a Mercedes catalog. The release date of the film plays no small part in informing this feeling. On the verge of a new, uncertain millennium, Crash proposes a finality to the human vision that persisted before. Jessica Kiang quotes Ballard in her essay packaged with the Criterion edition, saying “To die in a car crash is a unique twentieth-century finale,” but more than a finale, a car crash symbolizes the extent to which humanity has been transformed by technology in the previous century, to an almost unrecognizable degree. No invention has garnered so much human dependence, has become so entwined with human self-conception, as the car, and no death of the machine coincides so neatly with the death of the operator like a car crash. Vaughan earlier describes his car crashing project as “reshaping the human body through technology” (an apt description for Cronenberg’s career project as well); he dismisses this later as being superficial and safe, and probably because it’s so easy to prove that it’s hardly worth the effort. But even so, it’s worth recognizing that these are not human subjects, that there is no such thing as a purely human subject anymore, only differing ratios of skin and steel, and that there is nothing left to do but to keep crashing into each other over and over again, hoping to spark some latent feeling that’s long since been buried. Videodrome made the promise of a new flesh supplanting the old, and Crash fulfills it.