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Broken on the Wheel

David Cronenberg & James Spader
Johnathan Wenk

Drive He Said: David Cronenberg (left) directs James Spader, who plays a jaded swinger seeking illicit pleasures at the scenes of auto accidents.

David Cronenberg and J.G. Ballard make carnage carnal in a risky 'Crash'

By Richard von Busack

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 may have nibbled at the ideas of Ballard's best-known novel--and some even anticipated the author's ideas. But Crash deserves praise for being an uncensored work in a very querulous age.

Cronenberg's artistic stature is solidified by his willingness to wave a red flag at one of the 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 Cronenberg's native Canada, but it's been held up in the United States until now.

When contacted two months ago, representatives of Fine Line (now part of Time Warner) wouldn't 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 Huston's film version of ex­Santa Cruzan Alison Anders' Bastard Out of Carolina because it contains incest scenes. (The warning signs were there from the moment that Turner ordered the painting of Bogart's face.)

It's no wonder that Crash makes distributors, theater owners, media moguls and cultural critics so nervous. Cronenberg's cinematic icicle represents an almost-perfect transformation in tone and image of Ballard's shocker about the lubricious joys of vehicular mayhem.

It's a provocation, this film, full of pornographic leg braces, spectacular bruisings and mechanical couplings. With its fetishist's-eye view of the world, Crash transpires in an aura of complete amorality, where endangering and killing bystanders for part of your sexual pleasure doesn't 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 lives--a trauma that in America equals the Vietnam War death toll every year--that 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 Ballard's 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--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 '70s, when the novel was written, as it is a glimpse through a shattered windshield at the millennium careening our way.

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More Crash Online:

Richard von Busack on automotive lust and alienation in the pop culture of the last 30 years.

The official site for the movie with animations.

Background on the film and an interview with the director, David Cronenberg.

For people who read French, a totally cool site about the movie from abroad.

An interview with J.G. Ballard, author of the book Crash.

An extensive site about Ballard, including the J.G. Ballard newsletter.

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Scar-tangled Bashers

BALLARD and Cronenberg were made for each other--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 Cronenberg's work have scope beyond mere frights. They're as sorrowful as the passages of a man's recovery from a coma of several years in The Dead Zone. They're as alienating as the scenes in Crash of an airport hospital that's empty and clean--as if the plastic wrapping had just been stripped off the furniture--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 cancer--the next lump you find on your body could bring you that close to changing into something else. "Lord, we know what we are but not what we may be," 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.

Ballard's books consider the possibility of human life becoming cheap beyond our worst imaginings. In his short story "The Drowned Giant," 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 as 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. Crash's 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 Cronenberg's intentions clear. Remember those ghastly posters of bikini models sprawled backside-up over the hoods of red Lamborghinis? (The cars may not have been Lamborghinis, 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 Catherine's 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 hangar's 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. It's 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 begins--an affair? sleeping with? no, fucking is the only proper word--Dr. 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 cultists--people who stage car crashes, thrill to them and live through them.

One member of the group, Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), especially fascinates Ballard. She's bolted into a variety of black braces and crutches, and wears a cutaway black breastplate of shiny vinyl. Arquette's lewd mechanical slouch and very dirty grin make her look like the robot Maria from Fritz Lang's 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 Vaughan's 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 doesn't 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. Cronenberg's handling of the too-cool spectators is especially morbidly witty, and Koteas' low-grade showman's spiel describing the circumstances of the crash has that self-possession you see in one of Bill Murray's creeps. But the nostalgia invoked by the reference to Dean is telling, because Crash is a strangely nostalgic movie. The early '70s 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 Gabrielle's alluring leg brace.

James Spader & Holly Hunter
Johnathan Wenk

Baby, You Can Drive My Car: James Spader and Holly Hunter get chummy behind the wheel.

Bisexual Chic

I 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 Burroughs' wild sex with a peaceful shot of Peter Weller snoozing innocently with a boyfriend. In Crash, both Ballard and Cronenberg take a different tack--they want to make your flesh creep with bisexual panic.

In bed with her husband, Catherine plays a game of "let's you and him fuck," using the clinical words "penis," "anus" and "semen" as she tantalizes Ballard with the idea of a tryst with Vaughan. Crash shows its '70s roots most clearly in the way it equates the promiscuous with the anonymous.

The '70s 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 Silverberg's frightening, vertiginous novel The World Inside, for instance, was about the future denizens of mile-tall apartment towers wandering the halls at night to "top" 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--the most profound thing in the lives of us atheists, anyway--becoming so common as to lose all emotional weight? But because of AIDS, open marriages don't 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 isn't as strong as it once might have been.

Crash's visions of scarred lovers is far more timely, however. Much of the film is sex with scar tissue--numb sex, as when Ballard tries to mate with a deep, vulvic scar running down Gabrielle's braced leg. Scarred lovers represent our own end-of-the-century terrors, the "neurotica" (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 Patient--the softer version of Crash's neurotica. Almasy is, like Vaughan, so scarred that he doesn't feel any pain anymore. In Crash as well, the pain is transfiguring; the victims aren't in obvious pain but are instead high, stoned out from some indefinable shock.

Crash isn't as much of a good time as, say, the other strange and sexually twisted signpost of 1997, Lost Highway. David Lynch's heavy, beautifully composed surfaces conceal a sense of passion and choler. Lynch's fury and trepidation are something of a comfort when you're out having your mind probed at an art movie.

Ballard's 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--to some people terribly thrilling. But I think most would prefer something a little warmer.

Bridge of Screams

DESPITE THE aged quality of the way Crash uses an open relationship to scare viewers, the film's mood accurately captures the spirit of our times. But Crash has only one mood and one facet--you can't 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 Ballard's imagery of apartment towers surrounded by moats of freeways. The film suggests a truly frightening future. Spader's 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 Cronenberg's 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 you're on a bridge, you can't turn around.


Crash (NC-17; 100 min.), directed and written by David Cronenberg, based on the novel by J.G. Ballard, photographed by Peter Suschitzky and starring James Spader, Holly Hunter, Elias Koteas and Rosanna Arquette.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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