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Always Crashing in the Same Car

Automotive lust and alienation race through the films, books and music of the last 30 years

By Richard von Busack

J.G. BALLARD'S Crash has inspired a spectrum of tech-obsessed writers, artists, moviemakers and musicians, including David Bowie, Nine Inch Nails and Joy Division. The Normal's minimalist 1978 hit, "Warm Leatherette," urged listeners to "join the car-crash set." Woody Allen's Annie Hall includes a fine satire of Ballardesque writing in Christopher Walken's 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 Ballard's theme of sexualized car wrecks. There is no dialogue in the Russell sequence, which is staged to "Nessun Dorma" from Puccini's Turandot (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 is more terrible here than it is in all of Crash.

Novelist Ballard wasn't working in a vacuum. The model for Ballard and Catherine's open marriage could be found in the early sexual-revolution plots of Antonioni's trilogy L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse, 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 Godard's Weekend (1967), a one-fingered driver's salute to the internal combustion engine, is the film that most directly anticipates Crash. Godard's 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 fool's 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. Ballard's apolitical, morbid, ironic tone is more in tune with our times than Godard's Marxist gags, but Weekend has a point of view--naive though it might be--and Crash doesn't. The cartoonish "eat the rich" 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 Porn

ONE OF THE FRUSTRATED motorists in Weekend tells her husband about an affair she had, complaining that "cuddling in a car is dreary." 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 '70s, 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.

Ballard's novel was just the most artistically precise expression of the era's automotive angst. It's 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.

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From the March 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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Copyright © 1997 Metro Publishing, Inc.



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