(WARNING: This is NOT about the dull and depressing Oscar Winner about racism!!! As ‘High Rise’ is due out in the cinemas shortly, I thought I’d go back and review other film adaptations of J.G.Ballard’s books!)
“Has anyone seen James Ballard?”
“I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit,” J.G. Ballard once said of his novel ‘Crash.’ If you’ve seen any of David Cronenberg’s, you’ll agree that Cronenberg has a similar delectable taste for that sentiment. In Cronenberg’s adaptation of ‘Crash,’ we have a perfect symbiosis of author and director Cronenberg managed to make a film out of the unfilmable ‘Naked Lunch.’ He did a similar miracle with ‘Crash,’ managing to distil the essence Ballard’s novel without showing buckets of semen, gratuitous genitalia or Elizabeth Taylor. In doing so, he created not only a superb film, but one of the best films of the 1990s.
When first played at the Cannes Film Festival, some people walked out during the film, and there was considerable controversy around it soon afterwards. Consider that the subject matter is people getting sexually aroused by car crashes. There are more sex scenes in this movie than your average porno. There’s even a sex scene where the main character, James Ballard, sticks his penis into the healing thigh wound of a female car crash survivor. But ‘Crash’ does not glorify the act of sex like your typical pornography; it dissects every sex scene with a dispassionate gaze. ‘Crash’ is about the psychology of sex and not about the viewer’s potential arousal whilst watching sex scenes.
“The car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event”
It feels as though we are as distanced from the characters as they are from each other. James Ballard and his wife Katherine engage in affairs, and then ask each other about their sexual encounters whilst having sex. The dialogue is short and to the point, without any insight into their feelings or deeper motivations. The first glimpse of a true character interaction is Ballard’s car crash. The interaction is with Helen, who’s in the other car. Her husband is flung through the window and into Ballard’s windscreen. Helen and Ballard examine each other with a fascination that is something unique to the film (up until that point). As she struggles to release herself from her seatbelt, Helen reveals her breast to Ballard (a symbolic gesture that we see several times into the film). Through Helen, Ballard meets Dr. Vaughan, an obsessive advocate of the sexual potential of the car crash…
Of course, the sex scenes and the car crash scenes are vital parts of the film’s success, but for very different reasons. The film opens with two parallel sex scenes, one involving Katherine in an aeroplane hangar, and the other involving Ballard in an editing office. Each one is filmed clinically and coldly, less about the sex that the underlying meaning of the act. They are both bored, both with each other and modern life. Sex is a futile attempt to overcome this boredom. Their later sex scene, whilst discussing their affairs, overlooks a motorway in a hint of what is to come, a hint of what can break them from the chains of modernity. The first ‘real’ sexual encounter takes place between Ballard and Helen, driven by their mutual experience of a car crash. But even that is short, fumbling and disappointing. Most sex scenes involve talk, in an effort to relive a past experience or meditate on a fantasy (such as Ballard and Katherine’s sex scene where she asks him about his thoughts on sex with Vaughan. “Have you ever tasted semen?” she asks, more aroused by her words than Ballard’s penetration).
“Would you kiss it? Or suck it straight away?”
Unlike the sex scenes, the car crash scenes feel vivid, brutal and intense. They lack any gloss or sheen, instead focusing on the damage to both the car and the drivers/passengers. You won’t find car crashes like this in your typical Hollywood film. The cars collide with each other in a horrifying manner, melding and meshing together like the writhing bodies we see on the screen. When Vaughan attempts to ride Helen off the road, it’s filmed like foreplay (and Ballard and Helen later repeat the same experiment). As intimate moments, they are crucial to the understanding of the film. On a simple level, the car crash and sex act both involve violent penetration. But in ‘Crash,’ the car crashes, not the sex acts, are the pivotal and important moments in the characters’ lives. Vaughan does say that his ‘venture’ is about “the reshaping of the body by modern technology,” but later admits that the line (and much of his philosophy) is a deception to entice people.
However, many of Cronenberg’s earlier films are about the powers of technology to change man (‘The Fly’ and ‘Videodrome’ are prime examples), so it’s difficult not to see the film through this lens. Car crashes will change people forever, but the inherent risk of driving a car is death through crashing. Does our impulse for convenience belie our fear of death? You could even bring in Freud’s death drive if you wanted to, and question the relation between the death drive and the sex drive. Indeed, the characters of this film are aroused by the mere image of a car crash (Ballard, Helen and Gabrielle masturbate each other whilst watching footage of a test crash dummy). They view the car crashes as something to bring them together, to initiate a relationship that is impossible to find elsewhere in the late twentieth century.
“Maybe the next one, darling”
‘Crash’ is a challenging film. Sex and violence are brought together in a way that is absent in most films. It’s less a warning on the horrors of the car crash than a lurid dissertation on them. If the car crash is indeed “a fertilizing than a destructive event,” as Vaughan posits, why should we fear it? In the end, the car crash is what drags Ballard and Katherine out of their boredom and brings them together, in a genuine sense, for the first time in the film. But as challenging as it is, ‘Crash’ is necessary viewing. It’s Cronenberg at his very best, filtering Ballard’s vision through his own twisted lens, mixing fascination with repulsion. It really is unlike anything you’ve seen before, and may take more than one viewing to fully appreciate it. View it as a commentary on the lack of human relations in the late twentieth century (or even today), or as a commentary on the death drive and the sex drive. But, whatever you do, view it!
VERDICT: 9/10. A provative film that intrigues and disgusts in equal measures, ‘Crash’ a brilliant adaptation of Ballard’s book and a fantastic film in its own right.
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