“a near-perfect movie”

I recently bought a copy of “Hatchet Job”, an entertaining book by prominent British film critic Mark Kermode. One of the first remarks that jumped out at me was his description of David Cronenberg’s Crash as “brilliant … a near-perfect movie”. The late Roger Ebert also had a good opinion of this film, although it failed commercially and does not even appear to have become a “cult classic”. (The score and the production design are probably the most accessible and enjoyable aspects of the film. There is a lot of sex in the film, but it is neither romantic nor erotic. It is an incredibly “cold” film emotionally with very little (intentional) humour.)

This latest discovery that Mark Kermode admired the film so much has inspired me to turn what was once just part of an old, long blog post on films about Hollywood and the body into a standalone post. So here it is below:

Beautiful Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), crippled in a car accident, wearing callipers (leg braces) on her legs, attempts to get into a prestige car at a dealership:

“Crash”, directed by David Cronenberg, and released in 1996, was based on the novel of the same name by the late JG Ballard. It is about a fictional subculture of people who find meaning and sexual excitement from car accidents.

This parody trailer presents the film as if it were a romantic drama. It is not. This is cleverly cut to imply that it is:

The injuries and sex in the book and film are obsessively described and depicted, in a coldly clinical style. It is all quite feasible (even the intercourse with the wound on Gabrielle’s leg). Seldom, however, can a film have contained such a volume of sexual activity with almost no erotic force. It is all rather affectless.

Moreover the car crash fetish is so unlikely that it is a serious weakness in a major premise of the film. Most fetishes are perversions of normal sex – the wrong partner, the wrong orifice, part of a body only, enjoyment of some psychological state like humiliation, and so on. But who on earth gets off on car crashes? There are amputee fetishists. I have heard of men falling in love, or claiming to, with their cars. And even having sex with them in some way. And a man was reported to get sexually excited by being in car accidents when the other driver was a woman. But a whole subculture including “beautiful people” (the Ballards) all communally getting turned on by car accidents? Most unlikely, especially as fetishes are not known to be contagious and are rarely found in women.

What the film needed was some kind of explanation, even of the quasi-scientific kind that Cronenberg is capable of positing – a new drug, a new disease – to explain where this new perversion came from, and its social nature.

(Christmas Day, 2013: A book of Roger Ebert’s film reviews, “Your Movie Sucks”, which I just received as a Christmas present, contains this comment about Crash, “It was a good movie, but as I wrote at the time, it’s about ‘a sexual fetish that, in fact, no-one has’. I didn’t get a lot of letters disagreeing with me.” I am glad that he saw the same basic problem I did in this regard, and I am also glad that he thought it was a worthwhile film. I think it is a very interesting film, but I do not expect too many people to share that opinion.)

Personally I liked the scenes in the movie with the beautiful crippled girl. The scene with the car dealer never fails to fascinate and amuse me. I think my having spent time in a rehabilitation ward, with people wearing devices like that, brings it home to me personally. But is the scene sexy? No. Not even with Rosanna Arquette.

Here is the beginning of the scene, in Spanish. I cannot find an English version of this sequence in the prestige car dealer, but it loses little without the dialogue, being Cronenberg’s peculiar brand of humorous body horror:

[Rosanna Arquette seemed to have an affinity with metal at about this time in her career. Not long after appearing with metal callipers on her legs as Gabrielle in Crash, she appeared as Jody in Pulp Fiction with a face full of metal piercings.]

A remarkable feature of this film is that, as far as I can recall, although there are a number of couples portrayed, there are absolutely no children in the movie.

And then there is the scene at Seagrave’s house where they are all sitting around watching a crash test video as if it were porn. The actors just look uncomfortable. Holly Hunter’s acting is especially unconvincing. Arquette and Spader nearly succeed, perhaps because they naturally look more dumb and receptive. Are we seriously supposed to believe that a hard-headed, no-nonsense “immigration doctor” like Helen Remington would join a group of rather low-rent perverts including the Seagraves and the rather greasy-looking “hoodlum scientist” Vaughan (played by Elias Koteas)? It is socially as well as sexually unlikely.

Holly Hunter as Dr Helen Remington, in the centre on the couch; she is supposed to be getting aroused from watching a crash test video:

I am developing a sneaking suspicion that this film may have been intended to be “fan service” for certain people. Although I do maintain that the premise of the film, a subculture of people devoted to car crashes, is highly improbable, I do wonder if the scenes of Rosanna Arquette in calipers (leg-braces) might be of sexual interest to some paraphiliacs. Here is a page on “abasiophilia”, which lists “Crash” and the scenes with the blonde actress.

The film has an interesting score by Howard Shore, who has written the music for many of David Cronenberg’s films, as well as for the Lord of the Rings movies. But the film is firmly in cult movie territory, at best, with some very disturbing scenes, and a general air of teetering on the edge of absurdity. There are a few wry laughs, but it is mostly played very straight. I liked the casting of the main couple, both icy blonds; although they do not seem intelligent enough for their characters. And I found the character of Vaughan, the “hoodlum scientist”, to be too much hoodlum and not enough scientist.

I am not surprised the movie was not a great success. I am probably as likely to like such a film as anyone, being a fan of both Ballard and Cronenberg, but this film is simply de trop. It was a noble experiment, or at any rate an experiment, but it must be said to have largely failed. It even suffered the rare ignominy of having a later, better-known film made with the same name in 2004.

(LATER NOTE: In terms of box office, I am no expert, but the IMDb database suggests that the film cost 9 million dollars to make and only grossed about a third of that in America. So, presumably it was a flop, and a worse one than I had originally thought. Nor do I get the impression that it has become in any sense a cult favourite.)

Here is a review which makes some good points about the coldness of the film. It is hard to identify with any of the characters, which probably limits any movie’s appeal markedly.

One sign of a movie that can only aspire to cult status is laziness and illogicality. At the start of the film, “James Ballard” causes a fatal car accident through sheer inattention. And yet there is not even a hint of legal repercussions. It is hard to take such a movie seriously.

On the other hand, perhaps I am being unfair, and if one approaches the film in the right spirit it does have some strengths. Let us assume that the point is, as is suggested, the marriage of flesh and machine, and the attempt to create a new energy and sexuality out of such a marriage. Let us assume that the coldness of the film is part of a new emotional aesthetic appropriate to the late machine age. (Ballard the writer used to explore such ideas in many of his novels, and he was inclined to allow for the possibility of new emotions, and Cronenberg is always happy to allow for new mental and bodily diseases and disorders to spread and create new social realities.)

Here is flesh meeting gleaming machinery:

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Here is the handsome, haughty Sadeian couple, open to all sexual experience, coolly observing their cold city (Toronto in the film) and its inhuman cityscape as if observing a colony of ants:

++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++crash

And here they are, experimenting with the kinetic energy of the car crash to transcend and enhance their old flesh and create a novel sexuality. I admire the way the married lovers have found a pastoral bower among the highways of Toronto, in a scene that may remind readers of Ballard of his novel Concrete Island:

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Here is a review of the film, which reads like it is translated from French perhaps, although I don’t think it actually is. It reads awkwardly, and contains one notable error:

“When he goes to the parking lot to recover his car, Ballard encounters Remington (Hunter). She’s a recurrent character in J.G.B’s fiction, the fantasy professional woman who in the novel is a doctor, but in the movie an Immigration Officer. She’s wearing a white coat which has the coiffure of a Calvin Klein creation, a lab coat rendered chic for the surgically hip. They drive to the airport, have sex in the front seat, the injured Ballard getting pumped back to life by the spastic assault of this widowed beauty… who, like all the characters in this movie, is now living in an accelerated state of erotic tension, as if stoned on the brutalist industrial architecture [I have written about this point here] and the retinal strobe of the cars on the freeway.”

No, Dr Helen Remington is an immigration doctor in the movie as well as the book, not just an immigration officer. Ballard the novelist and science fiction short story writer does like to make his protagonists middle class technical professionals (chemists, pilots, psychologists, doctors; rather than, say, the journalists and teachers favoured by many novelists). He also has a habit of creating beautiful female “equals” for his heroes to enjoy – a very Sixties fantasy of the beautiful, intelligent and sexually adventurous woman. He was still writing such characters as late as his novel Super-Cannes.

An interesting suggestion this reviewer makes is that some of the sexual imagery in “Crash” is inspired by the photographer Helmut Newton. I wonder if Guy Bourdin is another source for the film’s mood:

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11 responses to this post.

  1. There’s something of the mad satirist and mad experimentalist to Ballard. Adding an explanation for the fetish would just detract from the absurdity of what is, I think, in part, a straightforward take on porn, with cars thrown in as the fetish element. The occasional philosophical rationalisations about the merger of flesh and metal that you look at here of course aren’t explanations, they’re just one of Ballard’s favourite themes which he’s opportunistically took the chance to discuss in the novel. I’ve read both the book and seen the film and like you I wasn’t particularly moved by either, though the book is more accessible – Ballard is more erratic and, well, amateur, oddly enough, and has a habit of talking about his pet philosophies (merger of flesh and tech). And there’s the extended hallucination sequence which is quite fun – isn’t that cut from the film? In that sense Cronenberg’s art is much more pure.

    Reply

    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 17, 2015 at 10:59 am

      I am not good at finishing fiction, but I managed quite well with “Crash”. The very things that people complained about, the obsessive repetition, the physical grotesquerie, made the book somehow more appealing to me.

      I also liked the clinical descriptions, the sheer cold technical side of it. I loved the way that, in both the book and the film, the main characters are such mundane and believable and interesting things as “a chemist for a food company”, “an immigration doctor”, and so on.

      However I had a major problem with the casting of the film. Elias Koteas just looks wrong (too much “hoodlum”, not enough “scientist”). The two blonds really are not intelligent enough in their manner to be convincing. I was left wondering about whether Rosanna Arquette was playing dumb or being dumb. The blond (James Spader) was not bad. He is excellent at coming off like a genuine perve.

      Ballard and Cronenberg both have (or had) obsessions. I think those obsessions could have meshed brilliantly, but somehow they didn’t.

      I quite liked the film on the whole. I liked the score. It was fun to see Ballard’s obsessions with oversexed wives, light planes, industrial and urban architecture, and the rather dated and hokey belief that “man is about to break through into a new mode of living”; all on display. But I can see why the movie lacked broad appeal.

      I enjoy Ballard as a thinker. A collection of his quotes makes great reading. But he has a weak point in psychology. To take one example, he has a wedding reception in one of his books, a description in “Super-Cannes” I think, in which an account of the bride’s premarital sexual exploits with a variety of men is cheered on by the guests (including the father of the bride, if I recall). In what world would that happen? To take another example, he has middle-class folk running violently and atavistically amuck in several of his novels, in particular in “High Rise”. Again, I just don’t believe the psychology.

      It is one thing to posit dramatic changes in technology; quite another to posit wholesale change in human nature. This is a mistake that SF constantly makes. People in the future are shown with flat affect. Women act like men. People have odd motivations. Good writing should not demand that we pretend that humans are not human.

      One thing I would perhaps change in my above review or essay is my remark that fetishes are rare in women. I have myself written about the so-called “bimbo fetish” (in a paper which is the most popular one I have posted at Academia.edu). But I am not sure if that is a fetish or simply a lifestyle choice.

      Reply

      • My main complaint about Ballard is that all his main characters in all his novels and stories follow exactly the same emotional and narrative arc – they become involved in some strange activity, a fetish or whatever, and at some point their obsession becomes treated as a revelation, and they turn away from the old world.

        There are few exceptions to this and those exceptions are usually Ballard’s best stories. For instance, he wrote a few interesting thrillers in his early career which seem to me quite original.

      • “It is one thing to posit dramatic changes in technology; quite another to posit wholesale change in human nature. This is a mistake that SF constantly makes. People in the future are shown with flat affect. Women act like men. People have odd motivations. Good writing should not demand that we pretend that humans are not human.”

        I take your point; SF is not really prediction though (as idiots in the lifestyle section of the newspapers would have it). Once we give away that silly notion we’re free to interpret SF character’s narrative arc in different ways – as a kind of symbol of our emotional relationships to technology, perhaps. Or a fantasia about the relationship of the evolutionary realm and the mechanised one. Ballard’s choice of ‘chemists for food companies’ and ‘immigration doctors’ is interesting, I think not simply because these are more realistic than you might often get – but maybe as a kind of English class humour: “these are just the sort of boring middle-class sorts who might get up to devious activities like this”. And of course the narrative arcs they suggest for characters are quite useful, especially in Ballardian SF.

      • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 18, 2015 at 2:50 am

        Ballard got bitten hard by the Sixties bug and he never outgrew its overestimation of human potentialities. So his imagination about people never became realistic and mature.

        But yes, I see your point about SF and really Ballard could be said to be moving into the fantasy area. And of course he was a new wave SF writer, so less on the hard science side anyway.

        In fact, he was a product of the psychology of the Sixties in more ways than one.

        That said, he did see himself quite consciously as a writer with a scientific side, and made big claims for SF as against the more traditional writing and concerns of mainstream novelists. One sign of this is how strong his novels and stories are on ideas, and how relatively weak on characterisation.

        He worked for some time on a trade journal called Chemistry and Industry and claimed to be what would now be called a tech nerd, writing of his enjoyment at reading technical material as literature and his desire for an abundance of technical information such as the composition of new paints (the advent of the Internet should have made him happy).

        He trained briefly as a doctor too, and had a technical medical book on crash injuries with him when he wrote Crash.

        As for his best work, I am lucky enough to own the one-volume collected short stories, and many of these are very good (even his early stuff, including the Vermilion Sands stories holds up well). I don’t like his “cosy catastrophes” much (Drowned World, etc.) On the other hand his later novels (including Concrete Island) hold up well, and his most readable work would be his last books, with their crime thriller elements.

        One would think that his sensibility, combined with that of the film director who produced films like Dead Ringers and Scanners, would result in a creative synergy. But I can’t help but see Crash as a disappointment, if only because more people did not appreciate it.

        As for his sexually adventurous immigration doctors, rebellious entomologists and freewheeling pilots and industrial psychologists, I think they represent “Mary Sues” for him. That is the men he would identify with and the women he would want to sleep with. He seems to have genuinely admired technical people. Some novelists do. Kipling valourised engineers for example.

      • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 18, 2015 at 3:10 am

        BTW, I just realised with whom I am chatting, so sorry if my tone seems a bit odd.

  2. Posted by Julian O'Dea on March 31, 2016 at 3:50 am

    Two of my favourite obsessions, Suzi Quatro and JG Ballard’s “Crash”: I understand that this song was inspired by “Crash” (the book version):

    Reply

  3. Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 11, 2016 at 3:10 am

    My latest issue of Fortean Times contains an article on Ballard which mentions the automobile-related fetish of would-be politician Jordan Haskins:

    ft1

    Reply

    • Posted by Julian O'Dea on June 11, 2016 at 4:24 am

      That appears as a huge image for some reason. There is something odd going on because my copy of that issue has the April 2016 date, whereas that image shows March 2016.

      Reply

  4. […] have referred to this scene previously, but this is the first time I have found a copy that is in the original […]

    Reply

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