A Talent for the Perverse
One of the most delicious experiences in a life of filmgoing is to be invited, along with a select audience, to a special, private screening of a movie that promises to be hot, scandalous and disturbing. The lights fade, everyone goes deathly silent, and I wait for the worst – and the best.
I had my first taste of that thrill when, young enough to contravene the law by doing so, I joined a film society in order to see the Andy Warhol-Paul Morrissey opus Trash (1970). And, that same year, I experienced this illicit thrill on a grand, collective scale when I cued up with about a thousand other people bright and early one Saturday morning at the Melbourne Film Festival, to see the single screening of the uncut version of Nagisa Oshima’s famous sex-art film In the Realm of the Senses (1976).
Twenty years later, at the end of 1996, I was invited to the sole preview for the Australian press of David Cronenberg’s Crash. There was an incredible buzz of excitement and anticipation in the foyer beforehand: in this country where even Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995) was briefly banned outright by the government censors, it seemed possible there might never be another screening of this movie. (As happily eventuated, it was released without cuts). Of course, such build-up always invites letdown and lordly backlash: almost the instant the screening was over, I heard the film derided as a dull, unimaginative exercise based on a mere pun (sex-drive equals auto-drive).
But to me it was – just as instantly – a masterpiece of the highest order, equal in stature to The Fly (1986) in Cronenberg’s brilliant and ever evolving career.
What’s the first thing to see in Crash, once those lights go down? There are stark credits, and a haunting, piercing duet for wailing guitars composed superbly by Howard Shore. Then the film proper opens with the camera prowling around an aeroplane hangar – a strange place of metal and chrome and machinery. There is a subtle, disquieting hum and whirr on the soundtrack of little noises and clicks – which will be the soundscape for much of the film to come.
Finally, we see a woman, Catherine Ballard (Deborah Kara Unger), who appears to be arousing herself against the wing of a parked aeroplane. And then, in a very understated but really pretty freaky sequence of shots, we observe some anonymous man approach her from behind, lift her dress, and begin having sex with her.
It might be comforting to think, straight off the bat, that what we witnessing is perhaps some hallucination, some fantasy on Catherine’s part. But no, it’s really happening, and the entire film is going to play out on this matter-of-fact, literal plane. Of course, nothing especially weird has happened yet; it’s just a couple, Catherine and then her husband James (James Spader) engaging in separate, casual, amoral sex acts. But the weird stuff is coming – and it starts in earnest when James finds himself one of the lucky survivors of a sudden, fatal car accident. He looks over a dead body to the other survivor in the other car, a Dr Remington (Holly Hunter), and she seems sultry, other-worldly, almost turned-on by the whole thing.
What kind of film is this? Surprisingly – given the murmurs around the world about its shocking, sensational, quasi-pornographic content – it is a strangely quiet, minimal movie, almost a chamber piece. It is not at all sensational or hysterical. In fact it’s almost like a contemplation, a meditation. What does it contemplate? For around a hundred minutes, we observe the odd behaviours and hobbies of a rather cryptic bunch of characters: James, Catherine, Dr Remington and another, especially mysterious guy named Vaughan (Elias Koteas). Together these characters, and a few others on the side, explore and pursue a perverse, collective interest in sex, cars and death, and the fanciful connections between these things.
This is a film in which plot counts for little, while atmosphere and texture count for everything. It is more akin to a series of tableaux that gradually grow in mood and meaning. There’s a droll, almost painful undercurrent of jet black humour that runs through the whole piece. As the characters carry out their various strange experiments with car crashes and sex, they get more maimed and banged up, their bodies get a bit more twisted out of shape. As each new scene begins they move slower, hobble more –you can almost hear their bones creaking and cracking.
This blackly humorous aspect of Crash reaches its peak in a splendid scene in a car show room, where a nervy salesman (the film’s only approximation of a blandly normal person) has to help Vaughan’s white-trash accomplice Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette), a flaming creature encased in various elaborate medical devices, into the driver’s seat of a car. As her leg-device tears the upholstery, he anxiously whispers: “Oh shit, fuck, this is bad, this is really bad”. In this scene one notes the weird intermingling and interchangeability of flesh and metal and every other kind of nearby texture or surface.
That feeling is nailed down once and for all in another key moment set in a car wash, when Vaughan and Catherine are kissing and caressing while, around them, the various movable parts of their car are whirring and locking into place until they are encased and invisible.
I have not seen a movie since Michael Mann’s Heat (1996) in which every detail, on every level, is so finally controlled and shaped by the director. There is not a single drop-off in intensity, not a single ill-judged, jarring or inconsistent moment in Crash. The atmosphere of the film is perfect – Cronenberg rightly describes it as "hermetically sealed".
The film’s physical world is made up almost entirely of cars, highways, aeroplane hangars, hospital corridors, cold workplaces and sterile apartments. As Godard did in Alphaville (1965), Cronenberg deftly evokes a vision of the near future merely by rendering today’s settings and objects unfamiliar and uncanny. (All it takes is a shot of a Canadian highway, accompanied by the off-screen query “Hasn’t the traffic gotten much worse since the accident?”, to secure this chilling effect of uncanniness.)
And the actors – all the actors without exception, with their hushed voices, blank gazes and trance-like movements – form an indelible ensemble, this group of people who live utterly in the moment but also seem completely spaced-out, beyond the pale.
In the era of Cronenberg’s fantastic and gruesome horror-SF movies, such as Shivers (1975), Scanners (1980) and Videodrome (1982), his fans hailed him as the great prophet of the new virtual reality, where fantasy, the imaginary, invade the real world, confounding and transforming it. But as Cronenberg became a more mature artist, and an absolutely superb craftsman, he also became, in a disconcerting and surprising way, a realist. In Dead Ringers (1988) and Naked Lunch (1991), there’s never any doubt in the audience’s mind about the distinction between what is shockingly, heavily real, and what animating fantasies are going on in the main characters’ heads.
It’s only ever those characters who are confused about the difference between fantasy and reality – and their confusion, their delusion, their wilful ignorance, almost always kills them. And even in the Cronenberg films where the baseline events we see are of a fantastic or speculative nature – as in Crash or The Fly – he roots them in a kind of grounded, unhysterical reality, as if they are the most natural things in the world for the people who are living them out.
But let’s get one thing clear. Just because Crash shows bizarre things in a straightforward, literal way, that doesn’t mean it extols the joys of road accidents or ritual suicide. In Australia, the film has been yoked to a local media controversy about “murder chic” – tasteless, prurient, fashion photos of young things modelling make-up and clothes while pretending to be dead or eviscerated. The fictional world of Crash, on the contrary, is meant, at one level, as a heightened metaphor for certain modern states and feelings.
The film is based on a 1973 novel by the well-known, and slightly forbidding SF writer J.G. Ballard. Forbidding, because his book of Crash is both hypnotic and tiring – virtually every paragraph imagines a different auto-accident, sketching it in luridly poetic terms. According to the literary critic David Pringle, “Ballard has always been a repetitive and obsessive writer; in Crash he is more so than ever”. Here is a very typical passage from the novel:
Thinking of Vaughan now, drowning in his own blood under the police arcs, I remember the countless imaginary disasters he described as we cruised together along expressways. He dreamed of ambassadorial limousines crashing into jack-knifing butane tankers, of taxis filled with celebrating children colliding head-on below the bright display windows of deserted supermarkets. He dreamed of alienated brothers and sisters, by chance meeting each other on collision courses on the access roads of petrochemical plants, their unconscious incest made explicit in this colliding metal, in the haemorrhages of their brain tissue.
That’s more gruesome and outrageous than anything in the film. Cronenberg has simplified, streamlined and distilled the essence of the novel – the dialogue, for instance, has a terse, telegrammatic, Pinteresque quality new in his work. He omits the book’s somewhat dated Pop Art aspects – such as a special, roadside appearance by Elizabeth Taylor at Vaughan’s spectacular death-scene.
Where Ballard and Cronenberg truly meet, however, is on the terrain that the author proudly proclaims as the psychopathology brought into being by the modern world. In Cronenberg, Ballard has at last encountered a fearless filmmaker who can embrace that rude psychopathology and give it an indelible form on screen.
Crash is not a sensational or pornographic movie, but it is, without a doubt, militantly perverse. And this perversity is inextricable from its intelligence, its art and its emotional power. (Besides, if we decry the perverse impulse in cinema, we will have to outlaw the entire oeuvres of Hitchcock, Bu˝uel, Powell, Téchiné, Almodóvar and Tex Avery … for starters.)
Cronenberg’s films have always elicited two kinds of knee-jerk reaction, from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, conservatives and progressives; he has never been particularly acceptable in either camp. His open-eyed, sometimes quite tender visions of a hedonistic, technologically mutating New World (as in Videodrome) are anathema to those who want to wind the social clock back. At the same time, his dark insistence on a bedrock of perversity or monstrosity within human nature contradicts the left-wing belief in revolutionary change.
For about fifteen years now, there has been a roaring debate going on among critics and commentators about Cronenberg’s depiction of sexuality, and particularly of gender roles. Cronenberg has been often accused of misogyny, homophobia and a generalised, unforgiving misanthropy – quite a roll-call of crimes against humanity. Some of the key voices on the offensive in this debate are Robin Wood and the Australian critic Barbara Creed, author of the widely influential book on horror movies, The Monstrous-Feminine.
In a discussion of Naked Lunch, subtitled “creativity and misogyny”, Creed argues that Cronenberg “harbours a disgust” towards women’s sexuality, which she sees as “central to the imagery of his films”. She illustrates her point: “The heroine of Rabid hides a penis inside her armpit. In The Brood (1979), the mother gives birth to mutant creatures from an external womb/sac which grows from her side. And in Dead Ringers, the heroine has a triple uterus and is unable to give birth”. She concludes: “In all instances, Cronenberg’s imagery denies the reality of female genitalia”.
Why do I feel so uneasy with this argument? – not only, I assure you, because I’m a cinephile guy who loves Cronenberg’s movies. No one could believe that these films offer radical, Utopian visions of sexual politics; but neither are they nasty, mindless, reactionary tracts. I tend to agree with the British critic Pam Cook, who once suggested that Cronenberg is, alongside Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann, “one of the great melancholics of modern cinema”. For her, these filmmakers “all share a preoccupation with flawed, mentally unstable heroes crippled by narcissistic obsessions which alienate them from normal society (and particularly from women)”. Cronenberg’s films do show some rather dark male fantasies. But they don’t celebrate or condone them.
Particularly since The Fly, Cronenberg has tended to present these male fantasies as insane and self-destructive forms of delusion – that has become part and parcel of his particularly bleak, philosophical realism. Think, for instance, of the astonishing finale in Naked Lunch, where a border guard asks the William Burroughs character (Peter Weller) to prove his identity by writing something. In response, he calmly turns around and repeats his primal scene – he shoots his wife in the head and kills her. How anyone can take that absolutely bleak ending as a celebration of misogyny is beyond me. And with M. Butterfly (1993) – not one of Cronenberg’s best, but nonetheless underrated even by his admirers – the director’s on-going portrait of masculine delusion, with all its emotional blockages and dire consequences, reaches a point of morbid despair bordering on abject self-hatred.
Crash is going to fire up these arguments once more. As a novelist, Ballard proudly places himself in a literary and artistic tradition that includes Burroughs and, especially, the Surrealists. Ballard openly delights in the outrageous and fanciful imagery of women (“nymphs of another planet”, he fondly calls them) found in Surrealist art. And Cronenberg knowingly taps into this history of imagery. At least one central motif in Crash – the vision of Gabrielle with a great gash in her leg that James puts to an interesting use – comes direct from the most extreme sex-files of Surrealism. And, naturally, there is now a vast sea of scholarly literature out to convince us in retrospect that the entirety of Surrealism was one great, rotten, patriarchal fantasy – a wet dream built upon a fantasy-image of Woman, but constructed at the expense of real women and their desires.
Yet Cronenberg’s film, I believe, dares us to think beyond the current, all-consuming intellectual obsession with gender roles – and in doing so, it marks a new stage in his career.
First, it would be hard to name a movie more polymorphously perverse than Crash. The categories of male and female, gay and straight, are utterly blurred by the story’s end (even between James and Catherine, the obsessive recourse to anal penetration gives straight sex a decidely queer gloss).
Second, there is a markedly impersonal aspect to the erotic goings-on here. It’s another fine, Surrealist principle at work – a fervent belief that bodies are just objects and that objects (such as cars) are, in their own way, fully alive.
And third – a key to the film that few have noticed – it’s an oddly non-phallic movie: Vaughan never uses his penis (James speculates, while sodomising Catherine, that it’s probably “badly scarred”) to penetrate anyone or anything. It is as if all these characters are wandering around the outer limits of sexual experiences and possibilities – and blissfully losing their strictly gendered, biologically or culturally determined body-identities in the process.
Some viewers and reviewers will doubtless want to take Crash as a somber warning, even a moral statement about the Decline of Western Civilisation. Ballard himself – referring to his novel as “a kit of desperate measures only for use in an extreme crisis” – hedged his bets in this direction: “Needless to say”, he pronounced in the introduction to the 1974 French edition of the novel, “the ultimate role of Crash is cautionary, a warning against that brutal, erotic and overlit realm that beckons more and more persuasively to us from the margins of the technological landscape”.
But the deeper meanings of Cronenberg’s screen adaptation are more secretive than such edifying authorial pronouncements can allow. Early on, James asks Vaughan to define his “project”, and he gives a stock, cyber-culture answer, very similar to what the international performance artist Stelarc might say: “It’s something we’re all intimately involved in – the re-shaping of the human body by modern technology”. But later – in the movie’s drollest moment – Vaughan dismisses this as a “crude sci-fi concept”, merely an alibi or cover.
So what is Vaughan’s (or Cronenberg’s) project really about? The film raises several tantalising possibilities. Its story depicts the growth of an unusual community: a group of people who, because of their brush with trauma and death, manage to step beyond conventional behaviour and morality. Both Cronenberg and Ballard suggest that, in our crazy modern world, we are all, everyday, very close to this crossover line. It’s a theme or motif familiar from the sophisticated French cinema of recent years, such as the films of André Téchiné or Olivier Assayas – chance encounters (another principle of Surrealist art) or literal collisions that unexpectedly send characters off like rockets into a new life where new rules and rituals apply.
In a very haunting way, the film also evokes a kinky, modern-day rebirth of some ancient Cult of the Dead. Car crashes, as Vaughan explains, “mediate the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity impossible in any other form”. It is as if these characters are searching for the ecstasy of spiritual communion in a world bereft of religion. It is on this level that the ritual aspect of the film becomes most insistent: in a sense, the closest thing to a plot-driven through-line is the progression of the violent cat-and-mouse, car-crash games played first by Vaughan with Catherine and then with James, and finally (after Vaughan’s death) absorbed back into the experiments of this odd married couple (the haunting final line of the film, spoken by James to Catherine – “Maybe the next one, darling, maybe the next one”, a wish for her successful auto-death – is an exact repetition of what she says to him near the start, when he relates that he didn’t manage to come with his casual, on-set lover).
I shall confess something here. Crash is the most sexually arousing film I have seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s Stealing Beauty (1996) – although it would be hard to think of two films more different on every level. Where Bertolucci’s underrated movie is about sunny, humanist things like vitality, renewal and fond, sentimental attachments to other people, Crash cruises under the sign of the death and alienation, and other feelings that seem weirdly inhuman. It is easy to give Crash a cyberpunk gloss; Ballard’s early stories, after all, deftly anticipated popular culture’s current, icy obsessions with the post-human condition.
But let’s take a look at these grey, scary, loaded terms: death-drive, alienation, post-human. Crash just doesn’t feel to me like a film which is quite that cold, clinical and apocalyptic. There certainly is a mood in it that is beyond most conventional, psychological dramas – some strange configuring of bodies, emotions and objects, an infernal intermingling of the external social world with what Ballard loves to call our “inner space”. But Crash is not, to my mind, a cyberpunk film, or even much of a SF film. It’s not really about new technology, media-scapes, virtual reality, or the morphing of humanity with machinery.
Crash is, quite simply, a sex film – in the most profound sense that I can imagine, or at least that I’ve yet experienced at the movies. Sure, there are a million films with sex in them; but they’re not usually about sex in such a focused, rigorous, obsessive manner. Usually the sex is part and parcel of some other emotional-sentimental thing, like love or relationships, or abstracted into some ethereal, fashionable theme like desire or transgression.
But Crash stays on the sex case. The film touches a deep truth about our restless, curious desires in their everyday action. Much of its texture and detail emphasises a constant, niggling, inescapable sensation of erotic stimulation experienced by all the characters – few films have given such palpable, insistent force to the turned-on gaze, the apprehension of another person’s body nearby, the moment when someone’s hand slides between one’s legs ...
And this atmosphere of constant stimulation is central to the film’s purpose. Cronenberg has stated that he did not want to present his central married couple as normal innocents led astray by insane deviates. Like everyone else present, James and Catherine may seem alienated in conventional psychological terms; but the fact that they are “on” and alert all the time takes them into amoral realms they never dreamed of or gambled on.
In its splendid, cruising, meditative amorality, Crash reminds me, more than ever, of the affinity between Cronenberg and another great master, Luis Buñuel – especially his classic with Catherine Deneuve, Belle de jour (1967). Like that film, Crash traces with patient intensity the contours of a particular, peculiar, erotic fetish. It is a fetish that ties together, in a Ballardian conjunction, elements of desire, madness and technology – and also, in the oddest and least expected way, love.
Belle de jour ends tenderly with the husband, blind and crippled, suddenly getting up and racing off with his beloved, perverse wife in some ecstatic communion. And Crash, too, takes you somewhere surprising in its disquieting, strangely euphoric final moments.
“I think we’re all perhaps innately perverse, capable of enormous cruelty”, Ballard commented in 1981 – the usual paean to humanity’s Dark Side espoused by much grunge-infested, modern art. But then he twisted that sentiment into something queerly positive, by adding: “Paradoxically, our talent for the perverse, the violent, and the obscene may be a good thing”. The challenge of thinking through the implications of that sentiment today is the challenge offered by David Cronenberg’s Crash.
© Adrian Martin February 1997