Friday, July 24, 2015

Another Reason to Drive Defensively

My first crash experience in the back seat at age 4 .
My response was not the same as Ballard's.

Nowadays we are surprised when a particular movie is not available for download, rent, or purchase in a contemporary format, but this is the case for more than a few – at least from legal providers. Sometimes we can guess the reason why. Some obscure B movies might have no market. In the case of Song of the South (1946), there is a market but we nonetheless understand why Disney execs in 2015 are reluctant to re-release it. For other films, e.g. Wolodarsky’s wickedly funny Coldblooded (1995), the reason is a mystery.

For well or ill, however, an “unavailable” status is not always permanent. For example, Elaine May long had refused to allow her wonderful 1971 dark comedy A New Leaf onto DVD because she disapproved of the cut, but finally relented a few years ago after the restoration of one scene. Just a few weeks ago, quite by accident, I discovered that David Cronenberg’s previously unavailable Crash (1996) – not to be confused with the 2004 Paul Haggis film of the same title – is now on DVD in the Criterion Collection. Whether the news is good or bad in this instance is open to debate, but it quickly went into my online shopping cart.

Crash is based on a novel by JG Ballard. Ballard is most widely known for his semi-autobiographical novel Empire of the Sun, which was made into a hit movie by Steven Spielberg, but the bulk of his work is science fiction of a sort. His 1960s novels and short stories don’t really need the “of a sort” qualifier, but beginning in the 1970s Ballard shifted to a peculiar brand of scifi set in the contemporary or near contemporary world. He developed a view that modern humans live in an artificial world so alien to the savanna on which our species evolved that, from the viewpoint of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, our world is post-apocalyptic: I was interested in the evolving world, the world of hidden persuaders, of the communications landscape developing, of mass tourism, of the vast conformist suburbs dominated by television - that was a form of science fiction, and it was already here.”

Ballard’s characters develop behavioral disorders, just as animals do in enclosures too different from their natural environments. Above all, modern civilization causes their natural savagery to re-emerge in bizarre ways; a Freudian death instinct urges people to destructiveness and violence. In his novel High-Rise, civilized behavior breaks down completely, ala Lord of the Flies but with adults. In Running Wild, the children in a gated community kill their parents. In Super-Cannes upper-crust professionals form roving criminal gangs. In Millennium People, middle class folks take up terrorism and burn their own neighborhoods. Yet, we love our technology even as it makes us crazy. In the novel Crash the characters find psychic release and erotic satisfaction in auto wrecks, combining technology with our most primitive instincts. In a Ballard novel there typically is at least one nihilistic intellectual philosopher to explain things. Vaughan, the philosopher of Crash, does more than just opine. He recreates famous crashes, such as those of James Dean and Jayne Mansfield, as performance art. Ultimately he intends to die in a suitably artistic crash.

Cronenberg, a Toronto native, set the movie version of Crash in Ontario instead of the UK, which changes the tone slightly but not the substance. The central character is named James Ballard (yes, really) and is played by James Spader. James barely survives a head-on crash that kills the other driver; he encounters and becomes erotically involved with the other driver’s wife, played by Holly Hunter, who also was injured in the crash. They fall in with fetishists who tap into their primal eroticism – and into their death wishes – through car crashes. This group is led by the philosopher-artist Vaughan (Elias Kotias). James’ wife Catherine becomes involved in all this, too; the relationship of James and Catherine is mutually nonexclusive in a number of senses. Rosanna Arquette brings a special weirdness to her fetishist character. James remarks at one point that traffic has gotten heavier since his crash. In the book it is spelled out that traffic is heavier because other drivers are strangely attracted to the scene, which suggests that they too are just one step away from being fetishists, but in the film just the implication is presented to the viewer.

Was Ballard onto something? Are there any signs of this kind of psychopathy emerging in the real world? There certainly is no shortage of violence by individuals unmotivated by any material gain. The news is full of it, and the perpetrators are often relatively affluent people. It is not so clear that they are engaged in some atavistic revolt against civilization however. They usually offer more pedestrian ideological or personal justifications for their actions, but perhaps at bottom these are just excuses, whether they themselves understand it or not. Perhaps it really is just the violence itself that appeals to them. As for drivers, I certainly don’t want any like the ones in Crash on the roads around me, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any.

Rated NC-17, Crash is creepy, violent, sexually graphic, and likely to evoke the response “What the hell?” from anyone unfamiliar with Ballard’s themes. Crash is not for the squeamish, prudish, or the easily offended. But, in its own warped way, it has something interesting to say. Thumbs up, but be VERY selective about the audience with whom you share it. Many people will truly hate it.


  1. I didn't care for Crash that much upon seeing it initially at the cinema, I probably should give it another try. I do like Cronenberg however, and had seen most of his movies leading up to it. I think my favorite movies by him currently are: The Dead Zone and Naked Lunch. I don't really care much for Ballard's writing style either--just too analytical or highbrow for my SF taste. Perhaps if you substituted guns for auto crashes, you might be more accurate on today's fetishistic climate.

    1. You are not alone in not caring for Ballard. The reader assigned by his publisher to the manuscript for “Crash” was so offended by it that, to Ballard’s amusement, she advised, "This author is beyond psychiatric help. Do Not Publish!" Whatever the non-business merits of that assessment, the book turned out to be a best seller.

      However, I like Ballard’s expressive and polished prose, and I like his highly intellectual yet animalistic villains, too. So I’ve enjoyed every book by him I’ve ever read. A matter of taste – or lack of it, that publisher’s reader might argue.

      You have a point about the prevailing fetish. Ballard didn’t overlook that variation in some of his other work: in “Super–Cannes” a workplace attack by a very unlikely shooter with an assault rifle gets the plot rolling.

  2. Cronenberg is a director I need to explore more. I've really enjoyed what I've seen from him so far. I think the oddest flick I watched from him was "Videodrome". It was a real bizarre ride, that's for sure. Need to see it again to see if I really grasped everything he was going for in that movie.

    As for "Crash", I've never seen it. I really should. I had a thing for Rosanna Arquette in my youth. I'm trying to remember what movie it was that I saw her in, but man she tapped right into my teen brain there. :)

    1. How did I miss "Videodrome"? The trailer and description look intriguing.

      "Crash" works if you get Ballard's perspective and aren't put off by it.

      As for Rosanna Arquette, there is every basis for a thing to be had. She doesn't remind one much of her grandfather Charley Weaver. She seems to like playing off-beat characters as in "After Hours" or "Pulp Fiction." She first caught my attention enough to remember her name a few decades ago in "Baby It's You" (1983); in it she plays an upper crust (not heiress rich, but upper crust) HS girl who dates a rough working class guy (self-styled “the Sheik”) in order to appear edgy with her friends. So, he is a prop for her, not really someone for whom she has true affection. He never quite gets this. He is aware that there is a class difference between them that affects her feelings for him, but he makes the mistake of assuming that class is all about money. He doesn’t understand why the difference doesn’t go away when time goes by and he starts to make money. It’s a low-key but interesting flick. In “Crash” Arquette’s character owns being comfortable with her fetish and her damaged body.