In 1970, the writer J. G. Ballard put together what I guess you'd call an art exhibit at London's New Arts Laboratory called "Crashed Cars," and as they say in England it did (more or less) what it said on the tin: a collection of automobiles that had gone through the trauma of the car accident were presented to the public while a topless model interviewed the museum guests. This was a controversial exhibit, as you might imagine -- according to Ballard the model was "nearly raped" on opening night -- but it wasn't some one-off bit of provocation from Ballard. The idea from the exhibit grew from a section of his also very controversial 1968 book The Atrocity Exhibition. This is chapter 12, entitled "Crash!", and it begins:
The latent sexual content of the automobile crash. Numerous studies have been conducted to assess the latent sexual appeal of public figures who have achieved subsequent notoriety as auto-crash fatalities, e.g. James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus. Simulated newsreels of politicians, film stars, and TV celebrities were shown to panels of (a) suburban housewives, (b) terminal paretics, (c) filling station personnel. Sequences showing auto-crash victims brought about a marked acceleration of pulse and respiratory rates. Many volunteers became convinced that the fatalities were still living, and later used one or other of the crash victims as a private focus of arousal during intercourse with the domestic partner.
In my annotated and illustrated(!) edition of The Atrocity Exhibition put out by Re/Search in 1990, Ballard says in his note on the "Crash!" chapter:
This 1968 piece...in effect is the gene from which my novel Crash was to spring. The ambiguous role of the car crash needs no elaboration -- apart from our own deaths, the car crash is probably the most dramatic event in our lives, and in many cases the two will coincide. Aside from the fact that we generally own or are at the controls of the crashing vehicle, the car crash differs from other disasters in that it involves the most powerfully advertised commercial product of this century, an iconic entity that combines the elements of speed, power, dream and freedom within a highly stylized format that defuses any fears we may have of the inherent dangers of these violent and unstable machines.
I'm terrified of death so I hear you, Jim, although I find it somewhat interesting that Ballard writes as though at least near fatal car accidents are a foregone conclusion in everyone's life -- he's not talking about fender benders here. But of course terrible accidents are horrifyingly common, and the fear of them is ever-present, even if that fear is kept at a hum low enough to be easily ignored. Ballard, on the other hand, took the actually everyday reality of fatal car crashes and in a way imagined removing the fatality. This is a bad way to describe Crash, his notorious 1973 novel that remains as bizarre, unsettling, and shocking over forty years later, but that novel, which explores the eroticization of car crashes (which sounds like someone had ever so much as idly floated that notion before Ballard, though to my mind no one had; I feel this is a safe bet), does depict a group of characters who view the violent and sudden merging of industrial steel, plastic, rubber, and glass with human flesh and bone as life-affirming in the same way sexual intercourse can be, because to them these two things are synonymous. That is to say "life-affirming," or "life"-affirming. Crash is not a novel you might call, in the parlance of our times, "sex positive," and of course "life-affirming" is almost precisely wrong, except that the characters genuinely enjoy combining sex and car crashes, and they don't actually want to quit. What is being affirmed? Not life, okay, fine, but it's far too simplistic to say these people all have a death wish. Even Vaughan, the insane erotic car crash guru of the novel, whose grand desire is to die in a literally orgasmic car crash that also takes out Elizabeth Taylor, even he doesn't have a death wish, not as we understand that concept. Real people in our real lives could conceivably have death wishes, and one of the bracing aspects of Crash is its essential unknowability: no one does or has ever done what Ballard's characters do. Even if they have, they haven't. Crash is not relatable.
In any case, "I wanted to rub the human face in its own vomit and force it to look in the mirror" is how Ballard described his reasons for writing Crash, Crash being the kind of book that is going to make people ask you to explain yourself, and so there you go. Jump ahead a couple decades. David Cronenberg, who as it happens made a film out of Crash in 1996, tells Serge Grunberg in his book David Cronenberg: Interviews with Serge Grunberg, that a Canadian talk show host compared watching Crash to looking into a toilet. Cronenberg notes that doctors advise looking into the toilet so you can see what's going on inside.
Cronenberg had been introduced to Ballard's novel many years before he ever finished reading it. He tells Grunberg that he'd been given the novel by a film critic who thought, quite reasonably, that it would interest him. Yet when Cronenberg started reading it he found it too disturbing -- this is David Cronenberg, remember -- and so didn't finish reading it until many years later. It seems strange to me not only that Cronenberg would have a hard time getting into Crash but that he would need anyone to introduce him to it, or to J. G. Ballard. It's less strange that anybody would make a film out of Crash than it is that Cronenberg hasn't spent half his career adapting Ballard's fiction. The two men seem utterly sympathetic, psychologically, philosophically, and aesthetically. No doubt there are divergences, but each has an approach to the world that includes obsessions with human transformation, machines, medicine, violence, buildings and hallways and flesh, and an almost apolitical fascination with the many ways a entire society can apparently share one mind, which it then loses.
So, Crash. The plot, such as it is, is this: actually, no, really quick: J. G. Ballard named Crash's protagonist James Ballard. This is worth mentioning. The two men don't seem to share much else -- the fictional character is a film producer, which is both a very Ballardian occupation to give to a character, and not something Ballard himself ever did. It strikes me as an surprising missed opportunity, or missed joke, that Cronenberg didn't name the film version Dave Cronenberg (he mentions this idea in Cronenberg on Cronenberg, but it doesn't seem to have ever occurred to him to actually do it) . At any rate, in the film, James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deboraha Kara Unger) have what you'd call an open marriage. The film begins with three sex scenes in a row (much like William Lustig's Maniac begins with a series of murder scenes), first Catherine having sex with a pilot in an airplane hangar, then James having sex with a camera operator in his office, and then Catherine and James having sex with each other while describing their earlier respective encounters. Shortly after this, James gets into a terrible car accident. His leg is shattered and a man in the other car is killed. This man was the husband of Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), who survives, and who James sees off and on in the hospital, sometimes in the company of a strange doctor named Vaughan (Elias Koteas). James and Remington meet again in the lot where their wrecked cars are being held, and soon the two of them are having an affair. Which sounds elegant in some way. They're having sex in cars, and not long after she has introduced James to Vaughan, who it turns out is not actually a doctor but a man conducting some kind of grand experiment involving sex and car crashes, focusing his attention on famous fatal car accidents, such as those that took the lives of James Dean, Jayne Mansfield, Albert Camus, Nathanael West, to the point that he recreates these accidents, taking no safety precautions beyond those provided by the skills of the stunt drivers he employs (and who are evidently as invested in this project as Remington and James will soon be). As a result, Vaughan is covered in scars, and attracted to wounds. The first time James comes to realize what this man is about, Vaughan is recreating the James Dean crash for a small but enthusiastic audience. At one point James asks Vaughan if he regards the Kennedy assassination as a kind of special car crash. Vaughan replies: "A case can be made."
One of the most disarming moments in the whole film is when James, by this point deep into this erotic crash business, says to Vaughan, as the latter shows him pictures of the Jayne Mansfield crash, "It's all very satisfying." He has a big smile on his face when he says this, and it's one of the few genuine smiles in the film -- James is practically guileless here. Then he says "I'm not sure I understand why." Well, sure. Join the club. By now, Vaughan has explained himself to James by saying his project is an examination of "the reshaping of the human body by modern technology," but when James says he's not sure why he finds this all so satisfying Vaughan replies:
"There is a benevolent psychopathology that beckons towards us. For example the car crash is a fertilizing rather than a destructive event, a liberation of sexual energy, mediating the sexuality of those who have died with an intensity that's impossible in any other form. to experience that, to live that, that's my project."
And the "reshaping of the human body" idea that he pitched earlier is just a non-threatening façade to test potential allies.
It's not that I don't think Vaughan believes what he's saying here, about a beckoning benevolent psychopathology and the liberation of sexual energy via car accidents and so on -- certainly the film provides ample evidence that this is his motivation (and not just Vaughan's motivation -- check out Holly Hunter in the scene where Remington almost freaks out because a crash test video freezes before the on-screen impact she'd been yearning to see). However, I believe that the "reshaping of the human body by modern technology" is actually what is going on -- what is, that is to say, literally going on. I don't know how else to explain Rosanna Arquette's presence in the film. She plays Gabrielle, one of Vaughan's hangers-on, and her body has been badly disabled through what we can assume have been numerous, and probably quite often voluntary, car accidents. She has what appear to be permanent braces on her legs and she needs a cane, or crutch, to walk. But Gabrielle has taken all this and reshaped it to suit her aggressive sexuality, or it has unleashed that sexuality. The braces and so forth are all black and mix with her black dominatrix-esque clothing. When she and James go to a car dealership, she gets the attention of a salesman by seductively bending over one of the automobiles. This is what Cronenberg shows us:
If Crash was a porn film, we'd of course be seeing something quite different. But in some ways Crash is a porn film, for anybody in the world who might be into this (despite what I said earlier, I acknowledge that the existence of such people is conceivable), and to them the above image would be, well...and for James, too, who is soon having sex with Gabrielle, using her leg wound as a sexual organ. Is how I've chosen to phrase that.
All of this brings to mind Cronenberg's The Fly, because if ever there was a film about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology, that's the one. In that case, Cronenberg was in blatant science fiction mode, extrapolating on old SF concepts (and an old SF story), the result being that his protagonist was shaped and reshaped by modern technology until he was unable to physically or psychologically function any longer. I'm not sure how this is all that different from Crash. Crash is of course less direct about it, but there is a science fiction element, an extrapolation -- the film's most ominous line comes from James when, after being released from the hospital, he asks Catherine if traffic is heavier now, and says that there seem to be a lot more cars on the road than there were before his accident. So Cronenberg and Ballard are doing with Crash what Cronenberg did with Dead Ringers, when he approached the fact of twins as his own original science fiction creation. Cars and car accidents and even a sexual fascination with death and violence all currently exist and have for some time, but Ballard and Cronenberg treat them like their own inventions. What if the horse and buggy could dispense with the horses, where might this all lead?
In its treatment of sex and technology, I'm forced to think about Spike Jonze's recent Her, which now seems like a tremulous, watery, moony-eyed remake of Crash with Scarlett Johansson in place of car crashes. Her, which is about a man who falls in love with his phone or some shit, doesn't necessarily believe that the potential for mankind to find sexual intimacy with computers is something to be celebrated, or rushed towards, but the best it can muster in terms of an emotional response to the idea is bittersweet melancholy. With Crash, Cronenberg and Ballard have already been there, and "melancholy" isn't quite the word they'd use. The people in Crash are rather happy. They enjoy doing what they're doing, and it's absolutely terrifying.
It wasn't until I watched Crash again for this post that I caught on to what its basic narrative structure is. Cronenberg has talked about how surprisingly easy it was for him to faithfully translate the novel into a screenplay, and if I had to guess I'd say it's because secretly this is the story of Catherine Ballard. James Ballard may be the protagonist, and it's him we follow, but he falls under Vaughan's spell pretty readily -- he's the one who almost died in a car accident, after all, not Catherine. So it's not James who has to be seduced into this world, it's her. And she is. There are linked images that help chart the beginning of the seduction and the end. In the first, she's visiting James in the hospital. Well before either of them met Vaughan, they were both, as has been established, pretty sexually free, and the scene opens with Catherine soaping her hands to aid her in giving James a handjob.
Later in the film, closer to the end, her seduction complete, literally, because she's actively having sex with Vaughan in the back of a car being driven by her husband, and we get this shot of her hand, covered in...secretions:
So how'd she get there? She was evidently pretty willing to listen to arguments, because in the hospital scene, while she's taking care of James she's describing the damage inflicted on the cars involved in the accident that landed Ballard and Helen Remington in the hospital (and brought them to Vaughan's attention); if anything, Catherine is more able to associate what she's physically doing with what she's talking about than her husband, who actually, in this one instance, seems somewhat uncomfortable with these juxtapositions. So she willingly drifts into Vaughan's orbit, but the key, the real turn, comes later. Vaughan, James, and Catherine are driving together when they come upon an accident, a bad one, fatal. Vaughan is excited taking out his camera and clicking away. Catherine and James wander through the wreckage and blood and stretchers. Catherine sees a woman sitting off to the side. She was involved in the accident, and her face has been cut up. Catherine sits near her, and the look she gives the wounded woman is one of desire -- not a desire to have sex with the woman, though that would probably be all right with Catherine too, but a desire to look like her.
After this, Vaughan takes Catherine and moves her so that she's first standing beside, and then sitting in, one of the crashed cars. A splash of blood is running down one of the doors. Vaughan begins taking pictures.
What this is, what it is almost exactly, is a magazine shoot, Catherine is a model, and she knows it, and if she's nervous it's because this world is so unfamiliarly glamorous to her. The blood and bodies and twisted metal and shattered glass are to her what parties and drugs and expensive clothes would be to someone else. There's this little cult of psychotics that she has discovered through her husband, and she wants to fit in with them. This yearning leads to the film's final scene (invented by Cronenberg) in which Catherine and James play a sex game that involves the two of them driving separate cars, and James forcing hers to crash. When he goes to her, and lies in the grass beside her, just outside her overturned car, he asks if she's injured. She says "No, I think I'm all right," and he says "Maybe next time." Dreams can come true.
Not surprisingly, Crash was a somewhat controversial film. The biggest stumbling block it faced was Ted Turner, who was the head of New Line at the time, and was so appalled by the film that he tried to stop it from being released. An edited version does exist, but it does so alongside the uncut version. Cronenberg tells a story about running into Turner years later, and Turner crowing to him about how he, Turner, had won. Cronenberg says that he found this a strange reaction, as the film was released in the version he intended. It took some doing, but it happened, and Crash is still readily available on DVD. Long live the new flesh.