Sean Alexander reflects on 25 years of David Cronenberg’s Crash.
In the quarter-century since Crash first made significant waves at May’s traditional Cannes International Film Festival (where it merited a Special Jury Prize for ‘Audacity, Daring and Originality’), it’s easy to forget the tsunamic impact it soon made at the same year’s London Film Festival. Alexander Walker, doyen of the conservative brigade of right-wing film critics at the time, condemned it as ‘beyond the bounds of depravity’, while the morning front page of the Daily Mail, on the day Crash debuted in London, demanded the authorities to ‘Ban This Car Crash Sex Film’.
While the film’s elevation to ‘special award’ at Cannes carried with it the whiff of indignation – Francis Ford Coppola was hardly alone when he stormed out of the film’s screening – nothing had prepared Jewish director David Cronenberg for the reception his film would receive just five months later in Blighty. The Evening Standard and Alexander Walker led the initial tirade, with the Daily Mail soon following, and the whole experience (to this day, Crash is still banned in the City of Westminster) left Cronenberg extremely wary of the British press.
Not without irony did he ruminate on his early films of exploding heads, phallic parasites and vaginal stomach slits avoiding the then British scaremongering of ‘video nasties’, despite arriving at the same time and containing just as objectionable material as the likes of Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left or Cannibal Holocaust. Just as with Crash some fifteen years later, these films arrived on British shores to greet a right-wing media keen to take people’s minds off burgeoning unemployment figures and a rising crime problem under the first administration of Margaret Thatcher. Many of the complainants – from such familiar figures as moral watchdog Mary Whitehouse to any number of Tory backbencher – hadn’t even seen the films in question, which I suspect was the same case with Crash, at a time when another Conservative government was intent on distracting people from their own failings with a ‘back to basics’ campaign for greater moral values in the home. Sound familiar?
Twenty-five years on and Crash and its controversy now seems a quaintly absurd snapshot of Britain in the days before ‘Cool Britannia’ and Britpop would see a New Labour government swept to power; with even drug-taking rock stars invited to Downing Street as a desperate ploy to ‘get down with the kids.’ It also feels like Cronenberg’s most anthemic piece of cinema since Videodrome (1983) originally mooted the effects that mass media may have on the unconscious mind. Here a motley group of car crash fetishists are led by Vaughan (Elias Koteas) and his pursuit of the ‘reshaping of the human body with modern technology’. And what could be more modern and yet timeless than the motor car, that vessel of personal freedom and underage sex which for Cronenberg himself had become an obsessive pursuit as potent as his continuing campaign to ‘show the unshowable, film the unfilmable’? Even the director’s leftfield drag-racing film Fast Company (1979), seen by most aficionados now as a curious footnote in a career otherwise saturated with more cerebral material, couldn’t square the circle of Crash’s deep dive into extreme sex and perversity. This was a road trip that was a world away from the gasoline fuelled, bad boy pictures of Rebel Without a Cause or East of Eden (both 1955), starring the soon-to-be car crash casualty himself, James Dean.
Dean’s head-on collision some forty years hence becomes in Crash the talismanic moment in Vaughan’s project to reshape humanity through a violent collision with steel, glass, and chrome. Re-enacting Dean’s own death-drive is what first ensnares the Ballards, James (James Spader) and Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) following James’ own near-fatal collision with the Remingtons (Dr Helen, played by Holly Hunter, being the only survivor). Already a couple seeking more extreme forms of sexual satisfaction by sharing their individual experiences with one another, the Ballards become Vaughan’s obsession as the film’s cool and emotionally glacial narrative unfolds. Given their very WASPish characters, we instead find the Jewish element here in Vaughan himself: a nomadic drifter who sleeps in his car, whose sexual appetites recall the antisemitic stereotype of Jews as perverts, pornographers and paedophiles. He bears both the past and future scars of his own near-death experiments, being both Holocaust survivor and prophet by the same turn. A scene where he has a medical tattoo of the impression of a steering wheel etched into his chest talks of a future collision which he insists is both ‘ragged and dirty’. The Jewish body here representing anatomy as destiny as much as it does a hallmark to past suffering.
Even Vaughan’s 1963 Lincoln, an exact copy of the limousine JFK was assassinated in, bears the brunt of his sexual aggression and sense of history. When he pursues first Catherine and then James Ballard on busy motorway flyovers (much is made in the film of increasing numbers of cars as the Ballards are further and further sucked into Vaughan’s world), he rams each car with the sexually aggressive purpose (somewhat similarly to the truck that pursues Dennis Weaver’s salesman’s car in Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971), another example of a Jewish director getting his sexual aggression out using vehicles). Cronenberg is suggesting that both sex and death are equally powerful aphrodisiacs, much as the immortality gained by James Dean’s premature death has more potency than any curtailed film career. Ballard for his part takes the role of curious voyeur, driving Vaughan’s Lincoln while he has sex with an airport prostitute on the back seat, or watching his wife and Vaughan get it on under the womb-like interior of an all-night carwash. Where Ballard embarks on experiments himself is with the widow of the man killed by his own uncontrolled car (fittingly, Ballard is distracted by porn photos before the collision) and later with Gabrielle, a cripple in fetishized leather leggings for whom the vaginal scarring in one leg provides a new and very Cronenbergian form of sexual aperture.
When Vaughan’s latest endeavour, the death and decapitation of Jayne Mansfield, is curtailed by his co-pilot Colin Seagrave (Peter MacNeill) re-enacting the death without him (fatally so), Vaughan’s obsession with the Ballards is accelerated, leading to his own death as a result of trying to force them off the road. The ‘project’ now falls to the Ballards to carry the torch, but despite James rescuing the wreck of Vaughan’s vehicle from the pound, his initial attempt to kill Catherine ends in failure. Or does it? Lying at her side by her overturned car, there is a suggestion that this loving couple has finally regained its sexual wanderlust, without the need of Vaughan to help spice up their bedroom antics. But Cronenberg leaves us with no clear answer: James’ ‘Maybe the next one, darling’ either relating to their ongoing sexual dissatisfaction with one another, or a more Freudian death-drive towards mutual destruction.
One suspects that for Cronenberg at least, both might mean the same thing.