Nick-Davis.com: 100 Favorite Films
(Canada, 1996; dir. David Cronenberg; scr. David Cronenberg; cin. Peter Suschitzky; with James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette)
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I simply would not have a website without David Cronenberg's Crash, one of those movies that instantly set my life on a new route. I felt it happen. Intrigued by its Special Jury Prize at Cannes for "Originality, Daring, and Audacity," devoted to Holly Hunter, and hooked into Cronenberg's oeuvre by two trips through Dead Ringers and at least that many through The Fly, I went to Crash on opening weekend with a college roommate and his visiting friend. What their investment was, I cannot say. Afterward, they were much cooler on the movie than I was. Equally perplexed and electrified, I returned for another viewing a few days later. I remember that between these two viewings, somebody known to a friend or to my family was hurt in a crash. I'm sorry to admit I cannot recall who, but in the wake of that event, revisiting this movie's tenaciously conceptual approach to auto collisions seemed especially unseemly. In general, I questioned my eagerness to re-patronize a film so lurid, wound-filled, and freezing cold. Back I went, however, fully cognizant of a parallel to the enthusiasts in the film, who keep showing up for secret reenactments of celebrities' iconic wrecks, who keep rewinding video footage of vehicular mayhem when they aren't inducing it in the streets.
Surging with that brand of fascination that only writing can relieve, I reviewed Crash in my first or second piece for my college newspaper (either following or preceding the incredibly genteel Paradise Road). Nine months later, Crash was the movie I had in mind when I learned html and built "Nick Davis's Movie Archives." Still struggling to grasp Crash's metaphors (if metaphors they are) and lacking anyone on home turf to discuss them with, I divined that, against all odds, this serialist study of impact, affect, orgasm, and cryptic community would be easier to probe with strangers than with friends. I posted this review, a longer version of my print critique that now makes me howl, and waited to see who bit. A year later, still transfixed, I profited from the generosity of my Medieval literature professor, who agreed to sponsor me through an independent study to develop my website, cultivate a writing voice, follow other critics, and produce a research paper on Cronenberg's philosophies and aesthetics as they crystallize in Crash. (If you've ever wondered why I wrote so much in 1998 but so sporadically in most years since, there you go. Also, if you're ever petitioned for an independent study you can reasonably accommodate, do it.)
For all its opacity, brilliantly preserved despite pushing its imagery so far, Crash taught me a lot. This was the movie that unlocked for me how directorial choices and coordinated efforts across the major crafts departments could constitute ideas in themselves, rather than illustrating notions that already existed in the script. The screenplays for my favorite movies in U.S. release the previous year, Fargo, The English Patient, Lone Star, and The Portrait of a Lady, made for satisfying reading on the page. They rewarded my English major-y frameworks for form, content, and theme. Not to gainsay Cronenberg's achievement in turning J.G. Ballard's novel into a filmable text (nor to occlude the many ways he reconfigured that text in adapting it), but Crash works on screen because the temperature of each scene is so carefully regulated; because the shrill and lonely claxons in Howard Shore's score foster such a macabre mood; and because Peter Suschitzky's camera relates to cars as encapsulated environments but also as dangerously exposed, and relates to humans as two-dimensional spectres but also as thick, organic machines ready to split, join, and spurt. Watching the usual Cronenberg repertory of artists bring this material to such sleek, challenging, and coherent life made me rethink the possibilities in all their crafts, miles away from what AMPAS would ever prompt me to acknowledge as commendable artistry. This epiphany didn't turn me against any of my other recent favorites but in fact helped me appreciate what the non-marquee talent on those projects had furnished to my experience, beyond or in tandem with scripted themes. The revelations kept coming. On the second viewing, I was struck by how the film exercised such careful selection in its depictions of Toronto, suggesting a stainless-steel city of the near future or alternative present. I also realized how performances like Deborah Kara Unger's, which might seem "bad" by conventional standards of rounded characterization or elastic expressivity, actually served the material expertly, requiring lots of fortitude and discipline on the performer's part.
Crash is so boldly yet meticulously engineered at the levels of look, sound, and tonal register that you could easily get away with valorizing the film on technical grounds, and disavowing its sexuality as incidental or anti-erotic (as you'll notice I did in my college review). I won't try that here. I frankly was aroused by Crash, though rarely by its manifest spectacles. Yes, I would gladly have watched James Spader and Elias Koteas continue to go at it beneath that overpass, though only one of them fell anywhere near what I assumed to be "my type." And in fact, the erotic appeal of Crash lay precisely in its vaporizing of "type," its annihilation of the assumption that sexuality is oriented exclusively toward people, or innately entangled with gender. The characters in Crash were palpably attracted to each other, and Suschitzky's lighting made it easy to see why, but what really seemed to excite them were aspects of style, texture, energy, excitement, shared secrecy, threat, domination, and submission that attached temporarily to each other's bodies, regardless of sex, regardless of what did or would compel them yesterday or tomorrow. Desire organized and disorganized bodies but did not inhere in them, or stay put.
The crashes in Crash seem less like metaphors to me than MacGuffins, though to say so might undersell the specificity of these characters' predilections. Crashes stand in here for larger principles of the unpredictable, the disreputable, and the utterly contingent. They elicit painstaking, observable recreations in this film, and they enact measurable and sometimes lethal tolls, but they are also a pure principle of slate-wiping, of table-clearing, of creating conditions in which lots can transpire, with anyone. I was still a virgin when I saw Crash, and you can imagine how a movie like this might have sent me screaming in the opposite direction from sex. In fact, it neither slowed nor hastened my impulse to take the plunge. Primarily, it made me understand that sex is a lot of things to a lot of people, and that it can be a story rather than serving as the catalyst or resolution for one, as witness this movie's tendency to edit sex scenes in succession, rather than using them to launch or tie off trajectories within the story. Any given act bears completely different resonances based on who and what is involved, and also why, where, when, and how, even when these remain unclear, to witnesses or to participants. I found that strangely reassuring, despite its associated dangers, and the film's refusal to editorializeit neither worships nor denounces its characters or their libidosfelt positively liberating.
Given that I now teach courses in cinema and sexuality at Northwestern, it's no stretch to say this movie and a handful of others (The Piano, Velvet Goldmine, Eyes Wide Shut, The Pillow Book) inspired a whole career. The more I watched and read and the more I lived, my thoughts about the film kept changing. For example, I went through a phase of finding it entirely obnoxious that Cronenberg is willing to show us everything, every wrinkle and scarified knob on Rosanna Arquette's sexually penetrable leg, but blanches completely at male anatomy. That remains an odd symptom of bashfulness in such a brash, steely-eyed movie, but I'm over it now. Cronenberg's ideas about bodies and desires are even more interesting than his graphic representations of them, however flagrant or demure. I've never written professionally about Crash, but I feel both indebted to it and protective of it. Ever since I saw it, I've hankered for films that don't just execute a plan but evince ideas about their material, whatever it may bethe more ideas the better. Clearly, many films fall short of that bar, but even when faced with a total wreck, I say to myself, "Maybe the next time, darling. Maybe the next time...."
Hey, Reader: What's your clearest or most recent memory of savoring a movie that seemed, on the surface, unsavory? Fess up!