Crash (1997)
Top Ten List: #9 of 1997
Director: David Cronenberg. Cast: James Spader, Deborah Kara Unger, Elias Koteas, Holly Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, Peter MacNeill. Screenplay: David Cronenberg (from the novel by J.G. Ballard).

The NC-17 rating has survived for the better part of a decade now, but its box-office viability remains unclear. Showgirls, the last movie that tried to beat the brand of Almost-X, was an infamous flop in 1995. Then again, when the screenwriter of Jade meets the star of Saved By the Bell, who expected anything better?

David Cronenberg’s Crash is a horse of a different soft-core color. Fiercely dividing critics and viewers since its debut last May at Cannes, Crash at least has artistic credentials: adapted from J.G. Ballard’s cult novel, directed by a pro and acted by stars of other indie-movie classics. Last week, Crash tried to drive with the big boys but immediately hit a box-office brick wall. What went wrong?

Certainly, Crash’s subject is not the stuff of which blockbusters are made. The characters in the film are people for whom auto collisions are a sexual fetish. They are aroused by the moments of impact and obsessed with their grisly injuries. With crash after crash, these haunted souls engage in a new permutation of sexual possibilities, alternating partners and altering vehicles, all in search of...what? That plot (or non-plot) reads like a cheap, sensationalist stunt, not just tainted by sex and violence but comprised of those things, fusing them into a grisly new whole: Sex-violence. This assumption, compounded by the NC-17 and the shallow prurience of the novel, makes Crash at a glance seem like trash.

Such commercial catastrophe was unfortunate. Crash is an extremely good film, at times even a great one. Its pace surprisingly slow, its sex explicit but rarely erotic, Crash creates a world that no filmgoer has ever seen, achieving a moral and psychological depth for which most films don’t even try. Consider: In The English Patient, a beautiful woman is injured in a plane crash. Her lover moves her to an empty cave to recuperate, where she writes, "I want all this marked on my body. We are the real countries, not the boundaries drawn on maps with the names of powerful men." Millions sob. Awards pile up.

In Crash, a man is injured in a car accident outside an airport. H recuperates in an empty airport hospital while his beautiful wife whispers at his bedside, "They bury the dead so quickly; they should leave them lying around for months." Vive la différence? Mais non! Sure, Crash lacks the picturesque power of Oscar’s latest love, but as strong interior dramas—fragmented narratives powered by ideas—they share a fierce intelligence and a profound visual and verbal acuity.

In the scenario from Crash, the man in the hospital is James Ballard (James Spader, of sex, lies, and videotape), a television producer with an active extra-marital libido. No problem, since his wife has one, too. The two share their stories of conquest every night, but somehow, well, the thrill is gone. Their macabre conversation about the unfortunate briskness of burials occurs after James’s head-on collision with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), a crash that claimed her husband’s life and puts her on crutches and out of a job. James and Helen feel a spiritual connection as survivors of the same accident, and soon enough that connection is not just spiritual (nudge nudge).

Here Crash widens its lens to include a small group of "crash cultists" who meet to compare their scrapes and scars and recreate the deaths of famous car-crash casualties. Rather than a film like Fearless, in which Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez played plane-crash survivors who could no longer connect with the living world, Crash takes the even darker, more difficult decision to represent the world created by the collision survivors—not necessarily to understand them but to imagine what their lives, particularly their experiences of their bodies, are like. The zealot of the group is Vaughan (Exotica’s Elias Koteas), who describes James Dean’s fatal collision with motorist Donald Turnipseed: "The two would meet for only one moment."

That line provides the key insight into what Crash is all about. The car crash is a moment—one moment—in which all bodily sensations are carried to their greatest, most gruesome extreme. The scar, likewise, is a material memory of that very point in time: time captured, time marked into the self. For James and Helen and Vaughan and their comrades, the crash is a means of stopping time and of commemorating that very act. Of course, the victory is fleeting, so another crash must always follow. The analogy to sex begins to seem more apparent, though several critics have steered wrong by interpreting too literally, even taking as synonymous, the metaphor of vehicular collision as sexual exchange. If these acts were congruent, after all, Vaughan and his cohort would only need to engage in one or the other.

Yes, both phenomena mark the merging of two bodies, the exchange of essential fluids. Ace cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (the D.P. for most of Cronenberg's recent work, as well as the Force behind The Empire Strikes Back) often lights the sex scenes so we see the ribs rub against the skin, the pelvis rotate, the fingers clench—the body as a mechanized, automotive device. Cronenberg, however, remains conscious of the untenability of this metaphor, the fact that, as an instant of destruction, a crash is almost the polar opposite of sex, the moment of fusion and sometimes of actual creation. The larger point Cronenberg can make about his characters' strange obsession is, what fetishistic behavior does have a logical grounding? How is sex intrinsically related to leather, or to masochism, or, to borrow again from The English Patient, to the eloquent scribblings of Herodotus? The most potent answer suggested by Crash, with its intentionally cold visuals, symmetrical compositions, and sonic drone, is that perhaps the last reserves of erotic surprise depend on extreme, even violent unpredictability: will the characters survive their next crash, and if so, who will become their next sexual partners?—

Crash refreshingly avoids any judgments on its subject. The expected Movie Moments—the fetishist realizes his folly! the innocent bystander is killed!—are absent from this picture. Nor does Cronenberg glorify his subject. The cars are not sporty, the actors are not gorgeous, and the sex is not portrayed as some higher plane of eroticism. These stylistic decisions of Cronenberg's fit with the attitudes of his characters, who after all aim to please themselves and each other, not to convert or coerce people outside their small, dedicated circle to enjoy the things they do. What detractors have ridiculed as Crash's frigidity or detachment actually serves both to portray the world as the characters view it and to watch those characters without moralizing to the audience. In this respect, Crash is a profoundly more honest and admirable picture than something like Shine, which orders its audience to revere a hero about whom it tells them almost nothing, and even less that makes real sense.

The virtues of Crash are abundant. So is the NC-17 fair? Absolutely: no other rating belongs on a film as explicit and audacious as this one. What is not fair is an immediate link between its rating and its quality. No one under 17 should see Crash, but unlike most cinematic product, no one under 17 could have made it, either, much less understood it. If Cronenberg’s film and its strange, courageous cast receive the video resurrection they deserve, America might remember not to judge a film by its chassis. Grade: A–

Cannes Film Festival: Special Jury Prize for Originality, Daring, and Audacity

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