Crash (dir. David Cronenberg): dark comedy satire on Western obsession with technology and material culture

David Cronenberg, “Crash” (1996)

Based on the eponymous 1973 novel by J G Ballard, this film can be viewed as a companion to it rather than a close adaptation. The novel examines how technology and its products transform human psychology and culture, with one result being that people become obsessed by media products such as forms of celebrity worship; the film focusses more narrowly on the fusion of human psychology and technology as expressed in the characters’ sexual fetishisation of cars and car crashes to the extent that this philia becomes the motivator in their lives. Toronto-based TV producer James Ballard (James Spader) and his wife Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) have an open marriage which is a cover for their unsatisfactory and cold relationship. One evening, driving home late, Ballard collides head on with Dr Helen Remington (Holly Hunter) in her car, the accident killing her husband. In hospital with his leg in a metal brace, Ballard meets a researcher Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who keenly examines his injuries and metal braces. Ballard and Remington start an affair, making out in cars; to understand why they have become a pair through the car crash and why they are sexually aroused only in cars, they turn to Vaughan who invites them to see a simulated performance-art re-enactment of 1950’s Hollywood star James Dean’s fatal car crash and then to his hidey-hole where they meet Vaughan’s friends who include Gabrielle (Rosanna Arquette) whose legs are permanently embraced in steel braces.

Ballard quickly becomes Vaughan’s faithful groupie, driving his guru around in Vaughan’s Lincoln convertible to pick up prostitutes and later Catherine for sex every evening. On one such trip they come upon a pile-up of cars and Vaughan discovers one dead person in the wreckage is a follower of his in the middle of a Jayne Mansfield death re-enactment. Ballard also dallies with Gabrielle, using an old scar on her leg as a vagina substitute. Eventually Vaughan turns his attention to Ballard and the two engage in homosexual intercourse which sets them up for a climax in which at least one of them must die in order to consummate their relationship and fulfill Vaughan’s desire to live his philosophy of the car crash as a whole-body experience incorporating sexual intercourse, orgasm, fulfillment and death.

The film adopts a low-key, matter-of-fact approach to its subject and the actors do well in portraying cold, emotionless characters in thrall to their psychological urges. Koteas in particular steals the show as a manipulative messiah who knows what Ballard needs and uses him for as long as he needs. The only flaw in Koteas’s portrayal of Vaughan is that the character is more creepy than charming and his recruitment technique is more likely to repel than attract. Spader may not be leading-man charmer material but his colourless approach and boyish looks suit his character who is essentially passive and desires to obey Vaughan. In this, Cronenberg is following the novel fairly closely: in most of J G Ballard’s novels and short fiction, the hero usually is a passive man, often manipulated, through which Ballard expresses his ideas and beliefs about the effects of technology or cultural innovation on ordinary human thinking and feeling. Viewers need to watch Spader closely in the carwash scene to realise how subtle his acting can be; his face is blank, he says nothing but his hand movements express his arousal and reaction to Vaughan shagging Catherine in the backseat of the car. The female actors get through their parts efficiently if not outstandingly: Unger seems to spend most of her time with the fairies, Hunter is merely determined and Arquette is  hilarious in a scene that sends up car advertising strategies.

In a film like “Crash” which deals with obsession, the overall look and attention to details are important: Toronto is sleek and glossy in parts, grimy and industrial in others, yet always hollow and lacking in depth and warmth in some way. Much loving attention in the form of numerous close-ups is paid to cars, their style and surfaces, grilles, bumper bars, driver controls and, most importantly, any dints they get. This suggests that the characters are the products of a society that’s spiritually dead and which substitutes technology for warmth, human bonding and communication. It’s no accident that Cronenberg makes his main character a TV producer whose role is to make shows that influence people’s thoughts and feelings, promote certain social values and attitudes, and encourage folks to pay continual homage to their lares and penates with their remote controls. The role of the media in encouraging people to be obsessed with famous actors and other celebrities is downplayed: Cronenberg seems uninterested in investigating how psychology and the products and systems of technology interact to reconstruct and determine cultural values and definitions about the nature of fame and how it affects worshippers and the objects of their worship alike. Media attention on famous stars not only can encourage fan obsession, it can lead to fans stalking (and sometimes killing) the objects of their desires. In the novel Vaughan is obsessed with the actress Elizabeth Taylor; in the film only famous dead stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield have meaning for Vaughan and his followers for having died in car collisions, their lives before their crashes and whatever it was that propelled them to fame being of no concern. Perhaps the intention is to send an even more chilling message about the motivations of Vaughan’s group: they are completely self-obsessed to the point of drifting away from reality and relate only to others who share in their peculiar interests. But what is reality anyway? – it is other people who are just as equally obsessed with their particular gadgety toys or the products of technology.

There is a banal quality to the plot and characters due to their obsessive and repetitive behaviour: the thrill of car crashes and being close to death (because it makes them come alive) is short-lived so they must repeat the experience again and again. Only when they come close to losing each other – the film’s ending can be ambiguous – do Ballard and his wife finally find love but even here their obsession intrudes and it’s likely beyond the film that they’ll risk killing each other again just for that fleeting moment when they most feel alive. At this point viewers realise just how far gone the two are: their relationship has recovered its warmth but at what cost to their future together and individually? This part of “Crash” where a particular technology finally occupies central place in two characters’ lives and determines their future behaviour must be the film’s true horrific climax.

As might be expected of a film that marries cars, death and sex, there is plenty of sex and nudity but though tastefully done the sex scenes are cold and not at all erotic. One sex scene in which Ballard and Catherine are having sex and Catherine asks him about Vaughan’s body and sexual response is comic.

If there’s a lesson to learn from “Crash”, it’s more in the dynamics of human group behaviour, especially in the context of cult groups following a guru who uses his followers’ guilt or obsessions to control and mould their thoughts and behaviours. If ever people want to know the dangers of getting involved in little cliques that follow and worship their leaders uncritically, “Crash” is required watching. On the other hand it makes no moral comment on the fusion of technology with human psychology and physiology. The whole film can be viewed as a dark comedy and satire on Western society and its preoccupations with material culture at the expense of values centred on human relationships and spiritual life.

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