Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Director Spotlight #9.14: David Cronenberg's Crash

Every month, Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. August’s director is body horror auteur David Cronenberg.

NOTE: Look, I’m tired of typing it out for pretty much every entry, so here it is in the opening: there’s going to be spoilers in this thing, and in almost every entry of Director Spotlight. There’s a lot more to a film than the rote plotting, which is only a small part of the enjoyment as far as I’m concerned. Still, if it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the movie in question.

Grade: 75 (B+)

David Cronenberg and writer J.G. Ballard are such kindred spirits that many assume Cronenberg’s theatrical debut, Shivers, was inspired by the Ballard novel High Rise when in fact the two similar works were released in the same year. It makes sense, then, that Cronenberg would tackle Ballard’s controversial novel Crash after a pair of earlier difficult adaptations (Naked Lunch, M. Butterfly). 1996’s Crash (which I am obligated to point out bears no relation to the lousy Paul Haggis Oscar-winner about racism of the same name) is Cronenberg’s most controversial film, an NC-17 rated lightning rod that polarized critics and faced release delays after Ted Turner, who owned the rights to distribute it, spoke out against it. But while it’s certainly a hard film to love, it’s still an admirable addition into Cronenberg’s filmography.

James Ballard (James Spader) is a film producer whose relationship with his wife Catharine (Deborah Kara Unger) is cold and distant. The two have an open marriage, but their sex is dispassionate and almost mechanical. Ballard is involved in a car accident with Dr. Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), whose husband is killed in the accident. Ballard is intrigued when, immediately after the accident, Helen exposes her breast to him. Helen introduces Ballard to Vaughan (Elias Koteas), a man who stages recreations of famous car crashes and leads a group of car crash fetishists. Ballard and Catharine get involved with Vaughan, Helen, and the rest of the group, but their newfound sexual behavior often leads to dangerous places.

Crash sees Cronenberg pushing his clinical, distant style to an almost perverse degree. It’s his coldest film, which is saying something considering that this is the guy who made Shivers and Dead Ringers. When Cronenberg shoots the sex scenes, he shows the interest of an alien studying human behavior in the most mechanical way possible. Characters are almost comically disaffected, almost as if Cronenberg had threatened to shoot James Spader and Holly Hunter if they showed any emotion (Deborah Kara Unger didn’t really have to change what she usually does). Almost everyone in the movie whispers their lines and behaves as if they’re in a trance- Spader, a go-to guy for playing perverts, plays Ballard like an icier, less emotional version of his Sex, Lies, and Videotape character. Howard Shore’s typically fantastic score is filled with odd, tonal guitar work that pushes an already uneasy film to extreme degrees. And while many Cronenberg films are deliberately paced, Crash is downright glacial, taking its sweet time to go where it’s going. Crash is a deeply flawed movie- it’s slow, it’s self-serious, a major character (Hunter) disappears from the film for no reason, it’s seemingly disinterested in most of the characters beyond their behavior, and it sometimes plays like a parody of a Cronenberg film (it features a scene where Spader has sex with a woman’s leg wound, for Christ’s sake). But Crash is also a deeply fascinating look at people who don’t know how to relate to each other, at two seemingly disparate obsessions (cars and sex), and at the extreme degrees they’ll go to in order to feel something.

Ballard and Catherine have extramarital affairs, but they don’t seem satisfied by much of anything. They’re isolated and alone. These are people who don’t know how to act like people except through behavior- sex is an option. Love? Unknown. But a car crash is an event one can’t remain dispassionate about. It’s a violent, potentially deadly event, and it causes more passionate behavior in Ballard and the similarly disaffected Helen. The threat of death and destruction is a major turn on. It may seem strange to us (most fetishes seem strange), but it’s the only thing that makes these people feel alive.

The perpetually underrated Canadian actor Elias Koteas is easily the strongest element in Crash, in large part because Vaughan is the single most passionate character in the film. Car crashes are, as Vaughan argues, fertilizing events rather than destructive. The best scene in the film shows him restaging the famous James Dean crash to a crowd of fascinated- and in some cases, sexually aroused- onlookers. The immortality of this car crash makes it particularly erotic to Vaughan. It’s a liberating release of energy. Vaughan doesn’t discriminate- he sleeps with both women (Unger, Roseanna Arquette) and men (Spader). It is the action that turns him on. When he stops by a particularly nasty car crash, he sounds positively ecstatic as he’s taking pictures (“slow down…oh yeah…stop”). Crazy as it all may seem, he seems to care more about what he’s doing than anyone else does, and it’s by following this behavior that Ballard and Catherine finally become more passionate, albeit not quite to the point where they seem like recognizable human beings. It took a near fatal car crash to do it. Maybe it’ll take a fatal one for one of them to go all the way. As Ballard ominously says at the end, “Maybe the next one, darling”. 

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