Crash (1996)

*. I know I should like Crash a lot more.
*. I say that not so much because I like the fiction of J. G. Ballard and the films of David Cronenberg, though I do. Nor is it because the car chases and crashes we see take place on Toronto streets and expressways I’ve traveled many times myself. Instead, it’s because I think Crash is a lousy movie that I think I should like it more. That’s a paradox worth explaining.
*. I admire movies that split opinion sharply. Such polarity usually means people have strong feelings about the movie, either pro or con, which is some achievement in the present cultural environment. We’re all pretty jaded today, not unlike the autoerotic thrillseekers in this film, and it’s surprising to have a movie give rise to real disagreement, as Crash has since its release.
*. I think, however, that the critical divide is phoney. In the first place, simply being sensationalistic is a cheap way of creating a false dissensus. As Kenneth Turan advised in his review, we should “remember that for a canny marketing department ‘controversial’ is the last refuge of the tedious. Kicks may be getting harder to find, but Crash is not a great place to look for new ones.”
*. More than that, my real problem with Crash is not that it tries too hard to be on the edge but that it isn’t edgy enough. At Cannes Crash won a Special Jury Prize “for originality, daring and audacity.” Roger Ebert called it “challenging, courageous, and original.” I think you could apply all of these adjectives to Ballard’s novel. I don’t think any of them apply to Cronenberg’s film. Instead, the word I’d use is “trite.”
*. What is controversial, or edgy, or provocative, about cars=bodies=sex? Even Vaughn says that his line about the reshaping of the human body by modern technology is shallow. Or what is new in the observation that as industrial creatures ourselves we’ve become more mechanical and soulless in our passions and desires. If, as Anthony Lane observes, Crash “is primarily a metaphor, all about the human race sliding into the thrall of its own machinery, then it’s kind of obvious, and, anyway, Cronenberg has done it before. James Woods having a tape inserted into his abdomen in Videodrome is a better sick joke about biotechnology than James Spader fondling a steering column.”
*. About the only daring thing I can see in Crash is its daring us to like it. Ebert thought it a nearly great movie “although I cannot say I ‘liked’ it.” Mark Kermode called it “pretty much perfect” and “perhaps the Cronenberg film I admire the most,” but admitted it’s a “hard film to like.” There is something challenging, I guess, in what Lane refers to as Cronenberg’s “disdain for the customary satisfactions of cinema.” You’re going to have to like Crash despite its not caring if you do.
*. I’ve been quoting from these critical responses to Crash in part because of what I see as the film’s triteness. I don’t see where I have much to add to what is so easily and has so often been observed. That the sex is deliberately unerotic, despite being grounded in fetish obsessions. That the actors all seem narcotized, even when they’re killing each other. We see people being turned into machines after surgery, and surgery being done on machines to save people. OK, we get it. But so what?
*. I even felt cheated by the absence of Holly Hunter. Apparently she really wanted to be in a Cronenberg film so she got this role, which is not only minor but largely superfluous. I was actually surprised when she turned up again at the end for a kiss after having gone AWOL for most of the movie. I wonder what she felt when she read the script, or if she even understood what was going on.
*. Speaking of Holly’s kiss at the end, what are we supposed to make of the fact that the characters progress to homosexual acts? Is this supposed to indicate real homosexual desire? I doubt it, as none of the lovers seem that in to their partners. Though Vaughn may have a thing for Ballard. Or is this the idea that each man (or woman) kills the thing they love being put into action by (literally) driving one’s lover to death? Or, still spinning my own wheels here, is it mean to indicate a kind of descent into narcissism? Homosexuality does seem significant in some way, but I’m not sure how.
*. The sad thing is that I think Cronenberg cared about something here. He had something to say about art, and sex, and death. I’m just not sure what that something was beyond the obvious. And it is that obviousness that, even more than the presentation, makes it all so dull. I kept waiting to be surprised. And given all the high praise it has received over the years, it’s a movie that I’ve given a chance to grow on me. But I’m still waiting.

2 thoughts on “Crash (1996)

  1. Tom Moody

    I saw this in the theatre when it came out and have avoided it since. I thought the material dated badly. Ballard’s book was ’73 but still had a “Swinging London” vibe (Ballard had mounted an exhibition of crashed cars in that era). The swingers getting their kinks from car wrecks only resonated during a brief window of time, when the ’60s was winding down from adventurous (and carefree) to jaded (but still carefree). Chronicling this same activity twenty years later made little sense. You could only view these people as a minor cult or aesthetic fringe, with little connection to anything else going on in the ’90s. It makes even less sense now, especially in the US where a minor car accident can destroy one’s life savings and make it very difficult to continue to pursue this hobby.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      That’s a good point about the dating. Have you seen the 2015 movie they made of “High-Rise”? I should get my notes up on that soon (I have a big backlog of notes to get through). In High-Rise (the movie) I thought they did something interesting in making it a movie set in the 1970s, but an alternative, SF ’70s. It has a nice feel to it that I thought worked really well.


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