I first watched Crash with my partner at Mid Valley Plaza in Morwell – country multiplex cinemas about 2 hours east of Melbourne. The year was 1996. The following year we would be strolling through the same plaza when we learned Princess Dianna had died in a car accident and we numbly crowded around television sets in an electrical appliance store, watching police in blue jumpsuits surveying the twisted wreckage of the black sedan she was travelling in. At the time it was hard not to be reminded of Crash, a film that morbidly fetishised and sexualised this kind of celebrity death by automobile. It felt dirty and wrong to draw this parallel, but that’s the power of Crash. It stays with you, and maybe it also changes you a little too.
My partner hated Crash to the extent that she forbid me from choosing films for years afterwards. To add insult to injury as some kind of demented palette cleanser that only made sense to her, I also had to endure a succession of three successive Jennifer Aniston films in the same cinema before I finally returned the favour and stopped her from choosing films. Now we watch films alone. Crash did this to us.
J.G Ballard’s 1973 novel Crash was strange and transgressive even by the UK author’s odd standards. So the idea of a union between Ballard and the cerebral body horror of Canadian iconoclast David Cronenberg (Videodrome) on such a taboo laden unflimable project like Crash some 23 years later was ridiculously enticing.
Crash came five years after Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch (1991), where he demonstrated his ability with the literary adaptation of a much loved cult novel, turning Beat writer William Burroughs’ possibly even more unfilmable novel into something resembling coherence. Admittedly it was an hallucinatory drug induced coherence – but he found some kind of loose audacious narrative and it felt true to the spirit of the novel.
Crash begins with three sex scenes, one after the other. Bang bang bang. Literally! And it’s a statement of intent. Crash is a film dripping with sex, not just the act, but you can smell its musky scent in the corners of nearly every frame. If the characters aren’t having sex they’re working their way up to it. In this sense it shares something with pornography. The entire film hinges on sex. Everything is in slave to sexual gratification. Ironically though that’s also the big departure from pornography – as it’s all about the character’s gratification. Not the audience’s. For viewers the sex is cold, uncomfortable, and cumming (sic) from an unfamiliar other world – a strange subculture where we don’t yet know the rules. We’re privy to this deviant sexuality and it’s confusing, unnerving and dangerous.
When TV producer James Ballard (yep he named the character after himself) is in a fatal auto accident he finds himself drawn into a hidden subculture obsessed with sex, death, collisions and celebrity car crashes. At a precisely detailed re enactment of James Deans tragic death, Ballard (played with unnerving straight laced weirdness by James Spader) connects with the enigmatic physically scarred Vaughn (Elias Koteas in the role he was born for) via Dr Remington (Holly Hunter), finding himself aroused by the danger, by the scars and wounds in this strange new world.
This release is part 14 of Umbrella’s Beyond Genres collection and its brimming with fascinating extras, such as 2020 interviews with Crash cinematographer Peter Suschitzky, and casting director Deidre Bowen. Both confess to not being a fan of the more horrific elements of Cronenberg’s films – which is pretty unexpected considering they have both worked with him across multiple films. There’s also a great interview with producer Jeremy Thomas who relates that Naked Lunch was due to be filmed in Tangiers – and then the Gulf War broke out so they moved onto sets in Canada. He also offers his reaction to the huge controversy Crash elicited upon release. Perhaps the most fascinating and revealing interview though is with score composer Howard Shore who goes into intricate detail about his highly distinctive work on Crash, using six electric guitars, three acoustic harps, three woodwinds, and two percussionists playing metal percussion.
Crash is like nothing else before or after. The wholehearted embrace of the taboo and the sublimation of the film’s structure to the deviant psychosexual drives of the characters demonstrates not only how self assured Cronenberg’s work was, but also how willing he was to take massive risks.
Crash is all about freeway underpasses, cracking leather upholstery, breaking glass, scarred flesh, and twisted metal. It’s the push and pull of sex and death – and it’s intoxicating. A rewatch alone, some 26 years later, in full 1080 HD, with 5.1 surround sound with the metal gleaming and tires screeching confirmed one thing for me. My partner was wrong. This strange seedy uncomfortable film is nothing short of a modern masterpiece and no amount of Jennifer Aniston will convince me otherwise.