Perverted Nihilism: Crash
For some completely inexplicable reason I’ve now seen this film four times, and I can’t say any one of those times could remotely be called enjoyable. Crash is, unquestionably, one of the most viscerally unpleasant films that it has been my misfortune to sit through. It’s an exercise in nihilistic misery and an examination of perversion with absolutely nothing insightful to say about the subject.
Crash was a bit of a cause célèbre in Britain. It was instantly banned in an enormous overreaction, and as such garnered “unmissable” status that the film simply doesn’t warrant. The “official” history of the Crash fiasco can only be described as disingenuous revisionist bullshit. The BBFC, on the back of the Cannes Award, bottled an outright ban. Instead, and I can’t prove this, the various councils that films have to get by were instead pressured into withholding release. Notably, Westminster (and if you can’t get it released in London, you can’t get it anywhere) actually did apply the ban hammer. It eventually received a full cinema release in 1997, over a year later.
None of this was remotely on my radar. I was living in South Africa at the time, and I misguidedly took a girl to see it, based entirely on the fact that it won a prize. And I was driving. Needless to say, this was not a lasting relationship, and to this day, I’m convinced that she thinks I had some kind of sick plan for the evening. I probably did, in hindsight, but not one involving me totalling my only mode of transport for jollies. I then saw it in the cinema on its UK release after being overruled by the group who were all going for some kind of endurance “shock me” challenge.
All digressions aside, the BBFC actually went through quite an interesting process before granting it’s certificate- they actually consulted with shrinks and amputees. The public outcry that greeted their decision to pass it uncut, could only be described as a furore, and in the fading days of the last Tory government, the headline chasing scum that masquerade as politicians managed to squeeze a fair amount of “ban this filth” mileage out of it. Incidentally, the lying bastards could (under the Video Nasties Act of 1984) have actually banned it themselves, but that would be far too much effort for too little gain. Furthermore, Crash attracted a ridiculously pompous critical reaction here, with Alexander Walker in particular calling it “beyond the bounds of depravity”.
So, is Crash that bad? This is the only real question that I’ll attempt to answer here, and it’s the only one that matters. Crash is a narratively straightforward film. James Spader plays James Ballard, a desensitised film producer who is sucked into the sordid world of auto-erotica. That’s it- the whole plot, which I’m convinced only exists to set up the various sexual shenanigans.
The acting in Crash is, for the most part, fine. Elias Koteas as the “enigmatic” (read: fucked up) Vaughan is a marvelously oily presence, and Debra Kara Unger is suitably frantic as Ballard’s wife. Rosanna Arquette gives memorable support in a smashed and twisted frame and Holly Hunter is a shining example of mental illness on film. The only weak link is Spader himself. I’ve never liked him as a leading man, I always find him to be a cypher on the screen, just lacking presence. However, here, it is, while not a particularly good performance, quite effective. Spader is the “straight” man to the others mania, and his blandness serves as a nice counter to the other characters.
The writing and score (again by Howard Shore) are fine. This is a perfectly acceptable attempt at translating Ballard (possibly the 20th Century’s most overrated author) to the big screen. Crash is typical Ballard material, who (with the exception of Empire of the Sun) cannot resist putting something in the way of fetish sex into a novel (The Kindness of Women features the line “Bugger me Daddy! Pixie wants to be buggered!”). Personally, I don’t like Ballard’s novels. His alleged masterpieces Cocaine Nights and Supercannes leave me cold, and I think he’s quite often shocking for the sake of it, and disguises an absence of anything to say behind narrative pyrotechnics. I’ll happily debate this for hours, if I’m honest, but he really isn’t one of my favourite authors.
Cronenberg, however, is stylistically perfect for Ballard’s material. He has a coldness, an almost surgical style that allows the depravity present in the source to play out almost without comment on the screen. Sex in Crash isn’t remotely pleasurable, instead it is a driving compulsion, an absolute and all-consuming mania that the characters are powerless against. Not to mention that as they succumb to temptation the densistisation process accelerates and the film ends with the conclusion that death is inevitably for these people. It’s pretty nihilistic stuff.
Crash is also harrowing. There are many, many sequences of this film that are simply squirm/ vomit inducing stuff. Cronenberg knows damned well what he’s doing here, and there is an overwhelming sense of cynicism and weariness to the film. The camera isn’t commenting on what we can see, but there are several touches of unsubtlety that leave it in no doubt what we are watching. The sequences that leap to mind are the notorious scar-fucking scene (about as sexy as an ugly chick with a turd on her face), Elias Koteas beating and shagging Ballard’s wife while he watches then wiping vaginal fluid on the front seat of the car, and the utterly gratuitous breast shot of Holly Hunter during the initial crash.
So, is it actually that bad? Well, frankly, yes. There’s been a ludicrous comparison to soft porn made here, and Crash is in no way Pornographic. The sex here is a visible manifestation of underlying mental issues, and not only is it (as a direct result) incredibly difficult to watch, it’s also damned explicit. I know that since Crash was released there has been a rising tide of erect cock and penetration on-screen that has blurred the boundaries between hard and soft core (Sex and Lucia, Romance, Baise Moi, Intimacy, 9 Songs) but at the time, this was as hard-core as it was possible to get. The sequence on the back seat, in particular, looks like full-blown digital penetration (and the wiped hand confirms that). Crash is an explicit and unenjoyable film, the visible manifestation of an obsession and an all round unpleasant cinema experience.
It’s also clearly an extremely good film. I know this sounds oxymoronic given what I’ve just written, but it makes you think, provides a talking point and exudes a real sense of quality. However, having said that, I don’t think it’s worth the furore, and I also do not consider it to be a film I’d ever return to. But I would say that, seeing as I did last time.
To conclude, Crash is an obviously well made film. It’s also a shocking and extreme work. However, it’s a harrowing and unpleasant ride and not one that I would willingly recommend. It’s Cronenberg, in some ways, at his finest, a superb marriage of a director’s style to the most apt material and is a fitting work in his canon. It is also, however, a revolting and distressing time, that reeks of cynicism and nihilism. As a result, I give it 2 Changs.
It is, however, infinitely better than Paul “Rich white guy so clearly knows a lot about racism” Haggis’ loathsome and disgraceful Oscar winner.
Next up is the colossal failure of Existenz- like Videodrome, but for pussies.
The order so far