Maybe Next Time: David Cronenberg’s CRASH Turns Twenty

Jacob looks back at the sex and car crash opus that found Cronenberg working at the peak of his cerebral powers.

The axiom goes: you're much more likely to die driving to the airport than you are flying in a plane. Keep this adage in mind when David Cronenberg’s Crash (’97) opens in a private hangar, gorgeous blonde Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger) bent over one of its majestic mechanical birds as her lover licks the curvature of her ass. When her TV director partner, Ballard (James Spader), inquires later if she came, she distantly replies “maybe next time.” Catherine is mildly excited by the proposition of anyone being able to walk into the commercial space while her afternoon delight took her from behind, but beyond that rather pedestrian erotic danger the tryst did nothing for her. Cronenberg’s J.G. Ballard adaptation never explicitly states this in its opening sequence, yet it’s rather clear that the illusion of safety keeps these overprivileged dilettantes from experiencing any sort of significant physical gratification.

Cronenberg gave up his brand of splattery “body horror” a decade earlier after The Fly (’87). Nevertheless, the Canadian auteur wasn’t done warping fragile bodies and indulging in fleshy fantasies. The sibling symbiosis in Dead Ringers (’88) manifests itself in a nightmare where Beverly and Elliot Mantle (Jeremy Irons) are connected via a rope of skin that grows between their bellies. Naked Lunch (’91) sees a typewriter develop an anus that would make Max Renn weep, before the Mugwumps of Interzone are strung up and milked for their jism. eXistenz (’99) features humans who install personal ports into their selves so they can connect to a virtual reality that becomes easily confused with their day-to-day existences. The overt focus on terror was gone, but his obsession with orifices, protrusions and what they symbolized remained.

Crash brings the focus back to the human form in a manner Cronenberg hadn’t indulged this thoroughly since his heyday as horror’s premier student of the “goop” (as he so lovingly refers to his prosthetic indulgences). New cavities are created for intertwined lovers to insert appendages, as the pins and needles that hold cracked limbs together are photographed like hospital bondage gear. Cronenberg once again dives headfirst into a cabal that’s hidden in plain sight, one that’s aroused by the shattering of security and exhilarated by threats to their well-being. However, the writer/director isn’t simply here for Ballard’s clinical kink, again exploring his own fascination with mortality in a world trafficked by the faithful.

When Paul Schrader wrote Taxi Driver (’76), he did so after having a vision of vehicles becoming floating coffins around the streets of Los Angeles. For Cronenberg, cars may as well be crosses in Crash, as so many strangers place their faith in these instruments of transportation that they become manifestations of their hope for a Higher Being, shepherding them along from location to location. “Does traffic seem heavier to you?” Ballard asks after experiencing a near-death collision with Helen Remington (Holly Hunter), where the woman’s husband is killed after being thrown through the windshield and into the passenger seat of the artist’s car. Instead of explosive sadness, Helen exposes her breast to Ballard; the cataclysmic tragedy transmuted into carnal show and tell.

It isn’t until being faced with his own mortality that Ballard begins to recognize the millions of folks who entrust their existence to these manufactured moving cages of steel and glass. Cronenberg has confronted his atheism several times throughout the course of his filmography. With Crash, he’s playing roadside prophet, pondering the ways in which these chariots become vessels of belief, a shared contract between man and God that those sharing the road will be good to one another and do no harm. It’s a lie agreed upon that Ballard questions – his safety belt acting as a thin fabric between here and nothingness.

Where there were warring television factions in Videodrome (’83) and Dr. Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed) headed the self-help society of psychoplasmics in The Brood (’79), Crash finds Cronenberg again delving into a cultish subculture led by the enigmatic Vaughan (Elias Koteas), who reenacts impacts that killed Hollywood movie stars such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. This is the closest we get to church in this metal machine psalm, as Vaughan notes the accident which killed Dean may have ended his time on Earth, but guaranteed him “immortality” as a live fast, die young legend. In the absence of Heaven, the only true afterlife for human beings is the hope that we live on in the memories of those who continue to drive once we’ve exited life’s highway. Vaughan’s breathy performances double as sermons for his congregates, delivering a spiritual connection to the automobile that renders their acts of backseat congress more meaningful than sex enjoyed on an average bed.

None of this is to say Cronenberg isn’t enjoying the more perverted elements of J.G. Ballard’s jagged anti-human narrative. Vaughan states, “the car crash becomes fertilizing, rather than a destructive event.” The human body is modified by advancement, with Ballard and Vaughan going as far as to ink themselves with “prophetic” tattoos resembling hood ornaments. Wounds become secondary vaginal entryways, and harnesses usually reserved to aid spinal injuries in healing suddenly resemble dominatrix garb. Still, for a movie that generated a ton of controversy (and was slapped with the dreaded NC-17 rating) due to its strong sexual content, Cronenberg never mines these acts of vehicular copulation for pure eroticism. There’s a scientific approach to the way his camera observes these couples showering each other and their cars’ interiors with semen. Even though the release of carnal energy initiated by these collisions turns these characters on, everyone (especially the audience) is highly aware that it’s violence that primarily drives these instances of sensuality.

Between Howard Shore’s reverberating guitar score and Peter Suschitzky’s icy, gliding photography, Cronenberg’s regular collaborators (along with production designer Carol Spier) work in harmony to produce another distinct vision; one that won a Special Jury Prize at the ’96 Cannes Film Festival (whose programmers expected it to “go off like a bomb”). It’s arguable that Crash is the most aesthetically defined of all Cronenberg’s pictures up to this point - the ruddiness of his Canuxploitation absent, replaced with a polish that his creative family had been perfecting over two decades. For a movie that takes its name from a single syllable contributor to discord, Crash is harmonious in the way it presents its central thesis – a visual essay on dispassionate perversion where every element has been carefully considered and perfectly placed.

When Cronenberg first read Crash (at the insistence of producer Jeremy Thomas), he only got a third of the way through, saying that he felt assaulted by the tiny paperback's "clinical prose" and "understanding of technological man.” Over time, Cronenberg returned to Ballard's text, his system acclimating to its worldview just enough so that he could discover the humanity in its characters. This shock to his psyche sounds not too unlike the fashion in which our central automotive adventurers readjust after experiencing their own synaptic charges, whilst simultaneously spotting the limited nature of their presences. There's a scene in which Catherine begins picking away at the registration sticker on her car’s windshield, the state mandated marker standing in for a finite lifespan she's become bored with. Rather than allowing mortality to slowly fade, she decides to nervously chip away at it, eagerly yearning for any method of transformation.

Perhaps this existential pining is what fully separates Cronenberg's post-Fly departure from the icky genre exercises that defined his earliest days as a lo-fi maestro of carnage. In Shivers ('75), Rabid (’77) and The Brood, bodily change was an accidental byproduct of experimentation, no matter how the characters came to embrace their newfound forms and the perspectives that arrived along with them. Dead Ringers’ Beverly and Elliot Mantle both desire to define themselves amidst identical biological nature, while French diplomat Rene Gallimard (also Irons) follows love to his final form as a face painted performer behind bars in a Peking prison -- swapping roles with his M. Butterfly (’93) paramour, whose gender he willfully ignored. The inciting incident in Crash may be a literal accident, but it only ignites a need for change that was already swimming in its players’ bellies. After all, Cronenberg confesses to being attracted to Ballard and his compatriots' willingness to "throw themselves into the maw of the volcano.” An apocalypse of maturity had occurred for the auteur, and now he was no longer mining transformation for fear, instead opting to allow sex and death to unlock deeper spiritual truths. In the end, we’re all resting by the side of the freeway, cradling that which we love, hoping that the next life (should it exist) contain enlightenment that escaped us during this one. “Maybe next time.”