Home Uncategorized Crash review – Cronenberg’s auto eroticism still has impact

Crash review – Cronenberg’s auto eroticism still has impact

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The controversy surrounding the original release of this dark exploration of sexy car accidents now seems quaintly outdated – but the film holds up well

In 1996, David Cronenberg’s movie Crash, now rereleased in 4K digital, became the subject of the last great “banning” controversy for a new film in Britain. His vision of the erotic car crash got brimstone denunciations from the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail. This delayed its BBFC certificate, and Westminster council issued a solemn edict forbidding it in West End cinemas.

But in the 21st century, the press appetite for denouncing shocking films just seemed to vanish, overnight becoming the quaint tradition of a bygone age, perhaps because of a belated realisation that these campaigns were destined to fail and didn’t sell papers, and that, increasingly, nothing sold papers in any case as newsprint lost ground to the internet’s oceanic swell, in which all these films could easily be found. Even The Human Centipede sequel’s brief failure to get a certificate was a formality, laughed or shrugged at. The urge to censor or cancel – as with, say, Maïmouna Dourcouré’s Cuties – has migrated to social media, but even this seems to have no bearing on seeing controversial films if you want.

The controversy has aged badly, but Crash itself holds up well. It isn’t Cronenberg’s best work and can’t reproduce the icily macabre chill of JG Ballard’s prose in the original 1973 novel. There is no walk-on role for Elizabeth Taylor as there is in the book and it’s a shame the soundtrack couldn’t have used the great pop single, inspired by Crash – Warm Leatherette, recorded by the Normal in 1978 (“Hear the crashing steel / Feel the steering wheel”). But it is still deeply strange and risky; particularly, it risks being laughed at, and there is a definite, tiny grain of Razzie absurdity that is a part of its weirdly hypnotic high-porn torpor.

James Spader plays the drolly named James Ballard, a film director in a jaded open relationship with his partner Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger). After a near-fatal car crash close to the airport, Ballard meets the beautiful survivor from the other car in hospital: Helen, played by Holly Hunter. He also encounters a man called Vaughan (Elias Koteas) who is photographing their grisly wounds. Vaughan introduces them to his cult, which celebrates the eroticism of car crashes, and for a crowd of devotees he stages pornified drag-race events on quiet roads: secret Hollywood-Babylon-type re-enactments of famous car wrecks that killed people such as James Dean and Jayne Mansfield. Vaughan presides over a sexual black mass that fetishises the victims’ wounds, their calipers, bandages and surgical stitches and imagines them as part of the crushed metal of the doomed cars. Ballard, Helen and Catherine become increasingly obsessed with the sexual thrill of the car crash.

Being in that initial wreck is for Ballard the equivalent of being bitten by a radioactive spider. Now he (like others) is granted the perv superpower of seeing the sensuality of technology, and especially the dark ecstasy of seeing sleek technology go haywire, seeing how the human form fuses with this futurist world of glass and metal and gasoline in the act of crashing. (I found myself thinking of the Hammer House of Horror TV episode called The Thirteenth Reunion from 1980, about people whose behaviour is shaped by having been passengers together in a plane crash.)

Crash is still creepy, still menacing, still hypnotic, and it is still dedicated, in its freaky way, to the ideal of eroticism, to just drifting from erotic scene to erotic scene without much need for story. But Crash is no longer so contemporary. Even in the late 90s, it didn’t quite have the zeitgeisty charge of the book, which had come out 20 years previously. Cars themselves (and certainly airports) aren’t really as sexy and urgent as they could plausibly be presented by Ballard, as part of his eerily disquieting atrocity exhibition of modern life. Cars themselves have become far more boring and reliable and safe in our culture. Nowadays, the airbag of banality is deployed.

Interestingly, Ben Wheatley’s movie version of Ballard’s 1975 novel High-Rise, about the psychopathology of living in a tall building (a cousin to Crash), sees it more as a period piece, a surreal twist on 70s design that is very strange, very Sanderson. Maybe that is how any new adaptation of Crash would have to work. But Cronenberg’s film still has a metal-crunching impact.

 Crash is available in 4K digital and UHD Blu-ray from 30 November.

By Peter Bradshaw

27 Nov 2020

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