NetFlix Review #11: Crash (1996)

I largely dislike it when people call a filmmaker brave, because largely what they're rewarding are people who make message movies that are actually fairly safe. "Ooooh, our movie has a main character who is GAY. HOW BRAVE WE ARE." "Our movie shows SUBURBAN HYPOCRISY, can you believe it?" "We gathered up all the courage we could, and made a movie about WOMEN WHO SUFFER! It was basically like war, but with art!" "Speaking of war, I made a movie about how sometimes WAR makes people do BAD THINGS. I'm fairly positive I should get a medal." These films, by and large, are not brave. To me, bravery comes with taking a position that addresses a difficult topic and handling it with a subtlety and nuance that could be misunderstood by people not willing to really sit down and grapple with what you're saying. Cronenberg, I find, is a very brave filmmaker, and a film like Crash is a brave film.

A couple of years ago I went on a Cronenberg run and came to realize that he truly is one of my all-time favorite directors. I find him fascinating, a complete film genius with an unrelenting personal style and a willingness to go places in his films few others would ever dream of, and, perhaps most impressive of all, I don't think he's doing it to be a provocateur. His films are all solidly and thoroughly thought through. They are smart, observant and carefully crafted to explore themes as deep as the human condition can go, and the great thing is he does this largely while still holding true to the conventions of genres such as horror and gangster films, which means the films aren't just smart, they're FUN, a lesson a few auteurs I can name should learn.

Crash, based off the J.G. Ballard novel, centers around a small collection of people who find sexual fulfillment, and possibly more, within the realm of car crashes. There is an irony, of course, regarding the linking of sex and car crashes. It's too easy to get hung up on the literal here. The crash is metaphorical, that compulsion towards self-destruction. This isn't a movie that's actually about people with car crash fetishes, but the very essence of fetishes themselves. Note the character of Vaughn, played by Elias Koteas. He is the car crash fetish philosopher, the de Sade of auto-erotic auto destruction. "The car crash is a fertilizing, rather than a destructive event," he opines. Sure it's a wreck, he seems to be saying, but it's a wreck that teaches us something, that opens doors. Vaughn finds meaning here, in sex, in death, in the combination of the two around the mechanized automation of engineering. He also, as many a good fetishist does, links it all to celebrity. It's not just true, it's something that the rich, the famous, the great and meaningful have experienced. James Dean, Albert Camus, Jayne Mansfield. Even the Kennedy assassination could be seen as a car crash, notes Vaughn. It's meaningful because it's happened to such meaningful people.

All these characters are reaching for something, a spark of life within a cold, postmodern detachment. As Emily was watching it she said to me, "It's like one of those late night cable movies, only really weird." She's correct, but it got me thinking about that connection. Cronenberg keeps the movie cold very specifically. In an early scene where James Spader's Ballard and his wife, played with devastatingly sexy coldness by Deborah Kara Unger, exchange the stories of their latest infidelities, they do so completely dispassionately. They're only way to find arousal is through a calculated dissection. Sex isn't about warmth and understanding, it's about finding something out. It goes back to Adam and Eve. They want that forbidden education. There's a reason it's called carnal KNOWLEDGE, why the Bible uses the word "know" to mean having sexual relations with a person. There is a long-standing tradition of people believing that there is a way to attain higher consciousness, reach some sort of uncharted territory, through sex. Think back on all the classic femme fatales. They're cold, they're distant, and they seem like they KNOW something. That's what makes them alluring. There's a mystery that you want to figure out, and the only way to figure it out is to get as close as possible. To dissect it.

Hence the late-night cable movie feel. Those movies understand the trappings of the dark, cold and mysterious allure, but Cronenberg is aiming for its soul. This is a film about the things we love that are bad for us, and Cronenberg attacks it head on. Many hated it when it came out because it was a film about something so damaging that was also filmed through that sexy, late-night cinema feel that made it seem titillating, but it SHOULD be titillating, in fact it MUST be titillating because, again not to repeat myself, but the movie isn't about car crashes, it's about titillaiton. It is one of my primary annoyances when people get distracted by the dressings of a movie, the architecture of it, and miss its purpose. I'm reminded of a conversation I had with a film student back at NYU that almost drove me out of my mind, where he was arguing that Fight Club, a movie I frequent site as my favorite of all-time, was lying and hypocritical because its message was being down and dirty and rough and tumble, but Fincher filmed it with such sheen and artifice that all these things that should have looked gruff and dirty looked sleek and sexy. The movie, this student argued, should have been shot on a home video camera. Leaving aside the impossibility of actually marketing a major film shot on home video, the movie, especially a movie like Fight Club or Crash, is SUBJECTIVE. The filmmakers are not trying to capture reality, they are trying to capture what these characters FEEL. In Fight Club these men are feeling sexy, strong and empowered for the first time in their lives, so it makes sense to show them as they see themselves. Plus, a major theme of the movie is artifice, constructed reality. The same can be said for Crash. To show these characters the way they would actually be in real life is a lie, because what this movie is about is how they see themselves, about how they feel.

And so what does it all mean? What knowledge do they find, and how do they feel at the end? Cronenberg leaves it pretty open. I find the ending strangely haunting, The Ballards havings sex in the remains of a "failed" wreck off the side of a highway. They're together and they seem happy, the standard ending of a "romance," and yet you can't really feel good about those two, can you? It's an ending that itches my brain for long after I've watched it. What do I want from these characters? Do I want them to "get better"? Do I want them to be punished for their deviancy, for their selfish, destructive thrill-seeking that endangers the lives of others? Am I glad that, after a movie of looking for answers in physical connections with others, this couple comes together at the end, in their own strange way? Maybe a little bit of all of these. Like most truly great films, it offers itself up much better to discussion than it does to analysis. It raises questions and the undercuts those questions with more questions. It is a film that stretches the mind, uncomforts the soul and provides no easy answers. And that's brave.

Jake Thomas

Story Writer. Marvel Comics Editor. Wrangler of Squids.